Nothing tempts like a tart. The buttery crust crumbles under your fork, the savoury filling quivers. You lift it slowly, carefully, from plate to mouth so as not to lose even the tiniest bit down your shirt. The pastry melts in your mouth, the filling dissolves on your tongue. A crumb falls, a crumb that you will rescue later with a licked finger. No roast, no cake, no fruit can tempt and please the way a slice of warm, home-baked tart does.
The other day, a book appeared on my kitchen table which reminded me of this. A book filled with the sort of recipes dreams are made of. Not a vast tome, but a slim and understated one. A book for a day when you have no one but yourself to cook for, a kitchen all to yourself. It was an entire book devoted to the tart. There were tarts of seafood and cream, of spinach and anchovies, of lemons and cherries. There were round potato tarts, oblong pissaladières and crinkle-edged bacon quiches. There were big tarts of leeks and tiny ones of haddock, fat tarts, thin tarts, and tarts to make you laugh, by which I mean one laced with tobacco that has apparently been banned from the American edition. The book had the come-hither title of The Art of the Tart (£16.99, Cassell).
There is something about baking a pastry case and filling it with something good that appeals to me as much as making any cake or tray of biscuits. Every moment of such a recipe is a moment of pure rapture - from the satiny feel of the dough as you push it into the tin with your floury fingers to the quiver of the custard as you proudly take your handiwork from the oven. This is the sort of cooking you always promise yourself you will do more of, because it turns making supper into a recreation rather than work. Making Bakewell tart ain't cooking, it is pure therapy.
Of course, this is not supper in seconds (though a tomato tart can be on the table in 20 minutes), it is cooking in layers. First you must tend to the pastry and bake it, then mix the filling, carefully loading the tart so that it is thick and generous, but not so full that it overflows its crust. You must carry your laden tin oh-so-carefully to the oven, watching the custard ebb and flow perilously toward the rim. And try your best not to lose concentration at the last minute, your egg and cream custard dribbling and burning on the hot oven door.
According to Tamasin Day-Lewis, author of The Art of the Tart, there is nothing complicated about this sort of cooking, it is just that the process is simply longer. Perhaps that explains why I get such quiet delight from it. Nothing complex or showy, just slow, peaceful pottering in the kitchen. You pick your day, making sure you will not be interrupted, and set to it. I think that Radio 4 should be on, or perhaps even some music. Then there is the softly tactile quality of sifted flour in your palms, the richesse of the butter (nothing less will do) and the luxury of the double cream. The raw pastry feels as soft as silk and the smell from the oven is the finest antidote there ever was to the Working Week.
Gazing dreamily at the pictures of Flamiche and Brandade tart, it is easy to forget how practical a great cartwheel of a pie can be. I know it is tempting to do more, but this is what to put on the table when people come round for a light lunch. I do think the pastry should be warm, fresh from the oven, but the rest can be a hotchpotch of the bought and the ready-made. Some hunks of cheese, slices of ham from the bone and some salad (perhaps flageolet beans and rocket) can be scattered round the table for guests to help themselves. Nothing we can make and offer our friends is likely to go down better than home baking. Especially if that baking is savoury. Those of us who do get round to putting pastry in a tart tin are more than likely to do so with pudding in mind. Something filled with vegetables or fish is likely to win even more smiles.
Today I decided on a tart of haddock and watercress. To be honest, it had been a bit of a toss-up between that and one with crab and cream. But the haddock won. Softly smoky, the fish was held lightly in a small amount of custard. An enchanting recipe, but one that took less time than I had envisaged, so I just had to make tomato tarts as well. The crisp pastry, the luscious centre, those elusive crumbs, all sitting on their baking sheet in my kitchen. Nothing, but nothing tempts like a tart.
Tamasin Day-Lewis's tart pastry
120g plain, white organic flour
60g unsalted butter
Sift the flour and a pinch of salt into the food processor, then cut the cold butter into small pieces on top of it. I process it for 20-30 seconds, then add ice-cold water through the top, 1 tbsp at a time, with the machine running. About 2 to 2 should do it. If the paste is still in crumbly little bits after a minute or two, add 1 tbsp more of water, but remember, the more water you use, the more your pastry will shrink when you bake it blind. The moment it has cohered into a single ball, stop, remove it, wrap it in clingfilm and put it in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Smoked haddock and watercress tart
A lovely recipe from The Art of the Tart. It would make a good first course, although I treated it as a main dish and served it warm the other day with a very plain and straightforward green salad. A good dish for this unpredictable summer. Serves 6.
22cm shortcrust pastry case, chilled, made to the above recipe
beaten egg for brushing
325g undyed smoked haddock
300ml Jersey milk
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 stick of celery, finely chopped
30g plain flour
a bunch of watercress, stalks removed, finely chopped
2 eggs, beaten
2 tbsp grated Parmesan
Preheat the oven to 190 C/gas mark 5. Bake the pastry blind for 10 minutes, then remove the baking beans, prick the base with a fork and brush with beaten egg. Return to the oven for 5 more minutes.
Put the haddock and milk in a saucepan and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for a further 10 minutes. Remove and skin the fish and flake into a bowl. Reserve the milk separately.
Heat the butter in a saucepan, add the onion and celery and cook gently, until softened. Stir in the flour and cook for a few minutes, then add the reserved poaching milk and stir until the sauce has thickened. Season with a little salt, pepper and the grated nutmeg. Remove from the heat and stir into the fish, adding the watercress and beaten eggs.
Pour into the pastry case and sprinkle the top with grated Parmesan. Bake for 25 minutes, when the tart will have risen and be crusted a delectable golden brown. Leave to cool slightly before turning out and eating hot.
A recipe I have made for years - but it only really comes to life with the sweet-sharp cherry tomatoes that are around now. I sometimes put in some chopped anchovy with the oil and basil, in which case I tend to use less salt. Makes 6.
425g puff pastry
4 tbsp peppery, extra-virgin olive oil
a small bunch of basil
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
the leaves of a couple of sprigs of thyme
about 30 small cherry tomatoes
Set the oven at 230 C/gas mark 8. Roll out the pastry - you want it to be really thin, about the same thickness as a pound coin. Using a large saucer as a template, cut six discs of pastry and lift them on to a baking sheet. Place a smaller saucer or large cup in the centre of each circle and score round it without cutting right through the pastry to give a wide rim that will rise and enclose the tomatoes. Prick the centre circles of the pastry lightly with a fork.
Pour the oil into a mixing bowl, tear up the basil finely and add it to the oil with the crushed garlic, thyme leaves and a seasoning of salt and quite coarse black pepper. Cut the tomatoes in half, then toss them in the seasoned oil.
Pile the tomatoes on to inner circles of the pastry, then brush the edges with some of the oil. Brush the tomatoes generously with any remaining oil. Bake for about 12-15 minutes, watching carefully that they don't burn. Drizzle with any remaining basil oil and serve immediately.