Monthly Archives: February 2012

Just One

If I had to keep just one cookbook, it would be a red hardback wrapped in a bright blue sleeve with a lobster on the front, a single volume which comprises three of Elizabeth David’s classics of the kitchen; Book of Mediterranean Food, French Country Cooking and Summer Cooking. I might have a moment of doubt and consider Jane Grigson’s ‘Good Things’ or my dog-eared copy of ‘English Food’. I may clutch my battered copy of Simon Hopkinson’s Roast chicken and Other Stories closely for a moment, but my definitive choice, my desert island trilogy, would be my crustacean adorned copy.

Elizabeth David is not just my favorite food writer, she’s one of my favorite writers and one of the reasons I absconded to Italy. For years I’ve returned to at least one of her eight books or one of the two anthology’s of her articles, letters and notes – which are invariably scattered all over my flat – most days, be it in the kitchen, in a chair, writing here, or last thing at night in bed. Her introduction to Mediterranean food, description of Provence in French Provincial Cooking and anything from An omelette and a glass of wine are all favorites to fall asleep to.

She is a masterful writer: scholarly, witty, informative, elegant, fiercely opinionated, and the passion and enthusiasm with which she communicates her love of good food, well cooked is contagious. Her writing, essays, descriptions of weather, food, herbs, colours, smells, tastes, and of course her meticulously authentic recipes collected during her travels in France, Italy, Corsica, Malta, India, Eygpt and Greece are timeless (she began writing in the 1950’s) and as bright and brilliant as sunshine. But for all their bright brilliance, Elizabeth David’s books, illustrated with John Minton’s black and white drawings, are also a refuge, evoking a way of cooking and thinking about food so entirely different from the loud, fussy, over styled but often hollow food culture I can (and do) bombard myself with.

Over the last five months Elizabeth David has mostly been a bedside companion. But now I’m emerging – sleep deprived, disoriented, quite grumpy but uncharacteristically content – from my postnatal vortex and my very bonny five and a half month old son, if armed with a wooden spoon and a Tupperware lid, is happy to bounce away in the doorway, I’ve started working my way through the fringe of bookmarks. The first being Quiche Lorraine.

In truth, this particular recipe for Quiche Lorraine from French Country Cooking has been bookmarked for years rather than months and the food memory behind the bookmark is decades rather than years old. Two and a half decades to be precise, 25 years, since I ate a slice of Quiche Lorraine at the vast kitchen table of the Renault family during my traumatic but gastronomically revelatory French exchange with the horrid Carolyn I was 14. I even mentioned this recipe when I wrote about savory tarts a while back. But I never made it. Then the other week my friend Ruth came over for lunch and I wanted to make something tasty, simple and nice, a thank you of sorts for all the meals her and her husband have made for me. The bookmark for the Quiche was particularly prominent, a postcard from France no less, so I finally made this Quiche.

This is the Quiche Lorraine I ate in France all those years ago, simple, authentic, understated and very delicious. Short, crumbly, flaky pastry – made with plenty of good butter and some lard – encasing a delicate, quivering, softly set filling of fresh thick cream and eggs studded with chopped bacon. This is my Quiche touchstone, the example which shames all the crimes against Quiche I’ve had the misfortune to encounter, those heavy leaden triangles of heartburn inducing pastry filled with rubbery custard and stuffed to the gunnels with too much cheese, béchamel, three types of vegetable, pineapple, two paperclips and goodness knows what else.

This may seem a mere slip of a Quiche if you are used to heftier more elaborate things! But I assure you it’s a lovely slip of a Quiche.  Unfashionably rich and unhealthy by todays standards, what with all the butter, lard, bacon and cream and just my sort of thing. My sort of thing too I can hear you shouting, hooray for butter, lard, bacon and cream. And after all, there will be salad too, crisp and green, hopefully with some bitter leaves to contrast the soft dairy creaminess of the Quiche.

It is pretty straightforward to make and involves four nice kitchen tasks all of which I am happy to interpret as dance moves if given the appropriate quantity of alcohol; rolling, tucking, frying and whisking. First you make the pastry by rubbing butter and lard into flour (with a pinch of salt) until it reassembles breadcrumbs, adding some very cold water and bringing everything together into a ball. You chill the pastry for a while before rolling it out into a circle and tucking it into a tart tin, preferably one with a loose base.  Then the frying, of the diced bacon – the smell of which along with thoughts of roast beef brought was the smell that brought me back from the other side . Finally the whisking together of the thick, fresh cream – luscious and lovely – with two eggs. Once you have sprinkled your diced, fried and provocatively smelling bacon into the pastry case and poured over the pale yellow mixture you manoeuver your Quiche (set on a baking tray)  into the oven, bake it for 30 minutes for so or until it’s set but still with a slight wobble, blistered and golden.

The Quiche is best about 20 minutes after coming out of the oven, so it has time to settle and the filling firm up a little. Also the  texture and flavors – as is so often the case – are best appreciated when the Quiche is warm as opposed to hot.

It seems appropriate that I give you Elizabeth David’s recipe as she wrote it – word for word – in French Country Cooking. I have however added metric measurements and some of my own notes at the end.

Quiche Lorraine

From Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking

For six people

  • 6oz / 180g flour
  • 2 oz /60g butter
  • 1 oz / 30g dripping / lard
  • 6 rashers bacon
  • 1/2 pint / 250 ml cream
  • 2 fresh eggs
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 gill / 75 ml of water

Make a pastry with the flour, butter, dripping, a pinch of salt and the water. Give it one or two turns and then roll it into a ball and leave it for 1 hour.

Line a flat buttered pie tin with the rolled out pastry. Onto the pastry spread the bacon cut into dice and previously fried for a minute. Now beat the eggs into the cream with a little salt and ground pepper; when they are well mixed, pour onto the pastry, put into a hot oven and bake for about 30 minutes.

Let it cool a little before cutting and serving.

My Notes.

I only used 50ml of water. I think very very cold water (I add an ice-cube to the measuring jug) is best. I rest my pastry in the fridge. My tart tin has a loose bottom. I bought it here. It is a trusty tart tin. When I roll the pastry out and tuck it in the tin, I leave a pastry overlap which compensates for any pastry shrinkage when it cooks. I make sure I press the pastry firmly into the tin. I don’t worry about neat tart edges. I set my oven to 175°. I bake my tart case blind for 10 minutes before adding the filling. When I bake blind I don’t use baking beans, I simply pick the pastry with a fork – the pastry may well puff up but it quickly sinks down again. I use double, heavy cream. I think the tart is best eaten about 20 minutes after coming out of the oven.


Filed under antipasti, cream, Eggs, fanfare, food, pies and tarts, summer food, tarts

More cream

My little niece Beattie tasted cream for the first time this christmas. Her eyes widened as she spooned the lactic loveliness into her little mouth. ‘It’s called Cream‘ my sister explained to her daughter. Bea looked down at her bowl, then up at her Mum, ‘Cream‘ she repeated – relishing the new word almost as much as her pudding – before turning her attention back to the task in hand. She carefully scraped her bowl clean, her spoon skills and healthy appetite inciting a rumble of approval from the gaggle of relatives, before returning her gaze to her Mum. Then, while nudging her bowl towards the cream jug, her face full of expectation and her brow furrowed with the concentration required to link two words together, she said earnestly ‘More cream‘.

Quite right too I thought, ‘More cream’ and not just on our jelly!  ‘More cream generally’, preferably double-double, extra thick, luscious, glorious cream.

Cream is one of the things I miss.! Not that you can’t find cream in Rome! Of course you can and I’ll come to that in a moment, it’s just not the same. I miss English cream. I miss shops that dedicate a large portion of their chilled section to tubs, cartons and pots of cream: single cream for my porridge, pouring cream for my pie, whipping cream for my sundae, double cream for my fool, extra-thick double cream for my crumble  clotted cream for my scones, clot-your-arteries cream for my trifle, custard-yellow Jersey cream straight from the pot, cream scream cream

I’m sure if I lived further up Italy’s boot, where olive groves are replaced by green pastures, I’d find it easier to get my hands on more cream. But here in Rome – unless of course I’m missing a cream emporium hidden up some backstreet – the choice is pretty limited. There are little cartons of good panna fresca (fresh cream) from Rome central dairy, cartons of panna da montare (whipping cream, which to be honest can be rather lusterless) and tubs of the luxuriously thick Mascarpone. 

Not that this limited selection stops Romans making one of Italy’s most famous (you could say ubiquitous) simplest and I think – when made properly – nicest puddings: panna cotta. Panna cotta, which literally translated means cooked cream, is not, as its name implies, cooked. Cream, with maybe a little added milk, is gently warmed with sugar and often a vanilla pod, then mixed with softened gelatin, moulded and chilled. The resulting pudding, a delicate set cream to be turned out onto a plate, looks rather like a smooth, squat, milky-white sandcastle, which – and this is the key apparently – quivers and ‘wobbles like a woman’s breast’. Any complaints about the use of the word sandcastle should be forwarded to my personal assistant.

The wobble, the quiver, means the panna cotta is softly set. It should tremble as you bring it to the table, your spoon should sink easily into the milky-white mound. The texture should be soft, smooth, silky and untroubled. The taste simple and clean, delicate and dairy,   of cream sweetened with sugar and flavoured with real vanilla.

For such a simple pudding, there is rather a lot of panna cotta advice to be found. I’ve done my fair share of experimenting over the years, most recently inspired by the terrific Felicity Cloake. But a few weeks ago I reminded myself that I lived in Rome and should, if you’ll pardon the cliché, do as the Romans do. Which is, according to Octavio who makes the panna cotta I eat almost every week at Volpetti più, very straightforward. You warm panna fresca with a vanilla pod. Then you add sugar – according to your taste – and some softened gelatin. Finally, Octavio’s secret, you stir in a little whipped cream before diving the mixture between your pots, ramekins or glasses and chilling. To serve, you dip the bottom of each pot briefly in boiling water and then invert the panna cotta onto a plate.

Almost all the culinary advice I receive from Italians, even for the simplest of recipes, comes with the requisite suggestion: practice. And so it was with the panna cotta advice Octavio gave me while we leaned up against the bar in Barberini one particularly grizzly Wednesday afternoon a few weeks ago. Also when Italians share a recipe with you  – and Octavio was no exception –  it’s likely to be dotted with variables and gestures that suggest ‘Some‘ or ‘To taste’ or rather confusingly ‘Enough’. This is because they know and understand that ingredients, whether they be tomatoes, potatoes, butter, flour, cream, vanilla vary dramatically from kitchen to kitchen, place to place, season to season. That what may seem sweet to one person, is not to another. That gelatin can be unpredictable. That wobbles are personal.

With the spirit of Italian cooking advice in mind, I suggest you treat the recipe below as a template. I use panna fresca which is technically single cream but seems a little richer, so you might like to experiment with both single and double cream or even a mix – again see Felicity. Octavio was vague about sugar, he made a tipping gesture which was charming but not very helpful. A bit of trail and error ensued.  I err on the not-so-sweet side so find 80g of sugar (I prefer icing sugar) is about right. Vanilla, I love it, you might not. If I didn’t have the real thing I wouldn’t bother with vanilla essence though. Gelatin is pesky stuff. You need enough to set your cream with the requisite wobble, but not too much as to seize it into the consistency of a car tyre. I do hope you can find gelatin sheets – the powder is a pest and agar agar just odd – you need 3 in my book. If you really can’t find sheets and have hunted tirelessly to no avail, I’ll send you some ! Seriously, I’m that committed to set puddings, E-mail me your address.

Even though panna cotta looks very pretty served in a glass with layer of fruit sauce or syrup poured on top, I like my mine turned out – in all its milky-white and wobbly glory – on a plate. I am happy to eat it just so, but really like panna cotta with some fruit or even better, a spoonful of fruit sauce. The idea of caramel or chocolate sauce might seem appealing, but I think it all ends up being too much, cloying and sickly. Panna cotta pairs well with sharp, edgy, acidic fruit. Sour cherries, blackberries, cranberries, black currants or red currants cooked with a tiny bit of sugar all make good panna cotta companions, offsetting and accentuating the creaminess and looking wonderfully dramatic, like red lips and pale skin, next to your innocent white pudding.


Panna cotta

Adapted from Octavio at Volpetti più’s recipe

Makes 4 pots (at a stretch 6, but who wants to stretch?)

  • 400ml fresh single cream
  • 1 vanilla pod
  • 3 leaves/sheets of gelatin
  • 100ml whipped cream
  • 80g – 100g caster or icing sugar
  • You need 4 panna cotta pots or ramekins (the ramekins need to be lightly greased with vegetable oil). If you don’t want to turn the panna cotta out use 4 glasses .
  • Pour the single cream into a pan. Use a small sharp knife to split the vanilla bean lengthways, then scrape the seeds from inside the bean. Add the seeds and beans to the saucepan. Warm the cream gently over a low flame but do not boil. Remove from the heat and set aside for 10 minutes for the vanilla to infuse the milk
  • Soak the gelatin leaves in a bowl of cold water for 5 minutes or until they are very soft and floppy.
  • Remove the vanilla pod from the pan. Put the pan back on a low flame, add the sugar and stir until it has dissolved. Squeeze the water from the gelatin leaves and add to the pan. Stir until the gelatine has dissolved. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the whipped cream.
  • Divide the mixture between your pots or glasses and chill in the fridge for at least three hours. To turn out, dip the base of the pots briefly in boiling water and then invert onto a plates.
  •  Serve just so or with a spoonful of sharp fruit sauce or coulis.
  • .


Filed under cream, food, Puddings, Rachel's Diary, recipes