Latest Letter from N&Q | Summer eating and an apricot tarte recipe

13 September 2022

The latest Letter from Nettle & Quince is out on Substack!

Before landing firmly into September, it’s a look back to the summer and how we eat on holiday. Feasts occasionally, but more often simple food that slots in easily with the holiday mode. Quick lunches, tins of fish, many tomatoes, and plenty of tartes, including this superlative and super easy apricot tarte with a lemon verbena syrup — recipe below.

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Apricot tarte with a lemon verbena syrup
I love the combination of verbena and apricot. It was a chance improvisation some years ago and I return to it every year. It’s one of my favourite.

All-butter pie crust, either home made or store-bought
Ripe apricots, enough to fill the pie when cut in half
200g ground almonds
75g sugar

For the syrup
200g sugar
A few sprigs of fresh lemon verbena

Preheat the oven to 175C (350F).

To make the syrup, pour the sugar into a small saucepan with just enough water to wet it completely. Heat until the sugar is entirely dissolved and let simmer for a few minutes. Add the sprigs of lemon verbena to infuse at least 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, assemble the tarte.

Place the pastry in a pie dish (or on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper). Dot the pastry with holes (for example with a fork) so that it doesn’t puff up while baking.

In a medium bowl, mix together the ground almonds and sugar. Cover the pastry with this mixture. Add the washed apricots, cut in half and stoned, onto the almond/sugar mixture.

Carefully drizzle the syrup over the apricots, taking care not to create big puddles. (If you want to decorate the tarte with verbena leaves, first dip them in the syrup so they crystallise while cooking rather than burn.)

Bake the tarte for 25 to 35 minutes.

Serve cool, with thick cream or just like that.

All summer long ratatouille

11 July 2022

All these years and I’ve been making ratatouille backwards. For as long as I can remember, I’ve started with the aubergines and finished with the tomatoes. I don’t know why and it should (obviously!) be the other way around.

There are many ways to make ratatouille. Some profess each vegetable should be cooked separately to preserve its individual taste before all are combined and left to confit together very slowly. This sounds terribly delicious. On the other hand, the more distant origin of the word ratatouille — from the Occitan ‘ratatolha‘ — is that of a coarse (bad?) stew. And while there is nothing bad about my ratatouille (even the backwards one that was my habit!) I like its humbler origin — an effortless dish for life in summer.

The whole point of ratatouille is simplicity. Its preparation — cutting vegetables, just agree on the approximate size — can enlist anyone idling around. It is easily made in large batches for imprecise, extended, friends and family meals. It should, in fact, be made in enormous quantities because cold leftover ratatouille is even better. And in any case it keeps for a few days. It goes equally well with grilled fish, roast chicken, meat on the barbecue, as a lunchtime ‘salad,’ or stirred into a mess of eggs for a ratatouille frittata.

It is the quintessential summer dish.

Right-way-around ratatouille recipe

The quantities are suggestions only, for approximate ratio. I usually make a much larger batch.
The size and shape (cubes vs slices) into which the vegetables are prepared depends on my mood or who is cutting. The important thing is that all the vegetables follow the same principle and are roughly the same size.

Onions (3 medium)
Olive oil
Salt (I like to use coarse grey sea salt)
Garlic (4 cloves)
Red or green peppers (one)
Tomatoes (3 or 4)
Aubergine/eggplant (1 medium)
Courgettes/zucchini (5 or 6 smallish ones)
Bay leaves
Fresh rosemary, thyme, Summer savory (one or all of these)
Good wine vinegar (For this I like to make use of my small bottle of moscatel vinegar, which is slightly sweet, but any good wine vinegar is fine)

Peel the onions and cut them into large dice (or half moons).

Pour enough olive oil to just cover the bottom of a heavy-bottomed saucepan, turn on the heat (medium to low). When the oil is hot, after a brief minute, put int the cut onions, stir, salt with a good pinch, and let the onions brown, lid on (keeping an eye and stirring occasionally so they don’t burn), while prepapring the garlic and peppers.

Squish the garlic cloves with the side of a knife, remove the husk, and cut coarsely.

Wash, deseed, and cut the pepper into small cubes (or thin slices).

Once the onions are starting to turn golden, add the garlic and peppers, stir, close the lid, and let stew while preparing the tomatoes.

Wash and cut the tomatoes into chunks (or thin wedges). Add them to the pot with another good pinch of salt.

Let the onions, garlic, peppers, and tomatoes cook until they start melding and resembling a sauce.

Meanwhile, prepare the rest of the vegetables: Wash, remove the stem, and cut the aubergines (eggplant) into slices, then each slice into cubes. Wash, remove the end, and cut the courgettes (zucchini) into slices or cubes.

When the vegetables in the pot begin to ressemble a tomato-y sauce, add the aubergines and courgettes with another generous pinch of salt. Add the herbs, any mix as strikes your fancy. I think bay leaf is indispensable.

Cook for at least an hour, perhaps an hour an a half, over low heat, until all the vegetables have softened completely.

Stir in one or two tablespoons of vinegar, just enough to tease out the acidity.

Eat hot or at room temperature or cold out of the fridge the next day.

‘The cake’ — Magnus Nilsson’s almond sponge cake

29 June 2022

Deceptive. It looks so plain but tastes insane.

As if I needed another almond cake. And … is it OK to post three cake recipes in a row? (And — who made up these rules…?!)

Yes. And yes. Resistance is futile.

Magnus Nilsson, of hallowed restaurant Fäviken, which closed in 2019, and author of The Nordic Cook Book, describes it as a ‘… very delicious, very dense, and very fantastic almond sponge cake. I usually just refer to it as “the cake”.’

It is also very soft and completely moist and tastes exactly like marzipan, but only if you love marzipan. If you don’t love marzipan, it tastes like the best almond cake.

I made it a week ago and there is a sliver left, because I hid it so well. (Incidentally, after a week, it is as good, if not better.)

I mentioned this cake in a recent Letter from Nettle & Quince, I had intended to make it with a packet of marzipan left over from Christmas baking. Things got in the way, and when I reached in the pantry, only last week, for the (now probably just expired) almond paste, it had disappeared. There are a couple of large, increasingly hairy rats in the house, from whom no food is safe.

Nevermind, my head was set. I bought some blanched almond and quickly blended a batch of marzipan from the familiar recipe in Luisa Weiss’s Classic German Baking. In a bit of a hurry, I used it before it became completely solid — from thorough blending and/or setting in the fridge — which, incidentally, was a convenient way to avoid the additional step of grating the marzipan. A thick, malleable blob, it mixed quite easily into the butter/sugar mixture.

Almond sponge cake recipe from The Nordic Cook Book by Magnus Nilsson

200g butter, softened, plus a little extra for the tin
170g sugar
200g almond paste, grated on the coarse side of a box grater
2 tbsps lemon juice (or 12% Ättika vinegar)
5 eggs
130g weak/soft flour (I used white spelt)
1 tsp baking powder
A good pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 150C (300F). Line with parchment paper and butter a 23 x 13 x 8cm (9 x 5 x 3 in) loaf tin.

Mix the softened butter, sugar, grated almond paste, and lemon juice (or vinegar) in a bowl or stand mixer. Beat well until smooth and slightly lighter in colour. It will be very stiff. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well between each one. Sift in the flour, baking powder, and salt until completely combined and smooth. Do not overmix.

Pour the batter into the cake tin and bake in the oven for 1 hour.

When the cake is done (check with a knife or skewer, which should come out clean), place the cake upside down onto a wire rack to cool. ‘This is a very important step. By inverting the cake the fat from the butter and almonds will be given the possibility to spread evenly in it. If you leave it as it was baked to cool it will be very greasy at the bottom and too dry at the top.’

Remove the tin after a few minutes and let cool completely (still upside down) before cutting.

Well hidden, the cake keeps at room temperature in a closed container for up to a week!

Elderflower and polenta cake from Lombardy

27 May 2022

In this very instant it’s the best cake in the world. It is a fairy godmother cake from another time. It belongs in an ancient garden, dappled, overgrown, heaving with ivy and tangled roses. It needs friends with whom to share it. Right now it’s just me in my urban fox-ravaged patch, with this cake. But when I close my eyes I am displaced.

There are many things I should rather be doing this morning than baking, or eating, a cake… but the elderflowers are in full bloom, the time will pass in an instant. So I walked over to the elderflower tree at the bottom of our road, nipped a few overhanging flowers, and began to bake.

I saw this cake just a few days ago on Stefano Arturi’s Instagram. Stefano is the author of the excellent blog Italian Home Cooking, and, as with all of his recipes, he explains the origin and stories behind this nearly forgotten, old-fashioned pàn de mèj (millet, originally). He describes it as ‘a dry cake, exquisitely perfumed, whose restrained elegance and goodness should be revived.’

I totally agree, and now is the time.

Elderflower and polenta cake recipe barely adapted from Stefano Arturi’s Italian Home Cooking

3 to 6 heads of elderflowers, depending on the size
150g white flour (I used spelt)
150g coarse polenta
1 tsp baking powder
Good pinch of salt
Grated zest from one lemon
120g sugar (I use golden caster sugar)
80g butter, melted and cooled
40g light olive oil
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 170C (330F). Line with parchment paper and butter a small (23cm / 9in) cake or pie tin.

Shake the elderflower heads to get rid of any small bugs.

Mix together the flour, polenta, baking powder, salt, lemon zest, and sugar.

Add the melted butter, olive oil, beaten eggs, and vanilla extract. Stir to combine.

Pick the flowers from the stems and chop them up a little. Combine 5 tablespoons of the flowers into the batter.

Scrape the batter into the cake tin.

In a small bowl, mix together 2 tablespoons of elderflowers with 2 tablespoons of sugar. Sprinkle over the cake.

Bake the cake for about 30 minutes, until a knife or skewer comes out clean.

Eat warm or at room temperature, traditionally with a pour of cold single cream, though it is delicious as is.

Almond & buckwheat pound cake with a flume of rhubarb

21 May 2022

Sometimes a bowl of rhubarb compote in the fridge inspires cake, and so the other day.

A quatre-quart — ‘four-quarters’ as the French call a pound cake — is often my basis for a quick cake improvisation; a ‘snacking cake’ — such a perfect denomination. The term was recently popularised by Yossy Arefi thanks to her book ‘Snacking Cakes: Simple Treats for Anytime Cravings,’ which she describes as ‘a single layer cake, probably square, covered with a simple icing—or nothing at all—and it must be truly easy to make.’ Though I don’t own the book, the term immediately imprinted itself. I now often think of a cake I’m about to make as a ‘snacking cake.’ This is the perfect example.

The basis is a simple pound cake — equal weights of eggs, butter, sugar, and flour. But I’ve lowered the sugar slightly, as usual, and divided the flour ratio into three (unequal) parts: white spelt, almond, and buckwheat. I’ve noticed buckwheat flour appear in recipes more and more often recently and its popularity is well deserved. It adds depth and is a great addition to many cakes. I started using it some years ago when I began spending most of my summers in Brittany, where buckwheat is the local flour. As it doesn’t keep for very long I often have an open packet that needs using. I find using little is often best.

Almond & buckwheat pound cake with a flume of rhubarb

250g unsalted butter, left out to become very soft
210g sugar
4 eggs
150g white spelt flour
30g buckwheat flour
70g almond flour
1 mounded tsp baking powder
Zest from one lemon
1 tsp salt
Rhubarb compote

Preheat the oven to 175C (350F). Line a 30 x 10cm (12 x 4 in) — or equivalent capacity — cake tin with parchment paper and butter the paper generously.

Beat the butter and sugar vigorously until very soft and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, and continue beating well. Stir in the flours, the baking powder, the lemon zest, and salt. The batter should ideally feel mousse-like.

Scoop half of the batter into the tin, then a generous layer of rhubarb compote, and finally the rest of the batter.

Place in the oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until a knife or skewer comes out clean.

Wait for the cake to cool completely before cutting, if you can.


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