Fenella’s cheese is Delicious

May 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

Browsing May’s issue of Delicious magazine on a train journey recently I was thrilled to see Fenella Madison’s cheese featured in Debra Waters’ article on the food of Guernsey (p106 in the June issue).

Fenella makes a gorgeously creamy soft blue cheese from real Guernsey milk (ie milk from the island and not just from the Guernsey breed of cows) which she has named Fort Grey after a local landmark visible from her home in the picturesque south of the island.

Sadly, you can only buy Fenella’s cheese on Guernsey. Because the Channel Islands are by a quirk of legislation outside the European Union, the cost and red tape renders exporting the cheese to the UK out of the question.

This didn’t stop me organising a possibly illegal personal export of my own after last summer’s holiday. Here’s the tasty canapé style snack I made on my return home. It combines Fenella’s cheese with a little raw cured ham on a piece of Italian carta da musica bread.

As the article mentions, Fenella makes the cheese in a converted garage attached to the family home. She began cheese making relatively recently after taking a course at the School of Artisan food in Nottinghamshire under the tutelage of Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard Dairy no less. We called in on Fenella and husband Derek on what should have been the last day of our summer holiday last year and were lucky enough to have a personal guided tour of the cheese making facility.

Here’s the fridge where the maturing cheeses are stored. As you can see, this is a genuinely hand made cheese produced in small batches.

Fenella is scrupulous about temperature control, cleanliness and all aspects of hygiene. Here is elder son George modelling the obligatory net cap (and yes that’s Fenella in the background).

If you do happen to be visiting the island you can buy Fenella’s cheese at the Saturday Farmer’s Market at Saumarez Manor:

Or try it on the menu at The Auberge (Jerbourg Rd 01481 238485) or buy it at Forest Stores just near the airport (Le Bourg 01481 238485).

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Bangladeshi breakfast

May 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

The latest in our series breakfasts of the world (https://rhubarbfool.co.uk/breakfasts-of-the-world-project/) took us to the Indian subcontinent, specifically to Bangladesh. The country is a strange mix of the familiar and the exotic. Most of the UK’s so-called Indian restaurants are in fact Bangladeshi and there is a substantial Bangladeshi immigrant community in the UK centred around London’s Brick Lane (hence the title of Monica Ali’s novel).

Looking at a map of Bangladesh, the place names are redolent of the history of British colonialism: Dacca/Dhaka, Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar. It is claimed that the beach at Cox’s Bazar, 125km of natural sand, is the longest in the world.

Thinking about Bangladesh, what immediately springs to mind are floods. Looking at satellite images of the country, Bangladesh’s predicament becomes painfully obvious – the country sits astride an enormous river delta at the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. The plus side is that the country benefits from incredibly fertile alluvial soils. All sorts of grains and vegetables can be grown here and small-scale agriculture occupies the majority of the population. This is reflected in the country’s staple cuisine – simple vegetarian meals capable of being cooked over a single gas flame or open fire.

“A typical Bangladeshi breakfast consists of Roti (flat bread), Paratha (kind of thick pancake) with Sabji (mix of overcooked vegetables that is often cold) and Dahl (lentil sauce that also is often cold). A breakfast for two persons sets you back around 30 eurocents.”

So wrote Dutch couple Ivonne and Edwin on their trip to Bangladesh’s capital city, Dhaka, in 2008. You can read the full unvarnished account of their trip to Bangladesh, and their other foreign travels here:

http://www.babakoto.eu/Articles/Bangladesh/Table-manners/Table-manners-English.htm

(Thanks Ivonne & Edwin for this – and for helpfully writing in English as well as your native Dutch)

So that made the breakfast menu for recreation at home very simple. My modification was to cook a single type of bread rather than both the Roti and Parathas (aka chapatis). Oh, and I added a little yoghurt to the breakfast table, along with fresh mangoes and the raw palm sugar eaten in the Indian subcontinent known as jaggery. The national fruit of Bangladesh is the jackfruit: I scoured the shops of Manchester’s “curry mile” to find one but in vain – maybe it’s out of season or maybe they’re not favoured by the curry mile community which is predominantly Pakistani and North Indian rather than Bangladeshi. Fortunately, finding chana dal and chapati flour was straighforward enough and added a touch of authenticity to breakfast. These products and more can be found at WH Lung oriental supermarket on Upper Brook Street, Manchester (see contact details below). There’s easy parking a real treasure trove of exotic ingredients from all over Asia, not just China. I used to work round the corner from here and when dealing with a knotty problem would wander the aisles in here to try and solve it.

I already had recipes for chapatis and dal, so it was a simple matter of typing “vegetable sabji recipe” into my search engine to come up with this recipe:

http://www.ifood.tv/recipe/vegetable_sabzi_for_roti

This sabzi recipe (the spellings sabji/sabzi transliterated from the Bengali language seem to be interchangeable) is essentially, a selection of diced vegetables (potato, cabbage, aubergine, peas, beans and so on) boiled in water and milk, flavoured with strong spices like chilli, cumin and aniseed. I’m not going to write out the recipe in full as, in all honesty, I won’t be making it again. It tasted rather less than the sum of its parts and the vegetables were soggy to boot. Ivonne and Edwin were right about this, but at least my sabji had the virtue of being piping hot.

In contrast the dal and chapatis were delicious – I’d happily eat this as a regular breakfast – much tastier and more nutritious than the ubiquitous bowl of industrial refined salty cereal with milk so often found in the West.

My dal and chapati recipes both come from a well thumbed copy of Madhur Jaffrey’s BBC book “Indian Cookery”. I love dal and always order it in Indian restaurants to add a little lubrication to my curry and rice. It’s simplicity itself to make and the addition to the dal at the end of its cooking time of garlic, cumin and cayenne sizzled hot oil really lifts the flavour.

The chapatis are made from just flour and water, but by dint of a little kitchen alchemy, become delicious toasty flatbreads for perfect for scooping up the vegetables and dal. The dough is first formed into balls:

The balls are then rolled into flatbreads and cooked in a hot dry frying pan before being puffed up and ever so slightly charred over a naked gas flame. A little drama over the breakfast table. The photo shows husband Tim’s flambé skills:

Recipe for chapatis

From Madhur Jaffrey’s BBC book “Indian Cookery”. Makes about 15.

Ingredients

9oz (250g) sieved wheatmeal flour (chapati flour) plus extra for dusting
6 fl oz (175ml) water (exact quantity will vary according to your flour and local atmospheric conditions)

Put the flour in a bowl. Slowly add the water, gathering the flour as you do so, to form a soft dough. Knead the dough for 6-8 minutes or until it is smooth. Put the dough in a bowl. Cover with a damp cloth and leave for half an hour.

Set a cast iron frying pan to heat over a medium-low flame for 10 minutes. When it is very hot, turn the heat to low.

Knead the dough again and divide it roughly into 15 parts. It will be fairly sticky so rub your hands with a little flour when handling it.

Take one part of the dough and form it into a ball. Flour your work surface generously and roll the ball in it. Press down on the ball to make a patty. Now roll this patty out, dusting it very frequently with flour, until it is about 14cm in diameter. Pick up this chapati and pat it between your hands to shake off extra flour and then slap it onto the hot frying pan. Let it cook on low heat for about a minute. Its underside should develop white spots. Turn the chapati over using either your fingers or a pair of tongs and cook for about half a minute on the second side. Take the pan off the stove and put the chapati directly on top of the low flame. It should (no, will, ed) puff up in seconds.

Turn the chapati over and let the second side sit on the flame for a few seconds.

Ms Jaffrey suggests piling the cooked chapatis into a napkin lined bowl – I’m afraid we scoffed them as soon as they were cooked.

Recipe for Chana dal – yellow split peas

Another recipe from Madhur Jaffrey’s BBC book “Indian Cookery”. Serves 4-6

Ingredients

8 oz (225g) chana dal – yellow split peas/lentils obtainable from Indian grocers
2 pints (1.15 litres) water
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 thin slices unpeeled ginger root
3/4- 1tsp salt
1/4 tsp garam masala
3 tbsp ghee or vegetable oil
1/2 tsp whole cumin seeds
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1/4-1/2 tsp red chilli powder

Put the dal into a heavy pot along with the water. Bring to a boil and remove any surface scum. Add the turmeric and ginger. Cover, leaving the lid just very slightly ajar, turn the heat to low and simmer gently for 1 and 1/2 hours or until the dal is tender. Stir every 5 minutes or so during the last half hour of cooking to prevent sticking. Add the salt and garam masala to the dal. Stir to mix.

Heat the ghee or oil in a small frying pan over a medium flame. When hot, put in the cumin seeds. A couple of seconds later, put in the garlic. Stir and fry until the garlic pieces are lightly browned. Put the chilli powder into the pan. Immediately, lift the pan off the heat and pour its entire contents, ghee/oil and spices into the pot with the dal. Stir to mix.

Contact details

WH Lung
81-97 Upper Brook Street
Manchester M13 9TX
0161 274 3177

Parisian dark (chocolate) secrets

May 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

Daybreak in Paris last Sunday. The public shame. The disgrace. The furtive attempts to conceal the evidence. The seedy story of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s New York exploits hits the newsstands perhaps?

No, this was me, rising at dawn to try and dispose of 1kg best quality Tanzanian 75% cocoa solids chocolate, a further kg of unsalted alpine butter, lashings of organic double cream and a generous slug of cognac, the whole lot coalesced into a greasy solidified mass of split ganache which should have graced a celebratory chocolate cake, the centrepiece of my cousin Pierre’s birthday party the night before. I finally found an empty public bin by a bus stop, deposited my sorry double-bagged chocolate mess and jogged away, lightened in load and spirit.

So what was the occasion?

A Saturday Night Fever birthday party to celebrate a Significant Birthday. The cake to match was a scaled down (2 layers rather than 3) version of spectacular chocolate-raspberry wedding cake selected from my new favourite baking book “Sky High: Irresistible Triple Layer Cakes” by Alisa Huntsman and Peter Wynne.

The book is American through and through and completely over the top in terms of the sheer number of generously proportioned and imaginatively filled and frosted celebratory cakes it describes. Other bloggers have raved about it so I just had to get hold of a copy. Apart from the Bittersweet Brandied Ganache débacle, it hasn’t disappointed.

The book’s strengths are the seductiveness of its drop-dead gorgeous full page glossy colour photos, its generosity of spirit and the imagination of its flavour combinations. Where it falls short is perhaps in a lack of precision – for that you have to go to Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible, another American classic on my bookshelf.

It all started so well. The choice of a classic American chocolate cake, seemed perfect for a party for a chocoholic into American disco nostalgia. The edible elements needed for the cake were 6 layers of Chocolate Butter Cake, generous quantities of seedless raspberry jam to sandwich the layers together, an unspeakably large quantity of Bittersweet Brandied Ganache to frost and a punnet of ripe raspberries scattered over the top to finish.

I have neither the time nor the space to give the complete recipe here – you’ll have to buy the book for that – the instructions for the full 3 tier wedding cake go on for 6 pages. However I do give the recipe for the Lenôtre chocolate ganache which eventually saved the day I’ve tried it 3 times now (albeit using European ingredients) and it’s been spot-on every time. A ganache to lean on, so to speak.

Here is the end result, finished just minutes before the first guests arrived at 7.30 pm. Not bad given the stresses of the afternoon of which more later…

The baking of the cake itself was fine. I followed the recipe to the letter, eschewing my favourite Green & Black’s cocoa powder in favour of Hershey’s obtained here in the UK via Amazon Marketplace.

This wasn’t just for reasons of American authenticity. The recipe specifies a non-Dutch Process cocoa powder in order to ensure the right chemical reaction with the recipe’s raising agent, bicarbonate of soda, to make the cake rise properly. Reading the Green & Black’s small print, you’ll see that this cocoa powder has been through the so-called Dutch process whereby the beans are treated with an alkaline agent to produce a milder flavour and, counter-intuitively, a darker colour. The Hershey’s stuff is paler but in theory contains more “roasty, caramel-like molecules…and…astringent, bitter, phenolics” (quoting from Harold McGee’s indispensable kitchen reference work On Food and Cooking).

The recipe is not a chocolate sponge made by the familiar creaming method but requires softened butter and buttermilk to be beaten into the sifted dry ingredients before the eggs and more liquid in the form of strong coffee are incorporated into the mixture. I would not attempt this recipe without the help of a Kenwood or Kitchenaid-type mixer as it requires a lot of heavy-duty beating.

After the addition of butter and buttermilk the mixture looks like a moist and friable garden loam:

Once the eggs and coffee were incorporated, it became soft, thick and lusciously silky, like a chocolate version of mayonnaise:

Baked, the cake rose well but not too aggressively. Don’t worry, the dome that forms in the oven settles down once the cake is cooled leaving a firm, glossy and flat cake which holds its shape well, eminently well-suited to the architectural task ahead.

The finished cake was firm, rich, dense and crumbly. It had an intense chocolate flavour pointed up by the addition of cinnamon and coffee in the recipe though neither flavour is perceptible. This is a cake designed for filling and frosting as eaten on its own it would be a tad dry.

The cakes were mixed and baked first thing Friday morning. Once cooled and carefully wrapped and packed, the cake’s 6 layers travelled as hand luggage, sitting obediently beside me on the short Flybe flight to Paris. Cake assembly began in situ at the party venue at about 2.00pm on Saturday afternoon. First the layers were spread with seedless raspberry jam (Tiptree brand), then sandwiched together with each triple layer cake having a slim silver cardboard base:

If I were to make this cake again, I would be more generous with the raspberry jam and I would leave the cake to mature overnight as the recipe instructs. The quantity of jam shown in the picture may look generous but is far less than the recipe suggests and when the cake was cut into later that evening, it had practically disappeared. More jam would have made for a moister cake I think as, being self-critical, it was just a little on the dry side (easily remedied on the night by serving it with extra fresh raspberries and a dollop of crème fraîche).

The next potentially tricky step was the positioning of the 4 transparent plastic dowels which supported the top layer. I measured, cut to size and positioned the dowels. This bit of the assembly worked like a dream – a relief as I’d never worked with dowels before. I know you shouldn’t experiment when baking for a special occasion, especially someone else’s special occasion, but I just couldn’t help myself:

Now for the ganache. How hard could it be to whip up a batch of ganache and slather it on all over the cake? I’d preweighed all the ingredients so it was quick work to set the vast quantities of best quality dark chocolate and unsalted butter (a kilogramme of each no less) to melt over a pan of barely simmering water.

I was patient and careful, never letting the mixture become too warm, not letting a drop of water near it lest it seize up and going easy on the stirring. On the home strait now. All I had to do was whisk in the warmed cream, then the brandy, just like the recipe said and I was home and dry. Blithely, I tipped them in and whisked away. That’s when disaster struck as the previously smooth glossy mix began to separate out into particulates and oil before my very eyes. 30 minutes and frantic whisking and cooling later, I pronounced the mixture officially beyond redemption, tipped it into a big plastic box for subsequent disposal and confessed my error to my slightly alarmed host and his family. The public shame and humiliation!

Having checked Harold McGee subsequently, I think that where I went wrong was in using chocolate with too high a cocoa content – 75% in my case. When liquid is added, the cocoa solids absorb the water releasing the fats out of emulsion and hey presto the mixture splits. His advice is to follow a recipe which sets out precisely the fat contents of the various ingredients and to follow it to the letter. The Sky High recipe was a bit on the sketchy side – ie just bittersweet chocolate, heavy cream and American ingredients are not quite the same as those we can buy in Europe which can make for misunderstandings.

Back to the party. Remembering Corporal Jones’ advice from Dad’s Army (Don’t Panic), using my host’s computer, I quickly retrieved the tried, tested and reassuringly precise ganache recipe I’d learned at the Lenôtre cookery school in Paris over Easter. Next, an emergency dash to the local supermarket for yet more cream and chocolate (just 600g of chocolate this time as 1kg was way too much, even for the most enthusiastic chocoholic) and I was back in business:

I followed the Lenôtre recipe as accurately as I could, though without scales or thermometer to hand I had rely on educated guesswork and prayer. To my immense relief, the ganache behaved itself perfectly and after 20 minutes’ or so cooling, it had reached the perfect consistency for spreading. The first house guests were just arriving at this point so I smiled and pretended to be part of the evening’s entertainment, a sort of cake artist installation.

The final step was piping a bold decorative border of what I can best describe as chocolate blobs to hide the joins between cake and board. Very effective though I say so myself. By the time the cake was served, the blobs had firmed up to become in effect mini chocolate truffles which could be detached and discreetly popped into the mouth while the cake was being sliced and served. Cook’s prerogative!

Cake complete, it was time to enjoy the party with the host rather than the cake the centre of attention – just as it should be. Great party Peter!

Recipe for foolproof chocolate ganache

With thanks to Philippe from the Lenôtre cookery school in Paris. I scaled this up by a factor of three to use to coat the birthday cake which comprised a 7 inch square stacked onto a 9 inch square.

Ingredients

200g cream 32% fat (equates to UK whipping cream – this is liquid cream not thick crème fraîche)
250g dark chocolate 50% cocoa solids (buttons are ideal for quick melting but bar broken into square is OK too)
50g unsalted butter

Heat the cream to 85 degrees C. Break up the chocolate and place into a large heatproof bowl. Pour over the hot cream and leave to stand for 10 minutes. Once the chocolate has melted, stir with a rubber spatula to incorporate the cream into the chocolate. Keep a ball of molten chocolate in the centre whilst incorporating the cream at the edges of the chocolate. Reduce the temperature to 30 degrees C then beat in the butter previously softened and tempered at 22 degrees C.

Cover with cling film and reduce the temperature to 17 degrees C when it will be the right consistency to use.

The green asparagus and the white

May 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Yes, you guessed it – curiosity piqued by the current BBC adaption of “The Crimson Petal and the White” I’ve finally got round to reading Michel Faber’s racy historical novel . It made a perfect holiday read over Easter in France, punctuating the main activities of exploring the Forêt de Fontainebleau and thinking about the next meal.

I was reminded of the febrile atmosphere of the novel whilst strolling past a curiously mounded asparagus bed on the outskirts of the village where we were staying:

The French prefer their asparagus white with the tips displaying just a tinge of purple. This is achieved by banking the soil up around each asparagus crown to blanch the growing shoots. Pausing beside the weird dusty anthills concealing the exclusively male crowns beneath, you can practically hear the shoots growing as they thrust upwards towards the source of warmth and light. I felt positively faint after a few minutes gazing at these shoots in the lazy afternoon sunshine.

The Germans too prefer the thicky juicy spears of white asparagus (Spargel in German). Despite their buttoned-up reputation, they go a little bit crazy during asparagus season (“Spargelzeit”) when asparagus festivals and special restaurant menus abound. The thick juicy white spears are simply served either on their own or with boiled potatoes and ham and always with generous pools of yellow buttery hollandaise sauce.

Whilst in Dusseldorf during Spargelzeit I was intrigued to find an asparagus ice cream sundae on the menu. This turned out to be a spectacular trompe l’oeil affair of piped vanilla and palest pistachio ice cream (to imitate the spears) topped with chilled vanilla sauce to mimic the hollandaise. Only in Germany…

We Brits prefer the arguably better flavoured and certainly more decorous green asparagus. No stonking purple-tipped white shoots the width of a baby’s arm here thank you! There is the added plus point for the lazy cook that tender shoots of green asparagus don’t require peeling unlike their continental cousins.

So what does a field of English green asparagus look like? I’d fondly imagined rows upon rows of waving green fronds but in fact the banked-up rows of dry soil I spotted in Suffolk don’t look radically different from their French counterparts:

I took this photo in the sandy fields near the coast around Wrentham. These spears were destined for the packing sheds of Sea Breeze Asparagus http://www.seabreezeasparagus.co.uk/ who supply by mail order all over the country and have come up with the delightful idea of sending an edible bouquet of perfect top grade asparagus spears to your loved one. It’s got to be better than a tired bunch of petrol station flowers hasn’t it?

So, what to do if you find yourself with a bunch of either the green asparagus or the white and feel inclined to do a little more with it than the usual steaming and serving with melted butter?

Having trawled through my collection of recipe books and notes, here are a couple of recipes that appeal to me, the first suitable for green asparagus and the second for white.

Recipe for grilled asparagus with blood oranges and tapenade toast

Serves 4

From Alice Waters’ inspirational and beautifully illustrated book “Chez Panisse Vegetables”. This is her typically relaxed Californian take on a classic combination of asparagus and oranges. Classical French cuisine does this by primly serving steamed asparagus presented in white napkin with the orange flavoured hollandaise known as Sauce Maltaise. All very well but a tad formal. In contrast, just reading Alice Waters’ recipe transports you to Californian wine country and the perfect al fresco supper…

Ingredients

For the tapenade

2 cups niçoise (black) olives, pitted
4 salt-packed anchovy fillets
1 clove garlic
salt
2 tablespoons capers
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

For the rest of the dish

1 shallot
3 blood oranges
1 and 1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar
extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
1 and 1/2 pounds fat (green) asparagus – 25 to 30 spears
4 slices country-style bread

First make the tapenade. Peel and smash the garlic with a pinch of salt. Using a food processor, pulse together the olive. anchovies, garlic and capers to make a coarse paste. Add the lemon juice and then gradually the olive oil, pulsing until completely incorporated. Put into a small bowl and set aside.

Peel and chop the shallot finely and macerate for 30 minutes in the juice of half an orange and the balsamic and red wine vinegars. Whisk in the olive oil to make a vinaigrette, and season with salt and pepper.

Peel just the zest from one of the oranges, chop it very fine and add to the vinaigrette. Cut away all the rind and pith from 2 and a half oranges (one half was used earlier for juicing) and slice them crosswise thinly into rounds.

Parboil and drain the asparagus. Brush lightly with olive oil, salt lightly and grill the asparagus ideally over charcoal or a wood fire for about 6 minutes over medium heat, turning often. At the same time, grill the bread.

When the bread is toasted, cut the slices into thirds and spread with tapenade. Arrange the asparagus on a platter with the orange slices on top. Drizzle the vinaigrette over and garnish with the tapenade toast.

Recipe for white asparagus and new potato salad with mustard and walnut vinaigrette

Serves 8 as a side dish

An idea I came up with whilst in France this easter. A good way of stretching a single bunch of asparagus into a dish to feed more than one or two people. The combination of white on white looks good, the chives add both colour and delicate onion flavour. The walnut oil imparts a delicious flavour to the salad without overpowering either the asparagus or the new potatoes. Reading the list of ingredients, I’m transported away from my computer screen in grey and cloudy Manchester to a sunny lunch table in France once more.

Ingredients

1 bunch white asparagus (500g)
650g small new potatoes
small bunch chives

For the dressing

3 tablespoons light olive oil
3 tablespoons walnut or hazelnut oil
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar or white wine vinegar plus a teaspoon of sugar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
squeeze of lemon juice to taste
salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Wash, peel and trim the white asparagus. Steam for 10-15 minutes until soft but not mushy. Leave to cool, then slice each spear on the bias into 3 or 4 pieces. Set aside.

Prepare the dressing by whisking together all the ingredients. Taste and check for flavour and seasoning.

Scrub the new potatoes (no need to peel) and steam for 10 minutes or until cooked through (test with the point of a knife).

As soon as the potatoes are cool enough to handle, slice into chunks and tip into a bowl. Pour three quarters of the dressing over and stir. Leave for 5-10 minutes to allow the warm potatoes to absorb the dressing.

Add the reserved pieces of asparagus, the remaining dressing and a generous quantity of snipped chives to the bowl and stir carefully to distribute.

Transfer to a serving dish lined with little gem or baby cos lettuce leaves.

Contact details for Seabreeze Asparagus

Alison Cooper
Priory Road Site
Priory Road
Wrentham Beccles
NR34 7LR

Phone number 01502675330
E-mail address alison@wveg.co.uk
http://www.seabreezeasparagus.co.uk

Two pretty lazy tarts…

May 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

No, not a reference to Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie amongst the guests at That Wedding, but a pair of recipes to make the most of newly arrived asparagus. Both have the advantage that you can feed some 6 people with a single prized bunch.

Both recipes are dead simple as you start with bought puff pastry. Now that the all-butter stuff is readily available, there’s really no good reason to make your own, unless of course it’s your idea of fun.

The first recipe, pairing the asparagus with slow cooked sweet shallots, unctuous melted taleggio cheese and serrano ham, comes from an old issue of House and Garden magazine circa spring 2005 I think. I carefully clipped the recipe out a few years ago after first making this tart. I then lost the cutting and was never able to remember the ingredients so I was thrilled that it turned up again when I cleared out some old boxes of papers the other week.

The second tart came from an article by Lucas Hollweg in the Times Online May 2008. I came across it when searching for my first recipe, lost then but now found. It’s different but equally good, combining asparagus with garlic, cream and goats’ cheese, the flavours pointed up with a little mint and lemon zest.

The only potential technical pitfall with either recipe is avoiding the dreaded soggy bottom (Princesses, take note…). Making sure your oven is good and hot, and using shallow metal baking sheets should help avoid this problem.

Either tart would make a lovely light spring lunch served with a green salad. And either would be perfect for the group occasion when you need to bring along a dish for a buffet supper or posh picnic – a bit festive, can be made in advance, good warm or cold, tastes fantastic, easy to cut into portions and serve – what more can you ask?

Recipe for asparagus, basil, serrano ham and taleggio tart

With thanks to House and Garden magazine.

You can use either green or white asparagus but be sure to peel white asparagus first – this isn’t necessary with the green stuff. You can substitute other oozy soft-rinded cheeses if you can’t get hold of Taleggio. I’ve made this recipe successfully with slices of Reblochon and Tomme de Brébis previously as that was I had to hand in the fridge. Slices of a well flavoured Brie or Camembert would probably be good too. You can also substitute other cured hams for the serrano, or even leave the ham out if you’re cooking for a gathering including vegetarians.

Ingredients

450g puff pastry
4 tablespoons olive oil
250g shallots or mild onions, sliced
1 tablespoon finely sliced basil leaves
salt and freshly ground black pepper
500g fresh asparagus
85g finely sliced serrano ham
225g Taleggio cheese
Basil leaves to garnish

Heat the oven to 220 degrees C, gas mark 7. Roll out the pastry into a thin rectangle 35cm by 25cm and slip onto a baking sheet. Take a sharp knife and lightly score the pastry about 2cm inside the pastry edge, so that create a rim for the tart. Prick the internal rectangle of the pastry with a fork and chill for 30 minutes.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and gently sauté the shallots until they are meltingly soft. Mix in the basil, season to taste and set aside. Meanwhile, trim the asparagus removing the tough ends of the stalks (peel if using white asparagus), then drop into a pan of boiling salted water; cook for about 5 minutes, or until al dente. Drain and spread out on kitchen paper to cool.

Spread the shallots over the pastry within the rim. Arrange the asparagus on top, then tear the ham into strips and scatter over the asparagus mixture. Cut the cheese into fine slices (the original recipe suggests cutting off the rind but I think this is unnecessary and wasteful). Dot over the filling.

Immediately place in the centre of the oven and bake for about 10 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 200 degrees C, gas mark 6 and cook for a further 10 minutes, or until the pastry is crisp and the cheese bubbling. Serve garnished with a few basil leaves.

Recipe for asparagus, lemon and goat’s cheese tart

With thanks to Lucas Hollweg for this recipe which appeared in The Times Online in May 2008.

Again, you can use either green or white asparagus but be sure to peel the white stuff first as otherwise it will be inedibly woody.

Ingredients

500g asparagus
250g puff pastry
2 cloves garlic
100ml double cream
zest of 1 lemon
150g soft white goat’s cheese
salt and pepper
1 egg
small handful mint leaves
olive oil

Throw the asparagus into a pan of boiling water. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 4-7 minutes until just soft. Tip into a colander and refresh under the cold tap.

Preheat the oven to 220 degrees C/425 F/gas mark 7. Roll the puff pastry into a rough circle about 28cm diameter. Put it onto a large baking sheet, then use the tip of a knife to score a line all the way around, about 1cm from the edge. Don’t cut all the way through; it’s just to form a rim for the tart. Prick the centre with a fork. Cook in the oven for 5 minutes until it starts to rise and brown.

Meanwhile, mix together the garlic, cream, lemon zest and half the cheese. Season, then beat in the egg. Remove the pastry from the oven and flatten the centre inside the border to make a well. Pour in the cream mixture, being careful that it doesn’t spill over the edge. Arrange the asparagus randomly over the top and scatter with the remaining goat’s cheese and the mint leaves. Add a drizzle of olive oil and some salt and pepper.

Turn the oven down to 200 degrees C/400 degrees F/gas mark 6 and bake for 20-25 minutes more until the pastry is crisp. Drizzle over a little more oil and leave for 20 minutes to cool.

A dish fit for princess…?

STOP PRESS – Pleased to see that an asparagus and watercress tart featured on the menu at That Wedding Reception

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