The Pear Tart to Mandorle!

Sultry September has arrived with a slight coolness about her & although the mornings are a little chilly now, the sunrises are just as spectacular.  Getting up early means I see some amazing sunrises & Autumn never fails to deliver.  An array of moody clouds smooched across the sky this morning, kissing the rooftops as it gave way to the sunshine before we’d finished breakfast.  The garden looks prettily overgrown at the moment, all luscious long grass, wispy branches & a scattering of jewel-coloured blackberries on the hedgerows, contrasting with their dark green background.  They are happily growing at a rapid rate, replacing the ones that have already been plucked & packed in a pie with sweet sliced apples & cinnamon sugar.

Pastry plays a huge part of Autumnal food, mostly I think due to the fabulous produce that’s been growing all year & let’s face it, we all like a good fruit pie!  Although a slightly stodgy pie is very welcome at this time of year, sometimes we like something a little lighter but just as indulgent.  On one of my recent shopping trips to our local shops, there were shelves stacked with punnets of pears.  They looked so beautiful & fresh, with pale juniper green skins & a smattering of gold around the bottom.  Obviously, I had to buy some & starting thinking of how to do them some justice in a lighter pie, recipe calculating in my head as usual.  By the time I got to the checkout a few minutes later, I’d packed my basket with a selection of ingredients & headed home excitedly to start my next creation.

The filling would have included single cream, however there was a slight incident.  Upon opening the fridge, the cream pot leapt from the top shelf, unceremoniously smacking into the floor & spectacularly showering me & everything in it’s path.  Cue a huge clean up operation & a slight delay in my creation.  When things like this happen, I tend to have a look around to see what I can replace it with, rather than hit the shops again & I had some lovely over-ripe bananas that were the perfect replacement!   My Pear & Almond Tart (Crostata di Pere e Mandorle) is a simple but pretty dessert, easy to make & the addition of the dark chocolate makes it deliciously decadent.  Ready to bake it happen?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

For the Filling:
4 ripe Pears, peeled & cored
125g Ground Almonds
50g Plain Flour
3 large Eggs
100g Sugar
1 ripe Banana, peeled (if you’re weighing it, about 90g with skin on)
1-2 tablespoons Semi-Skimmed Milk
100g Dark Chocolate (the stuff you eat, not cooking chocolate!)
Quarter teaspoon Vanilla Extract

For the Pastry:
175g Self-Raising Flour (plus extra for rolling out & your tin)
60g Salted Butter (plus extra for preparing your tin)
60g Sugar
1 large Egg
2 teaspoons Cold Water
A little Orange or Lemon Zest (a couple of teaspoons should do)
Ceramic Baking Beans* & greaseproof paper for baking blind
Icing Sugar (approx 25g), for dusting

[*If you don’t have any baking beans, just use dried pasta like fusilli instead – when cooled, pop in a jar for future baking]

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 170*C & prepare your tin.

Smudge a little butter around the inside of a 10 inch loose-bottomed pie or flan tin, making sure you get it into all the edges.  Tip in a little flour & shake it all around to cover the butter, tapping the tin onto the worktop where you will be rolling out your pastry.  If you don’t have a loose-bottomed tin, when you’ve done the above stage, criss-cross long strips of greaseproof paper in the tin (make sure they go well over the edge of your tin so you can use them to lift your tart out after baking).  Set the tin aside.

Now to make the pastry!  Tip the flour & sugar into a mixing bowl, giving it a thorough stir.

Add the butter pieces to the bowl & using your fingertips, rub in the butter until everything resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Add the lemon or orange zest, mixing thoroughly.

Beat the egg in a cup & then add to the butter & flour rubble in the bowl.  Stir it well with a knife until it starts to come together into a ball, adding just a dribble of the cold water at a time until it forms a lovely soft dough.

Turn your dough ball onto a lightly floured worktop & give it a quick knead to smooth it out.  Add a little more flour to your work surface as you need it, but don’t over do it (otherwise your pastry will taste like cardboard).

Roll out your pastry to a couple of inches larger than the pie tin.  Using your rolling pin, flop the pastry over onto it & carefully drape it over your pie tin, so it reaches all the inside edges.

Push your pastry gently into all the edges of the tin, either using your fingertips or the end of a rolling pin (it’s smooth, so won’t tear your pastry).

Leave a little lip of pastry on the edge of the tin & trim off the excess – keep this for the decorations.

Take a piece of greaseproof paper, a couple of inches bigger than your tin & screw it up.  Unravel it & shape it to the inside of your pastry tin, making sure it covers the edges of your pastry to protect them.  Tip in the baking beans & bake in the centre of the oven for about 10-12 minutes, until the edges are just starting to turn golden.

Remove your tin from the oven & put on a cooling rack.  Leave the greaseproof paper & baking beans in place for at least 5 minutes (they will be hotter than the sun), then lift them out on the greaseproof paper & put in a heatproof bowl or similar to cool.

Now to make the filling!  Take the pears & halve them.  Use a teaspoon to scoop out the core.  Slice each half into fine, frond-like fingers.  Place one half in the pastry case, rounded side up & gently press to fan them out.  Add the next pear half & repeat, making sure each is nicely spaced apart.

Scatter the chocolate pieces all over the pears evenly.

Mash the soft banana in a bowl with a tablespoon of the milk, until you get a yoghurty thick liquid.  Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs & sugar together until it resembles a light cream coloured foam.

Add the banana & milk mixture, giving everything a good stir until fully incorporated.

Stir the ground almonds & flour together in a separate bowl, then fold into the wet ingredients until blended thoroughly.

Pour all over the chocolate covered pears evenly – don’t overfill the tin, as this doesn’t rise so it will just ooze out everywhere.

Bake in the lower part of the oven for about 35 minutes, until golden on top & slightly firm to the touch.  Poke a spaghetti stem in the middle & if it comes out clean, it’s cooked.  If not, pop it back in the oven for another 5 minutes or so.

Remove & put on a cooling rack to rest.  Once cool, trim off the pastry edge until level with the pie tin.  Set aside while you make the decorations.

Line a baking tin with greaseproof paper (this will make it easier to remove all the tiny pastry pieces later & it also means no washing up).

Dust your work top with flour & roll out the leftover pastry.  Using whatever cutters you have, cut out pretty shapes.  No cutters?  No problem!  Got a jar of herbs?  Take the top off & give it a wipe to remove any herbs (put the jar where you won’t knock it over).  Use the top to cut out small circles of pastry, then cut them in half & shape the flat edge slightly by pressing it gently out in the middle with your finger, so it looks like a leaf.

For flowers, you need to get a bit more creative – roll pastry into a few tiny balls, about 5mm.  Place one in the middle with five around the outside, then press with fingers to join together & form a flower.

Place your pastry leaves & flowers onto the paper lined tin & dust very lightly with a little bit of the icing sugar – put a bit of the sugar on the end of a teaspoon & tap into a tea strainer to get a fine dust.  This gives them a crispness & makes them nicer to handle when placing them on your tart.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 8-10 minutes until golden.

Lift the paper up & place on a cooling rack until completely cool.

Transfer your pie onto a serving plate, ready to adorn with your pastry foliage.

Dip a clean finger in cold water & dab a little on the back of each leaf & flower, placing them at intervals around the edge of the tart.  This is your masterpiece, so place them in any fashion you like.

Once you’re happy with your decorating skills, simply dust lightly with the rest of the icing sugar.  Use the tea strainer method I mentioned before.  It should be lightly dredged, not drenched!

Serve!  Lightly luscious & very lovely, simply cut into delicate slices & eat as it comes, or add a spoonful of slightly softened vanilla ice-cream.   I can’t tell you whether or not it freezes, as it only lasted until the next morning & the remaining slices were duly gifted to some very hard-working workmen (sharing the pastry!).  This pretty pear-filled pastry will look beautiful on an afternoon tea table or as a sumptuous treat after Sunday lunch.   So next time you fancy a fruity dessert, try my Pear Tart to Mandorle!  Stay hungry! 😉  Aimee x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dunk Dastardly & The Unsinkable Biscotti

Sunday mornings are one of my favourite times to be up early (I like to begin baking before everyone wakes up) & this weekend was no exception.  The stunning sunrise at  “OMG it’s early” o’clock was glorious, bringing with it a bright, albeit chilly, day & …. (drumroll please) …. a new hob!  After being hob-less for eight very long weeks now, you can imagine my eager anticipation!  With a fresh biscotti & coffee in hand, I sat fantasising about heavenly hob cooking: silky Spaghetti alla Carbonara, rich risotto & fat, fluffy pancakes – it was as if my Fairy Godmother had popped in for a coffee & brought Prosecco instead!

While the two great guys from a well-known electrical company (think spicy food) turned up & got to work fitting the new hob, I discovered they had been on the road since 6.30am with no breakfast or coffee (& they were still smiling!).  Obviously, I had baked & there was a selection of biscotti & breakfast bars for them to share, as my way of thanking them (I did the Mum thing too, packing them off with a little bag of goodies).  Big thanks to Michael & Steve, you are stars!

Italian food has always been my passion & when our Son was working in Naples last year, we would chat almost daily about the amazing food there, the fabulous people, wonderful fresh food markets, coffee, Grappa & of course, the Biscotti!  Biscotti are one of our favourite treats, especially as they travel well & can resist a good dunking in a drink.  When you’re having a relaxing afternoon break sipping your caffè macchiato, you want a good solid biscuit to dunk.  That first, almost trepid, dip as you submerge it a little into the steamy liquid & the smug relief you feel as you retrieve it is quickly replaced with sheer horror, as you helplessly watch collapsing chunks plunge back into your cup!  It’s happened to us all & when your dunk is sunk, no matter how fast you try to spoon it out, it’s gone to the bottom of that cup faster than a brick & is now a murky, mushy mess waiting for you to sup up.

It’s as if biscuits are just not dunkable anymore – they lull you into a false sense of security, thinking their dense sweetness will hold up to that cappuccino you’re so carefully clutching – believe me, it won’t!  Then there’s that sneaky fracture, the one you can’t see until it’s too late & half of your biscuit is bobbing around like flotsam on a coffee pond, the rest sunk to the dark depths of your cup.

However, there is something to make difficult dunking a thing of the past: the bellissimo Biscotti.  Actually, to refer to these luxurious lovelies as a mere biscuit doesn’t do them justice!   Here’s a bit of history for you:  Biscotti comes from an old Latin word “biscoctus”, which basically means twice-baked.  In the old days, storage options were quite limited & so by cooking them twice, the biscotti would keep for a lot longer & still be good to eat (I knew those Latin lessons would come in handy one day!).  For a while, I’ve been buying them from a little local supermarket & at one point, we had a serious stock pile in the pantry (just in case there was a world shortage, you know).  Recently however, they didn’t have any & our stash was running low, so my Husband (who adores them as much as I do) suggested I make some.  Challenge accepted! This recipe is for a nutty biscotti called Cantuccini & although I’ve adapted it slightly, it’s as close to a traditional recipe that I can get, so I hope our Italian friends like it as much as we do!

What you need:

300g Plain Flour
175g Golden Caster Sugar (or use Golden Demarara Sugar & chuck it in the coffee grinder until fine)
2 large Eggs
25g melted salted Butter
1 heaped teaspoon of Baking Powder
Half a teaspoon of Vanilla Extract
200g whole Almonds (or 100g each of Hazelnuts & Almonds)
Zest of an Orange (optional – you can make it with either nuts, zest or both)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 180*C.

Firstly, you need to toast your nuts.  Lay a sheet of greaseproof paper on a baking tray & evenly spread the almonds (& hazelnuts too if you’re using them).  Place the tray in the oven & let them toast up for about ten minutes, until their colour deepens slightly & you can smell their toastiness.  Once done, turn the oven down to 150*C & remove the nuts from the oven.  Gently ease the greaseproof paper, with the nuts on top, onto a chopping board (not a plastic one!).  Leave to cool for about five minutes or so.

Wearing oven gloves, pick up a small handful of the nuts & gently massage together in your hands, which will remove some of the papery skin easily.  Chop the nuts into large pieces – you want to be able to taste the nuts in your Biscotti, so take it easy when chopping.  Set to one side for later.

Prepare your orange for zesting by giving it a good wash in some warm soapy water.  It’s best to use unwaxed or organic oranges for this, as the last thing you want is a mouthful of icky wax!  Once washed & dried, get a fine cheese grater or zester & give it firm, quick strokes to just skim the top off the skin – if you’re getting the white pith underneath as well, you’re doing it too hard (don’t take the pith – it’s bitter).  Set the zest aside too.

Get a couple of medium-sized mixing bowls – one for the dry ingredients, one for the wet. In one bowl, sift the baking powder & flour together.  In the second bowl, crack the eggs in, add the sugar & vanilla extract.  Whisk well for a couple of minutes or so by hand until it becomes a creamy coloured, glossy mixture, then gradually pour in the melted butter & whisk again as you do so.

Add the zest & mix well, then pour the creamy mixture into the dry ingredients, stirring well with a spatula & as everything begins to combine, tip in the chopped nuts & mix to form a firm dough.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured worktop & shape into a flattish sausage shape, about half an inch deep & roughly three inches wide.  Carefully transfer onto a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper, cutting the sausage into two equal portions if necessary & leaving a couple of inches gap between the two on the tray.  Make sure any escaping nuts are squished back into the dough, otherwise they might burn & spoil your biscotti.

Place in the centre of the oven & bake for about 25-30 minutes, until firm & slightly risen.  Slide them onto a cooling rack & leave for about 10 minutes or so, keeping the greaseproof paper on the baking tray for later.

Once cool enough to handle, cut the large biscotti into slices, about half an inch wide.  Return them to the greaseproof lined baking tray, standing up & slightly separated, then pop them back in the oven for about 20 minutes for round two, until lightly golden & bronzed on top.  I like to turn the tray around halfway through, just to make sure they are toasted all around.

Remove from the oven, leave to cool completely on a wire rack & your biscotti are ready!  They make great gifts, or will keep for a week or so in a jar (if you hide them, otherwise they last about an hour if you’re lucky!).  I also like to use them as a base for no-bake cheesecakes (I make a mean lemon cheesecake with these crumbled up).

Traditionally, Biscotti are dipped in a glass of gorgeous Vin Santo wine, but these unsinkable beauties can be enjoyed with a coffee whenever you need a nutty nibble.  So for a dastardly dunk, be brave with a bellissimo Biscotti!  Stay hungry 😉 A x