Do you remember I told you Lady de B and I joked about setting up a catering business out of the back of a vintage Bentley? Well, we don’t have the wheels yet but we do have our first gig. My friend Paula asked me to cater her wedding in September - marquee in her country garden, bunches of blowsy, old-fashioned roses and herbs on the tables, mismatched plates and a hog roast for 120 happy revellers. Richard Curtis, call your production designer…..
Paula wants canapés, big salads to go with the roast, puddings and gorgeous English cheeses, and later, little bits of biscuity heaven to go with tea and coffee. I’m excited. Excited and scared. I’ve never done anything this huge before. So I called Vanessa, AKA Lady de B, who as well as being a wonderful cook, is queen of the clipboard and list. Between us, we’re going to do it. Last night we had our first planning meeting at De Beauvoir Mansions and I made a French Onion Tart to take along for our supper. It’s based on Elizabeth David’s Tarte à l’Oignon or Zewelwaï, the lovely tart from Alsace, from her book French Provincial Cooking.
I thought of calling this post ‘I have cried salty tears…’. I know this is a lot of onions, but it’s worth it - they all cook down into the most deliciously sweet, lusciously melting, creamy mass. You’re eating essence of onion, and that’s never a bad thing.
Tarte à l’Oignon, or Zewelwaï
My lovely dad, who is stoical and uncomplaining in the face of all kinds of adversity, hates to chop an onion almost more than any other domestic task. I think of all of the things I’ve ever done, he’s most impressed by my capacity to slice and dice my way through a mountain of onions without the aid of goggles, gin or Valium.
250g plain flour
125g unsalted butter, very cold, cut into small cubes
1 tbsps olive oil (not extra virgin)
A good pinch of sea salt
2-3 tbsps iced water
1.2 kg onions, finely sliced
6 egg yolks, very well beaten
284ml pot of double cream
A few gratings of nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Put the flour, butter and salt into a food processor and pulse briefly a few times – you still want little, pea-sized pieces of butter in the mix. Drop in the eggs and pulse a few more times. Turn it out into a bowl and add the water a little at a time, stirring gently with your hands or a knife to bring it together into a ball – you may not need all of the water. Place the dough on a floured surface and with the heel of your hands, lightly stretch it out into a ragged rectangle. Fold it over in three sections, rather like you would a business letter, and repeat the process a couple of times. Do it all very gently. Wrap in clingfilm and chill for at least a couple of hours so that it loses all of its stretch.
Butter a flan tin (mine was 19x29cm) and dust lightly with flour. Roll out the pastry so that it is quite thin. Line the tin with the pastry, pressing it gently into position and trying not to stretch it. Don’t trim it yet – put it into the fridge for half an hour or so to chill down, then trim it just before you fill it.
While all the pastry palaver is going on, make the filling. Melt the butter in a large frying pan with the oil over a medium-low heat. Tip in the onions with a good pinch of salt and stir until they’re all coated. Turn the temperature down to low and cook the onions until they are soft, translucent and starting to turn golden. Stir them from time to time to make sure they’re not sticking. This took about an hour, on the lowest possible heat. Season well with salt, nutmeg and plenty of pepper and allow to cool down a bit. In a jug or bowl, whisk together the cream and well-beaten eggs then pour over the onions and stir until everything is combined.
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas mark 6.
Pour the filling into the pastry case (yes, that’s right, no blind baking – hurrah!) and put the tin on a baking sheet. Bake for about 30-35 minutes until golden. Eat hot. You can certainly eat it cold – I had leftovers for breakfast this morning and it was delicious – but the pastry will lose some of its melting flakiness.
If you want to serve this when you have friends round for lunch or dinner and you'd like to avoid last-minute panics, line the flan tin and make the filling a few hours ahead. Pop everything in the fridge until about 45 minutes before you want to serve it, then assemble and bake at the last minute.