Conventional wisdom

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 July, 2010, 12:00am

I love to read cookery memoirs, especially the older ones, where a glimpse into what life was like in bygone days is just as interesting as the recipes. In many of the books, the recipes are too complex or extravagant to be used for everyday fare in modern households. Occasionally, the books yield long-lost treasures that are easy to make and delicious.

Hazelnut tart (pictured)

This recipe is adapted from one of my favourite cooking memoirs, The Alice B Toklas Cookbook. I'm surprised this recipe isn't better known; perhaps it's because more attention is paid to the book's famously mind-altering haschich fudge.

Like many other recipes in the book, the author gives only basic instructions for this tart. She neglects to instruct us to let the dough rest and chill before rolling it out; if you don't, the dough is impossible to roll as thinly as needed. She also doesn't stress the importance of sealing the edges of the top and bottom crusts - if you don't seal it properly, the filling will spill out. Her instruction to mix the filling gently but thoroughly for 20 minutes is essential - if it's not mixed for long enough, the filling will be grainy and, if it's mixed too vigorously, it will aerate and cause the top and bottom crusts to separate. Use a rubber spatula to stir the filling gently - do not use a whisk.

For the dough:

180 grams plain (all-purpose) flour

1/4 tsp fine sea salt

140 grams unsalted butter, chilled

1 large egg yolk, chilled

15ml ice water

For the filling:

120 grams whole hazelnuts

2 large eggs, at room temperature

200 grams granulated sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

For sealing and glazing the crust:

1 egg

Granulated sugar

Put the flour and salt in a food processor and pulse to combine. Cut the butter into 1cm chunks, add to the flour and pulse until the butter is the size of small peas. Transfer the ingredients to a medium-sized bowl. Whisk the egg yolk with the ice water, add it to the flour and mix with your fingertips until the dry ingredients are evenly moistened. The dough should be cohesive; if it seems dry, mix in a small amount of ice water. Knead the mixture briefly then divide into two pieces, one slightly less than twice the size of the other. Shape the pieces into flat discs, wrap with cling-film then refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Put the hazelnuts in one layer on a baking tray and bake until brown and fragrant. When cool enough to handle, rub the hazelnuts between the palms of your hands to loosen the skins. Discard the skins and let the nuts cool completely before grinding them.

Lightly whisk the two eggs with a fork. Use a rubber spatula to stir the sugar into the eggs. Mix gently for 20 minutes, or until the sugar is dissolved. Gently mix in the hazelnuts and vanilla extract.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Whisk the egg for brushing with a little water. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the larger piece of dough. It should be about 2mm thick and 25cm in diameter. Gently fit the circle of dough into a 19cm round tart pan with a removable bottom. Settle the dough in without stretching it so it fits into the edges of the pan and let the excess hang over the top. Brush the beaten egg lightly but evenly over the overhang, then use a paper towel to remove excess moisture (if it's too wet, the dough won't adhere). Gently stir the filling together to re-combine the ingredients then pour it into the pan. Roll out the other piece of dough so it's a little larger than the diameter of the pan, place it over the filling then firmly press the edges of the dough together so they adhere. Trim off the excess dough. Lightly brush the surface of the tart with the beaten egg then sprinkle lightly but evenly with sugar. Use a sharp paring knife to poke holes in the centre of the top layer of the dough, then use the tines of a fork to make a decorative pattern on the surface (holes let the air in the filling escape). Place the tart on a baking tray then bake at 200 degrees for 10 minutes. Lower the heat to 180 degrees and continue to bake for about 20 minutes, or until the tart is fragrant and golden brown.

Eggplant caviar

M.F.K. Fisher wrote many books about growing up in California at the beginning of the last century, and of her life in France with her first husband. Much of her writing was about food. This recipe is adapted from one in her book An Alphabet for Gourmets. Fisher suggested serving this strongly flavoured dish with sliced black bread and chilled vodka.

60ml olive oil

150 grams onion, diced

2-4 large garlic cloves, minced

500 grams Japanese or Chinese eggplants, diced (Fisher says the eggplant should be peeled but I don't bother)

250 grams ripe tomatoes, diced

Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

About 80ml lemon juice, or to taste

Worcestershire sauce, to taste

Tabasco sauce, to taste

About 45ml extra-virgin olive oil

Heat the olive oil in a skillet. Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft. Add the eggplant, season with salt and pepper, then cook, stirring often, until lightly browned. Stir in the tomato, bring to the simmer. Lower the heat, cover the pan and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 90 minutes, or until the mixture is rich and thick. Season the mixture with a few drops each of Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco, then add the lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil. Mix thoroughly then adjust the seasonings. Serve warm or cold.

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