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If It's Good Enough For Elephants
Marula brews, an Amarula-spiked dessert, and a great new book on African cuisine.
I’m thrilled to post a piece today by my friend (and fellow Substack Food Writing Fellow) Lerato Umah-Shaylor, who’s recently published the amazing, comprehensive, and gorgeous book, Africana: Treasured Recipes and Stories From Across the Continent. Lerato is a London-based writer, television personality, and cooking teacher.
Have you ever seen drunken elephants? Majestic beings wobbling beneath the towering, magical marula trees that line the enchanting savannah. I am one of those who wants to believe in drunken elephants, especially after writing about them in my cookbook, Africana. The only elephant I have ever seen, however, was at Woburn Park as a child in London—to the disappointment of many who expect me to have grown up with at least one in my backyard.
Drunken elephants are not a figment of my very excitable imagination, but rather a natural occurrence in Southern Africa. There are numerous accounts and videos of elephants and other animals in the savannah seemingly intoxicated. But it begs the question: What are the elephants drinking? Well, their tipple du jour is the juice of the magical marula fruit.
Marula is a protected tree in Southern Africa, only grown in the region and with fruits that ripen just once a year. The plum-shaped fruits fall to the ground and slowly transform from green to yellow. Elephants are an important part of the ecosystem in Southern Africa and consequently, in the harvesting of marula across the region, from Namibia to Swaziland. Marula tree is affectionately called the “elephant tree” or the “marriage tree,” by local tribes who believe in its power to bestow prosperity and fertility.
During the fruiting season, the elephants shake down the trees bringing down the marula fruits which begin to ferment as they ripen. And since elephants are lightweights, after gorging on the fruits, they end up inebriated and rather wonky. It’s described as “voluntary intoxication,” a sight to behold.
Several scholars have argued for and against intoxicated elephants. One camp has attempted to dispel this as a myth, sighting the vast amounts an elephant would have to consume based on its size. While others insist that, unlike humans, elephants simply cannot hold their liquor for biological reasons. “Elephants gently warm their brains with fermented fruits. People just want to believe in drunken elephants,” said Steve Morris, the late, esteemed professor of biology.
Someday, I intend to witness this myself. I am also fond of marula. Luckily, I don’t have to shake down trees. I may even be fortunate to convince Jason to host a food-and-drink version of my retreats, exploring the chenin blanc of Stellenbosh and the local brews across Southern Africa, as we make our way to the savannah for an experience of a lifetime. We could be like tourists on pilgrimage at an Emily in Paris tour, sipping kir royale. Though, like elephants, I am a ridiculous lightweight, one who could become drunk from slightly out-of-date Ribena.
In the meantime, I want to share my recipe for Sticky Apricot Malva Pudding with Amarula and Spiced Cream (below). It’s delightful, and has been such a crowd pleaser. And, of course, it calls for a special cream liqueur made from marula fruit, which I enjoy.
From Marula Fruit to Amarula Cream Liqueur
After the animals have their fill, local women pick the rest of the fruits, pounding them to produce a much-loved local beer while pressing the kernels within to produce the prized marula oil used in posh skincare lines and spas.
Transformed from its tart fruit state to the velvety rich and nutty Amarula Cream Liqueur, this South African international success is a big step up from Baileys in my humble opinion. It emerged in the 1980s, starting as wine pressed from wild marula trees, subsequently distilled in copper pots, and then aged in oak barrels before a final stage of blending with full milk. Amarula manages to be distinctive, with notes of vanilla, almonds, and a slight citrus with a hint of spice, while also being malleable with a variety of flavors.
I have found interesting ways to enjoy Amarula, from adding a dash to ice cream, coffee or hot chocolate, refreshingly neat on the rocks, to pouring over the decadent Malva pudding, another South African darling.
In my cookbook Africana, the Malva is spongy and rich, yet light (trust me), not overly sweet like its traditionally made. The cream sauce is sweetened just enough to compliment the sweetness of the caramelised pudding with apricot jam and heightened with wondrous and warming spices that enhance the flavour of Amarula. A guaranteed crowd pleaser all year round, after baking, and while hot, the cream sauce is doused all over the punctured pudding. While testing this recipe, instead of a plain cream sauce, I decided to create a spiced cream with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. And with that creamy caramel and gritty whiff in the air, I couldn’t help but think about Amarula. Adding a good dash to the cream sauce will take your pudding to greater heights.
While I am not encouraging you to become intoxicated before proceeding to perform headstands and trip over monkeys, elephants, humans, or whatever beings you socialize with, bake my Malva pudding with the Amarula spiced cream soaked within and perhaps you too can enjoy some of what these jolly giants are. Or just pour some over ice and enjoy a gentle warming of the brain.
Sticky Apricot Pudding with Amarula & Spiced Cream
Malva pudding is South Africa’s answer to sticky toffee pudding. The spongy and caramelized pudding with apricot jam is doused in a creamy sauce for quite the luxurious treat, especially at Christmas. I particularly love to add spices to my sauce. I use Amarula, a South African liqueur made from the marula fruits, those plum-shaped fruits that famously leave elephants tipsy—but in a pinch you could use an Irish cream liqueur. What more must I say to convince you to serve this at your next dinner party?
Time: 60 minutes. Serves 4 to 6 people.
FOR THE PUDDING
250ml warm milk
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
150g plain flour, plus more for
1½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
150g golden caster sugar
2 large free-range eggs
½ tsp fine sea salt
80g apricot jam (about 2 tbsp)
2 tbsp butter, melted, plus more for greasing
FOR THE SPICED CREAM
250ml double cream (or half double cream and half a cream
liquor such as Amarula
4–6 tbsp caster sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
A good grating of a whole nutmeg, or ½ tsp ground nutmeg
1. Preheat the oven to 200˚C/180˚Cfan/400˚F/gas mark 6 and generously grease the inside of a 1-litre pudding tin, cake tin, baking dish or muffin tins and dust with plain flour, covering the entire surface.
2. Gently warm the milk and apple cider vinegar in a small saucepan and set aside.
3. Sift the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda into a large bowl and whisk to combine.
4. In a separate bowl, beat the sugar, eggs and salt until pale and fluffy. Add the apricot jam and beat until well combined. Now gradually pour in the warm milk and vinegar mixture.
5. Add the flour mixture to the liquid ingredients in small portions, mixing all the time, until smooth. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin(s) and bake in the middle of the oven for 35–40 minutes (1-litre tin) or 25–30 minutes (small tins), until caramelised and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
6. Meanwhile, prepare the spiced cream by heating the cream and liquor, sugar and butter gently in a small saucepan. Whisk in the spices, until dissolved and the sauce is thickened. Remove from the heat.
7. Use a small knife to carefully and deeply cut incisions into the pudding. Pour the spiced cream all over the pudding and into the cuts until it has had its fill. You will know when, as the cream will float on the top. I like to pour about half over the pudding, saving some of the spiced cream to pour alongside when devouring it. Leave the pudding to cool for 15 minutes.
8. Carefully turn the pudding out of the tin onto a wide serving plate or cake stand. Serve warm or cold with any leftover spiced cream poured over the top or on the side. This is also wonderful with ice cream.
This keeps very well in an airtight container in the fridge for a few days, but I doubt you will need to. To enjoy warm, simply reheat in the microwave or in a preheated oven at 180˚C/160˚C fan/350˚F/gas mark 4.
Malva is traditionally baked in a baking tray or dish and simply scooped out when serving, so feel free to play around with your choice of baking vessel, from cake tins to individual mould or muffin tins. Always grease and coat the tins properly if you intend to turn the pudding out of the tin or dish. And if using non-metalic dishes such as glass, you may need to increase your cooking time.
Recipe extracted from Africana: Treasured recipes and stories from across the continent by Lerato Umah-Shaylor (UK by HQ, HarperCollins, US by Amistad). Image credit to Tara Fisher.