This is a deliciously simple, autumnal dessert that, although it can be assembled from very few, ordinary ingredients, ends up tasting so much better than the sum of its parts – the crisp, golden outside, hot and sharp insides and cool cream or hot, rich custard make this a dish of delicious contrasts. It is one of the many British desserts that evolved to use up stale bread and cooked fruit. Whilst the filling can be almost any fruit purée you have to hand, the construction needs to observe a few rules if it is going to look as impressive when served as it tastes.
Firstly, the fruit purée needs to be relatively firm and ‘dry’, with little or no visible liquid. If your cooked fruit is especially moist, then just set it in a sieve to drain – the resultant liquid can be sweetened and served as a pouring syrup or saved for use in/on other desserts. Alternatively, set it over a low heat in a wide pan, to help evaporate the excess liquid. If you think your fruit is still too soft, you could consider whisking in an egg yolk or two to help thicken it during cooking, making it more of a fruit custard.
The bread should not be plastic-wrapped and pre-sliced. The best charlottes are made when the bread can absorb some moisture from the filling in much the same way as it does in Summer Pudding, and sliced bread just doesn’t have a suitable surface for this. Not that having your bread sliced by a machine is bad – it can make it wonderfully thin and regular – just buy a whole loaf and get the bakery to cut it for you on their machine. If it’s not stale, just leave the slices you intend to use out on the counter for an hour, they’ll dry just enough. During baking, the dry outside will, thanks to the coating of butter, crisp up and turn wonderfully golden, and the inside will draw moisture from the filling and pull everything together, so that you have a firm pudding to turn out.
The final important consideration is the shape of the bowl in which you construct your charlotte. It needs to be both oven-proof and domed/tapering. Straight-sided charlottes are usually cold desserts such as the Charlotte Russe, which uses sponge fingers and a firmly set cream and is also thoroughly chilled before being served, which helps greatly with presentation. A traditional, domed pudding bowl, or individual pudding bowls, are ideal. Their tapering form is most conducive to maintaining an impressive shape of your hot charlotte. The fluted tins commonly marketed as brioche tins are also the ideal shape, with the added detail of fluting giving the turned-out dish a very elegant appearance.
This is an adaptation of Mrs Rundell’s recipe from 1808. Her version calls for raw apples, sugar and butter and is baked slowly for 3 hours with a weight on top to help compress the apples as they shrink during cooking. This recipe is much shorter, just over one hour, but this length of time is necessary for the bread to crisp, turn golden and be sturdy enough to support the fruit filling until serving time. Higher heat and baking for a shorter time means that, when turned out, the pudding slowly sags and collapses, like a Victorian matron with her corset removed. The use of an already-cooked puree makes preparation that much quicker and the cooked pudding less prone to loss of volume.
I used some apples from a friend’s garden for this recipe, and added no sugar – the sharpness was a great contrast against the rich, buttery crust. I highly recommend this approach. If your fruit is especially sharp, consider using a sweet custard as an accompaniment.
750g fruit pulp
stale white bread slices
pouring cream or custard to serve
- Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan.
- Butter the inside of your bowl(s) generously with softened butter.
- Cut the crusts from the bread. Cut a circle or flower shape for the bottom of your bowl and put it in first. It will make for a neat top once you turn out the pudding, and also hide the ends of all the side pieces of bread.
- Line your bowl(s) with the crustless bread. How you choose to do this is up to you. Personally, I keep the pieced of bread whole and patch where necessary. If your bread is fresh and springy, you can make things easier for yourself by using a rolling pin to flatten them slightly. If you are using individual pudding bowls, you might want to reduce this to a width of 1.5cm, as the smaller form will need thinner slices if it is still to look dainty when turned out. Place the slices inside the pudding at a slight angle and press into the butter. Leave the excess sticking out of the top of the bowl for now. Make sure there are no spaces or holes for fruit to leak through. You can see on the above photo that a little apple juice has squeezed out and been caramelised by the heat of the oven. Delicious, but a flaw if you’re after an unblemished exterior to your charlotte.
- Fill the lined mould with the fruit puree.
- Butter slices of crustless bread for the top of the mould. Fold the ends of the bread at the sides inward and place the final pieces of bread butter-side upward over the top.
- Spread a little butter onto a sheet of parchment and place this butter-side down over your filled bowl.
- Add a cake tin on top together with an oven-safe weight, such as a foil-wrapped metal weight or quarry tile.
- Bake for about an hour until the outside of the buttered bread is crisp and golden brown and the filling piping hot. For individual puddings, bake for 30-40minutes.
- Remove the weight/tin/parchment and bake for a further 10 minutes, to allow the lid to crisp up.
- Remove from the oven and turn out onto your serving dish.
A very autumnal recipe for you this week – Blackberry Shortbread.
There’s no bells or whistles, I just fancied something simple, with the brightness of fresh fruit.
You could use this serving suggestion with a number of different fruits, but I thought blackberries most appropriate for the season, as they are the last soft berries of the year. Plus they look like jewels!
You can also use any shortbread recipe if you have a particular favourite or don’t fancy the one below. The recipe I chose isn’t particularly special, but with the baking powder and eggs, it has a lovely open and delicate texture. I also decided to use an unusual flour I found on the supermarket shelves this week: wholemeal Kamut flour from Doves Farm.
To quote from the bag:
“Kamut® grain is a khorasan wheat….said to be the wheat of the Pharoahs.”
It’s a very fine flour, producing a wonderfully golden shortbread biscuit with a nutty, almost malty flavour. There are three recipes to try printed on the pack itself and you could make them all with just one bag.
Alternatively, make the recipe below with ordinary flour – it’s all good.
90g soft brown sugar
2 large yolks
100g unsalted butter – softened
110g plain flour
½ tsp baking powder
1 pinch of salt
zest of 1 lemon
blackberry jam or jelly
300g fresh blackberries
icing sugar for dusting
250ml whipping cream (optional)
- Whisk the sugar and yolks together until pale and creamy.
- Add the softened butter and mix thoroughly.
- Sift the flour, salt and baking powder together and fold into the egg mixture.
- Mix in the lemon zest.
- Press mixture evenly into a baking tin and smooth over. I used my loose-bottomed flan tin (35cm x 12cm), lined with buttered foil, so that I could cut fingers of shortbread widthways.
- Cover with cling film and chill in the fridge for 1 hour.
- Preheat the oven to 160°C, 140°C Fan.
- Remove the cling film from the shortbread and bake for 20 minutes until golden brown. Turn the tin around halfway through to ensure even colouring.
- As soon as the biscuit is cooked, remove from the oven and cut into fingers (or slices or wedges, as you prefer). Leave to cool in the tin. DO NOT attempt to move the biscuit pieces until completely cold – they will crumble to pieces.
- When the biscuit has cooled, spread each piece with a layer of blackberry jam and stand the fresh blackberries on top.
- Dust with icing sugar and serve with whipped cream and any extra blackberries.
A little bit of luxury for you this week. I’m still sticking with the French theme, but it’s a little less obvious than in previous weeks. This week’s recipe is inspired by a newly acquired book which demonstrates that food allergies or intolerances need not signal a lifetime of dull or dismal food.
This is the latest pubication by Philippe Conticini, creating mouthwatering desserts and treats that are both gluten free and dairy free. Although I purchased my copy from the French Amazon site a few months ago, it is now available with just UK shipping charges here, or order through your local bookshop. Alas, it is only available in the original French, but anyone with O-level/GCSE French and a working knowledge of baking will manage easily.
Sidebar: for the digitally inclined, there is a free Translate app that will allow you to photograph text with your phone, which it will then scan and translate on the go. Also, Chef Conticini has many of his recipes freely available on his website here, as well as numerous demonstration videos on his Facebook page here.
The first recipe in the book is for a kind of chocolate nut sponge, and it is filled with a ganache and glazed with a slightly thinned version of the ganache. It is delicious! It is also very hard to believe it is both gluten and lactose free.
I was so impressed with the ganache, I thought it deserved a starring role, so here it is in a very elegant and sophisticated tart. Gluten and dairy free chocolate is available in supermarkets – I found both milk and dark chocolate in Morrisons.
This tart is made up of bits and pieces from different recipes, tweaked to fit in with my overall idea: I like to think of it as the Lego™ approach. The praline paste is Philippe Conticinis, as well as the ganache – I’ve not messed with either. I’ve tweaked the sweet pastry recipe by adding cocoa (reducing one of the flours) to make it chocolate.
I’ve used a long, rectangular tart tin, but any shape will do. Since everything tastes so rich, the tart doesn’t have to be very deep and you could probably stretch the pastry to a 24cm flan tin. Otherwise, use a 20cm flan tin and, exercising your will of iron, cut the slices very thin.
Chocolate Praline Tart
For the praline
NB Because it is a bit of a Faff™, this deliberately makes a LOT of praline. However, it will keep for months in the fridge if necessary. If you really don’t think you’ll use it – I mean, it’s not like it tastes AWESOME or anything – consider making a half batch.
300g of whole raw hazelnuts (with skin)
300g of whole raw almonds (with skin)
400g caster sugar
- Put the sugar and the water in a pan over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved.
- Bring the syrup to a boil and when the temperature reaches 118°C, add the hazelnuts and almonds.
- Stir the nuts in the sugar, making sure that they are thoroughly coated. This movement will also cause the sugar to crystallise. This is fine. Continue stirring to keep the nuts from burning.
- Eventually, the sugar will melt again and turn a deep and warm caramel colour.
- At this point, pour the whole mixture onto baking parchment. Before it cools, pull the nuts apart using a couple of forks, so that they don’t set in a solid lump. This will make processing them easier.
- When the caramelised nuts are cold, break them up either by hand or by battering them with a rolling pin and transfer to a food processor fitted with the cutting blade.
- If you want to use some of the nuts as decoration, as in the photo, set some aside before the mixture becomes paste.
- Process the nuts into a smooth paste using a series of short bursts with the blade. If you keep the blade moving for too long, it will heat up the paste, so short stints are best. For a long time it will seem like you’re just making a racket with the machine, but it will eventually break down into smaller pieces.
- When the mixture is smooth, transfer to an airtight box and store in the fridge.
For the pastry
This recipe uses clarified butter. Before everyone starts shrieking dairy, let me remind you that clarified butter is pure fat, WITHOUT any of the dairy solids. If you’re not convinced, as an alternative you can use Indian ghee or coconut butter.
50g clarified butter
30g icing sugar
30g ground almonds
25g chestnut flour
25g Green & Black’s cocoa powder
50g rice flour
pinch of sea salt
1 large yolk
½ large egg – whisked
- Use a little clarified butter to grease your tin and shake over some cornflour (to help keep the pastry from sticking).
- Put the butter and the dry ingredients into a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
- Whisk the yolk into the beaten egg and add gradually to the dry ingredients until the mixture comes together. It might not come together in the bowl, only resemble damp crumbs, but it will hold once tipped out and pressed firmly.
- Roll out thinly and use to line your prepared tin. Alternatively, just use the damp crumbs into your tin and press into the sides and base until covered. I opted to roll the pastry and got it impressively thin, but then I found I couldn’t move it across into the tin in one piece, so I just patchworked it together.
- Preheat the oven to 160°C, 140°C Fan.
- Line your pastry with baking parchment and add cooking beads/rice.
- Bake until the pastry is fully cooked (20-30 minutes).
- Set aside to cool. NB Your pastry might crack as it cools. Fear not. Just melt some GF DF chocolate and literally paint over the cracks. And everywhere else if you like. Put the tart shell in the fridge to set. The layer of chocolate will help keep the pastry crisp underneath the rich filling.
For the ganache
170g GF DF dark chocolate
55g GF DF milk chocolate
150ml Soya milk
- Break the chocolate into pieces and melt in a bowl over warm water.
- Heat the milk and slowly add to the melted chocolate, stirring constantly until fully combined.
- Set aside until required.
- Add a layer of praline to the cooled tart shell. How much is entirely up to you. I am a big fan of its rich taste, but then again, a little does go a long way. I spread a 5mm layer which is enough to give the flavour, but doesn’t overpower. If the praline is cold and too stiff to spread, zap it for a few seconds in the microwave to soften.
- Pour the warm ganache over the praline paste and smooth. You can also tap the tin lightly on the work surface to get the ganache to level out.
- Put into the fridge to set. Once set, sprinkle over the finely chopped praline if using.
- If not eating immediately, cover lightly with cling film – try and keep it from touching the ganache – and store in the fridge.
- Allow the tart to come to room temperature before serving.
Bread is a curious topic to go a-hunting in the recipe archives because there are relatively so few recipes. Considering how central it was for such a large part of the population, the proportion of recorded recipes is surprisingly low.
The reason for this might be similar to that often cited as being behind Marco Polo’s failure to mention paper money in his account of travels in China: familiarity. It is a theory that Polo was so familiar with its usage after his many years in the country, and since his memoirs were written so long after his return, he completely forgot the surprise and wonder that the concept paper money would have for his readers. Perhaps the ability to make bread was so fundamental, so ingrained, few thought to write down the recipes since it was a skill everyone possessed.
It was also, however, a specialised craft, requiring both skill and equipment to produce on a large-scale, not to mention the unsociable hours and back-breaking work mixing huge quantities of dough without machinery. As such, as hard, manual labour, it was firmly in the province of the labouring classes, however skilled.
The more well-to-do, whose recipes have survived in household manuscript books, seem to have been partial to French bread, and it has been interesting to note the numbers of recipes for French bread consistently exceeding those for anything English. A large proportion of them are variations on this recipe, using egg whites as part of the liquid component.
I chose this 1703 recipe because of its simplicity – other recipes use whole eggs/butter/milk/cream, and I wanted to see whether the egg-whites had a noticeable effect on the flavour and texture of the loaf without any other distractions. The answer is yes – it is certainly different to a bread made without egg-whites. There’s no way to tell whether this is a genuine approximation of the French bread of the time, but I suspect that it wouldn’t have been too far removed from the sourdough bread enjoying a resurgence today.
Traditional sourdough, baked in a wood-fired oven, is a wonderful thing – insanely crusty with a great ‘chew’. It’s not to everyone’s tastes, though – which is where this loaf might gain favour. After baking, the crisp crust softens as it cools, making it easy to slice without the dangers of crust fragments ricocheting off at alarming speeds that comes with cutting a traditional sourdough. The crumb is open and springy with enough of a chew to make it very satisfying. From the photo above, it would appear that the centre of the loaf actually has a more open texture than the edges. It can be relished spread with just a little butter – and how long is it since you can say you honestly enjoyed a slice of white bread and butter?
I’ve obviously scaled this recipe down from the original and have made just one change: salt. True to my own code of conduct when working with old recipes, I did bake it ‘as written’ in the first instance, and while it had the great crust and texture described above, the flavour was lacking. Finally, I find it amusing to note that 300 years after it was jotted down, this recipe still takes just 30 minutes to bake.
18th Century English French Bread
450g strong white bread flour
1 sachet fast-action yeast
50ml egg-white whisked with 300ml warm water
Additional warm water (maybe)
- Mix the flour, yeast and salt in a bowl.
- Whisk together the eggwhites and the warm water and add to the dry ingredients.
- Mix thoroughly, adding more water if required (unlikely), to form a rather soft dough.
- Knead for 10 minutes.
- Cover lightly with plastic and set in a warm place to rise for 1 hour. If your kitchen is on the cool side, you can turn the oven to 160°C, 140°C Fan for 2 minutes, then switch it off and put in your dough to prove.
- Tip out the risen dough and pat gently to deflate.
- Shape the dough into a smooth ball and transfer to a greased 1kg loaf tin. The dough should half-fill the tin. If you’d prefer a taller loaf, use a smaller or longer shape.
- Set aside to rise for 30 minutes. On cold days I put the loaf into the small top oven while the main oven below warms up.
- Preheat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
- Bake for 30 minutes, turning the loaf around after 20 minutes to help colour it evenly.
- Cool on a wire rack.
- Slice when cold.
Coffee and Walnut is one the best flavour combinations you can enjoy.
Of course, it helps if you’re a coffee fiend like myself. The tannins in, and astringency of, the walnut skins both help to balance out any sweetness and also complements the bitterness of the coffee. If, also like me, you don’t have much of a sweet tooth, it is a delicious step back from too much sweetness.
Mary Berry’s Coffee and Walnut Cake recipe is the best cake version of this classic combination. As part of the audition process for season two of The Great British Bake Off, groups of applicants were summoned to a test kitchen and asked to bake Mary’s Coffee and Walnut Cake under filming conditions, to determine both real-time cooking ability and whether you could whisk eggs and answer questions at the same time.
Mary Berry’s Coffee and Walnut Cake is also the cake that I bake for others to enjoy: for the school summer fete, to thank a neighbour for removing a tree that was damaging our fence, for my dentist to apologise for missing an appointment, for the lads at the garage for going that extra mile. It’s the kind of cake that doesn’t sound very interesting, but when tasted, invites a wave of nostalgic memories of traditional tea-times.
This recipe is a variation of this classic flavour combination, in the form of a tart: sweet walnut pastry, coffee and walnut frangipane, a layer of coffee caramel over walnut halves and decorated with candied walnuts.
The original recipe wasn’t such a coffee/walnut feast. In fact, it didn’t have any coffee in it at all. I played around with adding it here and there and eventually came up with this variation. The appearance also required attention, which isn’t exactly one of my strengths. In this year’s Bake Off, Mary Berry has found a word to describe bakes of less-than-ideal appearance: they are being referred to as ‘informal’. The first iteration of this recipe was definitely informal – see below. It didn’t help matters that I decided to cut it whilst still warm.
During the filming of the Bake Off, I’d apparently told Mary Berry that “I don’t do dainty”. Whilst I’ll be the first to admit that this tart still isn’t dainty, I’ve tried to make it a step up from ‘informal’, out of my desire never to earn reproach from the imaginary Mary Berry that will forever be looking over my shoulder, i.e. made an effort to make the pastry thinner, allowed the caramel to cool down before cutting into the tart, less icing sugar, more candied walnuts.
In a week where Mary Berry decided to leave the Bake Off, I’d like to acknowledge my very great affection and respect both for her and her gentle encouragement to always make an effort to finish things nicely.
Walnut and Coffee Caramel Tart
If you’re not a fan of coffee, you can leave it out altogether – it will still be delicious.
Walnut Sweet Shortcrust
150g unsalted butter
85g light muscovado or soft brown sugar
80g walnuts – ground fine in a food processor.
125g plain flour
1 large egg
1 large yolk
- Grease and line a 20cm tart tin with baking parchment.
- Blitz the butter, sugar, walnuts and flour in a food processor until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.
- Whisk together the egg and the yolk.
- With the food processor running, gradually add the egg, little by little, until the mixture comes together into a ball. NB There is moisture in the walnuts and the butter, so you might only need a little of the egg. Do NOT be heavy-handed adding the egg, as this pastry is rather a challenge to work with when made well – too wet and it verges on nightmarish.
- Roll the pastry thinly (5mm) and use to line your tart tin. It is very fragile, so you’re unlikely to be able to drape it into your tin in a whole sheet. The good news is, it is very forgiving if you just want to patchwork it.
- Put your pastry-lined tin in the fridge or freezer to chill for 30 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
- Trim any excess pastry from your tin, line with parchment and baking beads/rice and bake blind for 10 minutes. Remove parchment and bake for a further 5 minutes to firm up the inner surface of the pastry.
- Set aside until required.
- Reduce oven temperature to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
100g light muscovado or soft brown sugar
2 large eggs
100g walnuts, finely ground in a food processor
60g warm, melted butter
2 tsp instant espresso coffee powder
- Whisk the eggs and sugar together until light and foamy.
- Gently fold through the ground walnuts, coffee powder and the melted butter
- Pour mixture into the blind-baked pastry shell and bake for 15-20 minutes until set and lightly browned.
- Set aside to cool.
150g walnut halves
- When the tart has cooled, arrange the walnut halves neatly over the top.
150g caster sugar
100g crème fraîche
1 tsp instant espresso coffee powder, dissolved in 1tbs hot water
- Put the sugar and water into a pan over medium heat. I prefer my non-stick frying pan for this task.
- Allow the sugar to dissolve, then turn up the heat and allow to boil until a golden caramel colour is achieved.
- Remove from the heat and whisk in the cream, butter and coffee.
- Pour the caramel over the walnut halves. I found it best to spoon a little over each nut, to ensure an even coating, then to drizzle the remainder into any gaps.
- Allow to cool, then chill in the fridge until required.
8 walnut halves
100g caster sugar
- Dissolve the sugar in the water and bring to a boil.
- When the sugar begins to caramelise, add the walnut halves and stir over medium head until coated.
- Lift the sugared nuts from the pan with a fork and set onto parchment to cool.
Dust lightly with icing sugar and top with the candied walnuts.
Still on a French theme, but from a different source than the one I had planned.
This is an adaptation, albeit very slight, of a recipe by Madeleine Kamman in her gastronomic memoir, When French Women Cook. Aside from the originality of the recipes, each has a wine recommendation – how fab is that?
Wandering through the Fresh section of the supermarket, (the orange one, in case anyone’s curious) I was reminded of this recipe when I spotted some baby Brussels Sprouts – endearingly cute, grape-sized morsels. Now I know they’re not everyone’s favourite, but this recipe might turn even the most vehement opponent.
You don’t have to use mini ones at all, of course – full-sized are fine – but the mini ones have a charm ( much needed in certain circles, when Brussel Sprouts are mentioned). You could also make this with broccoli instead of sprouts, but I’d urge you to try it as is, just once.
I’ve made four, individually-sized tarts, but you can make a large one and bake for just 10 more minutes.
They make for a lovely light lunch, but can also serve as a side dish.
NB: Don’t eat these hot from the oven. The flavours are distinctive, but delicate. Allow the tart(s) to cool to just warm before serving.
Two Choux Tart
225g plain flour
60g cornflour or rice flour
ice cold water
- Put the flours and butter into the bowl of a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
- With the machine running, gradually add the cold water a tablespoon at a time until the mixture comes together in a ball.
- Tip the mixture onto a floured surface, knead smooth.
- Divide the pastry into 4 and roll out thinly (5mm). Grease and line four individual tart tins with the pastry. Alternatively, line one large (20-24cm) tart tin.
- Leave the excess pastry overhanging the edges of the tin(s), cover with cling film and chill in the fridge until required.
1 small cauliflower
500g baby Brussels sprouts
salt and pepper
30g plain flour
225ml vegetable blanching water
100ml low fat crème fraiche
freshly grated nutmeg
160g ham, diced small (8mm)
- Cut the cauliflower into small florets.
- Remove the outer leaves of the sprouts and trim the stalk.
- Bring a pan of water to the boil.
- Cook the sprouts and cauliflower for 4 minutes.
- Drain, retaining the cooking liquid.
- Melt 20g butter in the pan and add the drained vegetables, salt and pepper.
- Toss gently, cover and cook over medium heat for a further 5 minutes.
- Remove the lid and allow any liquid to evaporate.
- Remove the vegetables and set aside to cool.
- In the same pan, melt the rest of the butter.
- Add the flour and cook for 3 to 4 minutes.
- Gradually add 225ml of the vegetable cooking liquid and the milk.
- Whisk until smooth and thickened. Adjust seasoning and add a good grating of nutmeg.
- Preheat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
- Remove the pastry-lined tin(s) from the fridge, trim the excess pastry and crimp the edges.
- Arrange the cauliflower and sprouts in the pastry cases and scatter over the ham.
- Pour over the white sauce and allow to settle into the gaps.
- Spread a thin layer of crème fraiche over the top of the tart(s).
- Bake for 30-40 minutes until the pastry is crisp. If the top seems to be browning too quickly, lightly cover with a sheet of baking parchment.
- Allow to cool until just warm before serving.
A French-themed post this week, but not a mountain of patisserie froth – instead I’ve gorn all savoury!
Prowling round the French brocantes (posh car boot sales), I’ve always got an eye out for second-hand cookery books and this year I found a great little paperback entitled Vosges Grannies Recipes (I paraphrase) – regional recipes from the mountains in eastern France, near the German border.
The booklet has lots of simple and comforting dishes, including this one, which I decided to include not only as a delicious, make-ahead meal, but also as a blueprint recipe for having up your sleeve or – more usefully – in your freezer.
I especially like this recipe because it isn’t rich. Too often a gratin dish is swimming in oil from fistfuls of cheese or cream. This is altogether much lighter and can easily be adapted to a variety of fillings, including vegetarian. It also doesn’t require a trolleyload of expensive ingredients, yet it’s packed with flavour, and is very simple to bring together.
The Anatomy of a Gratin
Using this recipe as an example, there is a bottom layer of lightly steamed leeks, followed by a tangy tomato and bacon layer, topped with a white sauce sprinkled with cheese. The tomato layer is bright from the fresh tomatoes, bold with the favour of herbs and tangy with bacon. All of the component ingredients can be prepared beforehand, then either hauled out of the fridge and assembled and baked, or assembled and frozen until required.
Imagine the joy of getting home of an evening knowing you’re just 30 minutes away from a delicious home-made meal that requires – literally – one minute’s preparation: stick your defrosted gratin in the oven, turn it on, go have a shower or read the paper, open a bag of salad, cut a slice of crusty bread and Bam! Supper is served!
It doesn’t have to be leeks – other options for the base vegetable are diced swede, turnip, carrots, parsnips) or a mixture of all of these), potatoes, celeriac, cabbage (Savoy, white, red, mixture), broccoli, cauliflower, sprouts – you get the idea.
If you’re vegetarian, you can substitute blanched samphire (its deliciously salty) for the bacon in the tomato sauce – add it whilst assembling your dish to keep some of its crunch.
Top with white sauce or for a gluten-free option, use low-fat creme fraiche.
Sprinkle with a cheese of your choice. Choose Comté or Gruyere for melty goodness, Grana Padano or Parmesan for punchy flavour. Whichever you choose, you don’t need a lot. People think a gratin is all about the cheese, and it’s not. The gratin in the photo had just 30g of Comté on the top, which was more than enough. The cheese is a garnish, if that. A gratin is about a crunchy topping. You can substitute breadcrumbs for the cheese, or a mixture of half breadcrumbs, half grana padano.
If you don’t have a stack of gratin dishes – who does? That’s my one-and-only in the photo – the supermarkets sell packs of aluminium foil dishes with cardboard tops, perfect for freezing. No washing up, either! These can also be used to heat the defrosted dish up in the oven. You wouldn’t be able to defrost them in the microwave, but being in a solid block they would be easy to decant into something suitable.
This recipe will make 4 portions of gratin. You can easily double or treble the quantities and make a stash of meals for the freezer.
Leek and Bacon Gratin
4 large leeks
200g smoked bacon lardons, or dice a large piece of smoked bacon or samphire
1 onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic – sliced thinly
4 tomatoes – cut into 1cm thick matchsticks
2 bay leaves
1tsp dried thyme or 2tsp fresh leaves stripped from the stalks
salt and pepper to taste
25g unsalted butter
25g plain flour
salt and pepper
120g grated cheese, or breadcrumbs, or a mixture of both
- Bring a pan of water to the boil.
- Wash and slice the leeks into 2cm slices.
- Put the sliced leeks into a steamer pan and cook over the simmering water for 8 minutes. You can blanch them IN the water, but they do take on a lot of liquid this way, and you run the risk of your dish becoming waterlogged.
- Set aside to cool.
- Put the bacon into a pan and heat gently. When the fat has begun to run, add the onion, garlic, tomatoes, bay leaf and thyme.
- Cover, reduce the heat and allow to simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Remove the lid for the last 5 minutes to allow most of the moisture to evaporate
- Taste, then season with salt and pepper. Discard the bay leaves.
- Set aside to cool.
- Put the butter, flour and milk into a pan and whisk gently over a low heat until it comes to the boil.
- Turn the heat down to a simmer and allow to bubble gently for 5 minutes to ‘cook out’ the flour.
- Season generously with salt and pepper.
- If not using immediately, cover with cling film so that it touches the surface of the sauce and set aside.
- Divide your components equally into the number of dishes you plan on using.
- In each dish, put a layer of steamed leeks – or cooked vegetable of your choice – in the bottom.
- Spoon over a layer of the tomato bacon sauce. Sprinkle your blanched samphire if using.
- Pour over a thin layer of white sauce to cover and sprinkle with your topping.
- Put your cold/defrosted dish into the oven.
- Turn the heat to 180°C/160°C Fan.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes if the portion-size is a single serving, 25-30 minutes if larger.
- When done, the cheese will have melted and browned and the sauce bubbling.
- Serve with a salad and crusty bread for mopping.