I feel much better, although I’m not sure how long it is going to last. Add to this that the season is just perfect for baking: it is not yet cold outside, not really, and I don’t keep the heating on that much, but a warm oven is definitely welcome for the little heat it produces. So here I am, in the middle of a baking frenzy.
I am becoming friends with the new oven. I still need to dig out the instructions for it, because it is of a type I never had before. It is made of two smaller ovens stacked one on top of the other, both gas fuelled. The top one seems to have a broiler and some sort of ventilation going on, but I don’t really get it. The bottom one seems more conventional. In Italy I always had gas ovens but they were larger – the monster being my mum’s 90 cm large oven, spectacular in its early days, when you could bake a roast, potatoes, bread and a cake, if you could make the temperatures somehow work together, or you could bake half a kilo of biscotti for our Christmas production in one go. This oven collapsed a few months ago, and was recently replaced with an equally sized beast, after a long agony where making it work involved a complicated process with a protective metal plate and some mountaineering ropes. I hope the new one will do as well as the old one, although I feel it is a bit oversized.
Many of the ovens I had later were quite bad, some bordering to criminally dangerous. In the UK I first came in touch with electric ventilated ovens. It was love at first sight, although the brand new one we had in our house in Wales had some assembling problems: for the first months it would produce an unbearable buzz when heated above a certain temperature. The noise eventually went away, after a few fixing attempts and a heavy usage. I could not believe how even the temperature was, how quickly tarts and vegetables were ready with the ventilation, with a handsome, golden hue. Now I’m back to gas, and with marks. I feel I need quite badly a oven thermometer.
We had our first guest over for dinner. It was a lovely evening, necessarily informal because of the boxes looming from the other room and a serious lack of chairs (we were using a garden chair and two children’s room folding ones). I baked some of these oat crackers from my guru Dan Lepard to eat with starters. They are not very rich, thus they go really well with rich spreads. They are quite crunchy, with a texture not unlike that of Pringles (!), and you can definitely taste the oats, although they are nowhere near as rough as oatcakes are. They also keep very well in a tin box, that is, if you manage to forget about a few of them. The only recommendation to the recipe is to roll them really thin, they have a nicer texture, and not to overbake them.
I also made this raw brussel sprouts salad – if you have not tried it, please do. It may convert sprouts haters for good. I happened to have some thyme at hand this time, which I usually don’t, so I added it to the salad: I’d leave it out next time, I did not like the way the flavour mixed in. On the other hand, I really like the tweak from Sigrid of adding a few caramelized apples to it; but it is one extra pan to wash, and I did not feel inclined to do it this time.
As a main, a super simple pasta alla carbonara. A lot of non-Italians have never had the real thing, and it is always a very pleasant surprise. I used eggs and bacon from my local butcher. I’m already in love with it. They grow their own beef in a farm nearby, while they purchase everything else from other producers in the area (with names and pictures). It has no particular certification other than saying that the animals are ‘free range’, but the meat is so incredibly tasty, that I have no doubt the production method is quite different from a supermarket. I think I will eat a bit more meat in the future.
To finish, the most important course: dessert. What triggered off the baking frenzy was Kim Boyce: I happened to dig out from a box Good to the Grain, and I felt the familiar itch in my hands. I had just bought some rye flour, so I decided to try something with rye, namely, her rough galette pastry. Barely sweet, slightly floral and roughly flaky, the dough was not the easiest one to pull off, but thanks to Kim’s detailed instructions, I succeeded. Making the dough reminded my of why I love that book so much. Every recipe is a masterclass in working with flour. It helps you understand so much better the role of ingredients, rest times, temperatures, and I always feel I have learned something and I can master other recipes better as well because I understand them more.
But then, what filling? Apricots and boysenberries are definitely out of season (I didn’t even know what boysenberries are). The best of British fruit now lies in apples and pears. I felt inclined to go for pear, but I was not sure about the filling – something along the line of the classic French almond and pear tart? But then I was not sure how the flaky pastry would work with blind baking.
A bit of browsing led to these beauties at Zoe Bakes. I used the presentation and filling from it, but decided to poach the pears because I was not sure about baking times for the pastry and did not want to end up with a raw pear on top of a burned biscuit. I found the cutest, tiniest conference pears at my greengrocer, and poached them in sugar and vanilla. They were so tiny they fit in a 8 cm cookie cutter. I rolled the pastry quite thinly, arranged a spoonful of almond cream on top, a poached pear half, applied some egg wash on the pastry and a generous dusting of raw cane sugar (there is barely any other sugar in the recipe), and baked until nearly burned – as Michelle Gayer from the Salty Tart says, colour is flavour. The pears did not caramelize, since they were poached, they were too wet for that. Still, the little rounds looked stunning, and tasted even better. Floral flavours, contrasting textures, and not too much guilt. With half a quantity of dough I managed to make about 12 rounds. A circle of dough, some almonds and half a vanilla flavoured pear. It tasted like much more than that.
Pear and almond galette
makes about twelve bit sized ones
Rough rye dough: (makes twice of what you need)
100 g rye flour
125 g all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
170 g butter
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
56 g almonds
10 g sugar
1/2 egg yolk (keep the rest for the egg wash)
10 tiny conference pears, or use any pear that will hold some cooking, possibly small
sugar for the syrup, about 50 g
half vanilla pod
1/2 egg yolk, beaten
raw cane sugar, about 50 g
For the pastry: Sift flour, salt, sugar together. Cut the cold butter into tiny pieces and add it to the flour. Rub it in as quickly as possible, and stop when you still have tiny lumps of butter the size of garden peas. There is no need to make it completely absorb by the flour, actually it is better not to. Mix vinegar with 8 tablespoons ice-cold water. Add to the butter-flour mixture and quickly work to make a ball. It’s ok if it is a bit rough. Add another tablespoon of very cold water if it really does not come together (I did not have any problem, actually next time I’ll probably cut down the water of a tablespoon – maybe because European butter has more fat than American one?). Wrap the dough in plastic and let it rest in the fridge for at least one hour. After the rest period, you need to fold the dough so that it flakes. To do that, lightly flour a work surface and roll the dough out to a large rectangle, about 30 cm X 25 cm. It will seem to crumble a lot at the borders but don’t worry, it will come together later. It will also seem that the dough is not enough but it will make it with a little patience. When it is rolled, fold it in three like a book. Turn it 90 degrees so that the fold is on the top, and roll it again. Fold and turn, roll, fold again and that’s it, for a total of three times. Make sure you always close and turn the pastry with the same orientation (it helps to decide first, for instance, left at the end, fold on top). Wrap in plastic and let it rest in the fridge before using, for at least one hour. Can be frozen. You only need half of this for this recipe, but I won’t make less because otherwise it is difficult to fold.
To make the poached pears: Peel, halve and core the pears. In a high skillet, mix equal quantities of sugar and water until you have a syrup about 5 cm deep – the exact amounts will depend on your skillet of course. Add half vanilla bean, scrape out all seeds and add the pod in as well. Bring to the boil, until the sugar is melted. Add the pears. Bring the syrup to a bare simmer,gently add the pear halves and simmer for about five minutes, giving the skillet a bit of a shake now and again to make sure all pears get immersed int he syrup in turns. The pear should still look a bit on the tough side. Let them cool completely inside the syrup. If your skillet is small you can cook the pear in two batches, reusing the same syrup.
Almond cream: just whizz almonds and sugar in a food processor. Whisk an egg in a small bowl and add about half of it to the mixture. Keep the other half for the egg wash. Mix the egg with almonds and sugar until uniform. Set aside until you need it.
To assemble the galettes: cut the prepared cold dough rectangle in half and save the other half for another use. Roll the pastry quite thinly (3 mm thick) using a bit of flour to prevent sticking. At the beginning it will look like the cold pastry does not want to be rolled at all, but it is actually quite pliable, so insist.
Cut some rounds the size of your pear halves. Arrange a heaped teaspoon of almond cream on it, then half a poached pear, cold and well drained. Refrigerate for at leat one hour (the pastry keeps the shape better if you start cooking it when it’s cold).
Right before baking, brush the visible pastry bit with egg wash. Sprinkle abundant cane sugar over everything. Bake in the oven at about 180 Celsius, gas mark 5 (as I’ve recently discovered) for about 20 minutes, until the pastry is dark gold. Good served warm, but also cold.