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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Pearway to Heaven!

The Spring might seem a little way off yet, as this morning’s Wintry winds & persistent downpour are proving, however Nature is just as persistent.  Beautiful golden daffodils, delicate narcissus & tiny tête-à-tête trumpets are all blossoming on patios, windowsills & supermarket shelves, their slender sleeves tightly packed together with golden tips peeking out of the top, ready to burst into brightness!  Nature is defiantly poking her tongue out at the world, with crocuses & snowdrops lining the grass verges too.   It’s this beauty amongst the harshness of Winter that has been my inspiration recently, especially with the sugar art I’ve been creating.  Just the scent of daffodils lifts the spirits, so I decided to try making a sugar version in their honour.

Family birthdays have been at the forefront throughout January, with both my Parents’ birthdays & the Husband’s arriving within ten days of each other (that’s a lot of cake to consider!).  After the end of year festivities, it’s always nice to make birthday cakes especially light, bright & slightly Spring-like.  Thoughts turn to tiny flowers, pretty petite petals & floral freshness, inspiring me to create a very chocolatey, two tier birthday cake of slightly epic proportions for my Husband’s birthday (there are only two of us now, so anything bigger than a regular cake is epic for us).  The cake had four layers of rich chocolate cake in each tier & took me two days to make & decorate, but the actual decorations took just over a week & a bit to make, as they needed to dry/set before they could be added to the cake.  Fred Bear, a white modelling chocolate creation I made, was sat by the cake with sugar paste balloons for the birthday boy (worry ye not readers, Fred is currently sat with some sugary friends & won’t be eaten – he took a while to make & is far too cute!).

Chilly weather always invites pudding after dinner & this recipe is based on one my Mum used to make when I was a young girl, a flavoursome fluffy sponge cake crowning a layer of sweet fruit.  Now, in those days this was made mostly with apples & earned the name Eve’s Pudding, however I’ve adapted it over the years & used other fruits (usually whatever’s in the fruit bowl that needs using up).  This sumptuously sticky version is my Pearway to Heaven, made with really ripe eating apples & pears (apples & pairs is Cockney rhyming slang for stairs, hence it’s name).  The delicious caramel syrup enveloping the fruit has a light, zesty flavour & will satisfy any sweet cravings during this cold snap, plus that fading fruit in the bowl will be used up, so no waste!  If you’re buying fresh, check out any that are “wonky” or on sale – really ripe fruit has plenty of natural sweetness & requires less sugar.  Ready to get your pud on?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

6 Pears
4 medium Apples (eating apples, like Cox’s Pippin or similar)
3oz Salted Butter
3oz Light Muscovado Sugar
Half a ball of Stem Ginger, finely chopped
Zest of half a Lemon & an Orange, mixed together
Pinch of Ground Cinnamon
Quarter teaspoon of Vanilla Extract

For the Sponge topping:
4oz Butter
4oz Sugar
4oz Self Raising Flour (or Plain with 2 teaspoons of baking powder)
2 large Eggs

What to do:

Firstly, pre-heat the oven to 170*C & grease a casserole dish big enough to get your fruit in (a medium sized one should do).  If you have the wrapper from the butter, these are brilliant for this job – I also save them & stash them in the fridge/freezer for future greasing of cake tins, etc – just fold them over butter side together & pop in a freezer bag.  Once you’ve finished with them, they can go in the recycling.

Next, prepare your fruit. Go through that fruit bowl & pick out any apples & pears that are about to walk out in protest, because they’re so ripe.  The riper the fruit, the better the pudding.

Wash, dry & peel them, then remove the cores & trim away any brown bits.  Chop into small bite-sized chunks, about the size of your little fingernail & put into a deep saucepan.

Add the Muscovado sugar, butter, vanilla extract, sprinkle in the cinnamon & zest.

On a low heat, stir everything together until the butter & sugar have melted into a gooey, caramel sauce.  Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring gently so as not to break up the fruit too much.

Using a slotted spoon, scoop the fruit into the bottom of the greased casserole dish with the caramel sauce (be careful not to splash yourself, as it’s sugar & it will burn you!).  There should be some liquid left over, so tip this carefully into a heatproof jug  & put in the fridge to chill (you’ll be needing this later).

Now to make the sponge cake topping!  In a large mixing bowl, beat the sugar & butter together until fluffy (I do this with a wooden spoon, but you can use an electric whisk if you prefer).

Add the eggs & beat into the buttery sugar mixture until fully incorporated.

Sift the flour into the creamy mixture & fold in (move your spoon around like a figure of eight in the bowl, scooping flour into the mixture).  Make sure all the flour is combined into the cake mixture & give it a good stir at the end just to make sure.

Spoon over your fruit mixture evenly, gently spreading around to the edges (be careful not to press hard, otherwise it will sink).  Don’t worry too much about any gaps at the edge, as the mixture will grow & cover these.

Bake in the centre of the oven for approximately 35-40 minutes, until risen & golden (your kitchen will smell absolutely gorgeous by now too!).

To test if your cake is ready, get a piece of spaghetti & gently poke it into the centre of the sponge.  If it comes out clean, the sponge is done.  If not, pop it back in the oven for a few more minutes & check again.

Once ready, place on a cooling rack to allow the pudding to rest & cool for about 10 minutes (it will be hotter than the sun & nobody wants a mouthful of red hot lava-like fruit straight from the oven!).  Trust me, it will still be warm & the sauce will soak into the bottom of the sponge cake nicely.

Scoop into bowls & serve with a drizzle of the leftover zesty caramel sauce.  Add a splodge of ice-cream & get stuck in!  The perfect pudding for warming up these Wintry evenings, my lightly zesty caramel version will satisfy those sweet after-dinner cravings.  Try making it with plums, peaches or blackberries to create your own favourite & use up any fresh fruit that needs eating.

Next time your fruit bowl is looking a bit sad & squishy, turn it into a Pearway to Heaven Pudding!  Stay hungry!  A 😉 x

 

 

 

 

 

Super Cauli-Flower Cheese-ness!

It’s been a few weeks since I wrote my last blog (my apologies & I hope my social media pics have kept you well fed in it’s absence).  After a very busy October, filled with sugar art, baking & creating spooky treats for my friend’s little boy who was having a Halloween party, we have zoomed through a newly frosted November at warp speed & driven straight into December!  If you’ve been following me on social media, you’ll know that our Son has graduated from University in November (cue lots of photos & two extremely proud parents!).  Seeing him there in his cap & gown, clutching his well-deserved Degree, was one of those moments I won’t forget!  He’s probably reading this, so I’ll just say it’s wonderful to see all his hard work (both studying & supporting himself working) come to fruition, so congratulations once again & we’re really proud of you!

Things have been busy here in the Hungry household, what with all the celebrating & such.  Now the seasons have cooled drastically, the garden is looking a little tired & in need of some love.  The pots of pretty pink & delicate white miniature Chrysanthemums were recently in full bloom, brightening up the patio with their petite blossoms, while some squirrels had a great time munching on the buffet of bulbs we planted & flinging their furry little selves around the garden with airborne abandon (that can’t be good for their digestion).

The chilly days of late November sunshine & sogginess have given way to a Wintry December, which could be why we are craving richer, rib-sticking dinners & delicious desserts.  Anytime of year, we all have those days when we need something substantial to sustain our busy lives & keep us nourished, both physically & spiritually (because food should do both).  Not necessarily a full-on girdle-busting roast dinner with all the trimmings (although very welcome at certain times of the year!), but sometimes we just need a hearty helping of heavenly comfort food to give us a boost.  Some of the simplest foods can bring us such comfort, just by their fragrant aroma or even the thought of them, evoking happy memories of meals gone by.

One of my favourite indulgences is a large spoonful of creamy, crunchy-topped cauliflower cheese, enveloped in a silky smooth cheese sauce.  Although I know you can get cauliflower all year round, it seems to taste better when it’s in season during these later months.  Cauliflower is one of the most versatile veg we can eat & I’ve grilled, baked, steamed, boiled & pureed it, cooked it in curries & eaten it raw, dipped in lots of luscious pots of sauces, pesto & salsa (this came from when I was a little girl & loved to eat the stalk).   

Usually, I like to serve a rich cauliflower cheese as a side dish with a roast dinner (especially with my spicy roast & baked gammon – recipe soon), but if I’m honest, it’s simply beautiful on it’s own as a luscious veggie dish.  Pure pale cloud-like florets, steamed until al dente & draped in the most luxurious silky smooth sauce, created with a collection of cheeses & crowned with a deeply golden crispy crust – it’s spectacular as the main event, rather than just a mere side dish & this humble vegetable should be given a bit more kudos! 

There are various ways to prepare cauliflower cheese & I have shared this recipe before, but I feel it deserves an article all of it’s own.  It freezes really well & you know how much I like to have food prepared in advance (especially if it’s been languishing in your fridge & needs using up).  If you have various bits of cheese that are loitering in your fridge, now is the time to gather them all together for this delicious dish!  Half a bowl of bocconcini balls, odds & ends of Red Leicester & Double Gloucester?  Grate, slice & shred them to go in this dish.  If you are using smoked cheese, you might want to omit the Gorgonzola or any blue cheese (I find they are both strong flavours & probably best using one or the other).  Ready?  Aprons on, hands washed & here we go!

What you need:

1 large head of Cauliflower (2 if they’re small or you’re making extra to freeze)
1 teaspoon Sea Salt (for the cooking water)

For the cheese sauce:

1 pint of Semi-Skimmed Milk
3oz Salted Butter
3oz Plain Flour
6oz Cheese, grated (half for topping & half for the sauce)
Other bits of Cheese, about half an ounce each – I’ve used Gorgonzola Dolce, Grana Padana, Mozzarella, Bocconcini, Red Leicester, Cheshire, Ricotta & Cream Cheese – if it’s cheese, chuck it in!
Half an ounce of grated Parmesan (for the topping)
1 crust of bread (preferably a day or two old, but if you have to use fresh, leave it out on the side unwrapped)
Oregano (dried is fine)
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper for seasoning

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C, then fill the kettle & put it on to boil.

Prepare the cauliflower heads – trim off the leaves & remove the stalk, then separate into florets, keeping them as chunky as you can & wash them in cold water.  Place all the florets into a steamer & sprinkle with a good pinch of sea salt.

Pour the boiling water all over the florets, dissolving the salt & washing everything (salt is a purifier).  Put the lid on the pan & steam for about 8 minutes until al dente (poke it with a sharp knife & it should be still be firm, but easy to cut).

While your cauliflower is steaming, prepare your cheeses.  Grate any of the hard cheeses, such as the Grana Padana, mild cheese, etc (if you’ve got a food processor attachment, use it & make your life easier – your knuckles will thank you!).  Mix them well & set aside.  Any cheese with a rind will need it removing, such as the Gorgonzola.  Cut into rough pieces & set aside.

For cream cheese or ricotta, scoop a spoonful into a cup or bowl (leave the spoon in it) & place with your other cheeses.  Once you start making the sauce, you’ll need everything to hand so it’s best to get this organised now.

Once ready, transfer the florets carefully into a large lasagne or pie dish.  Make sure they are all floret-side up & pack them well into the dish.  I find this easier to do with a couple of forks or spoons, so you don’t burn your fingers.  Set to one side while you make the sauce.

Gently melt the butter in a large saucepan – this should be a plain or stainless steel pan, not a non-stick one as you’re going to use a metal whisk in it & you don’t want to wreck your saucepan (or get bits of non-stick coating in your sauce either!).

Remove from the heat & add the flour, put back on the heat & working quickly, whisk thoroughly to combine into a thick, shiny roux.  Traditionally, you would use a wooden spoon, but if you want to make sure you don’t get any lumps I suggest using a good metal balloon whisk (nothing fancy, just a plain wire one will do).

Add about a quarter of the milk to the mixture & whisk in, until it loosens up & then add the rest of the milk carefully.  Keep stirring with the whisk, getting to the bottom & around the edges of the pan to ensure nothing sticks.

As the sauce thickens up, you should start to feel some resistance with the whisk.  Keep whisking slowly (swap hands if your wrist aches) & when you are satisfied with the thickness, add a couple of ounces of the grated mild cheddar & whisk until melted.

Add the other cheeses & whisk in again until melted.  Turn off the heat.

Take a spoon & dip it into the sauce – it should coat the back of the spoon well & leave a trail in the pan.  The consistency of the sauce should be like natural yoghurt.

Now taste it – depending on which types of cheese you have used, it might not need much seasoning as some cheeses, such as Parmesan, can be a little saltier than others.

Add a pinch of black pepper (half a dozen twists with a pepper grinder should be fine) & if you think it needs it, add a pinch of sea salt but go steady because once it’s in, you can’t take it out.

Whisk & taste again (with a clean spoon please!).  If you’re happy with your cheese sauce, carefully pour all over the cauliflower florets, drizzling slowly into all the corners & working your way towards the centre.  Make sure every floret is covered with the sauce & use a spatula to scrape out any remaining in the pan – you’ve worked hard to make this & shouldn’t waste any (or you could just dip a piece of crusty bread in & eat it – call it Chef’s perks).

Sprinkle the remaining grated cheese & the little bit of Parmesan all over the top generously, grating more if you think it needs it (I usually end up doing this).  Every little creamy cloud of cauliflower should be covered in a good sprinkling of cheese!

Do the same with the breadcrumbs, ensuring an even coating all over.

Finally, add a good dusting of the dried Oregano across the whole thing.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 20-25 minutes, until bubbling furiously & the top has turned the most gorgeous golden brown.

Remove carefully & place on a cooling rack for 5 minutes (trust me, it won’t go cold!).  This will allow everything to relax, settle & generally calm for a few moments (because it will be hotter than the sun & you don’t want to burn your mouth).

Serve either as a side dish with a Sunday dinner or simply scoop some onto a plate, grab a spoon & indulge in a little luscious cheesy delight on these cold evenings.  If you want to pimp it up a bit, scatter some chopped crispy smoked bacon pieces into the cheese sauce just before you pour onto the florets, or add broccoli to bring some colour to the dish.  Try adding different cheeses (Goat’s Cheese is a lovely alternative to cream cheese or maybe try crumbling a little Cheshire cheese into the sauce), perhaps swap fresh Thyme for the Oregano & even add a few delicate dots of red chilli to give it some extra heat!

So that’s my very cheesy, creamy Super Cauli-Flower Cheese-ness, in all it’s lusciously gooey gorgeousness!  Make it your own centrepiece for a vegetarian dinner, or even as an accompanying dish to go with your favourite Sunday roast.  Next time you want a side with substance, reach for the cauliflower & create a little cheesy indulgence!  Stay hungry!  A 😉 x