The Art of the Tart

mjuk toscakaka

Like almost all keen cooks, I can’t resist buying cookbooks even though I know I already own far too many, with enough recipes in them to last several lifetimes of daily cooking. But even if I don’t cook from them, I love to browse and fantasize about cooking elaborate recipes, or just admire the photos (at least in modern books).

But still. The shelves in our living cum dining room cum kitchen are full, and the reserve collection has overflowed onto the landing upstairs. Some books are well-thumbed, others are pristine and have never risked the slightest gravy splatter or smudge of grease. It was time to take action, I decided, and cook at least one recipe from each of these neglected tomes, if only to establish whether they are unjustifiably taking up shelf space. I don’t know how long it will take me because I haven’t even dared to count them. But along the way I’ll review the books and hopefully find some hidden gems.

I started with The Art of the Tart, by Tamasin Day-Lewis. This lives in the reserve collection, even though I have actually cooked a couple of recipes from it. I’m not usually a fan of “single-dish” books (it was a present) — but it’s true that the tart is a very versatile concept. And some of these aren’t even what I would call a tart, in that they don’t involve pastry. There’s so much you can do with pastry and storecupboard ingredients, from a down-to-earth quiche made from the leftovers in the fridge to a drop-dead elegant dessert. And after all, many of my most successful and popular signature dishes are tarts (see the list at the end of this post).

I’m not keen on the arch title (she even published a follow-up called Tarts with tops on), or Tamasin’s wordy style and the odd bit of name-dropping, but there are some gems all the same. The recipes here range from the obvious (quiche lorraine, apple pie, tarte tatin) to the exotic or just odd (a tart filled with aligot??). The little tomato and prosciutto tarts on the cover are both beautiful and delicious — ideal dinner-party starter material — and quick to make into the bargain. I don’t usually like chocolatey desserts, but I made an exception for Simon Hopkinson’s chocolate tart (in the “Other people’s tarts” section).

For the purposes of this blog post, I started with cheese strata — one of the “not a tart” recipes. It’s basically a savoury bread and butter pudding. I don’t know why it hasn’t occurred to me before to make something like this, given that buying baguettes inevitably results in a surplus of stale bread. A big chunk of two-day old pain de campagne, an ancient bit of Comté only fit for grating, some eggs approaching their sell by date, mustard, onion and cream. The result is well worth the status of default dinner, and I’ll certainly make it again. I skipped the lardons, but some sun-dried tomatoes would be a nice addition and would keep it vegetarian.

Next, I quickly cooked Mjuk Toscakaka, one of several Swedish recipes. This is another one that is easy to do and uses what you have on hand (and doesn’t involve pastry) — basically a simple sponge cake with a slightly crackly, fudgy topping of sugar and flaked almonds. On its own, a bit dull, and cream didn’t make it any more interesting. But it was considerably livened up with the complementary addition of some Italian cherries in syrup (an impulse buy in Lidl when they were having one of their Italian weeks). Any tart poached fruit would go well with this.

Verdict: I wouldn’t rush out and buy this book if I didn’t have it, but it’s a lot more useful and attractive than I expected it to be. It’s staying on the shelf!

My artful tarts

Apple crumble tart
Apricot frangipane tart
Courgette, cheese, and herb tart
Filo tarts with goat’s cheese
French tarte aux pommes
Pineapple tarte tatin
Prune and Armagnac tart
Rosemary-spiked apricot and almond tart
Tarte à la moutarde
Tarte au citron
Tarte aux myrtilles, or bilberry tart
Tarte Tatin

Creamy artichoke pasta

I’m sure I’m not the only one who immediately springs for some form of pasta when I haven’t been shopping or even thought of what I might cook for dinner. On Friday I was a bit bored with my usual go-to pasta recipes and fancied something a bit different. This one, based on an original from World Wide Recipes, is very reminiscent of the simple vegetable-based sauces in Italy, and it ticks all the boxes:
– Uses store-cupboard ingredients. Check.
– The sauce is ready in less time than it takes to cook the pasta. Check.
– Both cheap and delicious. Check.

Oh, and vegetarian, if that floats your boat. Although if you are a confirmed carnivore you could add some ham if you wanted.
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Tortilla de patatas

Tortilla de patatas

There’s an art to making a good tortilla, and I’m not sure I’ve cracked it yet (although I’ve cracked plenty of eggs trying). It’s the sort of thing where even the most detailed recipe is no substitute for being able to sense when you’ve got it right. Even if they aren’t up to the standards of the average Spanish tapas bar (can I do those rounded edges? Can I hell!), I have been pretty satisfied with my last couple of attempts.

The key points are a) the correct ratio of eggs to potatoes, and b) the right sized, heavy frying pan. I reckon you need about one medium potato per egg, but really you need to look at the mixture and know whether to add another egg. It should be neither too eggy (it won’t hold together) nor too packed with potato (too stodgy). The mixture should fill the pan to a depth of between 1 and 1 1/2 inches — thin tortillas are hopeless, and if it’s too thick it will scorch before it’s set in the middle.

Some people slice the potatoes, others cube them. I’m in the “slice them” camp at the moment, but I may change my mind. The onion is essential — it will be too bland without. The end result should be firm enough when cold to cut into wedges or squares and eat with your hands. At the same time it’s not nice if it’s so overcooked it’s gone leathery (another reason not to do a thin tortilla).
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Spanish food: tapas and pintxos

Bar, Pamplona

After almost two months in Spain, I think I’m beginning to understand what Spanish food is all about. Our initial impressions were not good. With one honourable exception, restaurant cooking here seems to be bland, stodgy, and unadventurous. And revolves around meat. Lots of it (not so surprising given that it’s a livestock-raising area). The menus at all the local restaurants have many, many things in common: ensalada mixta, ensalada russa, arroz con leche, flan, natillas, and cuajada (sheep’s-milk junket) feature on all of them. Main courses are usually massive platefuls of roast or grilled meat. Low points were the albondigas (meat balls) served in thick, Bisto-flavoured gravy, and bechamel-coated deep-fried lamb chops. There seems to be little concern with freshness and flavour.

Meanwhile, shops and supermarkets in our local small town were poorly stocked and uninspiring. The spice rack in the supermarket was a particularly sorry sight. Black pepper. Two kinds of pimentón (dulce and picante). Cinnamon (sticks and ground). Nutmeg. Herbes de Provence. Yellow food colouring (cheaper than saffron). Lots and lots of packets of “paella spice”, of which a major ingredient is the aforesaid colouring. “But where’s the ginger? And what about cumin? Or coriander?” Nowhere to be seen – I ended up bringing some back from France.

But then we hit the covered market in Irún. Revelation! Of course, living in France we are used to markets, even blasé about them. Superficially a Spanish market looks much like a French one, but this was different enough that we wandered spellbound around the stalls, oohing and aahing over the produce, and left laden with a week’s supply of food.

piquillo peppers, ready to eat

First, the preserved food stall. Bottled and tinned food is considered a worthy genre in its own right in Spain, and this is not surprising when you consider: thick chunks of bonito del norte (tuna) in brine, nothing like the flaky scraps in tins; whole, roasted piquillo peppers in oil, lusciously juicy and ready to eat straight from the jar; olives, of course, in their many forms; anchovies and boquerones; cans and bottles of olive oil. Half a dozen varieties of dried beans, dried fruit and nuts are piled in bins. And of course, since this is the Basque country, strings of dried peppers hang from the ceiling.

Then the preserved meat stall. The stallholder sharpens his menacing-looking knives, ready to serve you. Jamón, of course, in multiple varieties, ranging from garnet-red to purple, edged with frills of white fat, at prices ranging from maybe 10 euros a kilo for standard serrano ham to an astonishing 80 for the best bellota. The extra you pay for jamón ibérico is worth it, for bellota I can’t yet say. Multiple varieties of salami, sausage, and lomo ahumado are also on offer. The most notable sight at the butcher next door is tiny legs of lamb, weighing barely a kilo each; it seems Spaniards are fond of milk-fed lamb. We bought one of these, marinated it briefly in a paste of olives, capers, anchovies, olive oil, and pimentón, grilled it on the barbecue, and ate the whole thing between the two of us.

The cheese stalls might not rival French ones (OK, they definitely don’t). But there are a few varieties of hard cheese, from Manchego to Ossau-Iraty, dozens of local sheep’s cheeses, and bags of raw sheep’s milk (I snapped up one of these to make my own cuajada).

Then whole stalls are devoted to that Basque staple, bacalao, again with major divergences in price, from thin, scrappy pieces stiff as a board with salt, to thick chunks of boneless cod steak at 25 euros a kilo, waiting for a long soak to be reconstituted as white, flaky fish, gorgeous when simply cooked and served with a lively salsa verde or tomato and pepper sauce. Next door, the fish stalls were piled with glossy fresh fish, with ugly but delicious hake (merluza) playing a starring role alongside beautiful sea bass (lubina), red mullet (salmonete), crabs, lobsters, langoustines, squid, and octopus.

The major “aha” from all this is that Spanish markets lend themselves to simple food that can be nibbled with drinks – that would be tapas then (or pintxos, since we are in the Basque country). Getting home, we simply laid out platters of ham, piquillo peppers, thinly sliced cheese, olives, nuts, cut some bread, opened a bottle of wine, and a lifestyle was born. If you feel the need of something sweet afterwards, a little clay pot of cuajada drizzled with mountain honey hits the spot. Or the Spanish version of lemon sherbet: buy some lemon sorbet and a bottle of cava, combine in a blender, pour into champagne flutes, serve with straws. Who needs to cook?

Emergency spaghetti

I took the opportunity of Steve being away to try this dish from Delicious Days — I knew he wouldn’t appreciate being served up a dinner consisting of a plate of tagliatelle with no sauce to speak of. Actually it’s a lot better than it sounds, and it can’t be faulted on the effort-versus-results front, as well as being very economical.

You simply boil your pasta and dress it with the zest and juice of a lime, some chilli flakes (I used my standby chilli sherry instead), plenty of black pepper and olive oil, and a splash of the cooking water to loosen it all up. Salad dressing, basically. Swill it around so all the strands are glossy with oil and sprinkled with specks of lime zest and pepper, add plenty of Parmesan, eat. Excellent stuff!

Pasta with courgettes and chilli

One of those days when it was late, I was tired, I had’t done any shopping. The weather didn’t seem summery enough to do my usual pasta and courgette dish, so I did a quick foodblogsearch and hit upon a blog I had not encountered before.

It looked promising, so I tried it and was pleased with the results — it’s one of those simple sauces that can be prepared in the time it takes the pasta to cook. So StuffyerBake is now in my feedreader and my blog roll.

I often cook courgettes like this as a side vegetable (though I hadn’t thought of adding chilli before, or indeed stirring them into pasta) — they are very nice with roast chicken or duck, or even a grilled steak. Usually I salt them after grating and leave in a colander with a weighted plate on top for half an hour before squeezing out the excess moisture, but this probably isn’t necessary unless the courgettes are really large. I didn’t salt them this time, but did raise the heat to boil off the water.
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Three ways of making rice pudding

ricepudding with caramelised pears 2

My latest effort for my Delicious Days cookbook challenge was little pots of rice pudding. I have to say I have never really understood why people eat cold rice pudding. It’s just not as good as the lovely hot, creamy comfort food we ate as children — the best of nursery food. Nicky suggests toppings of strawberries or caramelised apples. I substituted pears for the apples because that was what I had, and seasoned them with nutmeg instead of cinnamon. This sauce was delicious and went really well with the rice — it just would have been better served hot! I think the leftover sauce will also be rather good poured hot over vanilla ice cream …

Anyway this is my excuse to present three ways of cooking traditional rice pudding. In the old days, you had to bake it for 2-3 hours, but with the advent of pressure cookers and microwaves, it’s become almost an “instant pudding”, to be whipped up if you are still feeling hungry after your main course. Here are three ways of cooking it; if you want proper golden skin, you have to use the traditional oven-baked method, but otherwise the others produce excellent results. Note: theoretically you can cook it in the microwave, but in my opinion it doesn’t produce good results and takes as long as cooking it in a pan, so I haven’t included that method here.

We like it hot with either jam (must be red) or maple syrup, or soft brown sugar. But in future I may well try the caramel sauce again. If you’re not watching fat intake, make it with full-cream milk; otherwise semi-skimmed is OK.
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Pasta with courgettes, lemon, and pine nuts

Summery pasta and vegetables

Serendipity rules! I’ve long liked Patricia Scarpin’s Technicolor Kitchen, but an incompatibility with my feed reader meant I didn’t follow it regularly (if a site isn’t in my reader, it doesn’t get read!). Then today I discovered the magic switch to make it work, and her last 25 posts whizzed into view. I spent a happy half hour browsing them while simultaneously wondering what I was going to cook tonight, because it’s the end of the week and I haven’t been shopping.

What luck! I had all the ingredients for this recipe to hand, and it took barely longer to make than the time needed to boil the pasta. It’s very adaptable, and I loved the fresh flavour imparted by the lemon zest and juice. A new default dinner to rival tagliatelle carbonara! Picture taken hastily just before we dived in.

Note:the original recipe is credited to the late Sher, who sadly died unexpectedly a month ago, and whose blog I didn’t know about till today.
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Cottage Smallholder frittata

I have become a dedicated follower of Fi’s blog, which is about all sorts of domestic matters other than food, including keeping chickens, gardening, and domestic life in general. She is also very adventurous on the self-sufficiency front, making her own bacon and salami. She’s posted about frittata a couple of times, so when I was short of ingredients and time I turned to her.

This frittata recipe is now officially a default dinner. I made it with what I had: lardons, cantal cheese, diced artichoke hearts, and a sprinkling of basil, with a couple of new potatoes steamed, sliced, and laid on top. Steve thinks Spanish omelette is the work of the devil, and even he liked it!

Swedish oven pancake

I came across this recipe on a Swedish blog while googling Jansson’s Temptation. It immediately caught my attention because one of my favourite breakfast fry-ups used to be diced bacon, apple and onions, with a fried or poached egg on the side. I haven’t made that for ages, and here was the same tasty combination as a quick and filling supper dish. I had to try it and the results were excellent. A new default dinner!

I have tweaked the proportions a bit from the original because I found it a bit floury (though cooking it for a bit longer might have solved that problem). Though Swedish, it’s recognisable as a savoury clafouti.

This makes four very generous servings; we had it with smoked chilli jelly on the side, which was delicious. A salad or simply steamed green vegetable would be good too.


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