Category Archives: Pies & tarts

Fine apples, rotten consumerism

Pie with cream

When we got back from our travels just before Christmas, we travelled back and forth across the south of England on the train visting family. I’ve got a vivid memory of looking out of the window into gardens backing onto the train line, and seeing numerous apple trees, leafless in the winter cold, and surrounded by a carpet of rotting fruit.

When we finally moved back into our own house in Sussex, a similar sight met us with a tree in our garden. Clearly our tenants hadn’t been into apples. Or maybe they had – but like so many people, were inclined to buy plastic bags of New Zealand or South African or French (!!!!*) apples from the supermarket and ignore the free fruit growing just outside their own door.

Britain has been going this way for decades now. And it’s a great tragedy. Britain, especially the south of England, has an ancient history of apple growing. Cider is synonymous with Devon and Somerset, for starters. Yet I’ve got another strong memory of driving through Devon and stopping for a picnic – beside an orchard of mature apple trees, one of them vast like an oak, all of them dropping their fruit into a rotting carpet in the grass.

Rotten to the core
It’s not just the fruit that’s rotten though, it’s the supermarket-dominated system that somehow believes it makes more business sense – which is different to actual sense, common sense, or future-of-the-human-race sense – to waste or neglect or our produce that is.

Or, as Paul Waddington says in Seasonal Food, “… if a kilo of apples has made the flight from New Zealand in March, are they really going to taste as good as the stored British variety?  … are the New Zealand apples really worth the kilo of CO2 they will produce compared to the 50g if the same kilo were sourced locally. Despite the fact that we grow perhaps the best apples in the world, Britain has lost 60 per cent of its apple orchards since 1970,  thanks in part of the bureaucratic madness that paid growers to dig them up.”

The past few years we’ve at least been discussing the waste that goes into supermarkets only selling standardised fruit and veg (apples and tomatoes of ruthlessly controlled sizes and colours, carrots without protrusions and nobbles, bananas with very specific curves,  etc). But is it already too late? Most of us have already forgotten what it’s like to eat seasonally, never mind the brainwashing that arrises from only ever encountering these cosmetically “perfect” supermarket products. We’re so out of touch with food production. I mean, when was the last time Britons en masse grew their own fruit and veg? Probably during the Second World War’s Dig for Victory, with perhaps some efforts in the 1970s inspired by The Good Life.

Apples, Lewes Friday market

World leaders in apples
As with most things in life, all it needs is a little more education, and if people are better informed that can have a bearing on market forces. After all, as Waddington says, “We should be world leaders in apples. With judicious use of varieties and good storage, we can east our own produce almost all year round, with perhaps a brief gap in July.”

Now, it’s January, and the apple harvest here in England, usually August to October, is fading into a distant memory on the far side of Christmas. And yet, my local farmers’ market has one stall, Greenway Fruit Farm, that has a wonderful selection of apples. All are priced at £1.50 a kilo – which isn’t bad, as a quick scoot round mysupermarket.co.uk indicates all the UK supermarkets are selling apples at around £1.75 -£1.99 a kilo.

Last year, Britain had a “bumper apple harvest” after a dry summer, so there really is no excuse to not be eating home-grown apples his year. Not all of these apples will necessarily be cosmetically so shiny shiny, but then real apples, grown through traditional means without gallons of toxic sprays and without a wax-job, will never look like those silly massive red things you see in American movies.

Sheer variety
We have 2,300 varieties here (listed in The National Fruit Collection in Kent; there 2,500 grown in the US, for comparison, and 7,500 worldwide) and they vary remarkably in appearance, flavour and use. Some great for eating, some for juicing, some for cider, some for cooking.

Last week, I bought a good selection of Braeburns for eating. This variety is synonymous with NZ, where is was emerged in the 1950s near Motueka (a great place for fruit and hops), a Granny Smith-Lady Hamilton cross. It’s been grown here since the 1990s though, really coming into its own in the 2000s. Its popularity is understandable as it’s a medium-large, green and russet colour fruit with a crisp bite and taste that somehow blends sweet and tart, and can be a dessert apple and a cooking apple.

For cooking, however, I also stocked up Bramleys. This variety was, perhaps surprisingly, developed from a seed planted only in 1809 by a girl in Nottinghamshire. They were first sold commercially in 1862, soon becoming established as a significant crop. The original tree is still bearing fruit.

These are the quintessential British cooking  variety, accounting for 95% of our cooking apples. Usually I get mine from my folks, who have a very handsome mid-sized tree in their garden that really cranks out bright green, occasionally pumpkin-sized fruit. The ones I bought on the market were a bit different though – the Greenway lady was excited about them as they had an unusual amount of red on their skins. They certainly worked wonderfully for an apple pie.

Pie with ice cream

As English as apple pie
The recipe I used this time was from Andy Bates and his Street Feasts TV shows, which we’ve been enjoying on Freesat since we got home, got settled and got a telly. It features a slightly unusual pastry that eschews the more typical necessity for cold, cubed butter. Instead, butter and sugar are creamed together, egg is added, then self-raising flour – as such it’s more like a cake batter, though drier. The final results are more cakey too, with a more spongy crumbliness than a traditional short crumbliness. It’s rather good.

His recipe also uses a filling that’s not too sweet. In the show, he explained that’s because he’s pairing it with an ice cream made with condensed milk and hokey pokey (aka honeycomb, you know, like the stuff inside a Crunchie bar). I did make the ice cream – it’s easy, with no custards, no churning, but it is insanely sweet, and his quantities are weird, there’s way too much honeycomb. You can find his original recipe here; if you do fancy making the ice cream, I’d recommend halving the quantities of honeycomb.

Here’s the pie recipe:

Pastry
200g butter
200g caster sugar
1 egg
1 yolk
325g self-raising flour

1. Cream together the sugar and butter. The latter can be at room temp, or even warmed a little to make it easier to cream. I tend to nuke cold butter for a  few seconds in the microwave, or if I’m using a metal mixing bowl, put in a low heat on the hob briefly.
2. Beat together the whole egg and egg yolk.
3. Cream the egg into the sugar-butter mixture.
4. Sieve the flour into the creamed mixture, combine and bring it together as a dough.
5. Wrap up the ball of dough in plastic and put it in the fridge to rest, for about an hour.
6. Make the filling.

Filling
1kg Bramley apples (about 5 or 6 medium-large ones)
50g butter
50g dark soft brown sugar
1 t ground cinnamon
Juice of 1 lemon

1. Peel, core and chop the apples into 2cm-ish cubes.
2. Warm the butter, sugar, cinnamon and juice together in a saucepan.
3. Add the apple pieces to the sugar mix and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring regularly to soften the chunks equally.
4. Cool the apple mixture.

Assembly
Water
Milk
Caster sugar

1. Preheat the oven 180C.
2. Cut a third of the pastry off the ball.
3. Roll the two-thirds chunk and use it to line a tin – in the show he used a 23cm loose-bottom cake tin, but Fran’s colleague in Rome lost mine (grrrr. Still annoyed about that, can’t find a non-non-stick replacement), so I used a 25cm loose-bottomed flan tin. You could use any sort of tin, around the same size (9-10 inches for you olde fashioned types).
4. This doesn’t need blind baking, so just add the cooled apple mixture.
5. Roll out the remaining pastry and cover, sealing the edge with water. It’s not the easiest pastry to roll, but don’t worry too much, it’s so cakey, it bakes fine even if you bodge the pastry case together in pieces.
6. Crimp the edge.
7. Brush the top with milk and sprinkle with caster sugar.
8. Bake for about 45 minutes, until nice and golden.
9. Leave to stand for about 10 minutes before serving.
10. Serve with his crazy sweet ice cream (seriously, I’ve got a sweet tooth, but that stuff was too much even for me), or some plain vanilla ice cream, or cream, or custard – whatever you fancy.

Most importantly, make it using local apples.

I urge you to track down local apples, support your local economy, support local producers, support your national economy, reduce the pollution of absurd food transportation.

If you don’t have an apple tree, family or friends may have one they don’t harvest. Or you could politely scrump some by asking a neighbour. Even if the fruit looks ugly, it could be very tasty – and great for cooking up. And it’s free.

Alternatively, stock up at a farmers’ market or farm shop. Failing that, ask for British apples in your supermarket. You should at least be able to find Bramleys as they store well and are available all year round.

China already produces 40% of the world’s apples. Britons, I ask you: in ten years, wouldn’t you rather the apples available to you in your local shop or market were actually from our own once great apple-growing nation than from the country whose incredible industrial drive and growth is rapidly taking over pretty much everything?**

* I’m using the !!!! to indicate a “For flipping flip’s sake” moment as this country is not only just across a thin stretch of water from us, it’s in the same hemisphere with the same flipping seasons.

** Don’t get me started on pine nuts – I can’t find any pine nuts in Britain that are grow in Europe. Or even the US. They’re all from China. It’s boggles me, yet most people don’t even seem to notice.

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Filed under Misc, Other food, Pies & tarts, Puddings & desserts

Pine nut cheesecake, or cheesecake della nonna

Pine nut cheesecake, cheesecake della nonna

If you’re in a Roman restaurant and they offer you desert, it’s quite likely you’ll encounter torta della Nonna – that is “Grandma’s tart” or “Grandma’s cake”. I’m not sure about the labour laws, but all this pudding-making must keep granny pretty busy.

Sources vary, but torta della nonna is either a Florentine or a Ligurian dish. Though surely any nonna has her own torta? There are variations, but most commonly in Rome it’s a tart made with a sweet pastry crust and a filling based on custard and/or ricotta. Its defining feature is pine nuts, pinoli.

This post isn’t, however, about torta della nonna. As I had some leftover cookies that had been smashed on their journey to and from the park for a picnic on Sunday, I thought I’d make a cheesecake with a della nonna twist: ie, with the addition of pine nuts.

A note on the cookies
I made some cornmeal cookies – they were basically like a digestive, but with a slightly different crunch, and a few spices (cinnamon, ginger). They worked well, but you can use whatever biscuits you like: digestives are most typical for UK cheesecakes, US recipes use graham crackers. My friend Juli-from-Jersey said the cornmeal cookies reminded her of snickerdoodles, though they’re cookies with a name so ridiculous I can’t quite bring myself to discuss them.

I won’t include the cornmeal cookies recipe, but will say digestives are so easy to make you don’t need to reach for some plastic-wrapped stuff from a factory. I’ve included a simple recipe at the bottom of this post. If you do use this recipe, I’d add some cinnamon and ginger to the crumb base mix.

A note on the candied peel
Only use your own candied peel, or other hand-made stuff. Don’t use that yucky sticky stuff you get in tubs from the supermarket. Peel is easy to make. Honest. Just Google it, if you’ve not tried before. I’m still using some of my candied-vodka-infused-kumquats-from-the-garden-peel.

A note on cheeses
Often, cheesecake recipes will just say “cream cheese” in the ingredient list. It’s a bit vague. Though perhaps it doesn’t matter what cream cheese, as a baked cheesecake mixture seems pretty forgiving. Here I used mascarpone and robiola. The latter could be replaced with something like Philadelphia, if you really had to. You could also do, say, half-half mascarpone and ricotta. I might try that next time as you can get stupendous fresh ricotta here in Roma.

Pine nut cheesecake slice, cheesecake della nonna

Ingredients
Base:
40g hazelnuts
120g cookies/biscuits like digestives
60g butter

Cheesy bit:
250g mascarpone
200g robiola
2 eggs
Zest of 1 lemon
100g caster sugar
30g candied peel
60g pine nuts

To serve:
30g pine nuts
Icing sugar

Method
1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
2. Toast the hazelnuts until starting to brown.
3. Grind the hazelnuts in a food processor until fairly fine, then add the cookies and grind to a medium crumb.
4. Melt the butter in a pan, then combine with the hazelnuts and cookie crumbs.
5. Push the crumb mix into the bottom of a 20cm loose-bottomed cake tin.
6. Combine the cheeses, eggs, sugar, and zest, blending well by hand or with a handheld zizzer.
7. Finely chop the candied peel and add to the cheese mix, along with the pine nuts.
8. Pour the cheese mix onto the crumb base.
9. Bake for around 50-60 mins until the top is browning and even cracking slightly, and firm to the touch.
10. Remove the sides of the tin, and leave to cool completely.
11. When the cake is cool, toast the extra pine nuts and sprinkle on top, dusting the whole lot with icing sugar.
12. You could serve it with some whipped cream, for added deliciousness. We didn’t as it’s hard to get nice cream here in Roma, despite the cornucopia of other wonderful dairy products.

Extra! Free! Digestive biscuits recipe
90g butter
120g wholemeal flour
120g oatmeal
40g caster sugar
Pinch salt
Pinch baking soda
1 egg, beaten

1. Preheat oven to 200C.
2. Rub butter into flour, stir in the rest and bind with beaten egg.
3. Roll and cut out rounds.
4. Prick with a fork.
5. Put on baking sheet, sprinkle with oatmeal and bake in a hot oven till browned.

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Filed under Biscuits, cookies, Cakes, Pies & tarts, Puddings & desserts, Recipes

Pastiera from Naples

slice of pastiera

So here’s another Italian sweet I need to learn how to make, as it’s my kind of thing: a light tart containing sweetened ricotta and cooked whole grains. It’s pastiera, which comes  from Naples. In fact, this one literally came from Naples – we just spent a weekend in that seething, decaying metropolis. We stayed in the centro storico, and walking one of the decumanus streets – the ancient Roman east-west thoroughfares – we spied a bakery that basically just sold pastiera, its windows full of these fab tins.

It might be a bit cutesy, and aimed in large part at tourists, old biddies etc, but Italy does have do a nice line in old-style packaging, notably for shop-bought biscuits. The biscuits might be made in an anonymous factory, but some 19th century style design on the tin makes the product strangely appealing. In this case, the tin seems to be saying “Eat pastiera while you still can – before Vesuvius blows its top again and buries us all like in Pompei, 79AD”. Well, perhaps.

Pastiera tin cu

In this case, the tarts were all made by hand in the small bakery. It was on via Benedetto Croce, near the crossroads with via San Sebastiano. The tart cost a stupid amount, considering it would only cost a few euros to buy the ingredients, but hey, the whole experience was nice. They even had a “Periodic table of the dessert” on the wall of the shop. Said niceness really counted considering our day had been a tad stressful – Naples fulfilling its remit as deeply dodgy when we encountered some pickpockets so flagrant it was almost comical on the bus. (I’ll laugh one day, but I’m still smarting slighting from my naivity and not realising that the guy I was pushing away from my dad’s pockets probably had a colleague stealthing my pocket, and getting my phone. Luckily it was a crappy old phone. And probably covered in bacteria, as such things are. I hope the thief and his fence get sick from it.)

pastiera in its tin

So, yes, anyway. Pastiera –  watching the recipe demonstration here on giallozafferano it looks like a pretty basic construction, featuring ricotta, sugar, eggs, cooked grain and candied fruits. I should try my own version at some stage as I’ve been experimenting with making peel – in this case, candying the last of the alcohol soaked kumquat zest I used in my lemon kumquat cake.

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Filed under Pies & tarts