In Ballymaloe Desserts, this Irish pastry chef delivers classic country recipes


Our cookbook of the week is Ballymaloe Desserts, Iconic Recipes and Stories from Ireland by JR Ryall. To try a recipe from the book, check out: Saffron and Cardamom Poached Pears, Chocolate Fudge Pudding, and Ice Bomb.

Pastry chef JR Ryall has always been interested in taste. Recognizing his extraordinary curiosity, his aunt, Evelyn, took him to visit the famous Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork, Ireland, when he was just four years old.

“Now when I meet a four-year-old I realize how young he is. It’s unusual. It was a bit strange, I guess. And it’s not that I was a super-tasteful. It’s not like I can taste cucumber and can’t enjoy it or that sort of thing,” says Ryall.

“But I guess the way some people connected to music and learned to play instruments at a very young age, I really cared about how things tasted.”

As Ryall writes in his first cookbook,

Ballymaloe Desserts

(Phaidon, 2022), visiting the kitchens and tiered gardens that day is one of her earliest memories.

At the end of the tour, Darina Allen – creator of the cooking school and daughter-in-law of Ballymaloe founder, late chef and farm-to-table pioneer Myrtle Allen – gave her a copy of her book,

Simply delicious

(1992). Inside the cover she wrote: “For John Robert, who will be a great leader when he grows up.”

“It sowed a seed,” says Ryall, who has been pastry chef at Ballymaloe House since 2010. “And in a way, from there I found Darina and the cooking school, and Ballymaloe House very ambitious.”

Throughout his childhood, Ryall was a kid who cooked. People bought her cookbooks and asked her to bake cookies and cakes for the holidays. He compares learning to bake to learning a language: once you master the basics, the rest falls into place.

At 15, Ryall started working in Ballymaloe, taking a taxi from boarding school every weekend for his Saturday shift at the pastry shop. Meeting Myrtle (whom he calls Mrs. Allen), cemented that cooking would become his career.

“She absolutely blew me away. And there aren’t many times when I believe in someone’s life where someone else blew you away. I was taken by her straight away,” Ryall recalls, “I fell into his orbit, and I never left.”

It was an unlikely relationship, he adds. Myrtle was in her late 70s when they met, Ryall a teenager. She became his mentor and, despite the age difference, one of his best friends.

Looking back, Ryall now realizes that of all the lessons Myrtle taught him over the past 15 years of his life, the most impactful was the importance of doing what you love.

“I loved snacking. And because Ms. Allen took the time to teach me how to taste, she really taught me how to do what I loved the most,” he says.

Even when he left County Cork to study natural science at Trinity College Dublin, Ryall continued to work at Ballymaloe – returning to baking every summer and during holidays.

After earning a major in biochemistry – “the scenic route” to becoming a pastry chef – Ryall returned to Ballymaloe to oversee the dessert menu. Carrying forward Myrtle’s legacy, it is committed to using great products and following its philosophy of “don’t waste, don’t want, and make the most of what you have”.

Whether it’s a bumper crop of red currants or an overabundance of plums, planning the dessert menu often comes down to solving a problem. “The most important part of the job is not the boss side for me. It doesn’t make the dish. That’s the answer you have to what’s going on,” Ryall says.

The idea of ​​writing a cookbook was born ten years ago, when Hazel Allen (General Manager of Ballymaloe and daughter-in-law of Myrtle) asked Ryall if he would “write a little book to sell from the table from the lobby”. She came up with a collection of 20 recipes stapled together for customers to pick up when they leave.

It wasn’t until three and a half years ago, however, in a conversation with chef and author David Tanis – a close friend of his who wrote the foreword to the book – that Ryall began to imagine what

Ballymaloe Desserts

could be.

“It may be the only book I write. I’m not trying to change careers. But then I felt like there was a book that could be written. And a lot of it, on a very deep personal level,” he says.

“I feel like it’s a bit of a love letter to Ms. Allen. A kind of thank you for teaching me to do the things I love.

Classic recipes are at the heart of

Ballymaloe Desserts

. Some – like Almond Meringue Cake with Chocolate Rum Cream, Summer Pudding and Orange Mousse with Chocolate Wafers – have been used at Ballymaloe House since the 1960s, when Myrtle turned her home into what was to become a Michelin starred restaurant.

Others are of a ‘new generation’: desserts that have evolved in Ballymaloe or have been shared by guest chefs teaching at the cooking school and added to the rotating offer of the sweet cart. By putting classic and contemporary side by side, Ryall hopes to breathe new life into dishes he cherishes (some of which have been around for half a century or more) but are often overlooked.

“I hope (the book) will resist all trends. I don’t put tahini in anything, for example,” says Ryall. “I’m not trying to do anything cool. But I think, from my own perspective, what’s cool about this book is that I resist all of that and just present the dishes that I like to make.

If I could start a fashion, it would be to rediscover forgotten flavors, or to keep some that are likely to die soon.

Myrtle founded Ballymaloe in 1964, seven years before Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse, Ryall points out. His appreciation of fresh, local, and wild foods – and the techniques used to harvest and handle them – was groundbreaking and predated the farm-to-table movement.

She gathered seaweed along the rugged coast for her carrageenan foam pudding (“a specialty of Ballymaloe”), picked wild watercress from the stream behind the house, enlisted local children to pick blackberries ( “and paid them fairly at the door”), and connected with the likes of the late Veronica Steele, “Doyen of Farmer’s Cheese”, so she could serve the revolutionary washed-crust Milleens in Ballymaloe.

“I take great inspiration from it, and I’m excited about it because it’s still a working example half a century later,” Ryall says of Myrtle’s mentality. “(It) underpins what Ballymaloe is and was.”

Passing on “forgotten culinary skills” was an important part of Myrtle’s job, he points out. She sought to understand what had been done before and why, and taught others so the tradition could continue.

Ryall quotes a passage from

The Ballymaloe Cookbook

(first published in 1977), which he says sums up his interest in culinary heritage:

“The fad in food is more apparent as Nouvelle Cuisine sweeps across Europe’s smart kitchens. If I could start a fashion, it would be to rediscover forgotten flavors, or to keep some that are likely to die soon.

“’The butter your sister sends us is very good,’ I said to my neighbor one day. “Yes, he said, this field has always made good butter. It was a long time ago and the perfume is almost forgotten.

Ryall’s palace was thirsty for what Myrtle had taught it. And she, in turn, appreciated the “slightly modern edge” he brought to Ballymaloe’s repertoire. Although Myrtle died in 2018 at the age of 94, he considers

Ballymaloe Desserts

a hybrid of the two.

Ryall cooked and styled all the dishes in the book as they do today in the pastry kitchen. Her friend, writer and photographer Cliodhna Prendergast, photographed the book in Ballymaloe. They were a team of two, with no studio or assistants.

Whether old or new, the 130 recipes reflect what Ryall learned while cooking alongside his mentor: how to taste, the value of proportions and the importance of considering flavor and freshness. “The dishes taste just like Myrtle made me realize how delicious food could be.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2022


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