The soup addict is back, with sweet potatoes

That’s it. It’s blowing a hooley outside, the car’s in for its annual service, the stove has been lit despite the general mildness (it’s getting damp, too), and I’ve made the first soup of the season.

I do like cold soups – there are a couple of recipes here – but to me there is something profoundly wrong about serving soup, especially a warm soup, in summer. I know, I know: get over it, what about avgolemono, shorbat ads? My response is that it gets cold around the Med too, and that’s the time for soup. It’s certainly colder here, so I went looking for inspiration. I fancied something a bit different; I’ve got plenty of squash in, but there’s also plenty of squash soup in the freezer already. Plus (and I know this is silly), I wanted the variety of using bought ingredients. I’ve been using squash and tomatoes and beans and shallots and spuds for months. I wanted a change! I wanted exotica!

What I got, when I finally made it to the Co-op rather late in the day, was a sweet potato. And a red pepper.

IMG_0492sweet potato and red pepper soupI like a sweet potato soup, and red pepper goes well. But I still craved something a bit unusual, and sweet potato can be (surprise, surprise) a little too sweet. Obviously onions, garlic – but what about something to give a bit of oomph? A squeeze of lemon? Coriand-– no. Chillies, make a really hot soup? Nah, but maybe on the right lines. So I toyed with the idea of adding some pimenton dulce for the smoky taste, but in the end decided I didn’t want to overdo the whole capsicums thing. Then I hit on it: smoked garlic.

I know, very noughties. But I had a serious smoked garlic habit at one time, and I used it a lot – in marinades, in casseroles, in dips. It’s not that easy to get now, almost impossible round me and definitely impossible in the Co-op on a wet Monday night, but you can get smoked garlic paste and smoked garlic powder, and I had some in. Time to experiment…

Sweet potato and red pepper soup with smoked garlic
serves 3-4, depending on portion size and how thick you like your soup

1 medium to large sweet potato
1 large red pepper
1 medium onion
1 tsp rapeseed oil (or other neutral oil)
2 small cloves of garlic, chopped
1/2 tsp smoked garlic powder, or to taste – but not more than 1 tsp
700-900ml vegetable stock

Peel and chop the sweet potato into chunks no larger than 2cm; deseed and chop the pepper and finely chop the onion. Put the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over a medium heat, and add the onion. Cook very gently without burning for about 10 minutes, until the onion is soft and transparent – this is sometimes easier with a lid on the pan. Add the chopped garlic and cook for another minute, then stir in the smoked garlic powder, mixing it in well. Add the sweet potato and the red pepper, and stir them round too. Then add enough stock to cover and increase the heat. Bring the soup to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer until all the vegetables are soft. Blend the soup and adjust the thickness with a little water if you wish; reheat if necessary.

The best thing about this? Not just the taste, which I love – but the fact that it sent me into my store cupboards in search of possibilities. I felt a bit like Howard Carter peering into Tutankhamun’s tomb: ‘What can you see?’ ‘Wonderful things…’ Watch out for recipes involving amchoor powder, a chermoula spice blend, barberries, vast quantities of ras-el-hanout, za’atar, black cardamoms and graines de paradis. Maybe not all at the same time, mind.

Chutney time!

There’s something about making chutney. I end up feeling virtuous because I’ve used up the last of my crop – inevitably, green tomatoes are involved -

tomatoes

and there’s a beautifully stocked cupboard to admire. Well, OK, it’s a box or two under the stairs but I still come over all Laura Ingalls Wilder: ‘Oh, Ma, come quick and see! There’s so many things!’

Over the years I’ve experimented with all sorts of things: fresh chutneys, chutneys that are directly Indian in inspiration, traditional ‘British’ chutneys, chutneys using unusual or foraged ingredients (elderberry: very good). I’ve come to the conclusion that I like the lot. Cold meat, baked potato and chutney, oh yeah. Chunks of warm home-made bread with strong cheddar and chutney on the side, even more oh yeah. I’ve amassed a small library of recipes, some of which are sketchy in the extreme and some of which slide into picccallli territory (oh no).

I have now come up with a basic formula and just play around with it. It’s simple: 2kg vegetables / dry ingredients; 250g soft light brown sugar; 250ml cider vinegar and 125ml water. Spices to suit what I’m doing. I can fit this into my biggest Le Creuset casserole, and end up with (roughly) seven 300g jars (I eat a lot of Gaea’s wonderful Kalamata olives, and the empties are ideal).

steam risingThis year my two kilos were made up of 700g assorted tomatoes, mostly green; 350g finely chopped white onion, 200g sultanas and 750g apples (peeled weight). I added two chopped chillies and three scant teaspoons of tamarind paste, and made up a spice bag with cardamoms, plenty of coriander seeds, dried ginger, a few cloves and cumin seeds. That went in, followed by the sugar and the liquid, and I filled the whole kitchen with steam.

cookingI bring it to the boil, then reduce the heat to a good simmer. It cooks down for maybe two hours, maybe longer, depending – but the consistent thing is regular stirring to ensure that absolutely nothing sticks, whatever ingredients I’m using.

I check it more frequently as it reduces and changes colour, and soon it becomes more and more rich (and smells delicious). I know it’s ready when I draw a wooden spoon through it along the bottom of the casserole, and it leaves a clear trail – the inside of my Le Creuset is white, making it really clear. I’ve had my jars, freshly washed, drying out and sterilizing in a low oven, and the lids have been in boiling water.

Fighting the urge to change into a Little (Li’l?) Pioneer frock (happily, there’s no longer any Laura Ashley in my wardrobe), I start potting.

chutney jarsFirst, I retrieve my jam funnel from wherever I put it last time I used it. This was inevitably months ago, and the search can a) take time, ideal for cooling the chutney a little, and b) reveal all sorts of interesting things, like a pastry rings and an espadrille which had fallen behind a drawer (??). Then I carefully fill the jars, pop the lids on and, when they are cool enough to handle, I tap them firmly to fill up any gaps. Well, some gaps.

And then they disappear into the box under the stairs to mature. They need to be left until Christmas at the very least, and preferably until this time next year; earlier, and they are but a pale shadow of what they will later be. It takes time to develop a real depth of flavour.

I tend to use the Garden Club’s summer show as a marker, because that’s when I go prospecting, pulling jars out and tasting to determine which one has the honour of being entered into one of the most keenly contested classes. I only won a third this year – possibly because I’d eaten most of last year’s Apple, Date and Ginger and only had half a jar left:

IMG_0489

I really couldn’t enter half a jar and had to put in the Green Ginger (green toms, courgettes, apples, onion, LOTS of ginger) even though I knew it needed more time. The AD&G is delicious, but unfortunately I can’t find the notes – they’re probably in the drawer with the other espadrille and the pastry rings, hang on while I go and look… and maybe the notes for my orange chutney from 2012 will be there too.

I know I should be more organised, but for me part of the enjoyment of making chutney lies in never making the same ones twice. It’s impossible anyway, as far as I’m concerned. This year, for instance, I didn’t have as many green toms as usual and my apples ripened incredibly quickly; last year I had left-over courgettes to go in, and even a few beans. I believe in going with the flow when it come to chutneys. Plus I won’t know what this year’s contribution is really like until next August. Good, I hope. Fingers crossed!

Back to the future with retro cooking

A couple of days ago I was in search of a recipe. I knew I had it somewhere, but I searched everywhere and couldn’t find it. Then I thought about the cookery books I keep down in the basement/office/general store, and ended up down there. I didn’t find it, but I did find something else: The Hamlyn All-Colour Cookbook from 1970. Oh yes!

This was one of the first cookery books to have every single recipe illustrated, and illustrated in – drum roll, please – colour. Strange colour, in some cases, but colour. It was written by four people and the contributor of the first section is Mary Berry – in fact, it was her first foray into cookery books. Her part is largely devoted to baking and sweet recipes, and is predictably reliable, but I was looking for more savoury recipes. And I found them. Either the authors were under serious pressure (always possible), or these dishes were acceptable then, because some are – um – extreme. Many are extreme.

'rice salad'I found myself in a strange land, serving to remind me just how far we have come, and just how far food styling has come too (the images are printed at so low a res that my shots will have to remain small, btw). This is a rice salad, which consists of a large mound of cold rice with various uncooked ingredients placed on it in stripes, and surrounded by watercress. That’s it.

Should you wish to host a retro dinner party, then I can sincerely recommend this book as it is, and not as it is in any ‘modernised’ version. It was a classic – almost every home had one – and it is perfectly, absolutely of its time. Think Abigail’s Party.

'lasagne pie'Mind you, there might be a problem in sourcing some of the ingredients. Or not, even though they might be missing from your cupboards at present. The ‘lasagne pie’ for instance, uses a tin of minced beef or a tin of chunky steak (I think the stylist went for chunks), and that’s almost it. Half a packet of lasagne, the aforementioned meat, 1 tbsp tomato puree, some garlic salt and pepper, with single cream and grated cheese (not for a Béchamel – you just pour cream over it, cook it and scatter the cheese on top when it’s nearly done).

IMG_0327Vegetarians, predictably, get few offerings. I spent ten years as a veggie – my family still are – and I well remember the Ubiquitous Omelette, now replaced (my brother tells me) with the equally ubiquitous mushroom risotto. This is the Vegetarian Sunburst Salad. In case it’s not obvious, it’s grated carrot, grated cheese, some lettuce leaves and cucumber slices. It does look pretty, though… oh, and the dressing is peanut butter mixed with (bought) vinaigrette.

reallyI’d not realised the extent of the 1970 pineapple obsession. Fancy fried pineapple, with sausages and baked beans? No problems. Try Sausage Beanfeast, with a bunch of spring onions, a can of pineapple rings, pork sausages and a large tin of baked beans in tomato sauce. You fry the onions and some chopped pineapple in butter, and add the beans and chopped grilled sausages (reserving some). While you’re doing this, you fry the remaining pineapple halves. Then you assemble as shown.

But for me the prize goes to this dish. Now, my mother had this book. Plenty of friends had this book. I took an updated copy of this book to Uni. I’ve eaten some good things made from recipes in this book. I am not belittling this book. But I am – gobsmacked, I think is the right word – by Pineapple Crowns.

aghThese are Pineapple Crowns. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I read the recipe title as I flicked through, but it wasn’t this. Ingredients? Mustard pickles, finely chopped; white bread with the crusts trimmed away; lard; slices of canned pork luncheon meat; another tin of pineapple slices (the mustard pickle is the stuff that looks like droppings on the top – thank heavens food styling has moved on). Basically it’s bread fried in lard, luncheon meat friend in lard, pineapple rings fried in lard, all piled on top of each other and topped with mustard pickle. Rather like a Noughties’ chef might produce a tower, though I don’t think lard would feature quite so prominently… just saying.

Some of the sections are a little random, leading to some alarming juxtapositions: Cheesy Buttered Noodles (they look like tagliatelle, with butter and grated cheddar, then baked) next to Butterfly Layer Cake, which is topped with a can – well, with the contents, dur – of blackcurrant pie filling. They’re both in ‘rice and pasta’ by the way – ‘continental favourites’ has a frankfurter salad next to crèmes au chocolat – but there are more elsewhere. For me, this is the opposite of appetizing: it makes me feel slightly ill, and that’s without eating Pineapple Crowns.

But I am so glad I found this book – if you see the 1970 version in a charity shop, do buy it. It won’t break the bank (mine cost me £1.50), and it may bring benefits. Remember the Rum Truffle? I don’t think I’ve eaten one since about 1987, but I did love them and there’s a recipe here and I’m going for it.

As a finale, how about this masterpiece of styling? Get those chiffon dresses and lurid corduroy jackets out now, because this is just fab:

IMG_0329Yeay!

(Chicken Chaudfroid – poached chicken, covered with mayo which has been set with aspic jelly, and decorated to within an inch of its life. Couldn’t you guess?)

Preserves and produce – the show season

I tend – like most of us, I expect – to judge the passing of the seasons with markers. If the first Duke of Edinburgh’s Award hikers have collapsed on my wall it must be summer; if the village garden club show has happened, autumn cannot be far behind. This year I have been working flat out, so the show burst upon me. It was just as well that I’d not entered anything in the baking, because I was far too busy checking the dahlias for earwigs to worry about Victoria sponges and whether I could do a Helen Mirren and buy one from M&S.

I had all my preserves ready, though. I still had to stage a chutney beauty contest because I’d lost the ability to distinguish one from another, but apart from that I was done. The produce and wine section is always keenly contested, and I’d been nominated as the steward. This meant helping the judge – a local chef – by writing frantically, washing spoons, saying almost nothing about anything other than the weather, putting prize markers in the right place and keeping an absolute poker face whenever he approached any of my entries with his spoon (or asked me to taste something – er – surprising).

preservesThere were a lot of entries in our classes – from country wines to vegetable pickles, from sloe gins to lemon curds. And they all had to be tasted, assessed, judged – often requiring repeated tasting – and reflected upon. We were still working our way through the chutneys when the other judges and stewards had retired for sarnies, but I didn’t mind.

Of course there were some unfortunates: the jelly which hadn’t set, the still wine starting to fizz and ferment. But there were some truly wonderful things, produced by people with real talent, and our judge treated everything with proper respect.

I also got to taste one or two, and not just my own…

When we were setting up, I was helping place entries and came across something I’d not encountered before: bread and butter pickle. The maker said she’d found the recipe in an old book, and had no idea why it was called this, but it involved pickling cucumbers and onions and she’d added a courgette, all finely sliced, as well as mustard seeds and a little turmeric and, and… It was gorgeous. Its maker also said it was ‘like the pickle you get in McDonalds’ – oh no, it wasn’t. It was a million, zillion times better. Of course it won.

I’ve now done some digging around, and the name ‘bread and butter pickle’ won’t come as a surprise to any of my US friends – perfectly normal pickle (sniff). Wikipedia says that bread and butter pickles are sweeter than ‘normal’ dill pickles, with more sugar added to the brine, and with sliced cucumbers rather than whole ones. And b&b pickle is indeed cited as often an accompaniment to burgers, so our maker wasn’t so far off the mark in theory, even if she was blissfully miles away in reality. I’ve also found a recipe in an ‘old’ book over here – Reader’s Digest Farmhouse Cookery from 1980 – and there are numerous online versions. In the RD book it is given as a UK pickle, described as ‘countrywide’ and ‘an old country pickle’, but I can’t confirm that. However, it is delicious – and if anyone wants to have a go, our show winner had finely cut her cucumbers into long strips, which really worked.

marmeladesOur judge alternated between sugary preserves, less-sugary drinks, pickles, fruit liqueurs and chutneys, trying not to overload on sugar or vinegar (or alcohol, come to that). The sheer range was astonishing, even in the more specific classes – like the marmelade, for instance. There were plenty of recommendations for next year, and I made plenty of personal notes, mental and physical – scribbled on my hand. Principally…

there is no way I am going to resist making apricot vodka. Everyone should make apricot vodka. Make it, then hide it.

I always make sloe gin, and though mine is not particularly sweet it has won in the past (not this year, though). This year, I added blackberry whisky to my repertoire and somehow managed to save enough to have some for the show – it got lost at the very back of a cupboard; the first lot went alarmingly fast). Next year apricot vodka has to be marooned behind the bulk buys.

There were several entries (apricot vodka has a specific class), but the one which won was simply unbelievable. It was deeply golden, and had a depth of flavour and subtle maturity which made it stand out. The basic recipe given in the show brochure says to leave the apricots in the vodka for eight days, or maybe fourteen, or maybe twenty-two: the winner had definitely left them for longer. There are other recipes out there, but the show recipe is simple. The winner followed it apart from the timing (he’s saying no more), so I am going to experiment. Here’s the recipe, verbatim: ‘1.5 lbs dried apricots, 2 pts vodka, 1 lb sugar. Place all ingredients in a container, do not mix. Turn twice a day for 8 days, leaving the jar sitting on its lid for some days [!]. Strain and bottle. You can also use the same apricots for a second batch but this time leave for 14 days. If the vodka is too sweet for your taste after the first blending [?] use less sugar on the second batch and blend after the 14 days.’ As a food writer and editor, I’ve got some queries about this, but I’m going for it anyway. Watch this space… hic….

Farewell then, broad beans

I’ve just dug up the last of the broad bean plants. It’s something I’ve been putting off – they get chopped up and added to the compost bin which is a bit hard on the (injured but recovering) hands – but it is done now, and that’s it until late spring next year. Sigh.

beansBroad beans are normally my first serious crop, my first seasonal treat (and usually my first brush with excess). When you grow a lot of your own veg, seasonality – inevitably – plays an enormous part: and that’s an enormous part of my enjoyment in growing vegetables. I find I really look forward to the first baby broad beans, the slim courgettes, the crunchy mangetout, in a way I wouldn’t if I went down to the Co-op and took them out of the freezers or picked them off the shelf.

If you can have anything, any time, do you really value it in the same way? I’m not sure, but for me the answer is ‘no, not so much’. As the year starts, I plant up my seeds and wait for the little shoots to appear, watching for hints of green in an ever-so-slightly obsessive manner. I coddle them along, let them spend time outside the greenhouse until they’re big enough to be allowed out all night, then plant them out… You definitely don’t get that level of anticipation from Bird’s Eye.

In preparation for my normal – and quite ridiculous – level of overproduction I drew up a master list of recipes. Hm – that sounds rather more preplanned than it was in reality. When I totted up the surviving plants and realised I’d got over thirty, all of which would produce pod after pod, beans after beans after beans, I trawled through my old notes, my cuttings and part of the first section of one of the bookcases (I lost the will to live after I’d found broad beans + bacon to the power n) and wrote down some ideas.

The very first were eaten raw, at the prompting of an Italian neighbour. Delicious, and I’d not tried that before. She said that as a child she’d never have dreamed of eating a raw pea though her family ate broad beans raw all the time, and that she’d been quite disconcerted to find it was the other way round in the UK. We stood by the plants and chomped on raw beans while she told me all about her early life. You don’t get that with Bird’s Eye, either.

After that, I went into salads. Broad beans do have a stunning affinity with piggy products, and a spinach salad with broad beans and crispy bacon can be a real treat, despite almost every book including a version of it. Keep it simple, and it’s stunning. But I rather overdid that one last year, as I did a chorizo version, so this year I branched out and made salads with warm baby broad beans and salame finocchiona from Lidl (pretty good, not surprised it won an award last year). Goat’s cheese made another delicious companion, a change from feta.

After I’d had so many salabeans 2ds that I could barely face a lettuce leaf, I branched out into risottos (yum), pastas, toppings for bruschetta – great for the bigger ones; the ones I missed because they were lurking at the back – and, star upon star, a wonderful frittata.

That was an accident; it was just supposed to be an ordinary omelette but I needed to make room for another egg box and therefore used more eggs than I normally would. Served with a tomato salsa and some sauté potatoes – by that time the spuds were beginning to come on stream too – it was one of the simplest and best BB dishes I’ve ever cooked.

Another absolute hit was meatballs with broad beans and lemon, from one of my favourite recipe books of all time, Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (you can find the recipe here, as it was also published in the Guardian). I particularly loved the mixture of skinned and unskinned beans, and the lemony tang. The recipe worked beautifully; my one quibble was that the cooking time was a bit too long for my just-picked beans; when I made it again – it was that good – I added the unskinned ones at the end of cooking.

Ah yes: shelling broad beans. I always, but always, unless specifically told not to, skin my broad beans unless they are the size of my little finger nail. Get fresh beans. Pan of boiling water. Broad beans out of the pods into bowl. Empty bowl into water. Boil a minute or so. Drain into sieve. Run cold water over beans; skins pucker. Easy to pop the bright green, tender, appetizing, succulent beans out of their skins, which do just fine in the compost bin.

And at the end of the season, when I’m left with monster beans – well, not too monstrous, because I don’t let that happen – it’s time for a BB purée with lots of garlic. Great on sourdough – back to bruschetta – or with pitta, like a hummous.

But now – nothing. Niente. Rien. Zilch. Diddly squat. Because yet again I got carried away. Yet again I have failed to freeze any; yet again I have forgotten to save some for next year’s seed. There’s an upside to that though – I can try another variety. I’m going to try a heritage bean, one with red flowers, and see how it compares to my beloved Aquadulce Claudia. Roll on next May – and now for the courgettes.

Kitchen kit to fight for

I was making bread this morning when my Kenwood Chef started making ominous protesting sounds. It’s an old model, because my experience of the latest ones could best be described as profoundly negative (any further explanation would consist of much swearing, shouting and the hurling of ‘guarantees’ across the kitchen) but It’s been fine. Not as fine as my old old one – if you see what I mean – which was given to me when one of my neighbours died. That had been deeply loved, had a history and a hand-sewn cover but it also died eventually; my ‘new’ old one came from eBay. It was reconditioned, and it worked just fine.

Due to repeated hand injuries, I can no longer do all the kneading by hand when I make bread. So what to do, now that my Kenwood is doing banshee impressions? I’ve tried no-knead or short-knead breadmaking methods and I either don’t care for the end result or can’t manage my life with a stopwatch (8.30: knead the dough for 10-15 seconds … 9.00: knead the dough for 10-15 seconds…).  So I’ve settled for a tortoise approach – I’ll think about it when I have to. But in the meanwhile it made me think about what equipment I had that I couldn’t live without. Well, obviously I could, in extreme circumstances, but hey.

I’m baking at the moment, so I initially considered the things I use for my bread. I wouldn’t care to be without my bannetons – Carrefour, I love you – but if needs be, I can improvise with a bowl and a linen tea towel. Then there are the two ancient dough scrapers, which are fantastically useful. I suppose I could improvise an alternative? Yes, I know I could – I once used a credit card. It was never the same again, but that was probably just as well. What about a flour shaker? Obviously I could just chuck flour over the linen tea-towel in my banneton bowl, the worktop, the floor, myself and Next Door’s Cat who thinks he lives here; that would work.

aghI was on a roll (otherwise known as waiting for the oven to heat up), and opened the stuff drawers. I remember an episode of Gavin and Stacey, in which everyone was searching for a take-away menu and it was suggested that it might be in ‘the messy drawer’. All my drawers are like that. Time to sort them out, perhaps.

There are three of them, vaguely organised by diminishing frequency of use. So drawer one consists of cutlery and things like scissors and tin openers and corkscrews and a digital timer; drawer two has bulkier stuff like a plastic funnel (so attractive), pizza cutters (plural? How did that happen?), graters, hand whisks and rolling pins, and drawer three is the – well, the one-offs. And then there are the old pickle jars (three of those too) which hold the wooden spoon collection and the collection of – er, more stuff. Spatulas, etc. (A new swear word, I think. Oh, spatulas!)

I used to be, you see, an equipment slut. Used to be?

agh 2I blame Divertimenti (you’ve got to blame someone). They used to be on the Fulham Road, and I didn’t live that far away, plus I was at the stage of being in my first place and just having to add to my kitchen. And they opened on Sundays, or am I imagining that? Anyway, I would spend far too much time wandering around, picking up expensive pans, putting them down again, fondling obscure pieces of kit and buying some of them.

It’s the resulting one-offs that I could easily live without – crème brulée iron, anyone?  – though I have to say that an oyster knife is just perfect for getting solid lumps of dried mud out of the tread on your walking boots. How my life has changed.

spoonsAt some points I’ve improvised alternatives for all sorts of things. An wine bottle can sub as a rolling pin, and I have opened a tin by stabbing it repeatedly with a screwdriver (er, not recommended at all, plus it takes ages). I’ve whisked with a fork, which worked though it did take a couple of days to regain the use of my shoulder. Much as I love my ancient wooden spoons, and despite the extent to which I am baffled that some people manage without any, I could always use a stick.

(What sort of future am I envisaging here, I wonder? I’ve been reading something about partisans behind German lines in Eastern Europe which may account for this whole speculation, but have no intention of eating very old, very dead horse. Or people, but we won’t go there.)

It was only when the bread was cooked that I realised the piece of kitchen equipment that I absolutely cannot do without, or rather the pieces. I could throw everything out tomorrow, but leave me my knives. And a steel. They’re nothing flash, just a selection of Kitchen Devils and a rather old Prestige bread knife with a naff red handle dating back to the late 1980s (guess who had a red and white kitchen? Must have looked like a pizzeria). But I keep them scarily sharp and love them dearly. I’ve had ‘posh’ knives, and I’ve got rid of them, finding them more trouble than they were worth (and pigs to sharpen, too). So take my dariole moulds if you must, but leave me my four-inch vegetable knife.

And a corkscrew. Natch.

Summertime tart

I do pastry. I do bread, too. But I can’t do cakes – or rather there are a limited number of cakes which I can do, and which work well. But something like a Victoria sponge? Touch and go. However, pastry – no problems. So when I know people are coming round I don’t make a cake, I make a tart. Or perhaps I’d better call them flans, to avoid any sniggering at the back. Nope – tarts they are, and tarts they will remain. Or tartes, since the origin of mine is indisputably French.

tarte aux brugnonsThere is something about a slice of fruit tart served on bone china, with a healthy dollop of cream or Greek yoghurt. It somehow feels special, more special than a slice of Victoria sponge – given the nature of my sponge, this is not surprising, mind. So when I knew I had people coming round and spotted that the Co-op had suddenly received a consignment of white-fleshed nectarines and were selling them off cheaply for some reason (I’m not complaining), I felt the call.

So what about pastry? Is it phenomenally difficult? I don’t think so, but then there are people out there who wouldn’t believe that a grown woman could mess up a Victoria sponge. There are all sorts of stories about chilling your hands in cold water or – I kid you not – wiping ice cubes over the surface, and lots of people have unorthodox methods that work for them. You do need to keep pastry cool, of course, but my hands aren’t particularly chilly, my worktop is unbrushed by ice cubes and my pastry still works. Just chill it (man). As long as the pastry is a fine crispy shortcrust, it doesn’t really matter how it’s made.

Anyway, here goes, my fruit tart made with pâte brisée, a version of the classic French shortcrust which I have found works really well. In the UK, it’s usual to rub the fat into the flour first; in France you don’t. I go for the British way because I just hate breaking up raw egg with my fingers (eeeeuuh).

Nectarine tart with almonds
for a 23cm loose-bottomed tin

For the pastry:
50g butter, at room temperature
125g plain flour
I small egg

Make the pastry first, because it needs to chill for 30 minutes and will be baked blind, anyway. Put the butter into a large bowl and cut it into small pieces with a knife. Sieve the flour into the bowl and then rub the two together with your fingers until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs – this always takes longer than you think. Then add the egg, break it up with a fork and mix it in well. The pastry will come together gradually into a soft dough but don’t knead it like bread, just press it together gently and add a little very cold water if necessary – but it probably won’t be. Form it into a ball, put it into a clean bowl and cover it with clingfilm. Chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C, 180 fan, gas 6 and grease a loose-bottomed quiche tin. Lightly flour the worktop and take the pastry out of the fridge. Warm it up in your hands a little to soften it, then carefully roll it out into a circle, changing direction and turning it over; keep the worktop floured while doing so. Lift the pastry up, over the rolling pin, and carefully drape it over the tin. Then gently manipulate it into the corners and folds of the tin (patch any gaps; dip a pastry brush in milk and stick a new piece of pastry on top). Trim off the excess, ready for baking the case blind. Prick the bottom of the pastry and line it with a generous circle of greaseproof paper, tip a load of dried pulses or baking beans on top of the paper and bake for 15 minutes. Set it aside to cool for 10 minutes, then remove the baking beans and paper and let the case cool completely.

tarte 2For the filling:
80g butter
80g vanilla sugar
1 large egg, beaten
2 tsp Amaretto (optional)
100g ground almonds
1 tbsp flour
5 small nectarines

Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C, 180 fan, gas 6.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in the egg, adding a little of the flour as you do so. Then stir in the Amaretto, ground almonds and the rest of the flour; mix everything together well. Put this mixture into the tart case and level it down. Cut the nectarines into slices and put them on top of the filling in a circular pattern, saving the smaller slices for the inner circles. Then sprinkle a little more sugar on top and bake the tart in the oven for 10 minutes. Lower the temperature to 180/160/gas 4 and cook for another 20 minutes or so – check towards the end to make sure the fruit isn’t catching (a little caramelising is fine; burning is not, ho ho, don’t ask me how I know).

Serve warm (rather than hot) or cold. Cream or good Greek yoghurt served on the side is wonderful. Sigh.