Monday, 29 November 2010

Northern tart

Cheese and onion tart

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

In the tray, cooling....

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.

Lovely cold too


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.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Baking for pleasure

Quince Tart Tatin

If you’ve spent more than a few minutes on my blog you might notice there’s an abundance of sweet things - enough pies, cakes and tarts to stock a rather ambitious bake sale. But I have a confession to make. I don’t really have a sweet tooth. My sister in law marvels that I can keep chocolate in my cupboards for weeks. I can eat a slice of cake or a biscuit I’ve baked and send the rest off to work with Sean so he can share it with his colleagues, or take them with me to the park to hand out to my dog walking posse without a glimmer of regret.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m enormously greedy. Warm bread, hunks of cheese, slices of garlicky salami, salty olives or anchovies, creamy curries, spicy chorizo, how do I love thee? Let me count the plates.

But I love to bake. I love the craft of it and the sweetly intoxicating aroma that fills the kitchen. Opening a recipe book and reading ‘Cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy…’ has the same effect on me as ‘Once upon a time…’ has on a fractious toddler.

When we have friends over for supper, making the pudding is my favourite part of the prep. Last Friday I found some beautiful golden quince in our local Turkish supermarket and couldn’t wait to get them home to turn them into the final course of our dinner on Saturday night.

Today I’m giving you three recipes, each component of our pudding of quince tarte tatin, Greek yoghurt and honey ice cream with candied walnuts. You can make everything ahead, bar putting the tart in the oven, so there’s no last-minute faff to induce a profound craving for Valium. Or you could simply make one or two of the recipes – serve the tart with crème fraîche, serve the ice cream by itself with an extra trickle of honey over the top and/or some of the walnuts or simply serve the walnuts as part of a platter of dried figs, prunes and apricots. Do whatever you like, so long as you do it with pleasure.

Quince tarte tatin


Don’t be put off if you don’t have a tarte tatin tin. Most shallow, solid-bottomed cake tins will do. You can even make it in an oven-proof frying pan – this means you can cook and bake the tart in the same pan too, so less washing up. This is a real ‘ta-dah!’ tart. It looks very impressive but it’s really very easy to make.

4-5 biggish quince
200g caster sugar or vanilla sugar
500ml water
1 vanilla pod, split lengthways
Juice of half a lemon, plus a bit more for the lemony water
100g unsalted butter
150g caster sugar or vanilla sugar
375g ready-made puff pastry - I like the one from The Dorset Pastry Company but any all-butter puff pastry will do

Put the sugar, water, split vanilla pod and lemon juice into a large pan and stir over a medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Raise the heat and boil hard for 5 minutes.

While the syrup is bubbling away, fill a bowl with cold water and add a good squeeze of lemon juice. Peel and core the quince and cut each half into thirds, dropping them into the lemony water as you go to stop them from discolouring. When they’re all ready, drain and drop them into the syrup to poach for 5 minutes. Tip into a colander and leave the fruit to steam for a few minutes so it dries out a bit.

Melt the butter and sugar in a heavy-bottomed frying pan over a medium-high heat (if you’re going to cook the tart in the frying pan, you want to use one that’s about 30cm in diameter) and let it bubble away for a few minutes, stirring constantly. Tip the poached quince into the pan and turn them over so they’re well coated. Cook, carefully turning the fruit over, until the buttery syrup turns into a clear, light caramel. Remove from the heat.

When cool enough to handle, either arrange the fruit, core-side up or side by side, in the pan or in a 30cm tarte tatin dish or cake tin. Make sure the fruit is crammed in tightly with as few gaps as possible. Spoon any of the caramel that remains in the frying pan over the top of the fruit if you’re baking the tart in a tatin dish or baking tin. Cool completely.

Roll out the pastry and cut it out into a circle about 1cm larger than the diameter of your tin. Cover the fruit with the pastry and tuck it in tightly around the edges. Make two or three cuts about 4cm long in the top of the pastry and chill until you’re ready to bake it.

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6. Place the tart in the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes until the pastry is golden. Remove from the oven and cool for 5 minutes. Run a knife around the sides of the pan, place a large plate over the top, say a little prayer, and invert the tart onto the plate. Serve warm with the ice cream and walnuts scattered over the top.


Greek yoghurt and honey ice cream

The ice cream recipe is from Morfudd Richards’ lovely book, Lola’s Ice Creams & Sundaes, with a ripple of honey added by me. This is about the easiest ice cream you’ll ever make – just whisk everything together and tip it into an ice cream maker. No custard-splitting anxiety, just cool deliciousness which goes beautifully with the sweet, perfumed stickiness of the quince.

500ml thick Greek yoghurt
125ml double cream
125g caster sugar
Juice of half a lemon
4-6 tbsps runny honey, lavender, orange blossom or acacia honey are good

To make the ice cream, mix everything together in a bowl until smooth and well blended. Churn in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Put into a plastic container, cover the top of the ice cream with waxed or greaseproof paper and seal with a lid.

Freeze for an hour or two until firm but not completely set. Remove from the freezer and make holes in the ice cream with a spoon. Pour over the honey and swirl gently with a spatula. Return to the freezer for a few hours until completely frozen.

Candied walnuts

I followed the instructions from the Simply Recipes site for the candied walnuts. Their recipe is super easy but you need to hold your nerve a bit and work quickly. Have everything to hand before you start messing with the caramel – the lined baking sheet, the forks for separating the nuts -and keep the walnuts close to the hob so you can stir them in as soon as the caramel is the right colour. I think adding some flaky sea salt at the end makes them even more special, though you can leave it out if you like.

100g caster sugar
About 150g walnut halves
Good pinch or two of flaky sea salt

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4. Scatter the walnuts on a baking sheet and bake for about 5 minutes until fragrant and slightly toasted – if they’re not quite done, put them in for longer and check after each minute as they can burn very quickly. Cool.

Warm the sugar in a heavy-bottomed, medium-sized saucepan (ideally one without a dark interior so you can keep an eye on the colour of the caramel). Once the sugar starts to liquefy, stir gently with a wooden spoon. As soon as it’s completely melted and a beautiful, rich amber colour, tip in the walnuts and stir quickly to coat. Spread them out on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment or a Siplat mat and, working very quickly, use two forks to separate the walnuts from each other. Sprinkle with the salt if you like then cool completely. When cold, store in an airtight container until ready to use.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

A marriage that still holds hands

Wendy_Colorado_photo_Crop Mum, writing in Colorado

You’re looking for the recipe aren’t you? Forgive me, but for one day only there isn’t one. Today is more ‘Love’ than ‘Licked Spoon’.

You see, my mother’s latest book comes out tomorrow. She’s written shelves and shelves of them over the years. I can’t remember a time when she wasn’t writing and this is probably why I can cook. As children, my brother and I were welcome to do anything which kept us quiet and absorbed our energies and attention while mum filled notebooks and battled with carbon papers. For my brother, this included rugby and embroidery. For me, it meant hours in the kitchen producing dishes of varying degrees of accomplishment and deliciousness.

This new book, The Romancer: On being a writer is a departure. All of her previous books have been novels. This one is a memoire combined with an exploration of the process of writing, showing the links between her daily life and her writing life and how one feeds the other. As she says ‘truth and fiction, like two hands clasping’.

I’m blessed with amazing parents who, despite being very different from one another, have forged a marriage which has lasted almost fifty years. My dad is the kind of man who polishes his shoes every day and has never owned a pair of jeans. My mum likes beads and scarves and flowing things in velvet.

Bryan in FranceDad

For many years, neither of my parents wore wedding rings (mum does now, but it’s quite a recent development). Last year they both forgot their wedding anniversary. Not very romantic, you might think. You’d be wrong. Here is what she has to say about marriage…

‘This is a marriage that went to work and loved it, that had flowers in its hair, that wore sober suits and hippy skirts. It walked children in second-hand prams, and sat in cafes writing while they rolled around on the floor. It went to PTA meetings. It took holidays by the seaside that needed two ponchos to keep warm. It went to the races, to rugby matches and to school plays. It waved off children to their new lives and welcomed them back again. It watched cricket and football and cop shows on TV. It read newspapers at length. It read books and wrote them. And it delivered heavy manuscripts to the Post Office. It visited clinics and hospitals and held its breath. It’s a marriage that travels and continues to relish the youngest, the boy who loves chocolate. It’s a marriage that still holds hands.’

From The Romancer: On Being a Writer by Wendy Robertson

Sunday, 21 November 2010

A little gentle preparation and forty tiny claws

Jars of Mincemeat

When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?

Michel de Montaigne, Essays, 1580

It’s about that time. Lights go up on Stoke Newington High Street for Eid and Christmas, the shops fill with glitzy cards and brightly coloured baubles and otherwise sane souls believe the affection of the ages can be conveyed by hastily wrapped scented candles or cashmere scarves.

I love Christmas. I love the sight of people dragging trees down Church Street, queuing for my turkey at Godfrey’s, midnight mass at St Mary’s and most of all, I love the peace that descends on London for those few short days. In order for me not to careen into the holiday like Wile E. Coyote screeching off a cliff, I try to do a little gentle preparation in the weeks before to make the run up as pleasurable as possible.

And today’s recipe is as gentle a recipe as ever met heat. Making your own mincemeat fulfils that desire for a homemade Christmas without heaping on the stress. It also makes the house smell wonderful, better than any scented candle. Take THAT, Jo Malone.

I’m keen on simple recipes at the moment as they leave me with maximum kitten time. Yes, kittens, life’s greatest deadline-dodging displacement activity. After Oscar died last year and free-spirit Liberty went missing, never to return, in January our house has been sadly lacking in feline presence. Chairs remained unscratched. Roast chickens sat unmolested on the kitchen counter. It was miserable, though Barney might disagree.

Enter Dixie and Prune, slaloming across the marble counter, scaling ten feet of curtain as though it’s nothing, chasing each other’s tails, loving Barney into grumpy submission as they edge their way onto his favourite chair and crowd into his basket. They sit on my shoulders as I type like purring epaulettes, chase the cursor across the screen and generally show disdain for anything as undignified as, oh, earning a living. It’s wonderful.

All 3 together Begrudgingly, Barney shares his favourite chair

Prune It’s hard to know whether Prune’s laughing at you or preparing to eat you. Probably a bit of both.

Prune & Barney ‘You will love me.’


Apple, Pear & Ginger Mincemeat

This mincemeat is intensely fruity and the crystallized ginger adds a dash of sweet heat. It contains no suet, which I think gives it a brighter, fresher flavour. Make some now and it’ll have time to mature for Christmas, though I like to keep a jar back to enjoy next year, too. Use it in mince pies, of course, but it’s also very good as a stuffing for baked apples and delicious in my Mincemeat Crumble Tart.

The recipe comes from River Cottage Handbook No 2, by Pam ‘the jam’ Corbin, queen of all things jarred, bottled and preserved.

Makes approximately 4x450g jars

1kg Bramley apples
Finely grated zest and juice of 2-3 oranges (you need 200ml juice)
500g firm pears, peeled, cored and cut into 1cm cubes
200g currants
200g raisins
200g sultanas
100g orange marmalade
250g demerara sugar
½ tsp ground cloves
2 tsp ground ginger
1-2 tsp ground cinnamon
½ nutmeg, grated
50ml ginger wine or cordial (optional, I had neither so I used the syrup from a jar of stem ginger)
100g chopped walnuts or almonds
50ml brandy or sloe gin

Peel and core the apples and chop them into large chunks. Put them into a saucepan with the orange juice. Cook gently until they are soft and fluffy then blend into a smooth purée.

Put the purée into a large bowl and add all of the other ingredients, except the brandy or gin. Mix thoroughly, then cover and leave to stand for 12 hours.

Preheat the oven to 130°C/Gas Mark 1/2. Put the mincemeat into a large baking dish or roasting tin and bake, uncovered, for 2-2 ½ hours. Stir in the brandy or gin, then spoon into warm, sterilized jars, making sure there aren’t any air pockets. Seal and store in a dry, dark, cool place until Christmas. Use within 12 months.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Taking the lead

Carrot Cake

A dog gives you a great excuse to play truant while appearing to be busy. At 3pm, the sky cleared, looked blue for the first time in days. I grabbed the lead and took Barney for a walk in the cemetery. For his benefit, right? Not to get away from teetering piles of paper on my desk, books that defy shelving, the list of phone calls, the conked out dryer, the leaking washing machine and the problem of what to do about the vanished accountant.

Through the Egyptian gates, the air is heavy, damp. Barney weaves his own eightsome reel through the dripping nettles and worn tombstones. There is a sweet smell of rotting leaves, faintly spicy like gingerbread.

I have never seen a hound look quite as pathetic as mine does when wet. Fur sticks out in uneven clumps. His legs look spindly, his eyes huge, pleading. He could head up a Dogs’ Trust campaign. The hardest of hearts would read in his soft brown eyes a life tied to a lamppost, abandoned, not one of tweed-lined baskets, woollen blankets and organic dog food.


We get home and he runs along the hallway rubbing his head and body against the skirting as if possessed, a foxy little dervish drying himself on the carefully chosen Farrow & Ball (can it be long before Dirty Dog nestles on the paint chart between Mouse’s Back, Cat’s Paw, Dead Salmon and Pigeon?).

I make a cake. Barney sits on his favourite chair, the one that’s so tatty my friend’s eight-year-old daughter asked, worried, ‘What’s wrong with it?’. It’s been a busy afternoon.


Carrot & Walnut Cake

I created this recipe a couple of years ago for my friend Mark Diacono’s book, River Cottage Handbook No4 Veg . It’s not very refined, in the manner of grandly iced carrot cakes, but nor is it tiresomely worthy like those annoying confections whose highest ambition is to form one of you five a day. It’s spicy and rich and keeps very well for up to a week in a tin. Serve it warm as a pudding with a generous spoonful of crème fraiche, or cold anytime.

Either make your own apple sauce by simmering peeled, cored Bramley apples with a little water until light and fluffy or use good-quality ready made.

Makes 12 squares

80g sultanas
A slug of apple brandy or cognac (optional)
Knob of butter, softened, for greasing the tin
220g wholemeal self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp salt
Good pinch of ground cloves
Pinch of ground cardamom (optional)
220g light muscovado sugar, plus an extra 3 tbsps for the syrup
120ml sunflower oil
Finely grated zest and juice of a large orange
2 eggs, lightly beaten
225g apple sauce
270g carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
80g walnuts, roughly chopped
1 tbsp lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 170C/Gas mark 3. Put the sultanas in a small bowl, pour on hot water to cover and leave to soak for 20 minutes or so. You can add a slug of apple brandy or cognac at this point if you like.

Lightly grease a loose-bottomed 20-22cm square cake tin, about 8cm deep. Line the base with greaseproof paper and butter the paper. Sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, cloves and cardamom if using.

In a large bowl, whisk together the 220g of light muscovado sugar, oil and orange zest until well combined, then whisk in the eggs until the mixture is creamy. Fold in the apple sauce, followed by the flour mixture until just combined. Next fold in the grated carrots and walnuts. Finally, drain the sultanas and fold these in.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake for about 1 ¼ hours, until a fine skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean, without any crumbs clinging to it. If the cake appears to be overbrowning before it is done, cover the top loosely with foil.

While the cake is in the oven, make the syrup. Put the orange juice into a small pan with the 3tbsps of light muscovado sugar and 1 tbsp lemon juice. Warm over a low heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves, then increase the heat and simmer until slightly syrupy, about 4-5 minutes.

As you remove the cake from the oven, run a knife around the edge and pierce the top a few times with a fine skewer. Now pour over the syrup, trying to make sure that you cover the surface fairly evenly. Stand the cake tin on a wire rack and leave to cool for a while before cutting into squares.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Feeling Souper


So I’ve had flu. That’s boring.

Being sick is like staying in a hotel, a really bad hotel where the room is airless, the bed contrives to be both too hot and too cold, the sheets are abominably scratchy despite what the lying bastard label might say about thread count. And nothing on the room service menu tempts, not even the gin and that never happens.

The thing about staying in hotels, even the very, very good ones, is that after about three days I miss cooking. I miss sniffing melons, squeezing avocados, chopping herbs, sautéing onions, simmering stock. Wandering around markets becomes almost unbearable - all that lovely produce and not a pot to put it in.

So on about Day Five of channelling of a consumptive Brontë on the sofa, I just couldn’t stand it. I needed to wash vegetables, fry stuff, stir things, season to taste. This soupy recipe sounded about right. Really very easy. Cook for two hours. Sprinkle with fried onions. Except my kofteh collapsed. You don’t brown them, just roll and poach in the soup. Perhaps I didn’t get the texture of the minced mixture fine enough, but they ended up like lamby crumbs surrounded by creamy, tomatoey, rice. Not so bad. In fact, pretty good for a sick girl.

Eat on a tray in front of an old movie, preferably Mildred Pierce. Blanket and gently snoring dog optional but beneficial. Repeat as necessary.

Kofteh Sholleh
Soft rice meat dumplings

This recipe is from Margaret Shaida’s superlative The Legendary Cuisine of Persia and it was given to her by Mrs Pouran Ataie from Azarbaijan. In her recipe, Mrs Shaida uses 6 fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped, but I hate peeling tomatoes at the best of times and I didn’t have any and I’m sick so I used a tin of chopped tomatoes. They’re Italian. And good. She also uses 30g dried oregano. I had one whole pot. That’s 5g. I can’t really imagine what adding another five pots would have tasted like and I admit I’m still a bit tastebud-challenged, so I stuck with my paltry, westernised, wimpy sick girl 5g and it tasted great.

Serves six to eight

300g short grain pudding rice
3 medium onions, halved and thinly sliced
2 tbsps groundnut or sunflower oil
2 litres chicken stock
1x400g chopped tomatoes, or 6 tomatoes, peeled and diced
3 tbsps tomato purée
5g dried oregano, or 30g if you’re being authentic
1 tsp paprika or ½ tsp red chilli powder
500g lean lamb or veal, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tbsp groundnut or sunflower oil
1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced
Finely chopped parsley

Soak the rice in cold water for a few minutes.

Warm the oil over a medium-low heat, add the onions and a pinch of salt and sauté, stirring from time to time, until soft and beginning to turn golden, about 15 minutes. Drain the rice and stir in with the onions. Add enough water to cover, raise the temperature and boil gently, covered, until the water has been absorbed, about 20 minutes. Remove about 3tbsps of rice and set aside.

Add the stock to the rice along with the tomatoes, tomato purée, half the oregano and paprika, salt and pepper. Cover and simmer gently.

Chop the meat together with the reserved rice, remaining oregano and paprika, salt and pepper. Using wet hands, mould into about 10 evenly-sized meatballs. Carefully lower them into the slowly simmering soup. Cook very gently, partially covered, for two hours, stirring occasionally, especially during the last half hour when the dumplings and rice can stick to the bottom if you’re not careful (and even if you are).

While the soup’s cooking, prepare the onions. Warm the oil in a frying pan over a medium-high heat and sauté the onions until crisp and deep golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper while you finish the soup.

Serve the meat dumplings in warmed bowls with the soup ladled over the top and garnished with the parsley and the onions.

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