Quince tarte tatin

But what I am of opinion the governor should eat now in order to preserve and fortify his health is a hundred or so of wafer cakes and a few thin slices of conserve of quinces, which will settle his stomach and help his digestion ~ Don Quixote

I'm a firm believer of less being more in the dessert world, that the simplest creations often far outshine the intricate, fiddly ones. I'd far rather tuck into a piece of treacle tart, a crumble or a sticky toffee pudding than any kind of fancy French patisserie, smothered in ganache and spun sugar and delicately piped cream. Where many cooks and bloggers see macarons as the ultimate in culinary challenges, the Everest that simply must be scaled, I see them as encapsulating everything I hate about that type of baking: fussy, fiddly, cutesy, overdecorated. I admit that I've never tasted a macaron, but I have no need to - I know that it would never match up to even an average sticky toffee pudding.

The simple marriage of butter, flour, sugar and perhaps a few other choice flavourings - spices, fruit, nuts - is one that will last me a lifetime of enjoyment. No need for anything fancier.

Note, however, that I am not condemning French desserts with the above. In fact, I am about to sing the praises of one: the humble tarte tatin.

I can't actually say 'tarte tatin' any more, after watching Masterchef. Every time I open my mouth to say the words, all I hear is Gregg Wallace's interesting interpretation of its pronunciation: "TATTATTAN" (spoken at top booming volume and preferably with a mouth full of pudding). I then lose all faith in my own ability to pronounce French, and come out with something along the lines of "taahhtattan".

No matter, though, because even if you can't pronounce it, you can still enjoy what has to be one of the greatest culinary inventions known to man.

The best tarte tatin I have ever eaten was at a little bistro in Nice. It was deservedly popular, packed with French people spilling out onto its streetside tables in the balmy August evening. It was everything that the ghastly Cafe Rouge restaurant chain pretends to be: local, authentic, quaint, unmistakably French. I remember eating sardine escabeche, crunching my way accidentally through the heads of the sardines, as they were hidden by the thick red sweet-sour sauce.

But it is the tart that really stands out in my memory. It was served piping hot from the oven, a very thin layer of pastry absolutely saturated with gorgeous sharp-sweet caramel. It was the apples, though, that struck me - huge great billowing pieces of apple, not like the thinly sliced, neatly arranged pieces you get on a classic French apple tart. These were giant segments, stained a deep burnished gold by the sugar and butter in which they had been bathed. They were juicy, fluffy, sweet and simply wonderful. I would go all the way back to that bistro for another taste of that tarte tatin.

Fortunately, however, last night I came up with something almost as good.

I've had a bowl of glossy, curvaceous quinces in my kitchen for weeks now - I stocked up on them before Christmas, as they last for months and I knew I'd want to cook with them long after they've disappeared from the market. They've been sitting there begging me to use them, and I've been mulling over various quince creations in my mind as possibilities. I still intend to bring those ideas to fruition (pardon the pun), but suddenly I had an overwhelming urge to make a quince tarte tatin.

This was mainly because all my other ideas involved cakes, and I've made a lot of cakes recently. In fact, most dessert recipes that appear on this blog are either cakes, cheesecakes or cobblers, and I thought I should branch out a bit. Plus I've been having a craving for tarte tatin ever since I watched a friend of mine presented with one in a French restaurant when we were skiing in the Alps in December. I sat there eating my ice cream, which paled in comparison to his gorgeous plate of steaming hot apples, pastry and caramel. There's something about this alchemy of ingredients that is just irresistible.

The way the caramel soaks into the pastry, leaving it sodden and sweet on the top and still crunchy and flaky underneath. The contrast between the yielding juicy flesh of the cooked apples and the crunch of the buttery pastry. It really is up there with crumble and sticky toffee pudding in my all-time favourite desserts, and I can't think why I haven't made it more often.

This version is made with quinces, adapted from a recipe by the excellent David Lebovitz. I thought about using half quince and half apple, worried that the perfumed flavour of the quince would be too powerful, but I needn't have worried (in fact my mum, who normally hates quince, loved this).

This is an absolutely incredible dessert, all the better for the sweet, mysterious aroma of quinces. The quince segments are poached to rosy perfection in a syrup of sugar, water, clove, lemon and cinnamon. There's a simple pastry dough that is so easy to make, yet tastes as complex and wonderful as puff pastry, but without the faff. It is buttery, crumbly, crunchy and flaky all at the same time - amazing for something made in under 5 minutes in the food processor.

Instead of making a caramel for the quinces, their poaching syrup is reduced in the tarte tatin pan (you can buy special ones for this purpose, but I just used a frying pan with a removable handle) until it has the consistency of honey. I added a couple of spoonfuls of homemade quince paste to thicken it a little and add an extra intense quince flavour. I was amazed at how buttery and caramelly this tasted when it had soaked into the pastry in the finished tart.


In short: this was fabulous. The sweet, juicy segments of quince with their syrupy coating; the buttery, flaky pastry base...I think this could give that Nicoise tarte tatin a run for its money. Please make it if you find yourself with quinces to use up.

Quince tarte tatin (serves 6):

Adapted from David Lebovitz's recipe, here.

  • 3 large quinces (you might end up with a bit left over - eat them for breakfast on porridge/muesli!)
  • Half a lemon
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 3 cloves
  • 900ml water
  • 100g sugar
  • 140g flour
  • 2 tsp brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 85g cold butter, cubed
  • 3-4 tbsp very cold water
  • 2 tsp quince paste (membrillo) or jelly (optional)
  • You will also need a suitable pan - an ovenproof frying pan around 18-22cm in diameter is ideal

First, poach the quinces. Put the water, sugar, lemon, cinnamon stick and cloves in a large saucepan and bring slowly to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Peel, core and quarter the quinces, then halve each quarter to get eight segments per quince. Drop them into the poaching liquid. Lower the heat to barely a simmer, and place a circle of greaseproof paper with a 1-inch hole in the middle over the water. Cook on a very low heat for an hour or so, until the liquid has turned pink and the quinces are tender. Turn off the heat and leave the quinces in the syrup until you need them.

Next, make the pastry. Put the flour, sugar, salt and butter in a food processor and pulse until you have fine crumbs (or rub the butter in with your fingers, trying to touch it for as little a time as possible). Add the water a tablespoon at a time, until the dough just comes together and looks like little pebbles. You will have to squash it together with your hands. Form a ball and wrap it in cling film. Chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

When ready to assemble the tart, put about 250ml of the quince poaching liquid along with the quince jelly or paste, if using, in your chosen pan and simmer until it has reduced to a thick syrup (you want a layer about 5mm deep on the base of the pan). Pre-heat the oven to 190C.

Lay the quince segments, drained, over the bottom of the pan, curved side down in a circle. Try and squish them together as much as possible so there are no gaps. You may not need all the quince segments. Roll out the pastry on a floured surface to a circle slightly bigger than the pan, and lay it over the quinces, tucking it in all around the edges (this will be the best bit of the whole dessert, where the pastry edges are saturated in caramel!)

Bake in the oven for about 45 minutes, until the pastry is crisp and golden and the caramel is bubbling around the sides. Remove and allow to cool for about 15-20 minutes before putting a plate over the top of the pan and turning it upside down to release the finished tart (you might have to shake it a bit to loosen it).

Serve warm with ice cream, creme fraiche or cream.

Lemon crêpes with Earl Grey ice cream

As if I need an assigned day of the year to give me an excuse to make pancakes. Those of you who are regular followers of my culinary endeavours will know that I rarely let a weekend pass without celebrating that period of the day between 11am and 1pm more commonly known as "brunch time". I'm a big fan of experimenting with the humble pancake in all its shapes and forms, but for pancake day you can't beat the traditional French crêpe. Wafer thin and delicate, its pale surface mottled with brown spots of heat from the pan, it demands to be filled with something delicious. The classic lemon and sugar combination is hard to beat, but I thought I'd add a twist to it with some home-made ice cream. I've been wanting to try out Earl Grey tea as an ice cream flavour before, and given the affinity between Earl Grey and lemon, it seemed only natural to pair it with these pancakes. My original idea was a lemon tart, but I love the contrast of something hot with cold ice cream, and pancakes are a happy medium - not so hot that the ice cream melts instantly (I hate melted ice cream), but warm enough to provide a pleasing difference in temperature.

I have to say, it is a revelation. Until you try it, you can't possibly imagine what Earl Grey ice cream will taste like. I have to admit that I actually hate Earl Grey tea. I can't stand the overwhelmingly perfumey fragrance of the bergamot, for some reason, which is odd given that I generally enjoy flowery notes in food. But when combined with cream, milk and sugar, the flavour becomes an absolute delight. It's like drinking a sugary cup of Earl Grey tea with a lot of milk, but cold and even sweeter. Even the colour of the ice cream is lovely, like a rich tea biscuit. I didn't use Fortnums tea because I am a snob (though I suppose I am), but because it was the only Earl Grey I had, as it came with a little hamper of tea I got given by my mum last year. I like to think the ice cream was extra special as a result.

The crêpes are just a standard pancake batter, filled with standard lemon juice and sugar...but with the addition of the ice cream, they become more like a proper dessert. The sweet lemon juice inside goes so well with the Earl Grey flavour; its strong bergamot notes stop it tasting overly sweet. I like to make my crêpes slightly thicker than a French person - I'm sure - would, and the soft warm batter with the crunchy sugar and soft ice cream is just divine. "Lush", as one of my dinner guests declared.

Also in the spirit of crêpes and ice cream, I filled a few of them with caramelised apples. Just sliced Cox apples browned in butter and demerara sugar, with a dollop of golden syrup and a sprinkling of cinnamon at the end to make them all sticky and delicious. Cox apples are good ones to use for this, because they have a sharpness and a firmness that stops them collapsing and means they stand up well to the doughy pancakes. I think apples and cardamom are a pairing of flavours I might have to pay more attention to in future; it works very well.

The great thing about pancakes is they're a very effortless dessert, but also very versatile. Fill them with whatever fruit you like, serve them with whatever ice cream you like, and people are bound to think you've gone to loads of trouble. The only thing I would suggest is to have the oven on a low temperature while you make all the pancakes; that way you can keep them all warm and plate up at the last minute, rather than serve everyone as they come out of the pan. Although that has a certain informality about it that is quite nice. Up to you.

Crêpes (makes about 12, in a 15-20cm frying pan):

  • 120g plain flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 300ml milk (or 200ml milk and 100ml water)
  • Pinch salt
  • Knob of melted butter
  • Sift the flour into a large bowl. Make a well in the centre and crack in the eggs. Using an electric whisk, mix the eggs into a bit of the flour, then slowly add the milk, whisking all the time to avoid lumps. Add a pinch of salt and a little melted butter then whisk again. You can leave the mixture to stand for a while, even overnight, if you want to make it in advance. 

To cook, heat a little butter in a frying pan - you want it quite hot before you start. Use kitchen roll to cover the base of the pan evenly with the butter. Dollop on the batter using a ladle - you want a very thin layer, just enough to coat the base of the pan. Cook for a minute or so, until the edges start to curl up, then use a palette knife or spatula to flip over, and cook the other side for a minute or so. You can keep the finished pancakes warm in the oven while you make the rest. 

Earl Grey ice cream (makes about half a litre):

  • 250ml whole milk
  • 250ml whipping cream
  • 3 tsp loose Earl Grey tea (or 4 teabags)
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 4 egg yolks

Place the milk and cream and tea in a saucepan. Heat gently until just below boiling point, then remove from the heat and leave for an hour or so to infuse (taste to see how strong the flavour is - if too weak, add more tea, heat up again, and leave again). When you're satisfied with it, sieve to remove the tea leaves, or remove the teabags.

Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until thick and creamy. Gradually incorporate the milk and cream mixture. Then place the whole lot in a saucepan and heat gently, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens into a custard (this will take about 15 minutes - don't heat it too quickly or it will curdle).

Pour into a jug, leave to cool, then chill until cold. Then churn in an ice cream maker and place in the freezer to firm up (2-3 hours). 

Quince sorbet

I know it is bad, but I do occasionally succumb to the allure of the impulse buy. The odd top or pair of trousers here and there. A new eyeliner. A very nice tweed-patterned scarf from Zara on Regent Street. An ice cream machine. Perhaps this last one isn't something you generally associate with impulse-buying, but then again, most people aren't as greedy and as gastronomically obsessed as I am. When the Arts and Humanities Research Council decided to fund my MA, I'm sure they intended the money to cover such necessities (thank you, AHRC). 

Recently I've been longing more and more for the capability to make my own ice cream. I partly blame Masterchef for this, proffering the likes of star anise ice cream (to go with pear tart), but also my own desire for something slightly more exciting to accompany a dessert. Apple crumble and ginger ice cream, anyone? Orange cake with date and caramel ice cream? Lemon torte with earl grey tea ice cream? All these are now at my fingertips. (Not literally, unfortunately).

They're not far off, though. I love this little machine. It's a Kenwood. We have a big Kenwood mixer at home, with a separate ice cream attachment, and this self-contained machine seems tiny in comparison. However, it's a great size to fit in the freezer and actually makes a surprising amount of ice cream - one litre, which is the average size of a supermarket tub anyway. A bargain, I think, for £23.

So, tonight I decided to give it a test run, by making some quince sorbet. As my mum said, "Well, I didn't think you'd start with vanilla." She is quite right - not when I have four quinces in the fridge (I keep a permanent supply on standby at the moment, such is my love for them). It's unconventional, and it features one of my favourite fruits: a clear choice. A good one, too - the end result is delicious. It looks and tastes creamy, even though there is no cream involved. In fact, it contains just three ingredients: 300g sugar, dissolved in 500ml water to make a syrup, into which go about a kilo of quinces, peeled, cored and chopped. Simmer until very tender then puree with a stick blender and pass through a sieve. Leave to cool before churning. 

I think it would be nice to serve alongside something richer - perhaps pistachio ice cream, or some form of pastry. Quinces have such a sweet, perfumed flavour that I think you need something richer and more earthy to balance it. It does make a great palate cleanser though and is lovely after a substantial dinner. 

I feel like the world of ice cream is my oyster.