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Pastiera or Easter Ricotta Tart

pastiera whole I really admire those organised food bloggers who manage to post seasonal recipes before the event. I’m not quite sure what their secret is, but when it comes to Christmas or Easter or Halloween, I need to find out because I’m posting a recipe for the classic Easter dish of pastiera a week late instead.

The good news though is that it’s only a traditional Easter dish if you hail from Naples so technically there’s no reason why you shouldn’t make it in the next few weeks if you like the sound of it. Pastiera is made from pastry filled with cooked wheatberries, eggs and ricotta flavoured with cinnamon, candied peel and orange blossom water and it tastes deliciously of springtime sunshine and light evenings. It’s also much easier to make than I originally expected.

I had difficulty getting wheatberries or grano cotto so I used pearl barley instead. Several recipes suggested using cooked rice as well and I think it would be a wonderful way to use up leftover rice pudding. You do need to make the pastiera a day in advance to allow the flavours to combine but as I am not a proper Neapolitan nonna I didn’t take the traditional three days to create mine. Make it on a Saturday night before tucking in for Sunday lunch for something a bit different. I won’t tell if you don’t.

Pastiera (adapted from this Food 52 recipe here)

  • 250g plain flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 150g cold butter
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 30ml ice cold water
  • 100g pearl barley (uncooked weight)
  • 250ml milk
  • 50ml cream
  • 100g candied peel
  • 1 lemon, zested
  • 350ml ricotta
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 200g sugar
  • 1 tablespoon orange blossom water
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • generous pinch of sea salt
  • icing sugar to serve

Begin by making the ricotta filling for the pastiera. Wisdom has it that freshly cracked eggs make it rise so you need to rest them overnight. I wasn’t that organised, but I did find that chilling the mixture for at least an hour made it easier to handle so don’t skip that stage.

Beat the ricotta, whole eggs, egg yolks, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and orange blossom water together well with a fork. It will be alarmingly liquid at this stage and you’ll panic that you’ve done something wrong. You haven’t. Chill it in the fridge and it thickens nicely.

Next make  your pastry. I always always use Dan Lepard’s recipe for it and despite not being especially pastry confident, it works best for me. Sift the flour into a large bowl and add the salt. Cut the butter into small pieces and rub into the flour until it disappears well. Beat the egg yolks into the water and add to the flour, mixing it in well. Combine to make a surprisingly soft and wet dough and then wrap it and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

Prepare the barley for the filling by covering it with cold water and bringing to the boil. Skim any froth off the top and cook for about 20 minutes. Reserve the cooking water to make your own version of barley water, but drain the barley well before returning it to the pan.

This time add the milk and the candied peel and simmer it gently until the barley thickens into a porridgey texture and the fruit swells slightly. This took about 5 minutes for me. Take it off the heat and add the cream and lemon zest and allow to cool for about 20 minutes.

Flour your work surface well and then roll out your pastry to fit a 9 or 10 inch springform cake tin. Don’t cut the overhang yet and allow the pastry to chill for 20 minutes more in the fridge.

Combine the barley with the ricotta mix and stir it all together well. It will, frankly, look unappetising in colour in texture. Ignore the nagging voice that tells you this was a bad idea. It wasn’t. Carry on making it and  preheat the oven to 200℃.

Pour the barley ricotta mix into the chilled pastry shell and trim the overhang on the pastry neatly. Lay strips of pastry across the top of the pastiera to make a lattice effect, sticking them on with the leftover egg whites if needs be. Mine sank a bit as I think I cut them too wide and therefore too heavy. But it was nearly midnight at this stage and I didn’t care.

Bake the pastiera for 60 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the pastry is biscuity beige. You need to turn it half way through to make sure the colouration is even on both sides if you are bothered by such things. Take it out and cool completely in the tin.

Chill until needed and then remove from the tin. Sprinkle with icing sugar and serve in slices. The filling is surprisingly light in texture but is is quite rich so do what we did and start with small slices and work up to seconds. The pastiera will keep for up to 3 days in the fridge. I loved the flavour of the cinnamon and orange blossom water together as both were subtle but effective. It made a lovely change from chocolate or marzipan Easter treats!

pastiera slice

Rhubarb and custard tarts

Angled plate1 new

I love custard of any description. Whether it be Bird’s or Ambrosia’s Devon kind or fresh stuff poured over a crumble or a quivering baked version, I love custard. Sadly it has never reciprocated that love and everytime I’ve tried to make it, there have been problems. It’s split, ended up scrambled, been full of lumps and the packet version has resembled concrete. I’ve always thought if I wrote a book about my cooking exploits, it would be called ‘Custard is my Nemesis.’

Few things go better with custard than rhubarb so when I finally got my paws on some proper Yorkshire forced rhubarb for the first time this season (even though Mister North has been cooking up a storm with it for a while now this winter.) I decided that come hell or high water, this weekend would be the time that I tamed custard, even if it meant the kind of mayhem in the kitchen that accompanied the cartoon duo of the same name.

I’ve been eyeing Dan Lepard’s Bay Custard Tarts forever, even having cut the recipe out of the Guardian and kept it when it first appeared several years ago and thanks to the clear and foolproof instructions in Short and Sweet, I knew this was the place to start with custard, but decided to put a seasonal twist on it by layering the baked custard with a topping of tangy rhubarb curd, partly because it would no doubt be delicious, but because it might hide a custard malfunction…

I made the tart cases from scratch using Dan’s sweet shortcrust recipe and tips on pastry handling. The first time I made pastry it was exceptionally good and I wondered why people worry about it, but every subsequent time has been a mess of varying levels. I decided to try and teach myself better pastry skills while I was mastering custard, but you could just use shop bought if that’s easier. But do follow Dan’s tip to only blind bake the cases for 15 minutes and undercook them slightly to allow the custard to ‘stick’

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Inside the Diablo SupperClub

The devil’s in the detail… Diablo SupperClub

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Wednesday night saw us turn up to Chorlton’s inimitable North Star Deli, on Wilbraham Road, to enjoy a taste of the Diablo SupperClub. Not, as you might think at first, a meeting of gastro-occultists, but instead a chance to learn something about Casillero del Diablo wine while enjoying fabulous food.

Yes, those cunning vintners at Concha Y Toro have hit on the ideal way of giving people greater confidence pairing food with wine: bring a liquid roadshow direct to a selection of the country’s finest supper clubs. This was their first venture north of Brighton or London, so of course Mr North was more than happy to help raise a glass in support. My other half is half-Chilean, and we’re partial to a drop of South American reds at the best of times, so this was an invite I didn’t think twice about accepting. After all, what could be more fun than being educated in the dark arts of the grape, while enjoying top-notch food? They’ve got a great blog online, (incidentally this month’s guest blogger is our favourites, Niamh from Eat Like a Girl, who even mentions our take on her exceptional Spiced Beef recipe) and a bunch of user-submitted recipes, which should be good to provoke some fresh ideas in the kitchen.

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It’s incredible to think it’s been almost a year since we attended the first pop-up restaurant at North Star Deli, one of my favourite independent eateries in Manchester. Where did the last 12 months go? In the last year their Join Us 4 Supper nights have become a regular occurrence on the Manchester food scene, showcasing the best of local, seasonal food. Chef Deanna Thomas continues to set the menu and head up the kitchen for each event, whilst the deli has recently expanded to a second location, this time in the city centre. A great tip for a really good breakfast, lunch or fabulous coffee if you’re in the Piccadilly area!

January has a habit of being the grimmest, greyest month (personally I think that’s February… when you want winter to be drawing to a close and it’s tenaciously determined to stay put) and this was the first temptation to eat out since the New Year. Hospitality from the staff at North Star was as warm and welcoming as ever, and as good guests we allowed ourselves to be graciously plied with canapés and bubbly… the perfect start to any evening. First up, an intriguing savoury macaroon, which paired smoked salmon and a citrus-cream cheese inside light macaroons, dusted with poppy seeds. They looked delightful, and were soon followed by rabbit empanadas (following the South Amercian theme), which disappeared faster than a fluffy tail down a rabbit hole. Just right with a delicious dry, crisp glass of Brut Reserva Chardonnay.

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Our resident wine expert for the night, the spendidly-named Hans Joachin Wadsack (or Joe, as he answers to) won over the assorted dinner guests in no time with his extensive knowledge and enthusiasm. This laconic raconteur raptly held our attention with some background on the vineyards, terroir, and production methods of each of the wines we were due to sample that night. That, plus the wonderful smells wafting gently from the open kitchen, cranked the anticipation up to tangible levels in the room.

First course was a trio of plump, tender and perfectly seared King scallops. They sat daintily on a bed Puy lentils cooked in a creamy Chardonnay sauce, finished with tiny roasted tomatoes and (I think) a dash of basil oil. It takes a certain kind of determination to try and snare every last lentil on a plate (preferably doused in that wonderful buttery sauce) but I managed it, and looked up to find everyone else’s plates were empty too: a room full of happy diners.

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We each had a glass of Chardonnay, and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc to accompany the dish: for me the Chardonnay was more harmonious, complementing the subtle ocean flavour of the scallops and butteriness of the sauce alike. A good example of how cooking and drinking the same wine in a dish can really pay dividends. Sure, it felt slightly decadent to sit with two glasses of wine at each serving, but I kept telling myself it was purely for educational purposes!

The aroma of the main had been wafting out of the kitchen for as long as we’d been sat down: I ‘d (wrongly) guessed at beef, but was pleasantly surprised to find out that wonderfully meaty, heady aroma was venison. Mmm, venison. Proper winter fare… and it had been a couple of weeks since our venerable venison pie, so were suffering withdrawal symptoms. Joe introduced the reds which were to accompany the main –  a Shiraz, and a Carmenère – both paired to compliment the food. My predisposition was towards the Carmenère – I love its soft, spiced notes and it’s a bottle I already regularly buy – but the Shiraz was also balanced, fruity, and worked well with the dish.

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Deanna introduced this particular venison as being sourced from red deer – good to know as there’s no legal requirement to disclose what kind of deer your venison is from – and this haunch had been marinading comfortably in a delicious bath of Cabernet Sauvignon for the previous day, ready for cooking. And cooked it was, to perfection: pink flesh gave just enough under a richly caramelised dark exterior. Venison can be a bugger to cook, but this was spot-on: rested and rich without being overwhelming. Add that to an oh-so-rich red wine sauce, some savoy cabbage, and a wintery Hunter’s pie (think Shepherd’s Pie, but with an earthy celeriac mash topping and venison filling) and you have a stellar seasonal selection on a plate.

Finally, we got introduced to the dessert wine – the Casillero del Diablo Late Harvest – which is a newly introduced line in the UK (so new I couldn’t even link to it on their website). I don’t really do dessert wines, but every time I get persuaded to try a dessert wine with an appropriate sweet, I remind myself I appreciate the combination more than I think I do. This was no exception: the dessert was an Blood Orange tart, which quivered and shivered coyly on the plate. The mix of sweet and bitter riffed brilliantly with the concentrated, rich flavour of the wine, and added a welcome burst of late summer sunshine to the dark environs of south Manchester.

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Thanks to Briony and Joe from Casillero del Diablo for the wine and wisdom; Deanna, and Ben in the kitchen for the fantastic food; and smiling service from Adam, Jenny and the rest of the staff. A really great night, with plenty of sparkle, humour and gastronomic pleasures!

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I should also mention that Ben, the chef at North Star Deli, is one third of Team ‘Northern Stars’ on BBC2’s food quiz ‘A Question of Taste‘, alongside myself and SJ from Porcus.  We got on so well together that North Star Deli and North/South Food will be teaming up for next month’s ‘JoinUs4Supper’ on February 23rd. We’re hugely excited about this, and will be announcing more details very soon!

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The March of the Irish

After the local food delights of February’s Guestrant at Electrik with local chef Deanna Thomas, my appetite has been whetted at the prospect of more pop-up restaurant action. So when Deanna casually mentioned on Twitter she was cooking a St Patrick’s night dinner at the lovely North Star Deli in Chorlton it seemed like a no brainer to make a beeline for the event. My companions and I arrived at North Star Deli on the night to find ourselves warmly welcomed and shown our seats. Adam, the deli owner and Deanna’s brother, set the scene as we met a selection of the other attendees, an interesting and diverse selection of fellow food lovers. I’d never been to the deli before even during normal hours, having moved out of Manchester around the time it opened, and was taken by its individual charms and how well suited it seemed to intimate after-hours dining.

As this was the inaugural session of the pop-up restaurant evening not all the tables were filled, but the conversation was lively and the anticipation grew heady before the chef came out to introduce the starter. The venue itself has an open kitchen behind the counter, perfect for peeking over to see what’s going on. Not that I did so much, I’d tried hard to avoid finding out what was on the menu as I wanted to be surprised by what was on offer at this ‘Irish inspired feast’.

Irish food has historically reflected the fruits of the land, rivers and sea; whether simple working food, or a more grandiose country house style. However to many people Irish food is perceived as plain and indistinguished. Thankfully over the past few decades a generation of producers, writers, chefs and general food lovers have challenged the standard, simple stereotypes of ‘everything with potatoes and cabbage’, instead introducing or rediscovering more artisanal flavours, combinations and techniques. As a result Irish food in the twenty-first century is as dynamic, exciting and experimental as anything in the UK, hopefully continuing to develop despite the recent economic crisis.

A cursory glance on the ‘net around St. Paddy’s Day throws up a pretty frightening selection of green-dyed beer and leprechaun-themed gubbins (predominantly from our American cousins who seem to have a somewhat confused take on their culinary heritage from the Emerald Isle). Don’t forget the impressive marketing muscle of Guinness either,: they’ve managed to turn St Patrick’s Night into an event synonymous with their most famous dark drink. I was hoping tonight’s fare would be more exciting than a dodgy Irish Stew, a pint of the black stuff, and a Lucky Charms-themed dessert though.

The starter bode well. We started with wheaten bread and beautifully formed little star-shaped butter pats being brought to our tables. The wheaten bread was the foil to a deceptively simple crisp green salad studded with wonderful bacon, surrounded by roasted beetroot, and finished with a Cashel Blue dressing and a chive garnish. Cashel Blue is one of my favourite blue cheeses, and internationally acclaimed too so I’m not being overly biased with my recommendation of how good this Irish farmhouse blue is. It makes for a sophisticated blue cheese dressing with a selection of complimentary ingredients which left one wanting more. Earthy beet, tangy cheese, fresh leaves, sweet salted bacon proved to be amicable and perfectly partnered bedfellows.

When the chef came out to introduce the first course, explaining that the recipe was based on Richard Corrigan’s version of this favourite bread, she was unsure of the reaction from the diners. She had nothing to fear: this was wonderfully good wheaten bread, and I speak as a lifetime fan! Generally wheaten bread is a wholemeal soda bread, and owes much of its character and flavour to the use of baking soda as a raising agent (rather than yeast, so good for those who are yeast intolerant) and use of tangy buttermilk. It’s straightforward to make and doesn’t require too much hard work: in fact it’s one of the few breads I can confidently make. I once flew to the Netherlands with a freshly baked loaf, just so I could present it to friends as an accompaniment for a shared meal. We’re serious about bread in our part of the world. Side note: a slice or two of decent wild smoked salmon, served on some buttered wheaten bread with a squeeze of lemon juice is one of Ireland’s great food pleasures and most satisfying starters… at least in our family.

The main course, a beef & Guinness stew with potato pastry crust, was a wee bit more of a nod to ‘traditional’ Irish cooking whilst maintaining a modern character. First came bowls with healthy portions of fine chunky beef, glistening with rich dark gravy. These were topped with a triangle of light pastry. This in its own right was very good, two different cuts of meat in a beer gravy working well in that time-honoured combination of ox and stout, but more so when paired with the diminutive carrots and mash. Especially the mash – a hybrid colcannon/champ mix which prompted both an audience participation game on what best to call it (champannon, colchamp) and also a full-scale rush to clean the bowls it came in. You have to go far to beat the pleasures of good mashed potato with a rich stew… and I was pleased to hear a previous post of ours had influenced the introduction of scallions to the mix. By the time the course was over it was a potato-free zone on our table and elsewhere.

Dessert, as we’d expected after last month’s stunning chocolate torte from a chef with a serious track record in pastry, was a cracker*. A beautiful slice of apple and almond tart, served with Irish cream and a Guinness caramel sauce. The tart was perfectly light, the sweet and sharpness of the apples playing off against the pastry and almonds. The Irish cream, whipped up with Baileys, sat decadently with an rather tongue-in-cheek bright green shamrock candy astride it. Meanwhile elbows were sharpened and fingers utilised so everyone could enjoy the caramel sauce to the maximum. Seriously good, and provoking debate and discussion around the tables as to what gave it such a deep range of flavours. If memory serves me correctly the mystery ingredient turn out to be cassis: I hope I don’t get in trouble for spilling the beans!

The evening was hugely enjoyable: superb food, lovely setting and a great selection of diners. It was great to meet so many interesting folk with a shared interest in food. Thanks to Adam and the staff at North Star Deli for their enthusiasm and service, and of course to Deanna Thomas for a great Celtic-inspired menu. Let’s hope there’ll be more of these events in the future.

* With thanks to Frank Carson… it’s the way I tell ’em!