Most of what we enjoy about food today has something to do with our earliest food memories. Those were the days before The Simpsons, before Homer could utter your name and voila you became instant pop culture reference. Julia Child was the ready-reckoner cooking personage mentioned on TV shows. So she has been in the zeitgeist a long time, and the problem with being in the spirit of the times is that you take these icons for granted without examining too deeply. I knew vaguely that I was making her scrambled eggs, having got the recipe from 1001 Foods (subtitled: The Greatest Gastronomic Sensations on Earth). And I knew they were something special when the almost runny eggs came out buttery, creamy and completely different from what I had previously termed scrambled eggs. But still I chose not to analyse or research. Then came the asteroid hit that was Julie and Julia, and I found myself running around like a headless chicken in search of ever-more information on French cooking and the Childian mystique.
Now, I am never going to attempt an aspic, nor do I possess the discipline to embark on a year-long recipe project. All I can do is read, read and be occasionally inspired as I was when I nose-dove into the wonderful intricacies of crafting short-crust pastry and rough puff pastry. I remember forgetting to add lime juice into the cold water for the mix to make rough puff pastry dough, as you are told to do on Rachel Allen Bake, blogs and Youtube videos, and feeling defeated that all this rolling and turning had come to nought. Then a quick flip through Julia Child’s The Way to Cook and I felt reassured, as Ms Child had not anywhere used lime juice to make rough puff pastry. I watched her making a French omelette on a black-and-white egg special on PBS.org and I was struck by the woman, her lilt, and that wonderful eager-to-teach, easy-to-approach demeanour of her early cooking shows. By the time she was showing us puff pastry with Michel Richard she seemed vaguely more sophisticated. Perhaps it was down to years of dealing with people while in the throes of unexpected fame, old age and ill health. But I enjoyed the footage of the early Julia, her sepia-toned tour of Provence, and her friend Simca in Spinach Twins and her demystification of Creme Fraiche in La Tarte Tatin.
Some of my own treasured food memories are rather more virtual, than real. As a child reader, I loved ‘pre-mobile phone, pre-Facebook, pre-My Space’ Enid Blyton books. Even today, I can conjure up picnic passages from The Famous Five, which involved the adventures of Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timothy the Dog. They would ride out on their bicycles during summer holidays, stopping over at sunny watering-holes to swim and picnic sitting on grass. Inevitably there were boiled eggs, bread and butter sandwiches, scones, biscuits, sardines and root beer or ginger beer. In the cold light of adulthood, these seem alright enough, but child me was completely under the thrall of these imaginary luncheons when I didn’t even know what ginger beer was exactly, still don’t know. In my imagination, it was a sweet ginger flavoured cordial of some kind. But what in tarnation is root beer? Perhaps a misnomer for ginger beer? Then there were the girls who boarded at Malory Towers and their midnight feasts. The only modern-day virtual equivalent is the moment at the end of a Nigella Feasts episode, when Ms Lawson raids her frigidaire in a satiny dressing gown to savour some of her day’s efforts. That one little act of hers has done a lot to alleviate food guilt worldwide.
I made an interpretation of Tart Dijonaise after watching an episode of Planet Food, where Merilees Parker, on tour in the countryside of Burgundy, comes across a little home-style, family restaurant. She and the farm-owner’s wife who runs the place get down to making Tart Dijonaise. All it involves is short-crust pastry rolled out using an empty wine bottle, some liberal painting of the pie-crust with Dijon mustard, a cooked onion and tomato filling and French emmenthal cheese on top. It all looked easy, but after reading the pastry chapter in Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat (essential reading for pastry do’s and don’ts), it was drummed into my head that I had to keep the pastry cold _ use cold water, cold butter, cold bowls, no touching with warm hands or fingers, to chill the pie crust for 10 minutes after it has been beguiled into a cold quiche tin _ cold being the operative word.
Also, how sticky the dough gets depends on which part of the world you live in. Short-crust pastry and puff pastry were invented in colder climates, where butter does not have a physical need to melt. No wonder that near the equator in India, such pastries were never thought of because the climate here, unless you are far up north in the Himalayas, is more suited to the use of oil and flowing ghee. A famous example of a hot Indian pastry is the samosa, where rolled-out triangular slivers of wheat flour-and-water dough (everyone here has a handed-down secret for crispy samosa skin) is stuffed with potato, peas and delicate spices then fried golden brown. Ghee is made from cooking accumulated cream collected over weeks from whole milk, till all the water has evaporated and the milk solids have fried up. What remains is blonde ghee, which is then filtered out. At least, this is how my mother makes it. Thanks to electrically-powered technology like the refrigerator and freezer, even here in the dry heat of the Western Ghats in March, it is now possible to play around with cold European butter pastry. In my version of the Tart Dijonaise, I used a filling of spinach and onion cooked in olive oil, along with salt, pepper and dried thyme. Also, I left out the cheese feeling rueful about the copious butter in the flavourful crust. And after all this, well, the taste, let’s just say it was worth the trouble.
For the pie crust:
200 grams of refined flour,
100 grams of butter (I used salted butter though the advice is to use unsalted)
a tablespoon or two of cold water with a cube or two of ice added to it,
one egg yolk beaten with a half a squeeze of lime.
For the tart filling:
Two to three big onions sliced,
two to three tomatoes sliced,
a bunch of chopped fresh spinach with stalks and stems removed,
a quarter teaspoon of salt,
same of pepper,
one teaspoon dried thyme
two tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil,
one potato sliced very thinly with a mandolin,
and a very generous tablespoon of Dijon mustard or as much as it takes to paint the bottom of your tart.
Measure out the cold sifted flour and dice the cold butter. Sieving is supposed to aerate the flour. Roughly toss flour and butter together and put in the freezer for 10 minutes. Then quickly tip the butter and flour into a processer and process till the mixture looks like shattered crumbs. At this point, add the beaten yolk and lime mixture, then process and if the mixture doesn’t look like it is coming together, stop and add a teaspoon of cold ice water through the funnel and process again. The mixture will start to bunch together in the bowl, at this point switch off the machine and dump out the now rather sticky mixture on to a sheet of cling film. Pull the cling over it, then very gently just press it together into a ball of dough inside the cling. There’s no kneading. Flatten into a thickish disk. Refrigerate for an hour, or overnight.
For the filling, cook the sliced onions slowly in olive oil. Add salt, pepper and dried thyme. After a couple of minutes, when the onions have softened in the oil, drop in the chopped spinach. Cook these down gently slowly on a low flame for about 20 minutes. Do not let it burn. Shut off the flame after 20 minutes, and let it cool down. The residual heat ensures that it will cook down a little more.
Next take out the disc of cool pastry dough, unwrap it from its cover of cling. Flour your board and a preferably heavy cold rolling pin (I use a marble rolling pin) as the disc gone stiff in the fridge needs some weight to roll out. Then roll it out into a not-too-thin disc just bigger than the tin you are using. Brush off any excess flour. Wind this rolled-out disc of pastry over the floured rolling pin and take over to tart tin. Unwind into the tin from edge to edge and then press it very gently with fingertips into the sides of the tin. If you want a neat edge, slide the rolling pin over the top of the pie crust in the tin to level off the pastry. Prick the bottom of the dough and eggwash a little with the left-over eggwhite, then into the fridge with the pie tin and crust to chill, because the rolling and folding will have slowly made the dough sticky, which means that the butter has started to melt.
And we can’t have that, because say ‘the collective voices of chefs who know better’ in my head _ the crumbs of butter have to stay intact to create a finished flaky pastry. Take out the cooled pie crust and spoon in the Dijon mustard and paint away. Then layer on the sliced and lightly salted potato. Spread a layer of sliced tomato also sprinkled over with a miserly pinch of salt, then a layer of the cooked filling of onion and spinach. Repeat these layers, till the last tomato layer is level with top of tin. Cool again if you feel the pie crust feels sticky or looks wilty. Bake in a pre-heated oven for 20 to 30 minutes at 200 C, for however long it takes to get a nice golden-brown crust. Take out and cool for 10 minutes before removing from tin and cutting out a slice.
- At The Girls’ Guide to Guns And Butter, I found a beautifully written, easy to understand elucidation of rough puff pastry using a food processor, with step-by-step photos to illustrate.
- A quick puff pastry video from Canadian Living.