This is a taste of my northern childhood. At birthday parties, church fêtes and cricket teas, cheese and onion tart held its own on tables crowded with sausages on sticks, mushroom vol-au-vents, egg sandwiches and butterfly cakes. It was almost as essential to weddings, christenings and funerals as the minister.
It probably also appeared as part of the feast (spread, they would have said spread) at my great-aunt Dolly and great-uncle Jos’s diamond wedding anniversary, the one where uncle Jos sang Danny Boy to a misty-eyed crowd in the sitting room while Auntie Dolly shuffled me into the kitchen, placed her hands on her Spirella-corseted, Windsmoor-clad hips and told me ‘Never get married, Debora, never get married,’ while sipping neat gin, no ice, out of a heavy crystal tumbler.
Well I did get married, though with no cheese and onion tart to mark our nuptials I hope it’s legal. But I have continued to make it for lunches, afternoon teas and picnics ever since, so hopefully that counts for something.
The tart you see here is a little different from the one of my childhood. I’ve acquired some fancy London ways since then. I add crème fraîche to the pastry which makes it deliciously short and flaky. I sauté the onions with thyme – I’m quite sure I was into my second decade before I met a fresh herb. And I cook the onions down until they’re really, really soft, not almost raw as was often the case in the original. I’ve added some bacon to the recipe here, though you can leave it out if you wish – just add a bit more butter to the sautéing onions.
Cheese and onion tart
For the pastry:
240g plain flour
120g unsalted butter
Good pinch of salt
2 tbsp crème fraîche
About 2-3tbsp iced water
For the filling:
3 rashers back bacon, cut into thin strips
3 onions, finely diced
¼ – ½ tsp fresh thyme leaves
150g Cheddar cheese, grated
3 eggs and 2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
100ml whole milk or single cream
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F/Gas Mark 5.
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. Add the crème fraîche 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. Press it gently into a disc, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
Butter a loose-bottomed flan tin and dust it with flour. Turn out the pastry onto a lightly floured surface and roll out. Line the flan tin with the pastry, letting the excess hang over the sides, and place on a baking tray. Prick the base and sides with a fork. Line with baking parchment filled with baking beans, dried pulses or uncooked rice and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the paper and baking beans. Brush some of the beaten egg over the base and put it back into the oven for eight minutes (see COOK’S TIP). Reduce the oven temperature to 170°C/325°F/Gas Mark 3.
Trim off the excess pastry with a sharp knife.
While the tart shell is cooking, make the filling. Warm the butter in a large frying pan over a medium-high heat and fry the bacon until just turning crisp. Remove to a bowl. Reduce the heat to medium-low and sweat the onions with the thyme and a pinch of salt, stirring from time to time, until very soft, pulpy and translucent – you want them to reduce in volume by about half. Add them to the bowl with the bacon and cool slightly. Mix in two thirds of the cheese. Mix the milk or cream with the lightly beaten eggs and then combine with the bacon, onions and cheese. Season with salt and pepper and pour into the tart shell. Scatter the remaining cheese over the top and bake for 30 minutes until the tart is golden.
Recipes often give quite short cooking times for blind baking tart shells. You want the base to be completely cooked to prevent the horror of a soggy bottom, so cook it for as long as it needs, whatever the instructions say. Also, a tip I picked up from Gill Meller, the entirely wonderful Head Chef at River Cottage , is to prick the sides of the tart as well as the base before you cook it.