I wanted chocolate. I wanted peanuts. I wanted caramel. And so came together three revered ingredients to make this simple but deeply luscious dessert. I admit to a glimmer of inspiration from the Season 11 contestant of RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant, the drag queen with the moniker Silky Nutmeg Ganache. But apart from that, I attribute this recipe to greed.
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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. Despite being pastry-based and with a molten bed of mozzarella, it is very light, and perfect for a gathering.
The scent coming from the paper bag was soft and sweet, and old fashioned rose-like, and when I turned out its contents, eight yellow, somewhat misshapen apple-pears tumbled out.
These quinces were the unwanted fruit of an unappreciated tree in someone else’s garden. Beguilingly biblical in appearance, their uncompromising hardness metamorphoses into something utterly different after cooking.
Originally referred to as the Kydonian melon, and mentioned in 6th Century BCE Greek poetry, the quinces we recognise today are believed to have been indigenous to Kydonia on the island of Crete. The Ancient Greeks dedicated the quince to Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, who was often represented with the golden apple of Hesperides in her right hand – that apple, in all likelihood, a quince. Indeed, quinces symbolised love and fertility, and Plutarch refers to the ancient wedding ritual whereby a bride would take a bite from a quince before retiring to the bridal chamber with her husband – possibly to freshen her breath, too.
The path of the wedding procession of Helen and Menelaus was said to have been strewn with quinces, myrtle leaves and crowns woven from violets and roses. The fruit was also said by Pliny to have warded off the malign influence of the evil eye, and its medicinal value as an aid to digestion was also noted.
The Byzantines made wine from quinces as well as kydonaton, a thick quince jelly, probably the ancestor of French cotignac or condoignac, a delicacy made with honey, wine and spices that was considered a worthy gift for kings.
Apicius, the first extant Roman cookbook writer, of the first century CE, preserved quinces whole in honey diluted with a spiced wine reduction, and also combined them with leeks, honey, and broth in hot oil in a dish known as Patina de Cydoniis. In the 4th Century CE, Palladius, an agriculturist and writer, composed a recipe for baked quince strips, possibly the first stirrings of membrillo, the Spanish quince gel that we know today.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, cooks in England prepared many variations of quince preserves which they called quidoniac, quiddony or paste of Genoa. Often the preserve paste was thick enough to be moulded into animal or flower shapes. Nowadays, many cultures use quinces in their cuisine: in India, a quince sambal is made by making a puree out of quinces, onions, chillies, orange juice and salt. In Iran, quinces are sometimes cored and stuffed with minced meat, and Moroccan tagines often include quince along with dried fruit and spices.
Despite its pertinence in history and mythology the quince has rather fallen out of fashion. Now the prized aphrodisiac and breath-freshener has been reduced to an unloved (except by the cognoscenti), knobbly peculiarity. I hereby am starting a quince appreciation campaign and when life gives you quinces, make membrillo, and with the membrillo make Tarta de Santiago.
Membrillo is the rose-tinted translucent and slightly grainy gel that miraculously results from boiling quinces with water, sugar and citrus. Its perfumed exoticness makes one think of orange groves and balmy breezes, and when combined with the citrus infused almond cake and pastry layers, one is transported right to the Alhambra.
150g white spelt flour (substitutable with any flour of your choice including gluten-free to create a gluten-free dessert)
40g caster sugar
1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp salt
Grated zest of ½ unwaxed orange
100g butter, roughly chopped into small cubes
1 egg yolk
25cm x 25cm square tin (or round tin with similar dimensions) at least 8cm deep, lined with greaseproof paper
250g quince paste (membrillo)
2 tbsp lemon juice
Grated zest of ½ unwaxed orange
Grated zest of ½ unwaxed lemon
65g ground almonds
150 ground almonds
100g caster sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp salt
Grated zest of 1 unwaxed orange
Grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
150g butter, melted and allowed to cool slightly
100ml triple sec
Optional candied orange decoration
Follow instructions from my recipe for Citrus Syrup-Soaked Cake
- In a blender, blitz together sugar, cinnamon, flour, salt and butter until the mixture resembles damp sand. Add in the egg yolk and blitz until the mixture comes together into dough. Flatten into a disc, wrap in greaseproof paper and chill in a freezer for 15 minutes or refrigerate for ½ hour.
- On a well-floured surface, roll the dough out to a 3mm thickness and transfer to the tin to line the base. Refrigerate while you prepare the filling.
- Preheat oven to 180°C. To make the filling, place the quince paste (membrillo), lemon juice and zest in a small pan over a medium heat and stir until smooth and fully combined. Remove from the heat and stir in the ground almonds. Remove the tin from the fridge and spread the quince mixture evenly over the pastry. Refrigerate once more.
- To make the cake layer, whisk together ground almonds, sugar, cinnamon, salt and zest in a bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together melted butter, triple sec and eggs. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and whisk until combined in a loose paste.
- Remove the tin from the fridge and pour the cake layer mixture over the quince layer. Bake in the preheated oven for 35-40 minutes until golden brown, springy to touch and a skewer comes out clean. Allow to cool before serving.
I endured school lunches for four years and then abandoned them. Waking up twenty minutes early to throw together a packed lunch seemed worth it at the time. My school lunches weren’t even bad. In fact, they were probably rather good – good enough to avoid having Jamie Oliver sniff his way into our school kitchen in pursuit of good TV.
What turned me (and my stomach) resided in the stainless steel vats adjacent to the desserts: pools of lurid yellow purulence (custard).
Notwithstanding my decade old aversion, I decided to venture into custard territory last week. And I found my cure: lemon curd-filled tarts.
Made using both lemon juice and zest, paired with a lemon-infused tart shell, and partnered with fresh berries, these make a tangy and refreshing summer dessert.
I use spelt flour in the pastry to add extra nuttiness and depth of flavour. It also has a lower GI than wheat flour. However, if you can't find it, you can substitute plain flour.
Lemon tart shells
360g white spelt flour (substitute with plain flour if unavailable)
110g icing sugar
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
¼ tsp salt
190g cold unsalted butter, roughly chopped into small cubes
1 egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp cold water
A 10cm pastry cutter
1 12-hole cupcake tin, greased with butter and then placed in fridge to chill
Baking beads or rice to weigh down the pastry while it bakes
12 cupcake cases
Finely grated zest of 4 lemons
200 ml lemon juice (4-6 lemons)
200g caster sugar
4 medium eggs
4 medium egg yolks
180g unsalted butter
1 baking tray with lipped sides
Icing sugar for dusting
Lemon pastry tart shells
- Blend together flour, sugar, lemon zest and salt in a food processor, and add in butter, pulsing to combine until the mixture resembles damp sand. Alternatively, if working manually, mix together the dry ingredients in a large bowl and rub the butter in with your fingers.
- Pour the egg yolk, vanilla and water into the mixture and pulse/stir until the mixture just comes together. Flatten the pastry dough into a disc , wrap in baking parchment/cling film and chill in the fridge for an hour, or freezer for 20 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 150˚C.
- On a floured surface, roll half the dough out to the thickness of 2 or 3 mm, and cut the pastry into discs using the pastry cutter. Gently press the pastry discs into the prepared cupcake tin. You will find that there is some dough left over. This can be frozen for about a month.
- Set the cupcake cases into the pastry shells and fill them with the baking beads/rice to weigh the pastry down and prevent it from losing its shape during the bake.
- Bake in the oven for about 20-25 minutes until golden and firm to touch. If they have not turned golden by this point, remove the baking beads/rice and cupcake cases and bake for a further 5-10 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool. These can be made 2 or 3 days in advance and kept in an airtight container until you are ready to use them.
- Place lemon zest, juice, sugar, eggs, egg yolks and half the butter in a saucepan over a medium-high heat and whisk continuously while the ingredients cook together. When the mixture has thickened slightly and threatens to stick to the bottom of the pan, reduce the heat and continue to whisk for another couple of minutes until thickened, whisking all the while. Off the heat, whisk in the remaining butter until thoroughly combined. It should be smooth and glossy.
- Sieve the curd over the baking tray, and spread it out with a spatula so that only a thin layer coats the tray. Cover the surface of the lemon curd with baking parchment or cling film and place the tray in the fridge for a minimum of half an hour or until it has cooled and become slightly firmer. Alternatively, place the tray in the freezer for 20 minutes.
Arrange the pastry shells on a serving plate and spoon in the lemon curd (roughly 3 tsp per case). Top generously with the berries and dust with icing sugar just before serving. They can be kept in the fridge for up to 6 hours before serving; longer than that they tend to become soggy.
I’ve been asked several times in the last couple of weeks what my blogs are about, what my angle is, which niche I am filling, what the selling point is. So here it is: there is no niche. Niches are overcrowded and limited places in which to write. To me, food is a form of communication, even, to some extent, representative of character. So why should I pin myself down to some of the so-called niches in which other bloggers have incarcerated themselves?
Healthy cooking blogs, for example, seem to be proliferating at the moment, or so they call themselves, but what they are promoting is not cooking, nor is it necessarily healthy (or particularly interesting) – I’ve seen enough versions of green smoothies to make me want to down a packet of muscovado sugar (it tastes really good on its own, by the way).
I’m also sick of reading and hearing about avocado-based baking. You can try to convince yourself that it tastes good. It does not. It tastes rubbery, and bland, and makes me want to retch. Another example is cauliflower pizza. If you want pizza HAVE IT. If you’re worried about its calories/fats/sugars/carbs/GI/salt, then don’t eat it. If you’re desperate, have it in moderation. And if by mistake on purpose you eat the whole thing and it was really delicious, and you feel guilty, then just don’t do it again for a while. Do not try to replace that experience with cauliflower as it simply does not work. I’ll tell you the truth now: cauliflower does not equal bread. It doesn’t matter how small you grind the cauliflower, how tightly and agonisingly you squeeze out the liquid, and how densely you pack it into a tin, it does not turn into bread. Plus the amount of mozzarella you have to add to make it hold together undermines the whole attempt at making it “healthy”.
Baobab dust, acai capsules, psyllium husk powder - these are not what cooking and baking are about. They will not be included in my recipes unless they add flavour. And even then, at £10-£15 for a thimbleful, it’s not worth it.
Turn away now if you’re looking for a fad. As I have said before, gluten-free baking is for coeliacs only. Just because it says “free” doesn’t mean that it liberates you or your spare tyre. In fact, you’re probably adding another one by eating it as it shoots blood glucose levels sky high, above even those of wheat.
So to conclude, I’m not going to slot into any niche like the Priapus statue in Newby Hall. The blog is to be viewed in the round and the recipes are for bold, modern and flavoursome cuisine.
This recipe destroys the common misconception that pastry is hard to make, and combines with the nectarine topping just a hint of Triple Sec to add subtle tang. Very little effort is involved, but the result is impressive.
280g plain flour
1 tbsp sugar
½ tsp salt
170g cold unsalted butter, diced
125ml cold water
4 nectarines, halved, destoned & sliced horizontally to 3-4mm thickness
100g caster sugar
60g cold unsalted butter, diced
¼ tsp salt
½ cup of smooth apricot jam
2 tbsp Triple Sec
Sheet tray lined with baking parchment
Recipe adapted from Ina Garten
- Blitz flour, sugar and salt in a blender to combine, then add the butter and pulse briefly about 10 times until the mixture turns to pea-sized pieces.
- Pour in water and blitz until the dough begins to come together.
- Make it into a chunky disk and wrap in clingfilm/baking parchment. Place in freezer for half an hour
- Preheat the oven to 200˚C.
- Roll out the pastry to a roughly 25x35cm rectangle, slicing off the edges to make it a clean rectangle.
- Arrange the nectarine slices, slightly overlapping, in a diagonal down the middle of the tart then continue with rows on either side.
- Sprinkle the cubed butter and sugar and salt over the nectarine slices and bake in centre of an oven for 40 minutes or until crisp and golden. Check about half way during the baking time whether the pastry has become puffy. If so, simply cut slits in it to let the air escape.
- Once the tart is ready, heat the apricot jam together with the Triple Sec and brush it all over the tart, including all the nude sections of pastry.