Here We Go Round the Prickly Pear at 8:30pm on a Work Night*

As much as I love Nigella Lawson's recipes, she and I diverge when it comes to dinner party planning. Those of you who have read her books will know that she eschews fussy individual portions, can only add table decorations in an ironic sense and loves the informality of everyone gathering in the kitchen and watching and sampling as she cooks. Um, no. I suspect that people who agree with her are those who enjoy "open-plan living" and dream of guests gathering around a breakfast bar so that they can "chat as they cook".

Don't get me wrong, I too hate those stiff and pompous occasions when people are too fearful to enjoy the food because they are worried about which bread plate is theirs**. But, old-fashioned as I may be, I relish the chance to lay a table properly. I love rummaging at antique fairs and flea markets searching for beautiful and unusual tableware and I am probably one of the few twenty-somethings who grapple with the question of whether writing people's names on dried leaves with gold pen is a step too far***. Sitting around a beautiful table (even when the plates are a mixture of flea market and Ikea) is a chance to satisfy creative urges and celebrate the aesthetic.

What's more, the notion of standing at a kitchen island while six people watch me prepare the food fills me with dread. If I'm in the last-minute fluster of getting food ready to eat, I can't cope with people peering over my shoulder, judging my over-zealous use of butter and asking advice about latest boy-friend woes at the same time. Even when I was cooking a simple tomato sauce for one of my dearest friends (who is very health conscious) I had to resort to distracting her so I could quickly sneak in the butter. It's just not relaxing.

However, when you are attempting to cook a three course meal for six on a Tuesday night after work you begin to wish you weren't so bloody particular and could just give everyone a job in the kitchen, sweep the vegetable peelings off the table and tell everyone to tuck-in. But no. I cycle home swearing because it's raining (of course) and the water is leaking through the gaps in my bike helmet and converting my blow-dried hair back to its default position of frizz. Cycling is particularly perilous because the groceries that wouldn't fit in my pannier are bashing against my leg and causing me to veer unpredictably into the road. All the while my inner critic is taunting me because I bought the cheese straws for nibbles rather than baking them myself. Of course, because of my need to have the table set before everyone arrives (complete with candle/floral centrepiece) I forgo the chance to have a shower and so spend the evening clammy and jealous of my sweeter smelling friends.

Despite all the pre-dinner panic and my cheese-straw induced self-flagellation, the evening went well. To begin with I made an onion tarte tatin which is one of my friends-coming over staples. It's a really simple recipe but i won't include it here as unfortunately I was too busy folding napkins to take photos. I promise I will add it soon though as it's a real winner. For the main course it was beef bourguignon made in my trusty slow cooker and served with roast potatoes. I got the potatoes from the excellent Borough Market, they'd come all the way from Northumberland and were a fluffy variety perfect for roasting. They certainly made a beautifully crisp shell with light buttery innards.

For pudding, it was a pear and almond tart. I had made the pastry at the weekend using my mum's early-80s food processor. For years I faithfully made pastry by hand (always the purist) thinking that by playing by the rules I would end up with a superior product. It was actually my dad's mince pies which made me realise that using a processor could produce a superior result. Not only does the pastry stay cooler I find that you don't need to add as much liquid. The only problem is that it can be tempting to make the pastry too short. This time I ended up with a really light crumbly crust, but it was a real bother to roll out (hence the raggedy edges). Obviously it wasn't as pretty as I would have liked, but combined with the velvety almond custard and the vanilla-poached pears it was a real treat.

Pear and Almond Tart
2.5lb firm, ripe pears (I used William)
6 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 vanilla pod, halved length ways and the seeds removed
3 tbsp apricot jam
Almond Cream
2.5 oz butter
3 oz icing sugar
2 tsp cornflour
3 oz ground almonds
1 large egg
1 tbsp Amaretto (or dark rum)
3.5 oz creme fraiche

8 oz plain flour
2 oz butter
2 oz shortening e.g. lard or trex (if you prefer not to use shortening just use another 2 oz butter)
ice cold water

If you want to make this in advance you can make the pastry and the almond cream ahead and freeze them. Bear in mind that the pears should be left to infuse overnight.

  1. The night before, peel the pears, cut them in half and remove the cores. Place them in a bowl and cover them with 3tbsp lemon juice.
  2. Put 1 litre of water, 3tbsp lemon juice and the vanilla into a pan and bring the liquid to the boil. Add the pears and put a circle of greaseproof paper on top while you let them simmer for 10-15 minutes. Allow to cool and then cover and leave the pears to infuse overnight. I think adding some amaretto to the liquid could also add to the flavour.
  3. The next day, make the pastry. Put the flour, a pinch of salt and the fats into your food processor and add the flour (you can do this by hand if you prefer). Pulse the mixture to make breadcrumbs. Don't be tempted not to add any water even if the mixture is coming together - the pastry will be a nightmare to handle. Add enough cold water to bring the pastry into a ball. Wrap the pastry in cling film and chill in the fridge.
  4. Meanwhile make the almond cream. Soften the butter with a wooden spoon. You don't want to beat air into it like a cake, you just want to soften it. Add the icing sugar, cornflour and ground almonds and mix well. Add the egg and mix it in. Finally pour in the amaretto and the creme fraiche and stir until the mixture is silky smooth.

  5. Roll out your pastry and line a 8.5 inch tart tin. You don't need to bake the pastry blind so add the almond cream and smooth the surface. Arrange the strained pears on top, core side down.
  6. Put the tart in a preheated oven (180 degrees) and bake it for 30 minutes.
  7. Once the tart is cooked allow it to cool and remove it from the pan. It is important to let the tart cool before you serve it, otherwise the almond cream won't be set properly.
  8. Heat the apricot jam in a pan until it is liquid and then brush it over the surface of the tart.
  9. Enjoy!

* T.S. Eliot bastardized. I apologise.

** Go for the one on the left.

*** I haven't been brave enough yet, but one day I will.


Graeme said...

Great start to your new Blog, and I'm massively jealous that you've just come back from New York.

Thanks for commenting on my stuff too.

Andrew said...

Love pears, me. And almonds. So off to see Mr Wait and Mr Rose for some... no food mixer though...

Joy said...

Graeme, try and squirrel away some of your student loan for a trip to New York. The exchange rate is too good to resist at the moment and there is an excellent camera shop...

Andrew, to be honest I prefer making pastry by hand as I like the feeling of the cool 'breadcrumbs' in the bowl. I'm sure you could find a great wine to pear with it too. Oops, sorry about the pun, I seem to be turning into my Dad!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if it's possible to use powdered eggs as a substitute? Please let me know. I printed this one too.

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