It was pretty much as I had hoped. A collection of colleges,some as early as the 13th century, the ancient brick buildings still resplendent through the ages, the chapels seemingly resonating with the choirs of centuries past, the great clocks chiming the hour as we walked through parts of Cambridge University. I stood on an ancient bridge watching those below punting on the River Cam as people have done for untold generations. In the lush meadows nearby, cattle grazed free as they have for hundreds of years.
There in England, with a RoadScholar group on a travel program called "The Spying Game," I was learning more about the infamous Cambridge Five (Blunt, Philby, Burgess, McLean and Cairncross).
Missing from the ancient Cambridge streets were the students on their bikes (it was mid-August, after all.) Frankly, also missing was my anticipation of having any memorable meals at our modern city hotel where we were scheduled to have dinner each night. Wrong! Our private dinners not only pleasantly surprised us, but a couple of the dishes knocked our collective socks off, the creative result of the hotel's young, dashing and inventive Italian chef.
Here is my take on two of the dishes we found delectable.
Retro, indeed, but wonderful to eat and worth the effort.
TOMATO BASIL SOUP (6 servings)
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes, such as San Marzano or Muir Glen
11.5-ounces tomato-vegetable juice (V-8)
1 (14.5-ounce) can low sodium chicken broth
2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 level tablespoon brown sugar
20 fresh basil leaves julienned*, plus more for garnish
1/2 to 1 cup heavy cream (amount up to you)
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small bits
In a large saucepan, combine tomatoes, vegetable juice, chicken stock and garlic cloves. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to medium-low and then simmer for 30 minutes.
Remove and discard the garlic cloves. Stir in the brown sugar and basil leaves. Season with salt and pepper as needed. When sugar has dissolved, remove from the heat and puree in a blender or processor. Return soup to the saucepan and, over low heat, stir in the cream until it is the color and consistency you wish. Stir in the bits of butter and when they have melted into the hot liquid, serve soup in warm bowls with a tiny drift of reserved basil over each.
* To julienne the basil, stack up 5 leaves and roll them into a cigar shape. Slice diagonally into slivers with a sharp knife; then fluff them out. Repeat three more times. Do a little extra for garnish.
CAPPUCCINO CREME BRULEE (6 servings)
2 cups whipping cream
1/2 cup granulated white sugar
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
5 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon good-quality vanilla extract
3 tablespoons (packed) light brown sugar
Heat oven to 325 degrees.
Arrange six 3/4-cup ramekins in a 13-by-12-by-9-inch baking pan and set aside.
Combine cream, granulated sugar and espresso powder in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and let cool on the counter for 5 minutes. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk the yolks, cinnamon and nutmeg together. Gradually whisk in the warm cream mixture, then the vanilla.
Divide custard among ramekins. Pour enough hot water into the baking pan to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake until custards are softly set, about 30 minutes. Carefully remove custards from water bath, chill, covered with plastic wrap, until cold, at least 3 hours. (Can be made to this point a day ahead.) Preheat broiler to High. Arrange the custards on a baking sheet. Press 1/2 tablespoon brown sugar through a mesh strainer onto each custard. Broil custards 4-6 inches under the heat until the sugar bubbles and caramelizes, about 2 minutes. Watch carefully during this process so sugar doesn't burn.
Chill custards until topping hardens, at least 1 hour and up to 4 hours.