Northern tart

Cheese and onion tart

This is a taste of my northern childhood. At birthday parties, church fêtes and cricket teas, cheese and onion tart held its own on tables crowded with sausages on sticks, mushroom vol-au-vents, egg sandwiches and butterfly cakes. It was almost as essential to weddings, christenings and funerals as the minister.

It probably also appeared as part of the feast (spread, they would have said spread) at my great-aunt Dolly and great-uncle Jos’s diamond wedding anniversary, the one where uncle Jos sang Danny Boy to a misty-eyed crowd in the sitting room while Auntie Dolly shuffled me into the kitchen, placed her hands on her Spirella-corseted, Windsmoor-clad hips and told me ‘Never get married, Debora, never get married,’ while sipping neat gin, no ice, out of a heavy crystal tumbler.

Well I did get married, though with no cheese and onion tart to mark our nuptials I hope it’s legal. But I have continued to make it for lunches, afternoon teas and picnics ever since, so hopefully that counts for something.

The tart you see here is a little different from the one of my childhood. I’ve acquired some fancy London ways since then. I add crème fraîche to the pastry which makes it deliciously short and flaky. I sauté the onions with thyme – I’m quite sure I was into my second decade before I met a fresh herb. And I cook the onions down until they’re really, really soft, not almost raw as was often the case in the original. I’ve added some bacon to the recipe here, though you can leave it out if you wish – just add a bit more butter to the sautéing onions.

Cheese and onion tart

In the tray, cooling....

For the pastry:

240g plain flour
120g unsalted butter
Good pinch of salt
2 tbsp crème fraîche
About 2-3tbsp iced water

For the filling:

3 rashers back bacon, cut into thin strips
3 onions, finely diced
¼ – ½ tsp fresh thyme leaves
150g Cheddar cheese, grated
3 eggs and 2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
100ml whole milk or single cream
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F/Gas Mark 5.

Put the flour, butter and salt into a food processor and pulse briefly a few times – you still want little, pea-sized pieces of butter in the mix. Add the crème fraîche and pulse a few more times. Turn it out into a bowl and add the water a little at a time, stirring gently with your hands or a knife to bring it together into a ball – you may not need all of the water. Press it gently into a disc, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Butter a loose-bottomed flan tin and dust it with flour. Turn out the pastry onto a lightly floured surface and roll out. Line the flan tin with the pastry, letting the excess hang over the sides, and place on a baking tray. Prick the base and sides with a fork. Line with baking parchment filled with baking beans, dried pulses or uncooked rice and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the paper and baking beans. Brush some of the beaten egg over the base and put it back into the oven for eight minutes (see COOK’S TIP). Reduce the oven temperature to 170°C/325°F/Gas Mark 3.

Trim off the excess pastry with a sharp knife.

While the tart shell is cooking, make the filling. Warm the butter in a large frying pan over a medium-high heat and fry the bacon until just turning crisp. Remove to a bowl. Reduce the heat to medium-low and sweat the onions with the thyme and a pinch of salt, stirring from time to time, until very soft, pulpy and translucent – you want them to reduce in volume by about half. Add them to the bowl with the bacon and cool slightly. Mix in two thirds of the cheese. Mix the milk or cream with the lightly beaten eggs and then combine with the bacon, onions and cheese. Season with salt and pepper and pour into the tart shell. Scatter the remaining cheese over the top and bake for 30 minutes until the tart is golden.

Lovely cold too

COOK’S TIP

Recipes often give quite short cooking times for blind baking tart shells. You want the base to be completely cooked to prevent the horror of a soggy bottom, so cook it for as long as it needs, whatever the instructions say. Also, a tip I picked up from Gill Meller, the entirely wonderful Head Chef at River Cottage , is to prick the sides of the tart as well as the base before you cook it.

Taking the lead

Carrot Cake

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

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

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

Barney

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

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

CARROT AND WALNUT CAKE

Carrot & Walnut Cake

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

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

Makes 12 squares

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

French fries

All present and correct

Well the sun came out and, in the fickle way of holiday makers everywhere, I’m grateful for the house’s fortress-like basalt walls which keep the rooms shady and cool. Even on the brightest days, inside you need to turn on a light to read.

June is one of the happiest and most delicious of months in Adge. The market is full of peas and peaches, melons, tomatoes and cherries, everything du region. At one of my favourite stalls, a young man was selling courgette flowers. I bought all he had, about twenty or so, and from another stall enough soft goat’s cheese to stuff them.

Stuffed courgette flowers

Golden and ready to eat

Forgive me, TS Eliot, for saying that I measure out my life in measuring spoons. Quarter of a teaspoon, half a teaspoon, a teaspoon; half a tablespoon, a tablespoon. When I’m developing recipes, accuracy is everything. Measure and measure again. So when I’m on holiday, one of the purest of pleasures for me is to scatter, toss, fling ingredients around with a recklessness that would get me fired in my real life. Here, it just gets me fired up. So you need to forgive me, too, for having no proper measurements in this recipe. But hey, you’re a clever sort, you can figure it out.

Courgette flowers
Soft goat’s cheese
A cup of plain flour
Sparkling mineral water, chilled
Salt
An ice cube
Sunflower or groundnut oil for frying

Carefully peel back the petals of the courgette flowers and remove the stamens. Take a bit of soft goat’s cheese (I was going to say about a teaspoonful, but we’re doing this freestyle, no measuring aren’t we?) and tuck it inside each flower, twisting the petals to close around the cheese.

Stuff carefully

Pour about 10cm of oil into a heavy-bottomed, deep pan. It shouldn’t come more than a third of the way up the sides. Heat up the oil until it measures 180˚C on a thermometer, or, as we’re on holiday, a cube of bread turns golden in just less than a minute.

While it’s heating up, make the batter. In a bowl, mix the flour with a good pinch of salt and enough mineral water to give it the consistency of double cream. I like to throw in an ice cube too, to ensure it’s extra cold. When the fat is hot enough, dip the flowers by their stems into the batter and then carefully drop them into the oil. Don’t crowd the pan – in mine, I can cook about four at a time – and cook until golden, about 3-4 minutes. Scoop the cooked flowers out of the oil with tongs or a spider and leave to drain on kitchen paper while you cook the rest. Serve immediately, sprinkled with a little salt.

Smart as a carrot

Carrot Halwa seved with Ice Cream

My dad is the sweetest man, kind to his bones, but like lots of northern men of his generation, he can be a little short on the compliments (‘Don’t be daft.’) So it’s rather marvellous when your appearance garners his greatest accolade ‘smart as a carrot’. I’ve no idea where this phrase comes from, though I’ve never heard it outside of my native north east. What I do know, with absolute certainty, is that you don’t want to be its antithesis: ‘a bag of tripe’. When I was a kid, my dad’s Saturday afternoon treat while he listened to the football results was a bowl of tripe with vinegar. I used to think it looked like a crumpled heap of greying laundry. This isn’t usually what I’m aiming for when I leave the house.

Today’s smart as a carrot dish comes from Karuna, who works with Séan. When I’m testing recipes, a church fête’s worth of cakes, biscuits and tarts can come out of the Lickedspoon kitchen. It would be impossible for us to eat them all, so I take some of them to the park and the rest Séan takes with him to the office. They are a very good tasting panel. I get notes: too sweet, not sweet enough, too many nuts, or too few, love the coconut, hate it. I’m grateful for the feedback, but I’m thrilled to get my hands on this recipe. Several of you commented on the White Chocolate Cake saying you love cardamom, so I hope this appeals to you too.

Next week, tripe… Maybe.

Recipe all written out Karuna’s recipe, such neat writing, such a messy fridge.

Carrot Halwa

Served with gold-leaf!

I didn’t have jaggery (and, shamefully, couldn’t peel myself out of the kitchen, walk around the corner and buy some) so I used molasses sugar. It meant my halwa ended up quite dark. I also got a bit distracted and let it simmer a little too long, so it was very thick and intensely fudgy. No matter, I just sprinkled on a little gold leaf and it was delicious with the ice cream. But, note to self, next time jaggery and pay attention.

Serves 6-8

450g carrots, peeled and sliced
280ml semi skimmed or whole milk
280ml double cream
4tbsp shelled, unsalted pistachios
225g jaggery, raw sugar or molasses sugar
55g granulated sugar
10-15 cardamom seeds
½ tsp fennel seeds
200g ground almonds
4 tbsp ghee or clarified butter
4 tbsp almond pins

The ingredients

Put the carrots, milk and cream in a saucepan. Bring to the boil and stir well. Reduce the heat to a simmer and simmer for an hour, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has reduced to half the volume and has become thick and heavy.

Carrots away Carrots boiled in cream.

Molasses in Adding the molasses sugar.

While the carrots are cooking, roast the pistachios in the oven at 180˚C/350˚F/Gas mark 4 until just fragrant, about 8 minutes.

Put both sugars into the carrot mixture, stir to dissolve and simmer for 10 minutes.

With a small, sharp knife, halve the cardamom pods and remove the seeds. Discard the shells. Grind the cardamom and fennel seeds in a pestle and mortar, or in a bowl with the end of a rolling pin, until fine.

Reduce the heat under the carrot mixture and add the ground almonds and ghee or clarified butter. Stir for about 10 minutes until the halva starts to pull together into a solid mixture. Stir in the ground cardamom and fennel.

Serve in dishes at room temperature, or straight from the hob, with cream, ice cream or kulfi. Garnish with the toasted pistachios and almond pins.

Stay at home soup

Ready to eat...

I wanted to make soup to go with my khacahpuri so, casting my Georgian bread in the role of posh grilled cheese sandwich, what else could I choose but tomato soup?

In the middle of winter, fat, juicy tomatoes just begging to slip from their skins and transform themselves into soup are as elusive as the all-over tan. Buying these poor, flavourless January specimens is about as tempting (and likely) as getting my legs waxed. So I rely on tinned tomatoes to give me my lycopene fix. All the better because they, and the rest of the ingredients in this soup, are always to be found in my cupboards so I don’t even have to venture out into the dreich afternoon. More fireside time, always a plus.

At this time of year, I seldom team tomatoes with their constant summertime companion, basil. I want the earthy, warming flavours of cumin and paprika, a bit of heat to warm me from the inside out. This combination will keep me going until trotting along to the shops, market basket tucked into the crook of my arm, is a pleasure not a chore and the tomatoes on offer are more fragrant than the packaging that contains them.

Tomato and red lentil soup

Tomato and red lentil soup

1tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp sweet paprika
1 ½ tbsp concentrated tomato puree
1x400g tin of chopped tomatoes
Pinch of sugar
600ml chicken or vegetable stock
140g red lentils
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Yoghurt and dill or coriander to serve

Serves four.

Warm the butter and oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over a medium-low heat; add the onions and a pinch of salt and sauté, stirring from time to time, until soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic , cumin, paprika and tomato puree and stir for a couple of minutes. Tip the tomatoes, sugar and stock into the pan and simmer for 10 minutes, then pour in the lentils, season and simmer for 25 minutes, partially covered. Adjust the seasoning and puree until smooth in a food processor or with a stick blender.

Adding the lentils

Blending

Return the soup to the pan, cleaned if you’re feeling very virtuous, add more stock or water if it seems a little thick, and warm through. Ladle into warmed bowls, dot a little yoghurt over the top and sprinkle on your herbs. I was swept away on a cloud of Russian nostalgia so I used dill, but coriander would be equally good.