Tatin d’aubergines de Sandrine

Aubergine tatin

A neighbour who is renowned for her superb aubergine tart kindly submitted to pressure to reveal her secrets in an informal cookery lesson, held outdoors on a sunny day. We produced five magnificent tarts, which were shared along with glasses of chilled rosé. I will happily make these for guests, as a substantial starter or light main course.

Beyond the aubergines and tomato sauce, you can vary the other ingredients according to taste and whether you need it to be vegetarian. We used combinations of chopped black olives, chorizo, and anchovies. I think blobs of onion confit or pesto could be good as well. For the cheese, we used slices of a log of goat’s cheese. But you could substitute other soft cheeses: feta, mozzarella, sheep’s cheese …

White aubergines

Other ingredient notes: Sandrine recommends white aubergines; she thinks they are sweeter and more tender. She normally uses her own home-made passata for the tomato sauce, but you can use bought passata or pasta sauce instead. Likewise, for the pastry, either make shortcrust or buy it ready-made. Don’t use puff pastry though, it is too fatty for this recipe.
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Mirlitons de Rouen

Little almond cakes, the word mirliton described by Jane Grigson as suggesting “a cheerful twirling of skirts and light feet”. The filling is very similar to the classic filling for a Bakewell tart (as opposed to pudding). I used a recipe from Audrey Le Goff’s Rustic French Cooking Made Easy, which is a nice collection of traditional regional dishes, changing it somewhat to suit me. The original uses ready-made puff pastry, but the reason I made these is because I had some leftover sweet shortcrust. Either will work, although I’m not keen on puff pastry as a tart base personally. If you want to make pastry for them, I can recommend the recipe here. I chose to use some wild cherry jam as that goes well with almonds, but any good jam will work — raspberry, strawberry, apricot …
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Tarte rustique à la tomate

“Rustic” being code for “looks a bit thrown together”. A summery tart that I served as part of a copious apero. You could serve it as a starter or a light lunch dish as well.

If you don’t already know this, tomatoes and mustard are a wonderful combination. This recipe requires properly ripe fresh tomatoes. I made the pastry using surplus sourdough starter, but of course you can use a standard shortcrust recipe. Serve it just warm rather than hot. The bottom may be soggy, but it’s delicious anyway.

Update: You can make this with standard shortcrust, but I recently discovered a Nigel Slater recipe for olive oil pastry which is easy to make and works well with the Mediterranean nature of the tart. So I’ve added that as an alternative.
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Sourdough fruit scones

Needing yet another means of using up starter, I hit upon this idea. The starter doesn’t need to be active (although it’s also fine if it is) — it’s the baking powder that does the work. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my first effort in terms of texture, but otherwise they were fine if rather rustic. A little more liquid next time should sort it.

Use whatever dried fruit you fancy: cranberries, cherries, sultanas, chopped dried apricots … the dried fruit guy at our local market does chunks of semi-dried apple tossed in cinnamon sugar, and these worked really well, chopped into small dice. I mixed them with sultanas and cranberries.
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Sabine’s sourdough apple and cinnamon babka


Great British Bake Off fans may remember the chocolate babka from one of the technical challenges a couple of years back. Prue Leith got into trouble for saying Paul’s was better than the ones she’d tasted in New York. It’s a braided brioche loaf that originated in Eastern Europe.

I wasn’t particularly tempted by it, as I’m not a massive fan of chocolate in bread or pastries. But I recently joined a French sourdough group on Facebook which has been an absolute eye-opener in terms of the amazing things you can do with a jar of starter. Someone posted a babka they’d made with a cinnamon-flavoured frangipane as a filling. I was definitely up for that.

Warning: you will need to arm yourself with patience for this recipe. It’s a minimum two-day process if you start with a lively starter. An enriched dough like this will take time to rise, and you definitely don’t want to undermine all your work by being too hasty. Give it all the time it needs. After the first rise, you can fit it to your schedule by putting it in the fridge for as long as necessary, up to 24 hours. Also, if you don’t have a stand mixer be prepared to wear yourself out kneading by hand! It needs to be very thoroughly kneaded and the butter worked in bit by bit.

This is my translation and slight variation on the recipe: I added some finely diced apple and a few sultanas to the filling. Of course the filling can be whatever you fancy: chocolate, Nutella, praline, mincemeat, even cheese … one person did a version with a prune purée which I rather fancy, especially if you were to soak the prunes in brandy first.
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Sourdough crackers

Sourdough crackers
Anyone who is bitten by the sourdough bug will at some point find themselves wondering what to do with surplus starter. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to find out about sourdough crackers. They are a brilliant way of using up a large surplus, easy to make, and delicious. Especially good served with cheese. You can vary the flavourings; whatever takes your fancy. Chopped olives, sun-dried tomatoes, chopped nuts, herbs and spices, cheese …

Note, the starter doesn’t need to be active for this recipe. I accumulate my spare starter in a jar in the fridge over a period of a week or so. If you’ve kept it longer, do check its acidity and health before use. Also, I’m assuming your starter is equal weights of flour and water.
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Vintage Feast: Fine English Cookery by Michael Smith


Locked down and with not much to do except cook, I decided to revive my neglected “neglected cookbooks” series with Michael Smith’s Fine English Cookery, published in 1973. Mine’s a paperback reissue from 1998.

Long post, but comes with a recipe worth trying at the end, so scroll on if you just want that!

Michael Smith was a trained chef and restaurateur who was also a broadcaster. His book, while clearly treading the same ground as Jane Grigson’s great English Food, is a reflection of that. Jane herself wrote, “Of the many books on our food, his is my favourite, the one I use most.” Yet the two books have surprisingly few dishes in common, since Smith’s is biased towards restaurant food or at least dishes aimed more at dinner parties than family meals. He does draw on historical recipes, from the eighteenth century onwards but yes, this book reflects how the British middle classes ate and entertained in the 1970s!

The book has a simple structure: soups, “a medley of savoury and vegetable dishes”, principal dishes, puddings, sauces, salads. The soup chapter starts, to my surprise, with a chilled almond soup which immediately makes me think of the Spanish ajo blanco. No garlic or olive oil in this though; it’s simply chicken stock, flaked almonds, nut oil, and cream, thickened with flour. The puddings chapter is rather special too, with some delicious sounding baked puddings and tarts and, of course, a proper recipe for sherry trifle (no jelly).

In a spirit of adventure, I browsed the more unusual soups. Mushroom and mustard soup sounds interesting. But I was stopped in my tracks by chilled pineapple and curry soup. Curiosity got the better of me. It specified a fresh pineapple, but I was not about to waste one by cooking it in chicken stock and liquidising it, so I bought a tin. Other ingredients: curry powder, mango chutney, courgettes, onions, lemon juice. Served with cream swirled into it.

Verdict: it looked like snot. And the taste was pretty strange, flavours battling each other. It wasn’t disgusting, but I certainly won’t be making it again.

Main course: beef olives. I haven’t made these for decades. In the past I used an Italian recipe, with a stuffing featuring lemon zest, pine nuts, and sultanas, and a sumptuous slow-cooked tomato-based sauce. This version had a thoroughly English stuffing: yes, lemon zest featured, but with breadcrumbs, butter, and cooked ham. The sauce was a triumph though; rich with mushrooms, carrots, red wine and port. The only thing wrong with it was that there wasn’t enough of it. I’d halved the recipe but I think I should have made the full quantity of sauce. I have to say it deserves its reputation as a classic dinner party dish: yes, it’s a bit of a faff but it can be prepared entirely in advance, and it looks so much posher than a stew with the same ingredients would. I think the Italian version is superior though.

Pudding: I decided to try Maids of Honour, little tarts allegedly enjoyed by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in Richmond. I believe the traditional version of these tarts has curd cheese in it. This one doesn’t; the filling is basically frangipane, similar to Bakewell tart, with a layer of quince jelly in the bottom. They were delicious, albeit too sweet; I’ll reduce the sugar next time. A flaky, crisp pastry case, filling that’s squidgy in the middle (possibly a bit underbaked) and crisp around the edges. Of the recipes I’ve tried from this book, this is the only one I’d make again. Good enough to serve to guests: recipe below.

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Quick thin-crust pizza

Pizza
Steve decided to make pizza for dinner yesterday. He googled a recipe as he usually does, and amazingly turned out two excellent pizzas less than an hour later. Almost as quick as a takeaway. We’ll definitely make this our default pizza recipe. It’s based on one from theKitchn, which I’ve converted from cup measures. There’s basically almost no rising time, apart from the time you spend preparing toppings. He did a selection: ham, mushrooms, and artichokes; prawns; and pear and gorgonzola, a favourite of ours (no tomato on this one). Baked on a pizza stone, but you can use a solid preheated baking tray turned upside-down.

Note: if you’re not in a hurry, you can let the dough rise till doubled, divide it in two, then put in sealed containers and refrigerate overnight. Give it 10-15 minutes to come to room temperature before shaping.
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Bread Masterclass: brilliant baguettes!

CooknwithClass Bread Masterclass: Baguettes!

I was one of the guinea pigs for Cook’n with Class’s newly launched bread masterclass held in Arpaillargues, just outside the lovely Languedoc town of Uzès. We were just three students with chef Eric in the spacious kitchen.

CooknwithClass: Bread masterclass

We started each day sitting around the table for breakfast: tea or coffee, and bread of course — from day 2 our own productions from the previous day. This was a good opportunity to a) wake up and b) get to know our fellow students. Then each morning was spent in a whirl of preparation, mostly bread but a few other items too: a delicious chocolate tart, and a classic tropézienne (brioche filled with crème diplomate) are just two examples. Most of the breads required several hours’ or an overnight rest, so we would make and shape the dough, then put it in the fridge for baking the next day. The morning’s work finished around 1 pm, around the lunch table. Each day we made something for lunch: quiche, pan bagnat, pizzas, to be served along with salad and followed by cheese, with bread and wine of course, and a dessert also made by us.

CooknwithClass: Bread masterclass

Eric is a great teacher, relaxed and communicative, always ready to answer questions and explain why he’s doing things a particular way. No matter how well I feel I know how to do something, I always learn something new from listening to and watching a pro. For example, in all the many years I’ve been making shortcrust pastry, I’ve never known about fraisage — smearing the just-blended pastry on the countertop to blend the ingredients without developing the gluten too much.

Likewise, I now make all of our bread, but the many different breads we made introduced new techniques, and nothing beats being able to see and feel how the dough should be. My best moment was seeing the amazing baguettes we made come out of the oven — my previous efforts have never approached this. Instead of taking them home, we ate nearly all of them while drinking aperos — on their own, or with Eric’s home-made pâté.

Shortbread biscuits

There were some surprises too. I didn’t think I’d like chocolate bread, as I’m not a huge chocolate lover, but it was one of my favourites of the week: bread with cocoa powder and chopped dark chocolate in the dough. Eric reckoned it would be good with wild boar stew, but we also loved it for breakfast with marmalade. It’s a keeper in more ways than one — it was still soft and chewy several days later. I also wouldn’t have counted myself a fan of hamburger buns, but these home-made ones were a great base for pan bagnat. Oh, and potato bread made with instant potato flakes — a winner for serving with soup or stew!

Pan bagnat

At the end of day 3 we went home with goodie bags containing our baked goods plus some of Eric’s sourdough starter, and of course a booklet of recipes. I’d recommend this class to any keen baker — no need to be an expert to benefit from it. What a pleasure to spend three mornings just baking with like-minded people! And as afternoons are free, you can use them to explore lovely Uzès and the surrounding area.

CooknwithClass Bread Masterclass: Tropézienne

Gougères


Gougères, little domes of cheese-flavoured choux pastry, are a classic accompaniment for a glass or two of wine. Offering them to guests makes it seem that you’ve gone to a lot of trouble — and you have. But the actual processes involved are quite straightforward. I got this recipe from a professional chef on the choux pastry course I went on recently. Unusually, it includes crumbled roquefort as well as gruyère. It’s a good addition — it gives them an extra sharp tang, while the “blueness” is undetectable.

This recipe makes a lot of gougères — about 40. You could always halve it but a) they are very moreish, and b) they freeze pretty well. Just pop the frozen gougères in a pre-heated oven for 5-10 minutes and they will be as good as new. They are best still just warm, but if you’ve prepared them in advance (without freezing) you can again crisp them up briefly in the oven before serving. Or, if you don’t want that many gougères, split the dough in half before adding the cheese and use half to make profiteroles, choux à la crème, or chouquettes.
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