Mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil: a combination that once conjured up the simple magic of Italian cuisine, but which has since been overplayed in various sacrilegious and disappointing ways. When I eat mozzarella, I want the rich, stringy, molten, buffalo type that lends itself to being torn with my fingers rather than the sterile incisions of a knife.
When I think of tomatoes, I want the taut sun reflectors that attract jewel-like green bugs in the open Tuscan countryside and perfume the surrounding air with their astringent freshness. And when I pick basil leaves, they need to be so pungent that only a few are needed to assert their bold flavour. Add to that a few strewn black olives (I want them bitter, to contrast with the sweetness of the creamy mozzarella), a rivulet of verdant olive oil, a speckling of freshly ground pepper, and a whisper of crumbled sea salt. And then let all these strong personalities mesh together in harmony on a crisp flaky base of the lightest pastry, which does not dare dominate but adds a mellow warmth.
This is my favourite meal and has been since I was three – the precocious (and pretentious, no doubt) answer to my friends’ parents’ question as to my favourite food. Apart from the fact that there really isn’t anything fancy about it, it’s crazily simple to make. And yes, like much of Italian food, this means that the quality of the ingredients is even more essential. NB, I have never seen this on any Italian menu across Italy, nor in any London Italian restaurant, but it captures the essence of Italian cuisine so perfectly.
Despite being pastry-based and with a molten bed of mozzarella, it is very light, and perfect for a gathering. The pastry can be made and rolled out in advance and kept in the fridge for up to two days until ready to complete.
For the crust
380g white spelt flour (or substitute with plain, if you prefer)
1 tsp salt
210 g unsalted butter, chilled
90ml cold water
For the filling
400g mozzarella, thinly sliced
900g ripe tomatoes (about 6), thinly sliced horizontally
4 stems of fresh basil leaves
¼ cup black olives, stoned
½ tsp salt
Freshly milled black pepper
1 tbsp olive oil for drizzling
2 x 25cm diameter fluted round loose-base tins, very well greased with butter, then dusted with flour – you can also use two 35 x 12cm fluted rectangular loose-base tart tins, as in the photos, and there will be some pastry left over which you can either use to make free-style tarts, or use a small individual case to make an extra tart
1) Place the flour, salt and butter in the food processor. Pulse until pea-sized pieces form. Pulse again while you add water to the mixture and stop when the dough pulls away from the walls of the processor, and gathers into a mass. Don’t worry if there are small pieces of butter visible, this will add to the flakiness of the pastry once baked.
2) Divide the pastry in half and flatten each half into 2 discs. Wrap in greaseproof paper and chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours. You can make the pastry up to 2 days in advance.
3) Preheat the oven to 200°C. Take the pastry out of the fridge 5 minutes before rolling to allow it to come to room temperature, making it easier to roll.
4) To make the pastry shell, lightly dust a surface with flour, and roll each disc to the shape of the tin you are using (rectangular or circular) and about 3mm thickness. Lift the pastry up and drape it over the prepared tin (I roll it over the rolling pin like a hair curler to ensure it doesn’t collapse en route to the tin). Press the pastry into the corners and flutes of the tin, then slice off any overhang – you can do this easily by rolling the rolling pin over the top of the tin.
5) Line the base of the pastry shell with a layer of mozzarella. Then arrange tomato slices as per the pictures with slight overlap. Sprinkle with the olives, half the basil leaves, salt and pepper, and drizzle with olive oil.
6) Bake in the oven for 25-35 minutes or until the pastry is golden and the liquid from the mozzarella has evaporated. Remove from the oven, scatter with the remaining basil, serve and devour.
Adapted from ‘Italy, The Vegetarian Table’ by Julia Della Croce