I gave something up for Lent this year and Easter Sunday today marks the return of my forbidden Achilles heel:
puddings and all things sweet. These recent weeks of choosing to avoid sugar has made me realise how much I pick unnecessarily at any opportunity. I will, from now on, indulge only in good quality sweet stuff, not just any old bits lying around.
In an ideal world, I would be in Paris today to break Lent - I doubt there would be a patisserie shop left unvisited. But if I can't go to them, then the patisserie shop will just have to come to me.
Is there any greater spectacle to the food lover than the sight of the exquisitely laid-out counter of a real continental-style patisserie? In food terms, for all our diverse culinary sophistication and excitement, the patisserie shop remains, to my mind, the one area where we lag drastically behind the rest. We have shops selling sticky cakes; other countries have delicate, enticing displays of pure craftsmanship. And these shops are not a rare speciality, but an expected feature of the town landscape. In Paris, they thrive on virtually every street.
I plump for pastry, preferably crumbly, flaky puff, layered maybe with cream, otherwise fruit. The simple combination of apple slivers against the brittle base of the tarte fine is the ideal balanced ratio of fruit to pastry, possibly the one item from a craftsman's display that mere mortals like us can (approximately) reproduce at home.
Apple tarte Fine
Recipes serve 8
300g piece of puff pastry
flour for dusting
5 granny smith apples
70g butter, melted
an egg yolk
a small dash of milk
10 dessertspoons of caster sugar, approximately - amount according to instructions in steps 6 and 7
1. Using a swivel head peeler, peel the apples carefully, taking care to keep the natural round shape of the fruit's outline. Once peeled, cut in half downwards through the stalk, then scoop out the core neatly with a melon baller. Lay a tea towel out on a tray so half of it is on the tray and half is trailing off. Arrange the apple halves on the tea towel and cover with the excess piece of towel so the surface moisture begins to be absorbed. The exterior of the apples may slightly discolour in the air but do not worry as they are going to be cooked and caramelised, so this browning will not show and it does not affect the finished flavour. Leave on the tray like this for at least an hour, and up to four hours, refrigerated.
2. Beat the egg yolk with the dash of milk and set aside on a small bowl or tub.
3. Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper. Lightly dust your work surface with flour then roll out the pastry to a rectangle the size of an A4 piece of paper. The thickness should be around 3mm-4mm. Transfer to the prepared baking tray. Using the tip of a small sharp knife, score around the perimeter of the pastry, about 1cm in from the outside, to create the effect of a picture frame - do not cut right the way through the pastry.
4. Now, using a soft pastry brush, brush the egg wash generously around this border area. Using a fork, prick the entire surface of the pastry inside this egg washed border. You should now have a rectangle piece of raw puff pastry, with a glossy egg washed border and an evenly pricked middle area inside this frame. Allow to rest for an hour.
5. Meanwhile, deal with the apples. Take one half piece of apple at a time. With a slim, very sharp knife, slice in evenly sized half moons; the pieces should be just 1.5mm-2mm thick, no more. Slice carefully so you still retain the semi spherical shape of the apple half, then place them back on the towel. Slicing carefully at this stage will make it easier to arrange the apples on the pastry later and will also benefit the presentation. Continue until all the apples are sliced finely and arrange on the towel.
6. You are now ready to assemble the tarte fine. Preheat the oven to 190C/gas mark 5. With the tart laid out in front of you, spread the apples out on the surface neatly in rows, holding the apples in one hand and "dealing" the slices out with the other like a deck of cards. Continue until all the apples are laid out neatly in straight rows. You will probably have about four or five rows, depending on the size of the apples. Lightly brush all over with the melted butter without dislodging any of your careful apple arrangements. Now comes the sugar sprinkling which is always a shock: you need more than you could image possible. Sprinkle a level spoonful along each row (yes, each one) making sure the sugar is evenly sprinkled but not so thick that hides the apple
7. Bake in the oven at once for about 45 minutes, turning the tray around once half-way through. At this point, sprinkle more sugar on the apples. About five or 10 minutes from the end, you can sprinkle over a little more butter if you wish
8. To test the tart is done, lift up one edge with a palette knife, taking care not to damage the base; it should be light gold and firmly cooked, not soft or underdone.
9. Once done, leave to cool for a few minutes then serve at once, or leave to cool to room temperature to serve; or cool and rewarm gently when needed. Serve with crème fraiche, clotted cream, pouring cream or ice cream.
Apple, cinnamon and almond tart
200g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
200g soft butter, plus extra for greasing
Pinch of salt
100g caster sugar, plus 1 tbsp
2 large eggs
100g ground almonds
1 level tsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp finely chopped lemon zest
4 eating apples
1 tbsp smooth apricot jam
1. Sift the flour into a bowl and dice 100g of the butter into it. Add the salt. Rub the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in 1-3 tbsp cold water until the dough clings together. Knead lightly to make a ball, dusting with flour if it seems wet. Wrap in cling film and chill for an hour.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4. Generously butter a 24cm diameter flan tin with a removable base and dust with flour. This makes the tin non-stick. Roll out the pastry to a thickness of 3mm-4mm, line the tin, and trim the edges. Roll the trimmings up to form a ball and use this, dipped in a little flour, to press the pastry into the corners of the tart case so it is snugly lined. Line with parchment paper and half-fill with baking beans, rice or dried beans. Bake for 10 minutes, then remove the paper carefully so none of the baking beans fall out, and bake for five minutes more or until the pastry is a light gold colour.
3. Meanwhile, beat together 100g butter and the of 100g sugar until light and fluffy. Briefly whisk the two eggs together in another bowl, using a fork to mix them together. Now add about a third of this egg mixture to the butter and sugar mixture, beating it in thoroughly, before adding the rest in two batches. Fold in the almonds, ground cinnamon and lemon zest and tip into the pastry case. Spread around evenly with a spatula.
4. Halve and peel the apples, carefully cutting out the cores. Place flat side down and slice thinly across the width. Press the apples into the tart and spread out the slices slightly. Melt a knob of butter, paint the apple halves with it and dredge with caster sugar. Bake for 40-45 minutes, until the frangipane is puffy and golden and the apples just cooked. Paint the apples with the apricot jam, and leave in the warm, switched-off oven, with the door ajar, for 15 minutes. Serve warm or cold.