June 2017 article
Early summer, with long days and light evenings, is my favourite time of year for serving food outdoors. Whether part of a picnic, a garden party or a table for two on a balcony, food always tastes better outdoors.
Whilst a white linen table cloth, proper tableware and a lit candelabra can be used to great effect outdoors, al fresco dining really is about doing away with the need for any kind of formality.
Big salads using the wonderful variety of seaonal vegetables and fruits are as given on the early summer table as is something from the BBQ. Summer puddings never look more opulent or enticing than when served outdoors. So when the word “Quiche” is introduced, I am fully aware that it may conjure up uninspiring images of anemic substance encased in stale pastry and tasting of very little other than the cardboard box from whence it came.
A good home made Tart, on the other hand, is one of the most delicious things to grace a picnic or an al fresco table. A large, communal, meltingly tender pastry case, whether flaky or short, filled with something seasonal such as asparagus or new season peas and fresh mint and a feather light egg custard made from nothing else than deep yellow, high welfare egg yolks and single cream (no whites, no milk) good seasoning and grated, strong cheese not only looks wonderful, it smells and tastes even better.
Pastry tends to be the Bête Noir for many a home cook. There is no need to toil over home made pastry given the many superb shop bought options. Seek out all butter versions, whether puff or short crust. The best versions don’t come cheap but are worth every penny. If you do want to make pastry, stick to short crust. Attempting to make puff pastry at home is simply a recipe for a highly fraught day.
As ever with successful cooking, successful pastry making comes down to understanding the chemistry behind the ingredients. The old adage of cold hands for pastry is absolutely correct as the key to successful pastry making is the temperature of the pastry as it goes into the oven. Subject a fragile mixture of plain flour and soft butter to high temperatures and the butter will melt before it has had a chance to bond with the flour, resulting in collapsing and uneven pastry. Place ice cold butter and flour in the oven, on the other hand, and the two main ingredients will bond and set into a pleasing shape before the butter has a chance to melt.
Basic short crust tends to use equal quantities of flour and fat, plus either or both of a little ice cold water and egg yolk. The higher the ratio of butter to flour, the more meltingly tender the pastry but also the more fragile it is to roll and lift. For savoury pastry, add a handful of finely grated Parmesan or Cheddar cheese and a generous pinch of sea salt and pinch of cayenne. For ultra tender, but difficult to roll, sweet pastry, use icing sugar and a 60/40 butter to flour.
Shape into a thick disc and chill. Roll out carefully on a well flourered surface, aiming for even thickness. Use a palette knife to push back on the edges if they crack as the pastry is being rolled out and also to run under the pastry disc as it is being rolled to ensure it doesn’t at any time stick to the surface.
Aim for the thickness of a pound coin and a circumference which is at least 6-8 cm larger than that of the tin. Use the rolling pin to loosely roll the disc up and lift it into a loose bottomed, steel pastry case in such a way that the side which faced down while being rolled faces up in the tin. This will present the smoothest side. Take care not to drag the pastry as you ease it into the tin from the centre and out towards the sides. Smooth away any trapped air. For an ultra neat edge, use the rolling pin to cut off excess overhang.
Line the pastry with a disc of grease prof paper and return to the fridge – or to speed up the chilling, the freezer – until firm and set. Fill with ceramic beans or something like dry rice or lentils to weigh it down. Push most of the weight towards the sides to suppor them.
Bake at 190C for approximately 15 minutes. Carefully scoop out the hot beans or grains, very carefully peel away the paper disc, and check the pastry for raw patches. These will be grey, rather than the golden sandy colour of baked pastry. Return the pastry case for just a couple of more minutes to cook out. Remove it and turn the oven down to 150C.
The classic filling of egg yolk and cream is wonderful in short crust pastries. Combine it with sautéed mushrooms, slowly softened onion or leek or for the classic Lorraine, smoked ham. For a sweet tart, few things beat a classic lemon juice, egg yolks, single cream and just enough sugar baked until just set, with a texture like lemon curd. Leave to cool completely and decorate with raspberries, a few fresh mint leaves and a dusting of icing sugar. Never bake quiches at a temperature above 150C. The colour of an egg based filling should be almost white.
For a much quicker but equally delicious tart, use shop bought, ready rolled puff pastry, score a frame of 1 cm and spread Ricotta or goat’s curd over the inner base. Season and top with asparagus, broad beans, peas, proscioutto, sliced courgette or even courgette flower. Top with raw versions of the vegetables used in the baked Tart.
Or make a puff pastry version of the Niçoise pizza-like classic Pissaladière – filling with caramelised onions, black olives and a criss cross pattern of anchovies. Wonderful with a glass of chilled Provençal rosé.