Category Archives: Pies & tarts

Maltese Easter figolli

Small figolli

I was introduced to figolli by friends down the road, Anoushka and Francis and their boys Alexander and Casper. Anoushka is half-Maltese, and they make these every Easter. They called them biscuits, but they’re more a pastry, almost an iced pie, consisting of two layers of pastry sandwiched with an almond paste, then iced and decorated.

Figolla cut in half

When I’m studying Italian recipes, there’s so much information online, and I can read some Italian, so I can usually work out the story. But Malta has a population of less than half a million, so its culture isn’t the most widely discussed thing online. And even my fairly reasonable collection of books about feast day foods doesn’t include any mentions of figolli. Which I deduce is the plural, with figolla the singular.

Some history
Francis told me that Malta has a complex history not unlike that of Sicily. It was Greek and Roman, with the Carthaginians and Phoenicians also having an influence. Like Sicily, it was subsequently Arab, then conquered by the Normans in 1091. The Norman reach in the 11th century always amazes me. Aragon and France followed. The Brits had a big influence during their imperial period, with the island famously a fortress port that suffered heavy bombing in the Second World War.

Anyway, so the language is complex and the culture is mixed. The presence of ground almonds and citrus flavourings in figolli would seem to indicate the Arab legacy, as similar ingredients are found in other recipes from Sicily and across the Eastern Mediterranean.

Francis gave me the recipe they use in their household, which I subsequently found online. It’s here. Its instructions aren’t the clearest, and its almond paste is fairly heavy duty. Watching videos of Maltese and Maltese emigrant cooks online, their paste is much lighter, more like frangipane than marzipan. So I’ve made some tweaks.

Not napping
This project has been a bit rushed. I was hoping to have it up sooner, but as you can see from the inactivity on my blog, I’m finding it hard to update it. Keeping the blog going with two pre-schoolers was always a challenge, but now they’re not really napping any more, I simply don’t have much time – or headspace. Researching, testing, photographing, sorting photos and writing up recipes is fairly demanding, and when I have a two year old and four year old also (yelling) their demands at me (bless ’em), it’s tricky. It’s especially tricky to be really satisfied with the results. So I’m not claiming this is a perfect recipe.

The Raver, aged 2, doing the decorating

As for the decoration of the figolli – that’s not exactly authentic or traditional. Fran and the kids took over for that bit. The kids do love sprinkles, and the opportunity to readily lick icing.

Figolli templates

The Maltese versions were traditionally shaped like men, women, fish and baskets. They would use large cutters. We don’t have any enormous cookie cutters, despite Fran’s somewhat obsessive collecting, so I drew shapes and made templates in cardboard. I went for a bunny, a heart and a fish. Other shapes are sheep, butterflies, and eggs – most of which are of course some kind of fertility symbol.

Recipe
The quantities here are fairly substantial. We made three large ones and a dozen smaller ones. If you don’t want to get so carried away, halve it.

For the pastry
800g plain flour
400g butter
Zest of 1 lemon
320g caster sugar
4 egg yolks, beaten
Cold water

For the almond paste
300g caster sugar
300g icing sugar
600g ground almonds
Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lemon
3-4 egg whites, approx, lightly beaten
A few drops orange flower water (optional)
A few drops of almond essence (optional)
Orange juice or similar
Cold water

To finish
Icing
Confection eggs
Sprinkles

1. Make the pastry by rubbing the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs, then stir in the sugar and lemon zest.
2. Add the egg yolks and enough cold water (but not too much) to form a dough. Knead briefly then wrap in plastic and rest in the fridge. You could use a food processor, but it would have to be a big one.
3. In a large bowl, make the almond paste by mixing the sugars, ground almonds and zest. Some recipes also include a little spice, such a cloves and cinnamon – so go for it if you like.
4. Lightly beat the egg whites, add the essences (if using) then start combining with the ground almond/sugar mix. I got in there with my hands. I added the lemon juice and even squeezed in some Clementine juice until it was reasonably soft, as noted above.
5. Cover the almond paste while prepare the shapes.

Cut out pastrySmear with paste
6. Roll out the pastry to about 6mm thick. Cut around your shapes, creating pairs – one for the bottom, one for the top.
7. Place the bottom pieces on baking sheets lined with parchment or silicon.
8. Cover the pastry shapes with a layer of the almond paste.
9. You can brush the edges of the lower piece of pastry with water, then put the top, and lightly press together. You don’t have to crimp firmly, as the filling isn’t that runny. Indeed, some of the pics online show the layers are barely pinched together at all. I tried both ways, and both were fine.
10. While you’re doing this, preheat your oven to 180C.
11. When you’ve filled all the shapes and topped them, put the baking sheets in the oven for around 20-25 minutes, until slightly browned.

Large heart figolla ready to bakeLarge heart etc baked

Small heart figolli ready to bakeSmall heart figolli baked
12. Allow the figolli to cool on the trays. I tried to move one too soon and it cracked badly.
13. When cool, transfer to a rack or tray for decorating.
14. You can decorate with elaborate royal icing piping and suchlike, but we just used a simple glacé icing – that is, icing sugar, water and colourings.* As well as eggs and sprinkles. It seems commonplace to include small chocolate eggs or half-eggs in their foil, but I couldn’t find any that suited, so we used candied mini eggs.

Misc figolli, decorated

Happy Easter!

 

* It amuses me that natural blue food colouring these days is made with spirulina. About 20 plus years ago, I remember spirulina, a green-blue algae, being the superfood du jour, but it’s decidedly out of fashion these days.

4 Comments

Filed under Baking, Biscuits, cookies, Feasts, Pies & tarts, Recipes

Canterbury apple tart

Canterbury tart

My copy of the Roux Brothers on Patisserie is inscribed as a gift from my parents for Christmas 1995. They posted it out to me in New Zealand, where I enjoyed an antipodean summer Christmas. As summer gave way to Autumn, we began the Old Man Mountain apple harvest. In was in that orchard that I got, aged 24, my first ever bee sting. It descended liked a Stuka and stung me just below the eye.

I made a lot of French apple tart that Autumn. Mostly successfully, until the one time when I was helping my host, mentor and friend Nadia with a catering job. I made three or four in large trays, but failed miserably to get the liquid for the glaze to setting point. I’m still ashamed of that cock-up. Nadia wasn’t happy with me. I still love the Roux French apple tart, too. Though these days I’m possibly more keen on Canterbury tart.

We’ve lost so much of our culinary tradition in this country. I’ve said it before, but the combination of urbanisation, two world wars, the industrialisation of farming practices and the rise of the supermarket homogenised much of our food. Furthermore, we have a long history of food fashions and fads, such as royals employing French chefs. More recently, thanks to the work of food writers and immigrants, we’ve embraced Indian subcontinent and Italian-inspired food to the point where most families eat pasta more than they eat traditional British stodge, for example. We probably do. I’m not sure what I’d do without pasta to fill up T-rex most lunchtimes.

It shouldn’t need saying, but British food can often rival anything from our continental neighbours. We had our Dutch friend Annely visiting this weekend, and as she loves cheese treated ourselves to some pricy local fare. One was Lord of the Hundreds, a sheep’s milk cheese as good as any Sardinian or central Italian pecorino. Another was Lord London, a soft cows’ milk cheese as good as any French brie.

So when you discover a recipe like Canterbury tart, it’s worth noting that it’s as good as if not better than a classic French apple tart, and more straight-forward to make too. Now, I’m loathe to say Canterbury tart is an old, traditional Kent recipe as I can’t find much information about it. Several websites cut and past the same blurb saying the first recorded recipe was written by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1381 but I’m doubtful. Kent is certainly the heartland of apple growing, so let’s say it likely has some history. I got the recipe from my mum. Googling, it looks like one from Mary Berry. I wish Berry had told us where she got it from but her recipes are somewhat lacking in preamble.

Pastry
100g butter
225g plain flour
25g sifted icing sugar
1 egg, beaten

Filling
4 eggs
225g caster sugar
2 lemons, zest and juiced
100g melted butter
2 large cooking apples, peeled & cored, about 350g
3 dessert apples, peeled, cored & thinly sliced
25g Demerara sugar

A 25cm (or thereabouts) flan tin

1. First make the pastry. If making by hand, rub the butter into the flour and icing sugar until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, then stir in the beaten egg and bring together to form a dough.
2. If making the pastry in a processor, combine the flour, butter and icing sugar in the bowl then add the egg and mix until the dough starts to form.
3. Form the pastry into a smooth ball, wrap in plastic and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
4. Roll out the pastry and line the flan tin, leaving an overhang. Chill the tin for a further 30 minutes (or longer if you need to).
5. To make the filling, beat the eggs, caster sugar, lemon rind and juice together in a mixing bowl. Stir in the warm melted butter, then coarsely grate the cooking apples directly into the mixture. Mix well.
6. Have the dessert apples ready sliced.
7. Preheat the oven to 200C, putting t a heavy baking tray in to heat up. (You don’t bake the pastry case blind, so this will help cook the bottom.)
8. Remove the pastry case from the fridge and spread the runny mixture in the bottom. Level the surface and arrange the dessert apple slices on top, neatly overlapping.
9. Sprinkle with Demerara sugar.
10. Put in the oven and bake for about 40-50 minutes, until the centre feels firm and the apples slices are slightly browned.

Serve warm, with cream or ice cream obviously. Though I would say I prefer it when it’s cooled and firmed up more. Even after a night in the fridge. Yum. The citrus/apple combination works so well.

By the way, I’m aware my pastry looks a bit messy. Although I can be somewhat perfectionist in some areas, I’m long reconciled with my shortcomings as a pastry chef. The important thing here is that it tasted good.

2 Comments

Filed under Baking, Pastry, Pies & tarts, Puddings & desserts, Recipes

Game pies with hot water crust

Game pies

I don’t feature meat on this blog often but I do eat it, and I particularly like game. The guy selling game has reappeared on our local market. Game season1 offers the omnivore some interesting alternatives to meat from farmed animals. We’ve had some venison, but I’ve also been making some pies. (If you want to go straight to the recipe, skip down here.)

I’d like to think I have a considered approach to consuming meat. It’s not something I do lightly. I grew up with a conventional British diet, which involved roast meat on Sundays. When I first visited New Zealand, in 1990, I was 19 and didn’t really know any different. But when I ended up living at Newton Livery, a small South Island farm owned by heavy horseman Stephen McGrath, he was vegetarian. So I started eating veggie too.

When I got home I saw a documentary about industrial pig farming, which affirmed my vegetarianism. Intensive industrial animal farming is horrifying. I remained a veggie, then later a pescatarian, for about 20 years, with only a few exceptions. I was from the school of thought that I shouldn’t eat animals if I wasn’t prepared to kill them myself. The second time I lived in New Zealand, in 1995, I had a chance to put this into practice.

I was living at Old Man Mountain and Nadia had three roosters, which were fighting in the hen house. One of them had to go. I killed it, plucked it, gutted it, hung it, cooked it and ate it. Such an act is probably nothing for a countryman, but it was quite bloody for a townie. But a chook is fairly low-level butchering compared to a pig, say. When some hunter friends stopped by, I went with them into the bush, hunting pigs (or boar if you prefer).

We didn’t find any that day, but it got me thinking more about game meat. New Zealand is in a difficult position regarding game such as boar, deer and chamois are all non-native2 and have not natural predators. As such they’re highly problematic for the country’s unique ecology. They trash the bush and compete with native species, so arguably humans have a responsibility to control them. This means hunting, and that is a source of food.

The virtues of hunting
New Zealand’s hunting culture is very different to the largely elitist situation here in the UK, but we do have some comparable problems. Whereas the NZ problems concern native forest, here it’s more about farmland. Before you get to sentimental, bear in mind that Britain is a small island, with about 60 million people crammed on it. It’s a place that’s seen increasing agricultural use over the past approximately 6,500 years and as such our countryside is by and large a place defined by human activity. There’s no true wilderness left in Britain3. Like it or not, our countryside is heavily managed, and, for food production, that means controlling the populations of animals that, for example, eat the seeds of newly sown crops.

We have two native species of deer in Britain, red and roe, and several introduced species (fallow, sika, muntjac), all of which may cause problems as they don’t have any natural predators either – we killed all our bears and wolves off years ago, as part of that process of transforming wilderness into farmland. So we cull deer.

Large numbers of other common species, such as wood pigeons (Columba palumbus) and rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus4), can also be problematic for crops, and are similar hunted or trapped. Some of this meat ends up with the sort of vendors who arrive on my local market at this time of year.

Strong meat
The fact that game animals are mostly wild means that they haven’t been fattened up like domestic animals, meaning the meats are leaner. But where fat is flavour in much cooking, game compensates with its distinctive… gaminess. That said, it’s a very varied area of meat: I can’t imagine my parents were the only ones to trick us as children into eating rabbit saying it was chicken, as it’s similarly white and mild.

So anyway, I was vegetarian or pescatarian, until I fell in love with Fran, a dedicated meat-eater. One weekend morning we were making bacon sarnies – real bacon for her, and fake rashers for me – and the absurdity of the situation hit me. Her meat was from an old hippy couple who had a stall on our local farmers market, my “ethical” option was some crap from a factory made with soy of dubious provenance, most likely an intensive, chemicals-doused farm in China or on former rainforest in Brazil. I started to eat some meat then, then relaxed more on a world trip – I mean, quibbling about the stock of my pho in Vietnam seemed similarly absurd.

Coming home, I started to enjoy exploring game. One recipe I discovered early was for game pies, which combine mixed game meats with pig meats, and are flavoured with herbs and juniper berries. The latter are an classic flavouring for many game dishes.

Juniper berries

Who doesn’t love a pie?
I’ve done a lot of vegetarian experiments with pulses and suchlike to try and make a really good pie (a two-crust pie, ie crust all around), a pie that could compete with a classic meat pie. Some were good, but not as good as a pie like this. It’s a very gratifying pie. It’s also a timeless pie; I can imagine something similar being made here for centuries, being stolen off a stall in a market by an urchin in Tudor London or eaten on a tartan rug by a minor Victorian aristocratic on a shooting weekend in the Highlands in Scotland.

The pastry alone is very satisfying. It’s hot water pastry, a hot water crust. You make it my melting fat in water, bringing it to the boil then adding it to flour and forming a dough. After it’s cooled, and the fats have firmed up a bit again, it’s easy to handle and perfect for moulding freeform pies. Don’t be intimidated!

Form the pies

Makes 4 medium-sized pies

Filling:
250g mixture of game, ie venison, rabbit, pheasant, wood pigeon. Many game merchants will sell a ready-made game pie mix.
60g unsmoked streaky bacon, chopped
200g sausage meat
1 egg (about 55g beaten egg)
Small bunch of parsley, finely chopped
Small bunch of sage, finely chopped
Grated zest of half a lemon or orange
5 juniper berries, finely ground (more if you really like juniper)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, lots of black pepper

Hot water crust pastry:
250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1 egg
50g unsalted butter
50g lard
85g water

Plus extra beaten egg for glazing

Parsley, sage and lemon zestParsley, sage and lemon zest, chopped

1. First make the pastry. Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl.
2. Crack the egg into the flour, beat it briefly and cover with flour.
3. Put the butter, lard and water in a pan and heat. Once the butter and lard have melted, increase the heat and bring to the boil.
4. Pour the boiling water and fat around the edge of the bowl and quickly to combine. Knead the dough lightly until smooth, then wrap in cling film. Allow to cool, then rest in the fridge. You want the fats to start to set again, to firm up the pastry to make it more manageable, so at least 30 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Trim the game, then cut into cubes about 1cm-ish. Mix with the chopped bacon, sausage meat, beaten egg, herbs, zest and ground juniper berries, and season with salt and plenty of black pepper.
6. Divide the meat into 4 portions, each weighing around 140g, and roll into balls.
7. Take the pastry out of the fridge. It should weigh about 500g. Cut off about a quarter, wrap it up again and return to the fridge. This is for the pie lids.
8. Prepare some baking sheets, lined with baking parchment or silicone sheets.

Roll pastry and cut discs
9. Roll the bigger piece of pastry out on a floured surface to around 3mm thick. Cut out 4 circles, 14cm in diameter, using a saucer as a template.
10. Place the circles on the baking sheet, then put a ball of stuffing in the middle of each.
11. Roll the reserved pastry to the same thickness as before and cut out 4 lids, 7cm in diameter.
12. Place a lid on the top of the stuffing.

Stretch up the pastry

13. Wet the edge of the base, then stretch up the pastry to meet the lid. Pinch the edges together, with the lid edge on the inside.

Squeeze together bottom and lid
14. Repeat with the others and then chill for around 30 minutes, until the pastry feels firm.
15. Preheat the oven to 190C.
16. Make a steam hole in the centre of each pie with a skewer then bake them for 15 minutes.
17. Remove the pies from the oven and reduce the temperature to 170C.
18. Brush the pies with beaten egg then return to the oven. Bake for a further 20-30 minutes until cooked through and nicely browned.

Game pies

Notes
1. There is no one “game season” in the UK. It varies between the different countries in the Union, the various species and even sex within a species. There’s also distinctions between species that are wild and those that are bred on estates by gamekeepers (notably fowl like pheasants, Phasianus colchicus, another non-native species, originally from Asia). Broadly, however, we see more game meat available in the winter, although rabbits can be hunted all year (see note 4, below). Deer species can, broadly, be hunted late summer to spring – but only the males. The season for females is shorter. There’s more information here.
2. There are no indigenous land-based mammals in New Zealand. The only native mammals are bats and marine animals (dolphins, whales, seals and sea lions). More information here.
3. Wilderness is defined as land that’s “wild and uncultivated” and “uninhabited or inhabited only by wild animals.” Even Britain’s wildest places, such as Dartmoor, are shaped by human activity, such as woodland clearance, burning and game-keeping.
4. This is something that’s long been debated. For years it was believe that the European rabbit was introduced to Britain by the Normans, after the conquest of 1066AD, but archaeological evidence indicates they were in fact first brought over as a food source by the Romans, who invaded in 43AD. The Normans may have brought over more, after the Roman rabbit population had dwindled. The narrative isn’t entirely certain. What we do know is that “Britain’s estimated 40 million rabbits cost the economy more than £260 million a year including damage to crops, businesses and infrastructure.” (Full story here.)

11 Comments

Filed under Pastry, Pies & tarts

Torta de Santiago for St James’s Day

Torta de Santiago, Tarta de Santiago

In Christianity, St James, son of Zebedee, was one of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles. Western Christianity celebrates his feast day on 25 July.

Although it’s spread across the globe now, in part thanks to tourists and pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago, the chief dish for celebrating the Feast of St James is the torta de Santiago, from Galicia, northwest Spain.

Legend has it that St James’s remains are at the cathedral of Santiago de Campostela in Galicia. Iago is one of many Iberian variations on the name James, which is itself the English version of the Hebrew Jacob, Yaʿqob. In ancient Greek it became Iakobos, which was Latinised as Iacomus, which came Iacobu in Vulgar Latin, which in turn evolved into the Galician Iago – hence Santo Iago, Santiago.

Cake or tart?
Although torta (Galician, also the same in Italian), tarta (Spanish), tarte (French), torte (German) are related to the English word “tart”, in the sense of open-top fruit pies, they all derive from the Late Latin torta, possibly meaning a small bread. By Medieval Latin the word had come to mean a cake or a pie/tart. The full etymology isn’t certain, lost in the mists of time and the convolutions of Latin evolving into various different European languages. It’s salient in the case of torta de Santiago though, as it’s a product that breaks down those pie/tart/cake distinctions: it can be made with or without a pastry case.

The defining characteristic of the torta is a slightly citrusy mix of ground almond, egg and sugar. And, if you’re going for a bit of decorative iconography, a cross of St James on the top in icing sugar.

Jewish or Christian?
Claudia Roden posits the torta may have its origins in Jewish food, writing: “The Galician city of A Coruña is on the Jewish tourist route. There is a synagogue and an old Jewish quarter there. Jews from Andalusia, fleeing the Berber Almohads’ attempts to convert them, came to Galicia in the 12th and 13th centuries.”

Something related to the modern torta de Santiago may have emerged in Christian 16th century Galicia with the torta real (“royal tart”) or bizcocho de almendras (“almond cake”). A more recognisable modern incarnation is generally traced to an 1838 book by one Luis Bartolomé de Leybar, as a tarta de almendra.

The bottom line, as ever, is to take the notion of ancient traditions with a pinch of salt – so many things we like to imagine were practised fully-formed in the middle ages were instead more likely invented or at least consolidated in the 19th century.

Some versions include grape marc, aka grape pomace – ie the leftovers from pressing – which is interesting and makes sense if you have a vineyard. I don’t. The version in the Moro cookbook, meanwhile, adds membrillo (quince paste); I don’t have a quince tree either. Almonds and citrus is enough for me.

6 eggs, separated
250g caster sugar
1 lemon, zested
1 tsp orange blossom water
Almond extract, a few drops
250g ground almonds (either pre-ground or grind blanched almonds in a food processor)

Plus
Butter, for greasing
Icing sugar, for dusting cake

Torta de Santiago ingredientsZest of one lemon1. Preheat oven to 180C.
2. Grease a 25cm loose-bottom tin with butter and line with baking parchment.

Beat the egg yok and sugar until pale and creamyAdd the ground almonds

3. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar to a thick pale cream, ideally in a mixer or with handheld beaters.
4. Beat in the zest, orange blossom water and almond extract.
5. Beat in the ground almonds.
6. Whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks. Note – if you’re using the same beater attachments them spotlessly, as any fat will stop the whites beating properly!
7. Add a blob of the egg whites to the almond batter and beat it in. It’s a thick mixture so this is to lighten it up slightly to make it easier to add the rest of the egg whites.

Add the egg whitesTorta de Santiago batter

8. Add the rest of the egg whites and fold in. Don’t beat! You want to retain the airiness.
9. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin.

Ready to bakeBaked
10. Bake for about 35-45 minutes, until the cake feels firm.
11. Let it cool in the tin then turn out.
12. Before serving, dust with icing sugar. You can cut out a cross of St James/Santiago to decorate the top. Have a look online for a shape to give you a template.

Torta de Santiago template, dusted with icing sugar

3 Comments

Filed under Cakes, Feasts, Pies & tarts, Recipes

Pastiera Napoletana – Neopolitan grain and ricotta Easter tart

Blur

“On sale now – and only in this season – is a pagan springtime cake, pastiera Napolitana, made with soft grains of all kinds, removed from their husks months before ripe, and cooked with orange blossoms. There is a description of it by one of the Latin authors.”

Norman Lewis includes this description in his entry for 28 February in his book Naples ’44. Lewis was a sergeant in the British Army Intelligence Corps and kept a diary of life in the war-torn city. It’s hugely evocative – largely of the privations of impoverished Neapolitans, but it also includes rich records of Naples’s seasonal traditions, including its unique foods.

Pastiera slice

I first encountered pastiera when we visited the city in June 2013, and was drawn in by the cute olde style packaging of a bakery that specialised in this special pastry. Although that bakery seemed to sell it all year round, pastiera is more specifically associated with Easter. Though its origins – as Lewis says – are pagan, ancient Roman. It may have been eaten as part of celebrations of the goddess Ceres (Demeter to the Greeks) who oversaw agriculture, grain and fertility.

Or something like that. The modern pastiera is likely decidedly different to the ancient Romans’ concoction, though both probably featured eggs and grains, symbolic foodstuffs for pagans and Christians alike.

The other important ingredient is ricotta. In England the stuff you get is a dense, slightly characterless cow milk blob rammed into plastic tubs. In Roma – ah, the ricotta of Roma! Fresh stuff is sold every day in the city, curdy delicacies that sit, plump and proud, in little baskets in the displays of market stalls, cheese shops and alimentari. Some are made with sheep milk (the classic), some cow milk, some a mixture.

I do wish I’d made this back in Rome, so I could have at least tasted the difference. I suspect made with real, fresh ricotta it would have been a somewhat different proposition.

Anyway, it’s about time I tried making one!

Pastry

300g plain, all-purpose or low-protein 00 flour
140g unsalted butter, cold
100g icing sugar
2 eggs

1. Sieve the flour.
2. Cut the butter into cubes.
3. Lightly beat the eggs.
3. Put the flour in a food processor, add the butter and blitz quickly until it resembles crumbs. Then add the icing sugar and blitz quickly again to combine. Alternatively, rub the fat into the flour by hand until it resembles crumbs then sieve in the icing sugar and mix.
4. Add the egg a little at a time, until the dough comes together. Again, you can do this in the processor or by hand. You may not need to use all the egg; you don’t want the pastry too damp.
5. Briefly knead the dough until it’s smooth. Don’t do it too much.
6. Wrap in plastic and leave to rest in the fridge.

Ricotta mix

Filling

The grain is the most distinctive ingredient here. You can usually get whole wheat grains from health food shops, and they will need simmering in water. Some may need soaking before cooking – follow the instructions on the packet. Make sure you could them enough as undercooked grain, like undercooked pulses, isn’t great for your digestion. You may be able to source pre-cooked grain in a can. Once cooked, drain, reserving the cooking water – it’s great for bread making.

Pastiera is also called pastiera di grano, with grano meaning grain in Italian, but it’s also used as a synonym for wheat. If you prefer, you could use another type of grain – such as one of the older varieties of wheat like spelt, einkorn or emmer. You could even use barley or oats. Or a mixture, as Lewis mentions.

300g wheat grains (cooked weight)
350g milk
30g unsalted butter
1 lemon, zest
1 orange, zest
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla essence
500g ricotta
250g caster sugar
2 whole eggs (about 120g beaten weight)
1 egg yolk (about 20g)
100g candied peel [ideally orange and cedrocitron, but latter not common in UK]
2-3 tbsp orange blossom water – optional, to taste

Uncooked wheat grainCooked wheat grain

1. Firstly, cook the wheat grains. Or open the can…

Wheat with milkWheat with milk 2
2. Combine the cooked grain, the milk, the butter, the zest, the cinnamon, the vanilla in a saucepan, cook gently for another 30 minutes or so. Again, you don’t want to turn it into a porridge, so keep an eye on it, as you would a stove-top rice pudding.
3. Blend the ricotta with the eggs, egg yolk and sugar.

Add grain to ricotta mixAdd peel to ricotta mix
4. Add the grain mixture to the ricotta mixture, then stir in the peel and orange blossom water, to taste. This stuff can be quite pungent, so go easy.
5. Grease a 25cm pie or flan dish or even a spring-form cake tin then line it with the pastry.

Pastry casePastry case, pricked
6. Prick the bottom with a fork and trim the edge roughly. We’ll tidy it in a mo.
7. Pour the filling into the pastry case. (Mine was a bit full – but I only had a 24cm tin. Hence I suggest using a 25cm tin.)
Pastry strips

8. Gather up the pastry offcuts, roll out again, and cut strips about 15 wide. If you have a pastry wheel with a serrated edge, this looks cute, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t.

Trim edges
9. Create a criss-cross pattern on top of the filling with the pastry strips, with the pieces of pastry set at an angle so you get diamonds, not squares. Tidy the edges.
10. Preheat the oven to 180C.

Baked
11. Bake the pastiera for about 1 hour and a quarter, keeping an eye on it. If it starts to brown too much, cover with foil and turn the heat down to 160C. It should be firm and set, if not, leave in the oven for another 15 or so minutes.
12. Allow to cool completely, then dust with icing sugar and serve at room temperature.

Happy Easter!

Pastiera cut

12 Comments

Filed under Baking, Pastry, Pies & tarts, Puddings & desserts, Recipes

A Pithivier

Baked, sugar, side

In my last post about galette des rois, I mentioned that this French Epiphany pie is basically a form of Pithivier. These are puff pastry pies that may well originate in the town of Pithiviers in central France. Indeed, in French the pies are known as Pithiviers, but us foreigners lop off the final s. Don’t ask me why.

Unlike the galette des rois with its sweet frangipane filling, Pithiviers can be sweet or savoury. As I had some more frangipane, and have been making a lot of puff pastry lately, I thought I’d make a Pithivier – a sweet one that was basically a mini galette des rois without the requirement for it to be eaten on a feast day.

I also wasn’t happy with how I’d bodged the edge of my galettes des rois, crimping it like a pasty rather than leaving it free to expand. So I was determined to finish this one more neatly.

Traditionally both the galette des rois and Pithiviers have a kind of scalloped edge, like the petals of flower petals. This can be achieved by using a semi-circular cutting edge, for larger scallops, or by simply cutting into the edge slightly with the blade of a knife, or indeed the back of the blade of a knife, which is what I did.

So, as with the galettes des rois, I rolled out some puff pastry (about 300g in this case), and cut two discs (in this case I used a 16cm diameter side plate). I then put the frangipane in the middle of the bottom disc, leaving a rim of about 25mm, which I brushed with egg wash. I then put the top disc on, and pushed it down firmly to seal.

Pithivier, unbakedPithivier, baked

I then egg-washed the whole thing, scalloped the edge as described above and cut curved lines in the top, radiating out from the centre. I baked it at 200C for about 25 minutes. After baking, I dusted it with icing sugar and put it under a hot grill to caramelise slightly (top pic, above).

In this case, the edge puffed up very satisfactorily.

Baked, side

My next post will be all about my puff pastry experiments. I’ve been obsessing slightly as you may be able to tell if you follow my Instagram

 

5 Comments

Filed under Baking, Pastry, Pies & tarts

Galette des rois and celebrating the end of Christmas with Epiphany

Crowned galette des rois

I love the Christmas season, but one thing I loathe about its modern British incarnation is how it begins in the middle of October. People start stressing, hurry to put up their trees at the start of December, then run out of steam by about Boxing Day, with some even taking down their decorations. Yet Boxing Day, the 26th, is only the Second Day of Christmas.1

We all know the song that starts “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…” but miss the significance. Formerly, Christmas was celebrated from Christmas Eve and Christmas Day itself, when the feasting started and was sustained until Twelfth Night, 5 January, the eve of Epiphany. This ending of the season on 6 January is still celebrated in some cultures with king cakes, or kings cake. The kings in question? Why that would be the Three Kings, the Magi.

This is all perhaps a bit confusing for those who grew up with formalised Nativity plays and scenes that pack in the whole cast of characters – holy family, kings, shepherds, sheep, oxen, camels – for the actual birth of Christ. But alternative names for Epiphany are Three Kings Day, or simply the Day of the Kings, as it’s when they arrive at the famed Bethlehem farm outbuilding and give their gifts. Indeed, some cultures still do their main gift-giving on Epiphany. It’s an important Christian feast day, hence the feast foods: the king cakes.

The end of Christmas
Not only are variations on king cakes served on Epiphany, they can be served repeatedly through Carnival season right up until Lent, with the New Orleans version, for example, being essential for Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday.

The northern French king cake – galette des rois – isn’t the richest concoction, but I still love how this tradition is one in the eye for all the hackneyed dogma that gets trotted out with the British New Year celebrations about how you have to stop indulging and embrace self-denial. Indeed, one of the things I loved during our two years living in Rome was how Carnevale brought with it uniquely indulgent seasonal sweets soon after New Year.

Before our time in Italy, the biggest connection to another European country and culture in our household came with Fran’s Francophilia. She’d made a connection with France when she was young, studied French, and spent several years living in Brittany and Paris when she was in her late teens and twenties. It was Fran who first told me about the galette des rois five years ago.

While southern French, parts of the US South and some Spanish and Latin cultures do a more cake-like king cake made with enriched dough, and decorated with coloured icings and candied fruits2, the northern French galette des rois is a more modest concoction. It’s a sweet pie, made with puff pastry (pâtes feuilletées) and filled with almond paste, frangipane; essentially a pithivier.

Slice

Cake, round and flat
What is a galette? Well, it’s defined as an “espèce de gâteau rond et plat” – “a type of cake, round and flat”. From what we can work out, it’s the diminutive of gale, again meaning a round, flat cake but also used to describe a small round stone, worn flat by water3. Alan Davidson says, “the word being derived from galet, a pebble perfect for skipping”. The word is perhaps best known from galettes brettonne, Breton galettes – pancakes made with buckwheat flour found in that region of northwest France. It also refers to certain types of biscuits and cookies, also round and flat.

Charming
Anyway, as well as being a modest treat, the fun thing about galette des rois is the inclusion of a fève – literally a dried bean (like the Italian word fava, broad bean). This is hidden in the frangipane mixture and bestows good luck on the person who finds it in their portion. As I noted in my earlier blog about galette des rois, this is not unlike the old British tradition of hiding a coin in Christmas pudding, and indeed lots of cultures have festive baked goods that include a charm of some form: it’s common to other king cakes, the Bulgarian banitsa contains a kusmeti charm, etc.

The modern form of the fève is a small ceramic or plastic figure of the baby Jesus. Last time I made one, I debated using a Monopoly piece but opted instead for a marble. This time, however, I decided to use something edible, so chose half a walnut. No danger of choking! The French tradition is for the youngest child of the gathering to sit under the table and call our names as the slices are served, for an added layer of chance. Whoever wins the fève gets to wear the paper crown you place on top of the galette des rois when you serve it and be the family king or queen for the rest of the day. Or nominate someone else if they’re not feeling the lure of such absolute authority.

The inclusion of a bean is likely a pre-Christian Roman tradition, when for one day in winter slaves and masters would eat together, and even the slave could be king of the feast, or at least the magister bibendum, “master of the drinks” or toastmaster. As Davidson points out, when the pagan Roman empire was Christianised, it made sense to declare 25 December Christ’s birthday, “co-opting these immensely popular holidays” and midwinter ceremonies, notably Saturnalia.

Recipe
This time round I also made my own puff pastry, using a recipe from the new 2011 translation of Ginette Mathiot’s The Art of French Baking (originally Je Sai Faire La Patisserie, “I Know How to Make Pastries”, 1932). It was okay, not great. Partly it didn’t puff well as I messed up the edge of the galette; that’s a tricky bit, as you need to seal it well to contain the frangipane, but not to the point of preventing any rising and puffing of the pastry. Anyway, most people will probably prefer to just use bought puff pastry – if so, make sure it’s all-butter as the richness and flavour is essential.

400-500g all butter puff pastry

Frangipane filling:
85g ground almonds
85g caster sugar
Pinch salt
85g unsalted butter, softened butter
2 medium eggs, beaten (that is, about 100g of beaten egg)
A dash of rum (optional)
One fève charm (optional)

Wash:
1 egg yolk
1 tsp milk

1. First make the frangipane. Combine the almonds, sugar and pinch of salt.

Add butter
2. Add the softened butter and squash it in, then cream it in fully. Keep creaming until the mixture becomes a paler colour.

Cream
3. Add the beaten egg, a little at a time, and the rum (if using) and beat to combine. Cover and put in the fridge while you prepare the pastry.

Beat till pale
4. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
5. Roll out the pastry then, using something round that fits your baking sheet, cut two discs. Mine were 230mm (9 inches) in diameter.

Cut out discs
6. Put both circles on the baking sheet with another piece of parchment in between, cover with plastic to stop them drying out and rest (them, not you) in the fridge.
7. Whisk together the egg yolk and milk for the wash.
8. Take the pastry and filling out of the fridge again and separate the discs.
9. Put the almond filling in the middle of the bottom piece of pastry, leaving about 25mm all the way around the edge.

Add filling
10. Put a fève in the mix, making sure no one sees where it’s hidden.
11. Brush the exposed edge of pastry with water, put the other disc of pastry on the top then seal together tightly.
12. You can chill again now, leaving it until ready, even overnight. Again, cover or put in a plastic bag to stop it drying out.
13. Preheat the oven to 200C.
14. Brush the glaze all over the top.

Glaze and incise top
15. With a sharp paring knife, cut a pattern on the top. Traditionally, this involves diagonal lines or curving sunrays, but you can be as creative as you want. Stab a few holes too, to allow steam to escape. You can scallop or crimp the edge too, but see the above note.
16. Bake for about 30 minutes or until crisp and golden. (As soon as it’s out of the oven, you can also give it an extra glaze with sugar syrup.)

Baked 1
17. Serve warm or at room temperature, topped with the paper crown.

And forget about those silly New Year’s pronouncements to punish yourself for overeating over Christmas. Just moderate! So, for example, don’t eat an entire galette des rois on your own, greedily trying to win that crown. Fran got it – or half of it at least, a flaw in the plan of using a walnut – in her first slice.

Fran as the Epiphany galette des rois queen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Most count Christmas Day as the First Day of Christmas, though some start with 26th December, St Stephen’s Day, the British Boxing Day. If you follow the Julian calendar, you have to wait until 6 January to start the Twelve Days of Christmas. Thanks Alex and Nick for informing me of that with your Ukrainian Christmas celebrations on our Epiphany, yesterday.

2 Called variously gâteau des rois or royaume or reiaume, roscón de reyes or rosca de reyes, corona dels reis, tortell de reis and bolo de reis.

3 Fran also conjectures that the word relates to the Gaelic gall, which means “stranger”, but also “rock, stone” but it all gets a bit confusing when you learn the Breton language name for Breton galettes is Krampouezhenn gwinizh du.

 

Addendum

My folks visited at the weekend, and brought with them something given to them by some friends who live in Normandy, who bought it in their local patisserie – it’s a brioche des rois, another variation on the kings cake theme. None of us were sure what the red slices of candied fruit were – apple perhaps?

Brioche des rois

 

12 Comments

Filed under Baking, Discussion, Feasts, Pies & tarts, Recipes

Strawberry tart

Strawberry tart

We’ve had some proper summer weather here in southern England the past few weeks. I’m quite shocked. It’s potentially looking like a good year for fruit too. All that rain in January-Febuary then a strangely hot and sunny spell in March might count for something in that department. Already our plum tree is sagging under the weight of ripening fruit, and out goseberry bush is starting to look ready to yield its sour green offerings.

I was planning to use the goosebrrries, a fruit I ate a fair amount as a child but haven’t touched for years, if not decades, for a tart yesterday, when we had friends visiting for lunch, but decided they weren’t quite ripe (the bush is in a very shady spot). Instead, the farmers market had a stall loaded with (ripe) gooseberries, cherries, strawberries and tayberries. I hadn’t encountered the latter before, but they’re a common blackberry (Rubus fruticosus)/raspberry (Rubus idaeus) cross. We bought a punnet, but mostly we bought strawberries as I’d seen a handsome looking recipe in Dan Lepard’s ‘Short & Sweet’. Another version of his recipe is available here on the Guardian.

It involves a slightly unusual custard, or sort-of custard. I’m not sure it’s a strict definition but I always assumed custard referred to things made with a mixture of milk or cream and egg yolk. This one, however, is made with egg white. Which is a typically nifty Lepard trick, as you use yolk in the pastry, and can then use up the leftover white. You make a mixture of milk, cornflour, sugar and the egg white, cook it till thick, then cool this, later on combining it with crème fraîche. Lepard uses a similar process for another of his custards, though that one does use yolks, then is mixed with double cream. It’s very handy.

So anyway.

Strawberries
About 500g strawberries
A little caster sugar

Pastry
125g plain flour (all-purpose or cake flour)
25g icing sugar (confectioners sugar)
Pinch salt
75g unsalted butter, cold, cut in small cubes
1 egg yolk
A little cold water

Custard
130g milk
20g cornflour (corn starch)
1 egg white
50g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
250g crème fraîche

1. Cut the stalky bits off the strawberries then slice into two or three or four, depending on the size of the individual fruit.
2. Put the strawberries in a bowl, sprinkle with caster sugar, then leave in the fridge to macerate, stirring occasionally.
3. Make the pastry by sieving together the flour and icing sugar, adding the salt then the cubed butter. Rub together until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs (you could do this in a food processor), then add the egg yolk and water and bring together a dough. Don’t be tempted to add too much water. A tablespoon or so should be enough. You want the pastry crumbling not sticky.
4. Form the pastry into a disc then wrap in plastic and rest in the fridge.
5. Combine the milk, cornflour, egg white sugar and vanilla in a saucepan.
6. Whisking well, put over a low heat. Continue whisking, increasing the heat slightly, until the mixture thickens. It can get pretty thick, so don’t get too carried away. And watch it doesn’t burn.
7. Put the thick mixture into a bowl, cover with a plate and allow to cool. Then leave in the fridge until you need it.
8. Roll out the pastry and use it to line a 25cm-ish pie or flan tin.
9. Preheat the oven to 170C.
10. Bake the pastry case blind – that is, covering the pastry with a lining of parchment and filling it with baking beans. I used to use my childhood marbles, but I’ve lost them (ahem), so currently I’m just using kidney beans. Bake for about 15 minutes then remove the beans and parchment and keep baking until the case is golden.
11. Allow the pastry case to cool.
12. Put the thick custard mix in a large bowl and loosen it up with electric beaters.
13. Add the crème fraîche and keep beating until it’s all nicely blended.
14. Put the crème fraîche-custard in the cooled pastry case.
15. Arrange the macerated strawberries over the top.
16. Serve.

Strawberry tart 2

I was hoping we’d have a little of ours leftover but eight of us – five adults, three kids – demolished it in mere seconds. Well, a few minutes perhaps. All in all, it was a lovely end to a very satisfying lunch. For starters we did some fiore di zucca: battered, deep-fried zuccchine flowers, filled with mozzarella and a little anchovy. Then for the the main course we did honey-glazed roast chicken with lemon thyme and smoked paprika, a great Tom Kerridge recipe that can be found here; smashed new potatoes with mint; broad bean, pea and mint salad with Medita (our local version of feta, from High Weald Dairy); and a simple lettuce salad. The kids didn’t fuss about any of it – indeed, they demolished most of the mains in seconds too. Kids can really be the worst critics of food, so we were very chuffed with this result. Wish we’d taken a few photos.

All accompanied by local beer and incredible sunshine, and a post-prandial walk on Malling Down, part of the South Downs, an area that’s just received a special Biosphere status from Unesco alongside places like the Amazon and the Rockies, it was a wonderful day. Which compensated nicely for my disappointment about the 18th South Downs Beer & Cider Festival, which we’d attended the day before.

4 Comments

Filed under Baking, Pies & tarts, Puddings & desserts, Recipes

Fritti, pizza, local Sussex booze – and chocolate pine nut ricottta tart

Slice with strawbs and cream

We’d been planning a pizza and local beer evening with friends here in Lewes, Sussex, for a while. This evolved into a pizza, local beer, local wine, local cider and Roman-style fried starters (fritti) evening, with the latter becoming viable after we borrowed a deep fat fryer.

We started the evening with an aperitivo of kir royales made with sparkling wine from Breaky Bottom, one of several vineyards we’re lucky enough to have near us on the chalk South Downs. I tried not to drink too much though, as I was driving the deep fat fryer.

Breaky Bottom

Missing these things from Rome, we did suppli al telefono, which are deep-fried balls of risotto with melting mozzarella inside; carciofi alla giudia, Romano-Jewish deep-fried artichokes, which I’d never done before, but worked very well (you trim the artichoke, remove the choke, then deep-fry it. Then deep-fry it again); and calamari fritti – fried squid bits, which I simply floured with semolina.

Fritti

Seasonal pizza
For the pizzas, I did about 2kg of dough. Here it is before and after its 24 hour prove. It was a monster.

Pizza doughPizza dough, after final prove

Then we made four different topping. One thing we learned from Gabrieli Bonci in Rome is to not be afraid to experiment with toppings, not be a slave to the canonical pizzas, and to use seasonal ingredients. It’s a great time of year for seasonal produce, so alongside the artichokes, the markets also furnished us with other good stuff like asparagus and radicchio. Here’s our pizza menu, typos and all.

Pizza menu

We were so busy trying to bake them and serve them – and drink our way through a very fine selection of further wines, cider and beer – we forgot to take any pics. The booze included Danebury Vineyards’ Madeline Angevine white (not Sussex, but Hampshire, though bought from Harveys) and various beers from Harveys and Long Man, the brewery named after the giant figure on the hillside at Wilmington, about 10 miles east of Lewes.

We did do one classic pizza, a Margherita, but otherwise we used seasonal ingredients and local cheeses and meats. For the latter, we used some smoked pancetta from Beal’s Farm Charcuterie, combined with local asparagus. The other two pizzas we did were bianche – white, that is, without tomato sauce. This is commonplace in Rome, but international pizza all seems to default to rossa (red), with tomato sauce. First, we did radicchio, fresh garlic and two cheeses from High Weald Dairy: their ricotta and Medita, a salty feta-style sheep’s milk cheese. Second, we did roasted baby leeks with mozzarella and Twineham Grange, a local parmesan-style cheese, aged for 15 months, which satisfies my need for a local cheese that’s good for grating on pasta dishes etc. We did use bog-standard mozzarella throughout, as no one’s making a Sussex version. Yet.*

Pie!
After all that fried food and stodge, what else did the meal need? Ah yes, fat and sugar. A dessert. After making a pine nut tart recently, I’ve been wondering about a chocolate version. As, like any sane person, I adore chocolate. Plus, we’d seen the High Weald ricotta on the market.

Side, through glass cloche

Anyway, the chocolate pine nut ricotta tart is based on a recipe by Giada de Laurentiis, granddaughter of the legendary film producer Dino and iconic actress Silvana Mangano. The original recipe was in cup measures. I tried translating these to grams using online charts, as well as using actual cup measuring spoons: each approach gave me completely different weights. This is why I’m not a fan of cups – for flour, especially, they’re inaccurate, as there’s the question of how compacted the powder is.

The resulting pastry was very crumbly and impossible to roll, so I effectively filled the bottom of a loose-bottom cake tin with it, as you would with biscuit crumbs for a cheesecake. Indeed, this is basically a type of cheesecake, though the filling is dense and very rich. After all that fritti and pizza and booze it was perhaps a bit much – or at least a big slice was a bit much. Perhaps it’d be a more suitable end to a slightly lighter meal!

You’ll need a food processor for this recipe.

Pastry
200g plain flour
20g polenta
100g pine nuts, toasted
35g caster sugar
Pinch salt
120g butter, melted and cooled slightly

Filling
110g water
150g caster sugar
225g dark chocolate, chopped
200g ricotta
8og full-fat cream cheese
3 eggs
100g pine nuts

1. To make the pastry, combine the plain flour, polenta, 35g sugar, salt and 100g toasted pine nuts in a food processor, blending until the nuts are well ground.
2. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture is well combined. It’s unlikely it’ll ball up like a normal pastry dough.
3. Use the mix to line a 26cm loose-bottomed tin. I used a cake tin, though a flan or pie tin would work.
4. Put the pastry case in the fridge for at least half an hour, or for a day or so if you make it in advance.
5. Preheat oven to 180C (160C fan).
6. Line the pastry case with baking parchment then fill with baking beans.
7. Bake for about 25 minutes, then remove the beans and parchment and bake for another 10 minutes until golden.
8. Allow the pie case to cool while you prepare the filling.
9. Heat the water and 150g sugar in a small saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer to dissolve the sugar, then remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly.
10. Over a separate pan of simmering water, melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl, avoiding contact with the water.
11. Beat together the eggs.
12. Using a hand blender or the food processor again, combine the ricotta and cream cheese, then slowly add the egg.
13. Continue beating or processing until smooth.
14. Slowly add the sugar syrup, beating or processing until all combined.
15. Pour the filling into the pastry case and bake, at the same temperature, until almost set – check at about 15 minutes.
16. Sprinkle the other, non-toasted pine-nuts over the top then continue baking until it’s all set and the pine-nuts are nicely toasted, another 15-20 minutes, depending on your oven.
17. Allow to cool and serve. We served it with some cream and macerated strawberries.

Cloche

A note on the food matching
Although we and our guests put together a great collection of local boozes, after the initial aperitivo I stuck with Harveys’ Knots of May. This is a seasonal light mild, reddish-brown in colour and only 3%, which I bought direct from cask at Harveys in a 4 pint / 2.4 litre plastic jug, aka container, aka rigger, aka growler, aka polysomething or other.

It’s a delicious beer, but I’m not sure its malty sweetness made for the best food pairing with the fritti and pizza. Something a little more acid or bitter might have been better for cutting through the fattiness of the cheese etc.

It did, however, work well with the desert. I’m still blundering uncertainly through the beer and food matching business but that malty sweetness, and light, low body, went well with the dense, chocolately pudding.

Little brown jug - empty

 

* There is a British buffalo mozzarella being made these days, from my home county of Hampshire, just to the west. I’ve yet to try it. Plus, mozzarella di bufala is far too good – and pricey – to use for melting directly on pizza. For that you use the standard cow milk mozzarella, known as fior di latte (“flower of milk”, “milk flower”) in Italy. Bufala is best added after the end comes out of the oven and allowed to melt just slightly with the latent heat.

2 Comments

Filed under Ale, beer, Baking, Pies & tarts

Pine nut tart

Pine nut tart

Torta della nonna – you’ll often see this on menus in Rome and other parts of Italy. It just means “grandma’s tart” or “granny’s cake”. I’m not sure I believe every single restaurant I saw it in had a grandmother toiling away making them, but it’s a cute selling point. I’m also not sure there’s a specific type of dessert tart that qualifies as torta della nonna – though the basic theme seemed to be variations on custard and pine nut tarts, made with or without ricotta, and with or without pine nuts on top.

The other day, our friend Dom asked me to supply the pudding for a meal he was making for his wife’s Min’s birthday. Immediately, I thought “tart” – for the pudding that is, not insulting either of them. A quick browse of the contents of the fridge and store cupboard, and of a few books, notably ‘Sweet Pies and Tarts’ by Linda Collister, suggested a pine nut tart. Which brought about fond memories of torta della nonna, even if this recipe is made without ricotta and has a filling that’s more an almondy sponge than a custard. Who knows though, I’m sure there are nonne out there who do use a bit of farina di mandorle (ground almonds) in their tarts.

The politics of pine nuts
Since coming home from Italy I’ve been having a bit of an issue with pine nuts. In Italy, I bought Italian pine nuts, harvested from Italian pine trees. Here, even in the most nominally right-on of health-foody shops, all the pine nuts seem to be from China. And I really can’t bring myself to buy them. It just seems insane to lug such produce half-way round the world, especially from China, a country with a dubious regime, a country that’s achieved borderline world-domination in everything from clothes to electronics, and a country that’s not exactly a paragon of environmental standards, with its economic revolution’s high energy demands. I’m not sure I trust its organic certification either.

Infinity Foods in Brighton, for example, sells Chinese pine nuts; pretty much all their dried beans are from China too – it’s really unfortunate as pulses are a big part of my diet. Can’t we grow anything a little closer to home? Can’t we get beans and pine nuts in Britain with slightly better ethical credentials? I realise the economics are complex, but cheaper food – cheaper imported food – often has hidden costs in terms of the environmental repercussions.

Plus, I remember Dom talking a few years ago about how Chinese pine nuts were leaving a strange metallic taste in his mouth – something to do with pollution perhaps? Or because Chinese exporters were mixing nuts from Pinus koraiensis trees with cheaper nuts from Pinus armandii, which some reports suggest is the cause of this “pine nut syndrome”. The EU changed rules regarding imports of the latter, but is it really that well regulated? And is it really just down to the Pinus armandii? (I’ll stop before I start sounding any more conspiracy theorist.)

I did finally find some pine nuts at La Porte’s in Lewes that were from the EU. Phew. This is what I had in my store cupboard.

Despite the depressing popularity of a certain political party whose name sounds like an injunction to have a nap* in last week’s elections, I’m happy to with a cultural identity that’s English, British and European, and as someone who prefers to buy food from as close to home, EU-grown produce is preferable to Chinese.

For the pastry:
90g butter, cold
150g plain flour
20g caster sugar
1 egg
1-2 tablespoons water (cold)

For the filling:
55g butter, at room temp, or softened slightly in microwave or a warm location
70g caster sugar
2 tablespoons honey (say 30g)
2 eggs, beaten
70g ground almonds
25g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
120g pine nuts

1. Dice the butter then toss it in the flour. If you’re using unsalted butter, add a pinch of salt.
2. If making by hand, rub the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs, if you’re using a food processor, pulse it quickly to achieve a similar result.
3. Add the egg and bring the dough together, again either by hand on by machine. Add some cold water to form a dough, but not too much! You don’t want it squishy, you want it dry-ish, and short and crumbly once baked.
4. Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic and to in the fridge to rest.
5. Make the filling by creaming together the butter and sugar, then beating in the honey and egg.
6. Add the ground almonds, then sieve in the flour and baking powder together. Combine the mixture.
7. Add about a third of the pine nuts to the mixture.
8. Get your dough out of the fridge, roll it out and use it to line a loose-bottom flan tin, about 22-25cm in diameter. If you do this ahead of time, you can rest it again in the fridge for a while.
9. Preheat the oven to 180C.
10. Put the filling in the pastry case, then bake for about 10 minutes.
11. Carefully remove the half-baked tart, and gently sprinkle the rest of the pine nuts on top.
12. Put it back in the oven and bake for about 15-20 minutes, until nicely browned.
13. Remove from the oven and cool on rack. Serve warm or cold, preferably with a huge dollop of thick or clotted cream.

 

* Ukip – geddit?

4 Comments

Filed under Baking, Pastry, Pies & tarts, Puddings & desserts