Vegetable Cheesy Tart

Finally (you might think), a savoury recipe! I get the idea to some people I come across as someone who merely feeds off dessert. Let me assure you, that is not the case. It’s widely renowned that I have a (massive) sweet tooth and, to be perfectly honest, desserts appeal to me a lot more than a chicken breast – this sounds wrong on so many levels, but I’ll just carry on. Come think of it, I have two punnets of blueberries in the fridge which I NEED to use. Will have to come up with something quick. Now, back to this recipe. The inspiration comes from Giallo Zafferano, the Italian equivalent, if you want, of the BBC Good Food website. This tart features on the website under the name of ‘Italian rustic tart/pie’ and has a fancy lattice pattern on top. I modified the recipe to suit my needs, but if you want the lattice on top, then by all means do make it.

The filling is encased by a very cheesy crust, made with Parmigiano Reggiano. Please don’t get Parmesan cheese, that tastes nothing like the real thing. I chose a good mature cheddar for the filling, which marries the ricotta and the vegetables beautifully. I also added an egg to the filling to make it set more, you’ll see when you cut it that it is crumbly as it is already. Last note, I added some dried herbs, namely oregano and sage, to boost the earthy and rustic feeling of the tart – once again, if you have fresh herbs, then don’t be scared to use them. The quantities indicated below make enough pastry and filling to line two tins. Depending on how deep your tins are, I managed to make two tarts using a deep 20cm fluted tin and a 10x25cm rectangular fluted tin.

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Ingredients (for the cheese shortcrust pastry)

  • 200g unsalted butter, cold and cubed
  • 400g plain flour
  • 100g Parmigiano Reggiano, finely grated
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • 4-5 tbsp water

Ingredients (for the filling)

  • 100g peas (frozen is fine)
  • 200g carrots, finely diced
  • 200g courgettes, finely diced
  • 350g asparagus
  • 400g ricotta
  • 100g mature cheddar
  • 1 tbsp whole milk
  • 1 garlic clove, finely minced
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 2 tsp dried sage
  • 100g black olives, drained and sliced
  • olive oil
  • pepper

Method

  1. To make the shortcrust pastry, tip the flour, salt, cheese and butter in a food processor and process until thoroughly blended and the consistency of bread crumbs. If you prefer, you can also do this by hand by rubbing the flour and cheese mixture into the butter. With the motor running, slowly start adding the water, one tablespoon at a time. Check your pastry before adding more as it will start to clump together when it’s ready.
  2. Tip it out of the food processor and gently knead for a couple of minutes to bring the whole pastry together. Shape in a ball, flatten to a disc, wrap in clingfilm and put in the fridge for at least 1 hour to relax.
  3. In the meantime, start making the filling. Blanch the asparagus in a pan of boiling water, then drain and rinse in cold water to stop the cooking process. Slice in rounds, then set aside. Pre-heat your oven to 180C.
  4. Ensure the courgettes and carrots are finely diced, then tip them in a frying pan with a drizzle of olive oil and the garlic, then gently cook over a medium heat until still crunchy but slightly softened. Towards the end of the cooking time, add the peas and the asparagus, then season with pepper and some salt (be stingy with salt as there is more cheese coming later). Set aside.
  5. Drain the ricotta in a sieve to get rid of the excessive moisture. Dice the mature cheddar cheese finely, then add them to the ricotta together with the egg, herbs, milk, olive slices and some pepper. Mix together, then add to the cooled vegetable mixture.
  6. Take the pastry out of the fridge, then roll out half to line a 20cm fluted tart tin. Make sure you push the pastry into the edges, then roll a rolling pin over the top to cut off the excessive pastry and use your fingers to push the pastry slightly above the edge of the tin. This way, when the pastry cooks, it will shrink back to the level of the tin and you won’t end up with no pastry left. Small note: I usually chill the pastry case for another 30 minutes once I rolled out the pastry and before I blind bake it. This ensures the pastry doesn’t shrink as much as you give the gluten in the pastry time to relax again in the oven.
  7. Prick the base of the pastry case with a fork, then blind bake it using the required beans/weighs for 20 minutes. Remove the beans/weighs and return to the oven for another 7 minutes, to cook the base.
  8. Spread enough filling into the pastry case to reach the edges, then bake for a further hour. Keep an eye on the tart and check it regularly to ensure the top is not burning. When cooked, remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before transferring onto a serving dish.

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Pandoro

In Italy, Pandoro (literally ‘golden bread’) is a bread/cake which regularly features on dinner tables during the Christmas period. It is star shaped, golden brown on the outside and has a moist, buttery crumb on the inside which reminds of a brioche and a croissant. Some people believe that, although traditionally associated with Verona, this dessert actually comes from Vienna, where it was prepared under the name of ‘Bread of Vienna’. Others, on the other hand, maintain the cake is an evolution of the ‘pan de oro’ baked for the rich Venetian merchants. Pandoro was patented on 14th October 1894 by Domenico Melegatti, the owner of the sweet manufacturing industries by the same name.

As with other traditional desserts, there are several recipes available. The one below has been devised by the Simili sisters from Bologna, well known in the Italian culinary tradition for their aptitude and competence with yeasted doughs. Their breakthrough achievement was to use yeast in the cake and to layer it, which provide extra softness, a honeybee-like structure and a really crumbly texture. The preparation is long and takes place in stages which require at least 9 hours. A good idea would be to stretch the preparation over two days, which also intensifies the flavour of the Pandoro. Also make sure to use plenty of vanilla, which is the natural and only flavour used in this cake. The original recipe asks for vanillina, the vanilla flavour compound which is widely sold in Italy. Seeing as this is not available in the UK, I substituted it with a good amount of vanilla beans, but you could as well use the extract. You will also need a 1kg Pandoro cake tin, which you can easily find online. I bought mine from Bakery Bits.

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Ingredients

  • 450g strong bread flour
  • 135g golden caster sugar
  • 170g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 4 medium eggs
  • 1 x 7g sachet of fast action yeast
  • lukewarm water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp vanilla beans
  • extra butter and icing sugar, for the mould

Method

Start with the poolish. In a big bowl or the bowl of a freestanding mixer, combine the following:

    • yeast
    • 60g lukewarm water
    • 50g strong bread flour
    • 2 tsp golden caster sugar
    • 1 egg yolk

Use a whisk to combine all of the ingredients together, then cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave in a warm environment until you see some tiny bubbles forming on the surface.

When that happens, start with the actual dough by adding the following to the poolish:

    • 200g strong bread flour
    • 25g golden caster sugar
    • 30g unsalted butter, at room temperature
    • 1 tsp lukewarm water
    • 1 medium egg

I used my KitchenAid to mix it all together, but you can do this by hand. Mix all of the ingredients but the butter, then add it once the rest is thoroughly incorporated. Knead either by hand or with the dough hook until the mixture is silky smooth, then cover with clingfilm and leave to prove in a warm environment for a good hour or until the dough has doubled in size.

Then move on to the third stage by adding the below:

    • 200g strong bread flour
    • 100g sugar
    • 2 medium eggs
    • 1 tsp salt
    • 1 tbsp vanilla beans

Incorporate these ingredients and knead the dough until soft and pliable, then transfer to a buttered bowl and leave to prove until doubled. Put the dough in the fridge for a good hour to firm up. Take the dough out of the fridge and roll out to a rectangle. Spread the butter in the middle and pile it up to a small mound, then fold the four corners on to the middle. Fold the dough over and start rolling it to a long rectangle away from you. Fold the top third of the dough onto the middle, then fold the bottom third on top of that – much in the way as for croissants of puff pastry. Wrap the folded dough in clingfilm and leave in the fridge for 30 minutes. Take it out of the fridge and repeat the folding process for 3 more times.

In between the folding stages, generously butter the Pandoro cake tin.

Once the last folding is complete, shape the dough to a ball and put in the tin, smooth side down (that is, with the non smooth surface facing you). Cover the tin with clingfilm and leave to prove in a warm environment for about 4 hours, or until the dough reaches the edge of the tin.

Towards the end of the proving time, pre-heat your oven to 170C.

Bake the Pandoro for 15 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 160C and bake for another 15 minutes. Check with a skewer that the Pandoro is cooked through, otherwise give it another 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and unmould as soon as you can. Leave to cool, then serve generously dusted with icing sugar and enjoy.

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Storage: treat this cake as a brioche, so keep in a bag in a cool place to maintain it soft and spongy. It is very versatile and can be used for French toast, bread and butter pudding, etc. Just to give you an example, here what I did with a leftover one. I sliced it horizontally and sandwiched it together with custard, whipped cream and plenty of fresh fruits and chocolate chips. The whole cake has then been dusted in icing sugar. (edited 01/01/2014)

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Peschine – Boozy Pastry Peaches

It all began when my mother gave me an Italian pastry recipe book which contained this childhood classic (well, mine at least). These are small shortcrust biscuits sandwiched together with pastry cream, then rolled in a dark red liqueur and granulated sugar. The result is a peach-looking like biscuit, very boozy and finger lickin’ good. I remember going to the pastry shop as a kid and asking my mother to buy me one of these, only to devour it in a few seconds. Not that I showed any alcoholic obsessions from an early age (the alcohol content is minimal if compared to other desserts), but more because of the deep red colour and the intense flavour these biscuits have. Just divine.

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According to tradition, these should be made using two liqueurs. First, Maraschino, a Dalmatian liqueur obtained from the distillation of Marasca cherries, is added to the dough. As I didn’t have it, I used Cognac instead. These little beauties are then rolled in Alchermes, an Italian alcoholic concoction prepared with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and vanilla. Alchermes is renowned for its deep scarlet red colour, obtained with the addition of Kermes, a parasitic insect. When it came out the liqueur was prepared with insects, sales dropped and people refused to use it. As a result, modern preparations prefer vegetable colourings instead. I bought mine in Italy, but you should be able to buy it online or in specialist shops. Also, the filling can traditionally be either pastry cream or its chocolate version. I stipulated in favour of the second one, mostly because that’s the way I have always had them.

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Ingredients (for the dough)

  • 250g plain flour
  • 1 large egg
  • 100g golden caster sugar
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp Cognac
  • 100g unsalted butter, softened
  • pinch of salt
  • zest of one lemon

Ingredients (for the filling and decoration)

  • about 450g pastry cream and/or chocolate pastry cream
  • about 200ml Alchermes
  • 200g granulated sugar

Method

  1. Line two (or three) baking trays with baking parchment. Do not turn the oven on now as the pastry needs to chill.
  2. Using a freestanding mixer (or your hands), cream the butter and the sugar together until light and fluffy, then add the egg and mix that in.
  3. Mix the flour with the raising agents, then sift those in and work them into the mixture, ensuring not to overwork it. Add the liqueur and the lemon zest, then work those in too. Gather the dough into a ball.
  4. Dust your working surface with a good amount of flour, then place your dough in the middle and use a floured rolling pin to roll it out to the thickness of a pound coin. Use a 4cm round cutter to cut shapes, then roll each one into a ball and place on the prepared baking tray. Keep on re-rolling your pastry trimmings to make as many nugget-sized pastry balls as possible. Also ensure you have an even number as you will need to sandwich them. Transfer each baking tray to the fridge to firm up before baking. You will need approximately 20-30 minutes.
  5. Towards the end of the baking time, pre-heat your oven to 180C, then bake each biscuit batch for 15 minutes. Do not overbake to give them a deep golden colour as they will be too hard afterwards. Remove each batch from the fridge and leave on a wire rack to cool down and firm up.
  6. Once cooled, use a knife to slightly carve the peach halves. This will ensure more cream can be used to fill them and keep the two halves together.
  7. When you are ready to assemble, place the granulated sugar in a shallow bowl, the liqueur in another and have the pastry cream at hand with a teaspoon. In an assembly line sort of way, fill the two halves with some pastry cream, then join them on the flat side to make them stick. Dunk them briefly in the Alchermes (you don’t want them to become too soggy), then roll them in the granulated sugar. Transfer them to an empty plate and, should you feel particularly artistic, decorate each one with a small mint leaf.

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Salmon & Mushroom Parcels

I did find inspiration for this recipe in one of the many Italian cookbooks (cooking encyclopedia, more like it) which I stole from my mum’s house last time I went home. They are full of interesting ideas and I like having a look at them as they remind me of Italy, with its vibrant food scene and great variety of vegetables, fruit, meat and fish. I have to say it would be impossible for me to recreate most of the recipes in there, mostly because I can’t find the necessary ingredients here in the UK. I did manage, though, to settle down on a couple of substitutes. For instance, I usually use German or British smoked cheese instead of fontina, an Italian cow’s milk cheese with a pungent and intense flavour, and shallots (although not difficult to find in the UK) can be easily substituted with spring onions.

I settled down on this recipe because I happened to have some leftover puff pastry in the freezer (who doesn’t?), but the same parcels can also be made with more conventional shortcrust. If you don’t like salmon, then cheese can be a good substitute or, maybe, why not try chicken?

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Ingredients

  • 1 x quantity of puff pastry (about 500g)
  • 3-4 salmon fillets, deskinned and deboned
  • 2 shallots, finely chopped
  • 250g chestnut mushrooms, sliced
  • Marsala wine
  • salt
  • pepper
  • olive oil
  • oregano
  • thyme
  • 1 egg, beaten (to glaze)

Method

  1. Start by preparing the mushrooms. First of all, drizzle some olive oil in a frying pan, then add the shallots and gently fry for a couple of minutes until softened. Tumble in the mushrooms and cook for another 5 minutes. 
  2. When you see that there is very little liquid left on the bottom of the pan, drizzle some Marsala wine in the pan, then scatter some oregano and thyme. Cook for another 3-4 minutes, until the mushrooms are soft and cooked all the way through, but not mushy. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool completely.
  3. In another pan, gently fry the salmon in some olive oil on both side until slightly coloured. Turn it frequently and don’t let it catch on the bottom. Remove to a plate and gently flake with a fork until shredded. Leave to cool completely.
  4. Roll out your puff pastry to a big sheet on a slightly floured working surface. Using a knife, cut about 8-10 squares, ensuring half of them are slightly bigger.
  5. Take one of the smaller squares and pile some mushrooms on top, then add some of the salmon. Try not to overfill these or the pastry will collapse. Lightly wet the edge with some water, then cover with one of the bigger squares and press the edges to seal. Brush with some egg wash, then place on a prepared baking tray. repeat until you have used all of the filling and the pastry.
  6. Bake the parcels at 200 degrees Celsius for about 20 minutes, by which time they will have puffed up and will be nice and golden. Remove to a sheet of kitchen paper to drain of the excess oil, then eat wither warm or cold.

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Courgette Lasagnotta

Yes, I know. The name is extremely clichéd and you wouldn’t have expected it from me, being Italian and all that. I have to say, though, that in my defence this is an original creation of mine and, as such, deserves a creative name. What with it being a lasagna made with ricotta and courgettes, the name came by itself. Also, ‘lasagnotta’ sounds particularly cute in Italian.

Right, the concept behind this recipe is that I had some courgettes and some ricotta in the fridge. I had read somewhere that you could make a good lasagna out of it, but as I did not recall neither where I had read it (I devour food literature) nor how much of each, I decided to improvise. The result is very good and I am particularly proud of it. Please feel free to adapt the recipe, I used all the little pieces of leftover cheese I found in my fridge, but you are more than welcome to stick to just one variety. I also think a very good addition to the lot would be smoked salmon, as it goes really well with courgettes and cream.

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Ingredients

  • 3 courgettes
  • 4 spring onions
  • 1 x 250g tub of ricotta
  • 100ml sour cream
  • 6 lasagna sheets – check how big your oven dish is before deciding how many you need!
  • 100g full-fat cream cheese
  • 100g mixed grated cheese (I used goat’s and standard cheddar)
  • 1 tsp chilli powder
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • olive oil
  • Parmesan, to taste

Method

  1. Finely grate the courgettes and slice the spring onions. Warm some oil in a frying pan, tumble in the vegetables and cook over a medium heat, stirring regularly, for about 20 minutes. The vegetables should have softened but not turned into a mushy mixture. Halfway through the cooking time, add a pinch of salt and grate some black pepper.
  2. Meanwhile, boil some water in a kettle and pour it into the tin you will use for the lasagna. Add a drizzle of olive oil and slowly plunge the lasagna sheets in the boiling water. Leave for about 7 minutes or until softened. Alternatively, you can boil them for about 5 minutes. Once softened, arrange on a plate and brush with olive oil to avoid them sticking to one another.
  3. Now prepare the ricotta sauce. In a bowl, mix the ricotta, cream cheese, sour cream and the mixed grated cheese to obtain a slightly dense but soft mixture. Add the paprika and chilli powder and mix that in.
  4. Once the courgettes are cooked, start layering your lasagna. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
  5. Use about one third of the courgette mixture to spread on the base of the oven dish, then top that with a layer of lasagna sheets (3, in my case). Spread about half of the ricotta mixture, then top scatter another third of the courgette mixture. Cover with a second layer of lasagna sheets, then repeat the ricotta mixture and the courgette one to complete.
  6. Grate some Parmesan on top, then cover the oven dish with some foil and bake for about 30 minutes.