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.