Sunday, May 17, 2009

Cure for Sunday afternoon Autumn melancholy: Pear and Hazelnut Torta

Autumn Sunday mornings in Melbourne often begin a bit like the opening credits of Douglas Sirk’s 1955 film, All That Heaven Allows, I think. All red and yellow leaves and a gentle wind that stirs them like a warning for what lies ahead. Soft light makes everything glow like Technicolour and the whole scene is so lovely, that if you look for too long your chest begins to feel heavy with the weight of doomed romance or winter’s coming. What you need then, is something to eat that celebrates Autumn. Something wholesome and golden that reminds you how good the present moment can be.

Something with pears, perhaps? This little cure for Autumn melancholy is made from a recipe in this month’s delicious. magazine that I bookmarked right away. And it is everything I wanted it to be on that sort of a Sunday afternoon; it is a toothsome and nutty tart with hits of fragrant roasted pear scattered about on top. Something magic happens to it in the oven and the batter separates into a spongy, cake-like layer on the bottom and a chewy frangipane-like top layer. It comes out looking as if you’ve done something fancy – or time consuming, at the very least. It is shallow and not too sweet and would be delicious with a dollop of mascarpone, although I loved it warm on it’s own with coffee. A piece of this and a bit of Nina Simone on the stereo will sweeten your Autumn Sunday afternoon.

Pear and hazelnut torta
Serves 6

Note: to toast and remove skins from hazelnuts, place on an oven tray and roast for around 10 minutes or until they smell good and toasty. Be careful though – they burn real quick! While hot, put into a clean tea towel and rub vigorously until skins have been removed.

100g toasted hazelnuts with skins removed
½ cup (110g) caster sugar, plus 2 tsp extra to top
1/3 cup (50g) plain flour
½ tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
2 eggs
¼ cup (60ml) milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
80g unsalted butter, melted & cooled
20g extra butter, chilled and chopped
2 ripe but firm pears
icing sugar, to dust

Preheat oven to 170°C (or 190° in my slow old thing). Grease a 26sm round tart pan or quiche dish.

Place hazelnuts, caster sugar and 1 tablespoon of flour in food processor and whiz until the nuts are ground. Stop before they become too fine and form a paste. Tip this mixture into a large bowl. Sift in remaining flour, baking powder and salt. Whisk until thoroughly combined.

In a separate bowl, whisk eggs until slightly frothy, then add milk, vanilla and cooled butter, whisking to combine. Pour this into the dry ingredients and stir with a rubber spatula until well combined. The mixture might be runnier than what you’d expect of a regular cake batter. Scrape this into your prepared pan.

Peel, quarter and core pears then cut each quarter into 3 or 4 thin slices. If you’re neat and fussy, fan these by pressing gently on the quarter and transfer with a palette knife to the top of the batter. If you’re like me (lazy), do the best you can using only your fingers until it looks a bit like the picture. Repeat for both pears. Sprinkle top of the torta with extra caster sugar, concentrating on the pear fans and finally, dot fruit with chilled chopped butter.

Bake for 25 – 30 minutes, or until tart is golden and has puffed slightly (mine took 5 minutes longer even). Transfer to a wire rack and sift over a good layer of icing sugar. Allow to cool to warm then add another finer layer of icing sugar. Serve warm with cream or marscapone or at room temperature with coffee.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Twin Peaks Cherry Pie

On Friday night, four of us sat around my kitchen bench drinking and eating chilli and cornbread and laughing about that old adage ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’. We were laughing because it was something that parents and grandparents used to say – but then we were laughing because I said that I thought it was true.

It reminded me of my first crush. From the moment I laid my eyes on him, I knew that I’d have to master the Cherry Pie. I knew that without this skill – without this recipe – he’d never give someone like me the time of day. And even worse, I knew that I wasn’t the only the only one who felt this way about him. If I ever wanted Special Agent Dale Cooper to marry me, I’d have to be able to make a damn good cherry pie. And on Friday night, after the chili and more wine, we realised that I’d finally done it. As it turns out, I may be a few years too late. Sigh. Anyway, I think the secret was the cherries.

To make a real Twin Peaks Cherry Pie, you need to use tart pie cherries, so on Friday morning I pulled out the super-rare morello cherries I’d bought from an old Polish woman in the summer at the farmer’s market. Now, unless you have a tree or a neighbour with a tree, these little darlings are pretty hard to come by. The day I brought them home, I diligently pit the whole lot and then flash froze them. They’d been in the freezer door and I’d look at them and think of Dale (not Kyle) every couple of days, waiting for the right moment. When it arrived, I made a quart of David Lebovitz’s amazing vanilla bean ice cream and turned on the oven. And everyone agreed that with this cherry pie, I could have won Special Agent Dale Cooper's heart. I suppose it might work on others, too.

Twin Peaks Cherry Pie
This 'should' serve eight people.

1 quantity of easy flaky pastry made with 2 tbsp caster sugar
Milk to glaze (rather than egg)

1 ¼ cup sugar
3 tbsp arrowroot powder (tapioca flour)
2 tbsp corn flour (corn starch)
1 tsp cinnamon
5 – 6 cups of fresh, frozen (not thawed) or tinned (and drained) morello cherries
1 tsp vanilla essence
½ tsp almond essence

Make pastry, halve, wrap in plastic and pop in the fridge to chill for at least one hour (even two).

About 30 minutes before baking, add sugar, arrowroot, corn flour and cinnamon to a large bowl and whisk to combine. Add cherries and essences and turn until well coated with sugar mixture. Set aside for 20 – 30 minutes.

For an easier-to-handle lattice top, roll out top pastry and cut neatly into strips. Use a ruler if you like precision: usually I can’t be bothered. Pop these strips onto a baking paper-lined oven tray and into the freezer for 20 minutes or so. They’ll be easier to handle and weave when they’re firm!

When ready to bake, roll remaining disk of pastry to fit a standard sized pie plate. Trim, leaving a 1cm overhang. Pour in cherries and scrape in all the sugar mixture – this will make your sauce! Carefully arrange firm pastry strips in a lattice weave over the top of the pie. Leave it to rest and soften for a few minutes.

When softened, gently press the strips into the edge and turn under, as for a regular pie. You can then shape the edge to the design you like best, or simply crimp with a fork. Brush with milk and pop into oven. Bake at 220C for 30 minutes then cover edges with foil to prevent burning. Return to oven, turn down to 200C and bake until pie is golden – around 30 minutes (in my terrible oven).

Remove and set aside for around 30 minutes. I know it’s tempting, but if you cut a slice right away it will fall apart! Trust me. Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.
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