Certainties in life? There are many. In central Prague, for example, they come in the form of young men dressed as Mozart selling tickets to Vivaldi concerts. (No, I don't understand that either. Though come to think of it, maybe the ones flogging tickets for the Mozart gigs are in fact dressed as Vivaldi.) Anyway, this highly tenuous link relates to to seasons. Seasons and Seasonality, as Jane Austen provisionally entitled one of her novels.
The problem with seasons is that they have a habit of coming round rather fast. And every May, my heart and tastebuds gladden at the sight of English asparagus. While it may be sighted in April, as it was this year, my Fife heart is less gladdened at a price tag of £3.50 for seven stalks. By now, the price is beginning to come down. The combination of the harbinger of a season and a favourite ingredient does pose the risk of some repetition. Accordingly, while I tend to favour simple with asparagus, I am conscious of having extolled its virtues in a few previous articles. Today's recipe involves a little more effort, but is delicious.
You can call this quiche or flan or whatever. This is quite a rich version, and is in fact a close cousin to our old friend Lorraine. The recipe will be enough mixture for a 20cm tin. Ideally use one with a removable base. Remember to grease it well. A preheated baking sheet to put the tin on will avoid the dreaded soggy bottom.
For those who don't know what blind baking is, you will need a sheet of greaseproof paper large enough to line and overhang your pastry. You also need something to weight it down. This can be dried lentils or pulses or, if you're fancy, you can get ceramic beads. Your lentils or whatever can be recycled, but only for reuse as baking ballast. Do not think of cooking them, and make sure the storage jar is clearly labelled.
For the cheese I'm suggesting Gruyere, but you can substitute cheddar. Don't, however, omit the Parmesan from the topping for a little tang. If, like me, you live in a cream free household, Elmlea works equally well.
For the pastry
170g plain flour; 55g butter and 30g lard (or you can use all butter or all lard) 25g grated cheddar (optional); pinch of salt; very cold water (I would ice it first);
For the filling
225ml double cream; 50ml milk; 2 eggs, beaten; 350g cooked asparagus (see below); 1 tsp Dijon mustard; 125g grated Gruyere; 1 - 2 tbsp grated Parmesan; black pepper; salt.
Cook the asparagus. Break off the woody ends (bend the stem gently and it will break at the right place). Reserve the stalks for soup or sauce. Ideally steam the stems until just al dente. If you must boil them drain them very well and dry them. Allow to cool.
Make your pastry in the usual way. You can do it in a machine, but I prefer doing it by hand - you get a better feel. The recipes will say to sift your flour into a baking bowl. I usually forget. Mix in with the salt. Rub together with the butter/lard/cheese (which should be cool) until your mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Add 2 tbsp of cold water and mix to a firm dough. You may need a little more water, but not too much. Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for about an hour.
Preheat the oven to 200˚C/Mark 6 and put a baking sheet on the middle shelf.
Roll the pastry to a thickness of 3 - 5mm. As a guide, a £1 coin is just under 3mm in thickness. (For a good demonstration on rolling pastry see Gordon Ramsay's video on You Tube.) Line the tin, and tuck in well at the bottom and the sides. As you'll be giving it a preliminary bake, don't trim the edges just yet. Blind bake (see above) for about 15 minutes. Check that the edges are cooked, then remove the blind, ie paper and lentils or whatever, then bake for a further 10 minutes until the base is golden.
While the pastry is baking, make the filling. Put the cream and butter in a large jug and add the eggs. Stir in the mustard and mix well. Season with a good grating of pepper and a little salt. Remember you will be using quite a bit of cheese which is salty. Mix in half of the Gruyere. Cut the asparagus into slices about 3 - 4 cm. Separate the tips from the rest.
Take the pastry from the oven and reduce the temperature to 1800˚C/Mark 4. Trim the edges of the pastry. (The reason for doing this at this stage is to avoid the risk of the pastry shrinking, and the sides not being deep enough.) Allow to cool slightly (for as long as it takes the oven to cool to the required heat). Arrange the asparagus, apart from the tips, equally on the base of the pastry. Pour the mixture into the tart. Arrange the asparagus tips neatly on top. You want them to be covered with the mix, but to be visible when the tart comes out. Sprinkle the remaining Gruyere and the Parmesan evenly on the top.
Put the tart back on the baking sheet and cook for 30-40 minutes. The top should be golden brown and lightly puffed up, and the centre firm.
Tom Cooks! will return in about a month.