Culture: Nicola Miller's food column - Oranges and memories. . .

Torrijas with blood orange syrup
Torrijas with blood orange syrup

The eating of bread dipped in varying mixtures is centuries old, here Nicola Miller creates a new mouthwatering orangey sweet treat

The eating of slices of bread dipped in a mixture which can include milk, eggs, sugar, alcohol or honey is widespread across Europe and is a useful way of using up stale bread. In France, it is called pan perdu, in Portugal, slices, and in England, we make French toast or eggy bread, although I have always felt the latter to be a more suitable name for savoury versions.

The Spanish version is called torrijas and its history can be traced back to Roman times and Apicius, who referred to the dish in De re Coquinaria. There is also a written reference to a recipe similar to torrijas in a 15th century document by Juan del Encina in which he recommends it for women who have just given birth.

By the Middle Ages, it became more usual to prepare torrijas during Lent and Holy Week where wine would be drunk alongside, the two together came to represent the body and blood of Christ.

Soaked bread fried in olive oil was a useful way of ingesting adequate calories while foregoing meat and I’m unsurprised it remains popular because it does not feel like deprivation at all, especially when one considers the several tablespoons of sherry some versions contain.

Spain makes me think of almonds, sherry and orange groves, so I wanted to create a version of torrijas which celebrates all of those things, but oranges also trigger memories of Mexico, land of the sweet tooth where fried pieces of bread called buñuelos were sometimes served doused in a spiced syrup flavoured with orange, a fruit brought to Mexico in the mid-1500s and cultivated by early Spanish settlers. The town of Chapala, near Guadalajara, was described in 1586 as having so many orange trees that “the entire village is like an orchard. The Indians make a lot of orange blossom water and from it a lot of money. It is so fertile for oranges that, in the garden of the friary where there are many of these trees, they took from a sweet orange tree a branch that had eleven good, big, mature, yellow oranges, crammed together on top of each other.”

The Spanish also brought the grape and winemaking to Mexico, although most Mexicans prefer to drink beer, tequila and mezcal. Sherry is produced on a small scale in the Guadalupe Valley in Baja California though and a popular drink made with it is known as a Polla and contains milk, cinnamon and eggs. There’s a pleasing symmetry to all of this.

The inspiration for my orange syrup came from The Border Cookbook by Bill and Cheryl Alters Jamison, which focuses on the home cooking of Northern Mexico where I once lived. They pair their version of orange syrup with buñuelos, which are made from scratch and not from stale bread. My torrijas are served with an orange, cinnamon and brown sugar syrup using freshly-squeezed blood oranges which are in season now, although the syrup is delicious made with ordinary orange juice too. The Mexicans adore cinnamon and their version of brown sugar, called piloncillo, is dark and rich when melted down. I have substituted it with brown muscovado – although Casa Mexico in Stonham Aspal sells piloncillo should you want to try it with that. The sherry-soaked fried bread works really well with such a highly fragrant syrup, standing up well to its intense orangeyness.

You will need to use bread that is a couple of days old to ensure it soaks properly, and it’s worth buying the best loaf of white bread you can afford so you can cut thick, sturdy slices which hold their shape in the fry pan. I used a tin loaf from Woosters Bakery in Bardwell, although brioche, milk bread or a soft bloomer would suit too. Beat the eggs really well until they are foamy and take care when you soak (sog) the bread. You want the slices to absorb lots of sherry-infused milk, but you don’t want them to become so saturated they collapse when you lift them into the hot oil.

Buen provecho!

Torrijas with blood orange syrup

To make the torrijas:

2 medium eggs

2 tablespoons thick double cream

3 tablespoons full fat milk

2 teaspoons soft brown muscovado sugar

3 tablespoons sweet sherry

2 thick slices of two-day-old white bread

Olive oil for frying (1.5 teaspoons)

Icing sugar for dusting

Almond slivers to garnish

To make the syrup:

50z soft brown sugar

220 ml freshly-squeezed blood orange juice (or regular orange juice if you can’t find blood oranges)

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Method

First, make a start on the syrup. Put all the ingredients in a small, heavy-based saucepan and place over medium heat, stirring frequently until the mixture thickens into a syrup. Keep an eye on it as it cooks, you don’t want the sugar to burn and you don’t want it to become too stiff either. Remove from the stove top and set aside. You can rewarm the syrup just before plating up.

To make the torrijas, cut each piece of bread in half.

Break the eggs into a shallow dish (I use a gratin dish) and beat them until frothy. Add the milk, cream, sugar and sherry and carry on beating until they are well mixed.

Dip each piece of bread into the egg mixture and turn them over, ensuring both sides are well sogged. Make sure they don’t become so wet they disintegrate.

Pour the olive oil into a large fry pan and warm over a low-medium heat.

Place the bread into the hot pan. (I use a fish slice to do this because it helps prevent any bread breakage.) Fry until golden brown on both sides, turning frequently. You are aiming for crisp edges and a soft, melting middle and it should take 3-4 minutes to achieve this. Rewarm the syrup before the bread is ready if it has grown cool.

Place two slices on each plate, pour over the syrup, scatter with almonds and dredge with icing sugar to finish. It’s lovely with extra blood orange slices too. If you have leftover syrup, it is more than delicious poured over ice cream or thick yogurt.

What I’m Eating

The most delicious fish and seafood at Parsons London.

What I’m buying

Hand-forged knives by Sergio Muelle from Twisted Horseshoe Knives. Available direct from him and Castangs Kitchen.

What I’m reading

Eat Up! by Ruby Tandoh – a kind and wide-ranging exploration of food and appetite. Out early Feb.

Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale