Relearning to make pastry 

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I could write about strange days, and new norms.  But I don’t want to.  All the conflictions of guilt, gratitude, anxiety for the future, loneliness, community;  there is nothing special or unique about my lockdown life.  Nothing that deserves to be heard before other, more urgent stories.  And there is an edginess, a tetchiness about, with short fuses and misunderstandings abounding.  Food seems frivolous to some, writing about it almost provocative.  So, as ever, I am in two minds.

But within this, there is some continuity.  This is a food blog, it has always been a food blog.  Its context and content may have shifted over time, as they will continue to do.  But the food component is presumably why people read it, why those of you who follow me, subscribed for the updates.  

So, tentatively, I stick with it, and it remains mostly about my journey, discovering Sicilian, and more widely, Italian food, one that’ll keep me on my toes for a few decades yet.

I am hampered in this journey by my woeful, state schooled, British ineptitude at languages (only the rich need to speak another language in the UK).  Try as I might, Italian doesn’t sink in,  despite the hours of lessons and practice.  My ear doesn’t hear words, or even intonations, only white noise.  Every day I practice with an app that asks me to translate strange phrases like ‘the ant is in the sugar’ (la formica è nello zucchero, if you’re interested), but the moment I’m asked a question in Italian, the vocabulary and grammar all drain away.  The plan was to go and spend some time there, do an intensive course, only hearing and speaking Italian, to break that caught-in-the-headlights panic.  Obviously, this plan is now on hold indefinitely.  So other routes must be taken.

A friendship of cooks has established between myself and the much more knowledgeable and productive Italianhomecooking, who shares his knowledge freely, willingly, funnily, sometimes sternly.  But  it’s great.  He’s very good at suggesting avenues to explore, books to be read (or not read), the dos and the don’ts of Italian food.  So I turn to him often for suggestions, and most recently he (having been told the contents of my fridge) challenged me to make a tart of ricotta and cherries, but, and there is a catch, I had to find Pellegrino Artusi’s 19th century recipe for pastry, la pasta frolla, in Italian, translate it, and then make it as the case for my tart.

Pellegrino Artusi literally wrote the book on Italian food.  Just a few years after unification, ‘Science in the kitchen and the art of eating well’, was the first publication that attempted to cover the diversity of this new nation’s food culture.  This was 1871, and my Italian is not even up to 2020 standards, let alone 19th century ones.  But I discoverthat he had three recipes for sweet pastry – two containing lard, all with illicit amounts of butter and sugar.  There is some talk of not working the dough too much because of the risk of burning (I check, confused, but this is a saying, if not an actual thing), of using the knife, egg washing the crossed lattice on the finished tart.  So I think I have it, it takes a while, and I learn a new word (tuorlo, for yolk), and I think I am ready to start my tart.

The pastry, even after chilling, is dangerously unwieldy, I have to use profligate amounts of flour to stop it sticking to everything, but I get there.  My cake tin is lined, with an eggily golden case of impressively smooth pasta frolla (the secret is to use icing, not caster sugar).

Into it goes a batter of ricotta, sugar, eggs, and then, like a clafoutis, two big helpings of boozy cherries, hauled out of their embalming fluid.

It’s the first time I’ve cooked a sweet ricotta tart, so I’m very much guessing on the timings.  I watched it hawk like – at the moment that there was a hint of golden, and the wobble of the eggy ricotta was about to set firm, I whisked it out of the oven, guessing it would continue to cook under its own steam for a few more minutes.

My tart, which would have been a crostata if I’d applied Artusi’s egg-washed lattice on top, was, I am happy to say, fantastic. Sweet, tangy, and, yes, tart from the resurrected cherries.  The pasta frolla was perfection.  I have never had much luck with sweet pastries, they’re always a bugger to work with, and don’t take well to blind baking, tending to slump into a sulky pastry car crash.  But this was intact (supported by its ricotta interior), golden, crisp – as though someone else, not me, had made it.  Old recipes needing translation, are not something I would usually embrace.  There’s very little in Mrs Beeton that I would want to cook, and if I had to translate them first, I would have even little faith.  But, it turns out, this Artusi knew his pasta frolla.  This will be my go to tart pastry from now on.  I’ve bought Science in the Kitchen based on this one recipe, although admittedly, the English translation…for now, let’s not carried away.

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Ricotta and Cherry Tart (Torta di ricotta e ciliegia)

Artusi’s pasta frolla (the one without the lard)

250g plain white flour

125g cold butter

110g sugar (ideally icing)

1 whole egg

1 egg yolk.

  1. Cut the butter into small cubes and work it quickly into the flour.  Starting using a knife, then with your fingers.  Is it just a British saying about the best pastry chefs having cold hands?
  2. Mix in the sugar
  3. Add the beaten egg and yolk, and with the knife again, mix everything together, before forming the dough into a ball.
  4. Wrap this up and put the dough into the fridge for at least an hour – but next day is even better I’m told.

Turn the oven on, Gas Mark 4, 180 degrees C to preheat. (ok, on reflection, this is either too hot or the timing is too long. A gentler bake is required, that’ll set the filling but barely colour the pastry at all – best adapt for your own oven).

Ricotta and cherry filling.

500g ricotta

50g sugar

2 medium eggs (large ones may make the mixture too sloppy, and if you want to make a lattice top, the cheese won’t be able to support the weight.

75g Cherries (ideally, preserved in alcohol of some description and drained), or you could poach fresh cherries, or use tinned ones.

Mix the sugar, eggs and ricotta to a smooth batter.

Assembling the tart.

Roll out three quarters of your chilled pastry dough on a very well floured surface.  As soon as it starts to warm up, it will become sticky, so, the flour is essential.  You want it to be roughly 3mm thick. 

Use the pastry to line a 22cm Victoria sponge tin, that you’ve greased with some butter, then trim any overhang.

Put the tin on sturdy baking tray, and then pour in your ricotta batter, before scattering in your cherries.  75g is a guideline, just keep going until the batter has filled the pastry case.

Now you have two choices:

  1. bake it as is.  A British tart with Italian touches
  2. Use the remaining pastry, roll out then cut strips of 1-2 cms, but try to keep them all the same width.  Then use these to form a criss cross pattern on top  of your tart.  Brush this with a beaten egg, and you now have a very Italianate Crostata.  

Both versions go into the oven for anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour (my newish oven I am learning is very casual about sticking to the Gas Mark it’s set to, so everything always takes longer than the recipe says).

When the wobble has almost stopped, your tart is done.

Lovely warm, or cold, this doesn’t hang around.