Merrily We Roll Along

The head pastry chef of Ballymaloe House on creating Ireland's most celebrated, ever changing dessert trolley

I'm very fortunate to have a job that I love. I have been the head pastry chef at Ballymaloe House Hotel for fourteen years. Though the route I’ve taken to get here is somewhat unconventional. During my high school years, I began working a part-time Saturday job in the pastry kitchen at Ballymaloe. While studying natural science at university, I never left my position at Ballymaloe House. I never really planned to be where I am today, I simply kept doing the things that made me happy - cooking and traveling, mostly. Gradually my part-time Saturday job grew into my career. I’ve now been at Ballymaloe for twenty years.

Morning routine

For about ten months each year I live in a wooden cabin, on the Ballymaloe Farm, between a centuries-old walled garden and an apple orchard, for the remainder of the year I take annual leave and travel. Unless something unusual is happening at work, on a typical day I get up at 5:45am and I’m in the kitchen by 6:15am. The rest of my team usually arrive by 6:30am.

I like to be the first person in, having the place to myself for 15 minutes gives me a chance to check everything is in order, and I get a quiet moment to think about the plan for the day. The first hour and a half of work is quite routine, involving a lot of baking: one team member makes traditional Irish soda bread and scones, which are served warm from the oven at breakfast to guests staying in the hotel; another makes a start on yeast breads for lunch and dinner as well as cakes to serve with tea in the afternoon; and the third team member gets to work on biscuits, cookies, pastry and other jobs. Then we start work on the desserts that will be served on the sweet trolley that evening.

Menu Format

There has always been a dessert trolley in the restaurant at Ballymaloe, filled with seasonal homemade dishes. I write a new menu for the trolley each day, being mindful that the combination of dishes should strike a balance of flavour, texture and aesthetics. At Ballymaloe we grow much of the produce we use, and this produce inspires each menu. Whatever time of year it might be, I use a simple template to help plan five daily-changing desserts. The template is a follows:

Fruit: Fresh, cooked or preserved - think berry and geranium leaf salad in summer, or pears poached with saffron and cardamom in winter.

Meringue: Perhaps layered in a gateau, rolled into a roulade or baked soft centered.

Mousse, jelly, set cream or fool: It could be anything from honey mousse topped with lavender jelly in June, to a rhubarb fool in early spring.

Frozen: Ice creams, sorbets or granitas, served in the iconic Ballymaloe ice bowl. From fig leaf ice cream and strawberry sherbet in summer, to lemon ice and blood orange sorbet in winter.

Pastry, cake or pudding: Often the show stopping dish, this could be anything from an almost-molten chocolate tart or puff pastry galette to craquelin-topped choux buns or seasonal fruit tartlets.

We always have a sixth dessert on the trolley: Mrs Allen’s Carrageen Moss Pudding, a silky soft-set seaweed dish that is a Ballymaloe House speciality, and a staple on the menu. I love to serve it with a seasonal fruit compote, softly whipped cream and dark muscovado sugar. For many, it is the most intriguing dessert we serve.


For me, inspiration often comes when I'm enjoying food cooked by other people. I’m always drawn to very simple combinations, and often an idea is sparked by enjoying something someone else has made with care. I love when food feels like it belongs in its setting, and because Ballymaloe is an old country house surrounded by rolling hills, close to the sea, I like the deserts we serve to feel like they are at home in this setting. I want the dishes we serve to be relaxed, thoughtful, and unchallenging with a homemade warmth. If you stroll through the walled garden in summer you can guess the menu by spotting the ripening fruit. The dishes we serve are a mixture of much-loved traditional puddings seen throughout the British Isles as well as continental inspired pastries, ice creams and gateaux. I travel for two months at the start of each year and I love to discover food that feels like it belongs to the particular place where, and try to emulate that feeling at home in Ballymaloe House. For example, the flavour of unsalted butter is a keystone of french pastries, underpinning so much of what the best boulangeries across France produces, yielding a taste that feels like it belongs to its place. Yet, when I cook at home, I purposefully use salted Irish butter in what I make, bringing a sense of where we are to the dishes we make.

The repertoire of recipes at Ballymaloe has been evolving for over half a century, and often simple tweaks and movements keep dishes fresh and interesting. For us, though, it really comes down to the exceptional ingredients we have access to. Eggs arrive at the kitchen door fresh from the hen house each morning, and thick raw cream, butter, yogurt and buttermilk come from our own micro-herd of Jersey cows at the Ballymaloe Cookery School. Fruit, herbs and edible flowers are grown both onsite, in the walled garden adjacent to the house, and by many friends in the surrounding region, much of which is harvested at the last minute for best flavour and freshness. When the raw materials are this good, it is often the simplest dishes that make the most impact. Many of our recipes are like blueprints that we vary through the year with whatever is in season to showcase this produce. Take the garden rhubarb tartlets we've been making over the past few weeks for example, now we are making them with green gooseberries, and soon it will be cherries and then apples and wild blackberries. A wonderful way to enjoy the pure flavour of each fruit. And along the way we will think of new versions too.

The Planning Process

Guests are welcome to try a little bit of everything from the dessert trolley, and I plan each menu in such a way that the dishes on any given day compliment and pair nicely with one another.

I plan menus a week in advance, a process that I usually do over three days, just as my mentor, and the founder of Ballymaloe House, the late Myrtle Allen used to do. On Thursdays, I hand-write a rough plan into a diary in pencil. By end-of-day on Friday the menus are taking shape and on Saturday I review things, make some edits and pin down remaining details. I often make later changes as we go, day-by-day, usually because something doesn't ripen as quickly as I thought it might, or because a last minute request comes in. In any case, for the most part, the menu plan guides the work flow of the week.

Before I begin sketching the plan, I note how many guests are booked for each meal, what special requests and requirements there are, who's staying in the hotel, and how many nights they might be dining. I try to ensure there are no repeat dishes during a guest's stay. This plan helps me to imagine how each day might play out in the kitchen.

The Current Dessert Menus

April and early May are a tricky time for the Irish pastry kitchen. Although it is technically spring, there is a lingering feeling of winter to the seasonal produce available. Apples, pears, citrus and rhubarb underpin this period and there is always great excitement from mid-May onwards when strawberries, apricots and gooseberries all come on tap. From then the old adage ‘what grows together goes together’ is exemplified in what nature provides: Wild elderflowers fill the hedgerows just as the first gooseberries are ready to harvest; rose- and lemon-scented geranium produces delicately scented pink flowers just as the first strawberries are picked, and lemon verbena, one of the later herbs to appear in the garden, comes just-in-time to accompany early apricots. And sweet cicely, a delicate anise-flavoured herb, gives rhubarb a refreshing lift.

This Friday we will have the first peach leaf ice cream of the season on the dessert trolley. It will pair nicely with poached rhubarb, harvested fresh that day from the walled garden, and it will also complement the almond and apricot tart I plan to make that same evening. In turn the tart will play nicely alongside a chocolate meringue gateau - think thin layers of cocoa meringue layered with silky smooth ganache and cream - which in turn is a fine match with the raspberry and fresh mint jelly I hope to make, that is if the raspberries are ready to harvest! You get the idea though, all of these dishes will sit happily beside one another and work together, and I hope guests opt to try a little of each.

Things will get even more fruity and floral in the coming weeks: Since the start of June we have been infusing lavender buds into jelly that is layered over a light-as-air honey mousse made using honey from the Ballymaloe bee hives. Zingy herb granitas will accompany berry compotes for light desserts at lunch time, and bite size fruit tartlets will be served with thick raw-cream from the farm. Stands of fresh fruit appear on the dessert trolley as an extra item, starting with the most wonderful cherries I know, grown by our friend's on their estate in west Waterford. These cherries are so good I purchase almost their entire crop, and no matter how many there are I find a use for all of them.

In the restaurant, each day of the week takes on a different theme and atmosphere: Mid-week meals feel different to those at the weekend. For example, Saturday dinner always feels somewhat like a big occasion. It's often the case that many people hold on for the weekend to celebrate things that may have happened during the week, and I like to plan desserts with a hint of glamor for Saturday evening. This Saturday expect classic gâteau pithiviers made with hand-rolled puff pastry, strawberry and elderflower meringues, panna cotta layered with dark espresso jelly and honeycomb ice cream. In contrast, Sunday lunch is the most family-focused occasion of the week and I love to plan menus accordingly. On Sunday I’m planning chocolate fudge pudding, a warm and light almost-molten chocolate dessert baked in a dish, served alongside sugared strawberries tossed with fresh mint, and lemon meringue pie with rich vanilla ice cream and warm chocolate sauce to accompany.

Sometimes, for special parties, the spirit of the trolley evolves into a dessert tray. But in place of one trolley we might have up to a dozen trays, flooding the room at a celebration, with bite-sized desserts that can be enjoyed almost like canapes. It creates a buzz at the end of the meal. Currently I’m planning menus for a mid-summer wedding and I’m thinking: Raspberry almond tartlets, vanilla ice cream sandwiches with salted cookie edges, green gooseberry and elderflower fool with thin shortbread biscuits, and bite-sized chocolate eclairs. I’ll revisit this menu plan next week to polish it up.

We also try our best to have alternative versions of favourite dishes to accommodate special dietary requirements. Over the twenty years I have been at Ballymaloe, we have developed a repertoire of recipes for desserts to overcome dietary restrictions, from dairy free chocolate mousses and gluten free cookie dough, to vegan cakes and sugar free sponges.