THE FIRST of April has nothing to do with it. Some fools can be suffered gladly. The English know. They are not invariably foolish enough to follow the joint, as they call their Sunday roast beef, with a "cold shape," Britain's lamentable version of junket. On happier April days the sweet at Britannia's table may be a fool -- a delectable combination of fruit and cream.
Nobody can say for sure why this dessert is implicated with folly. Efforts to trace the word "fool" to the French fouler, which means "to crush" have come to nothing. And except that lots of people like fools, there's no reason to suppose la foule, the French word for the crowd, is any more relevant.
The closest we come to tracing the fool's original identity is to link it with its culinary cousin, the trifle. Next to a proper Anglo-Saxon suet pudding, which is a sort of edible Victoria and Albert Museum, the fool and the trifle are little nothings, mere frivolities.
After all, what is either of them but mashed or pure'ed fruit combined with whipped cream or boiled custard? Add cake or ladyfingers, almonds and sherry for the trifle. Make that a few macaroon crumbs for certain versions of the fool and there you are. No competition at all for the stateliness of a serious British sweet.
Albion's classic fool is made with gooseberries -- exotic, grapelike little fruits with an agreeably acidic sweetness comparable only to that of greengage plums. Even in their short summer season, they are hard to find here. Canned gooseberries may be had at gourmet shops, though, and they're almost as good as fresh ones for tarts and fools.
A fool may be made with any fruit, but some have subtler affinities with the cream element than others. Rhubarb's tang makes it one of the great fool ingredients. The same goes for dried apricots.
The cream component, which is about equal in volume to the fruit, has its own subtleties. American whipped cream lacks the voluptuousness of English double cream or French cre me fraiche. It's worth experimenting with commercial cre me fraiche available here or with your own combination of sour cream and heavy cream. Use a vanilla boiled custard instead of the cream if you insist, and think about bits of macaroon crumbs or cake if you want to go in the direction of trifle. The simplicity of fruit and cream is hard to beat, though.
Folding anything into whipped cream or egg whites is often a matter of uncertainty for the cook. How much homogenizing is enough? It's always a tricky question. In making a fool, however, the best policy is to err on the side of under-folding. The dish is most appealing with strands of pure'ed fruit appearing in marbleized patterns rather than being completely assimilated into the cream. In more-liquid mixtures there will be a separation of the cream if you wait before serving, so be sure to serve immediately.
It goes without saying that if you happen to have little French barquette pans, you can line them with pastry and bake the shells before filling them with this lovely mixture, thus serve ships of fools tomorrow. It's just the sort of opportunity that invites fools to rush in.
GOOSEBERRY FOOL (4 servings) 1 1/2 cups canned gooseberries, drained 1 cup heavy cream or 3/4 cup cream and 1 egg white Sugar, if necessary 4 strawberries for garnish Puree gooseberries. Whip cream. For a lighter effect, also whip an egg white, separately. Fold fruit and beaten egg white into cream. Taste for sweetness and add a little sugar if necessary. Serve in glass bowls. A strawberry on top sets off the delicate yellow-green of the gooseberries.
ORANGE FOOL (4 servings) 4 oranges 1 lemon 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar 2 cups heavy cream or cre me fraiche
Grate orange and lemon rinds and set aside. Peel, seed and section fruit and puree. Stir in sugar. Whip cream stiffly, then fold in grated rind and fruit puree. Serve immediately so mixture does not separate. In this case an old fool is not the best kind.
RHUBARB FOOL (4 servings) 1 cup heavy cream or cre me fraiche 1 cup stewed rhubarb, lightly sweetened Grated rind of 1 lemon Sugar, if necessary Banana slices (optional)
Whip cream and fold in rhubarb and lemon rind. Taste for sweetness and correct with more sugar if necessary. A few slices of banana may add textural interest.