Plum & almond tart

plum and almond tart

Sadly, plum season’s pretty much over but this is such a lovely tart to have in your pudding armoury – very simple but very good – it’s better posted late than never. I made the jam for this in the final days of summer (sigh) with fruit from a friend’s Scottish orchard. The plums were abundant – we spent a hot afternoon filling bags and not even putting a dent in the fruit that seemed to be left on the tree.

plum picking

The first batch of jam was a disappointment. I blamed the Aga but, in truth, I overcooked it and used too much sugar. The second batch was a winner: slightly tart with a hint of perfume from a small sprig of lavender added to the fruit pan.

To make the jam, I quartered the plums, discarding the seeds, and sprinkled over caster sugar in a ratio of 1kg plums to 500g sugar and left the fruit and sugar to macerate overnight. To cook the jam, I used a technique I found on bring the sugary fruit to the boil, simmer for 10 minutes then leave it to cool before returning to a simmer and repeating the cooling/simmering. I found that three lots of simmering for 10 minutes produced a really lovely set.

How to make plum and lavender jam

Plum and almond tart (with crushed walnuts and lavender if you like)

The crushed walnuts that I added to the jam layer aren’t necessary, but add a little extra flavour and texture. This is very good eaten warm, with cold whipped cream, but it’s possible extra delicious the next day.

For the pastry

  • 250g plain flour, plus extra for flouring
  • 20g caster sugar
  • a pinch of salt
  • 125g cold unsalted butter, diced
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten

For the filling

  • 180g unsalted butter
  • 180g caster sugar
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 180g ground almonds
  • about 250g good quality plum jam
  • about 50g finely chopped walnuts (optional)

To make the pastry, whisk together the flour, sugar and salt. Rub in the butter with your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the egg, then mix with a palette knife or blunt-edged knife to form a dough. Shape into a disc – don’t knead – wrap in cling film and chill for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, for the filling, beat the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy, then gradually beat in the eggs. Stir in the almonds until completely combined.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4 and place a baking sheet inside. Roll out the pastry dough between 2 sheets of lightly floured greaseproof paper and use it to line a 25cm fluted tart tin. Press the dough into the edge of the tin, roll a rolling pin over the top and pull away any excess. Prick the base all over with a fork. Vigorously stir the jam to loosen, mix in the walnuts (if using) then spread over the base of the pastry case with the back of a spoon. Spread the almond mixture evenly over the top and transfer to the baking sheet inside the oven. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the top is firm to touch and the pastry golden.

Plum and almond tart



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Chocolate parfait with honeycomb and berries

chocolaté parfait and honeycomb recipe

Hubby and I recently enjoyed a weekend of troughing at The Pig on the Beach - a quirky hotel and restaurant in a spectacular setting overlooking Studland Bay in Dorset. In a review, someone cleverer than I described it as the latest arrival in The Pig litter, as it’s the youngest sibling of branches in The New Forest, Bath and Southampton.

Anyone with any sense should book immediately. I had afternoon tea here a few years back when it was still the Manor House Hotel. Notwithstanding the stale scones and dated interior, it screamed potential, and it’s brilliant that the new owners have made the absolute most of it. The former holiday home of an aristocratic Dorset family, the house itself is slightly mad; original gargoyles and carvings still exist in some of the main bedrooms and fairy tale-style thatched cottages accommodate guests in the grounds.

Pig Hotel_exteriorIt’s lovely inside – full of antiques, quirky objects and squishy sofas. Outside a terrace opens out onto lawn, beyond which are fields that lead down to the sea. You can run down to a sheltered cove for a swim or set forth on a bracing walk to Old Harry’s Rocks if you like. But you might find it tricky to heave yourself off the sun loungers or forego a spa treatment  in the sweet little shepherd’s huts.

IMG_4845The walled kitchen garden underscores one of the main reasons to visit. Like all the other Pig hotels, every dish on the menu includes at least something foraged locally or grown in the kitchen garden. As a result, each pretty plate of food features flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables picked fresh that day.

montage 1 pig

Everything we ate – and that was quite a lot – was delicious. My husband couldn’t quite bring himself to order The Pig’s famous Bath Chaps – a whole piggy mandible, still wearing a few of its teeth – but I, a bit like Hilary, tackled it because it was there. I recommend it for those with an appetite.

Bath Chaps at The Pig hotel

We swooned for the chocolate parfait and honeycomb pudding, so much so that I think we ordered it three times. I forgot to ask the chef to share his recipe – I frequently and unashamedly ask when I eat something wonderful. But I managed to devise a version of my own, inspired by the totally delicious one we ate at The Pig.

Parfait is simple to make. Because it’s whipped and aerated before going into the freezer, it doesn’t need churning, so you don’t need an ice cream maker to get it smooth and creamy. It does contains raw eggs, so only use very fresh ones from a reliable source, and avoid if you’re pregnant. I’ve deliberately made the parfait less sweet than you might otherwise like it because it’s designed to go with the sublimely sweet honeycomb. Oink!

chocolaté parfait wth honeycombChocolate parfait with honeycomb and raspberries

  • 300ml double cream
  • 1 tablespoon glucose syrup (available from Waitrose or cake decorating shops)
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 100g dark chocolate, 70% cocoa, broken into small pieces
  • vegetable oil, for brushing
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 2 tablespoons golden syrup
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • raspberries, to serve
  • floral honey for drizzling, to serve (optional)

Line a small loaf tin or freezer-proof container – about 400ml capacity – with cling film.

Set aside 3 tablespoons of the cream and then, in a large mixing bowl, whip the remainder until soft peaks form. Be careful not to over beat the cream or it will be difficult to incorporate with the chocolate. Cover with cling film and transfer to the fridge

Place the glucose syrup in a pan with 100ml water and stir over a medium heat until boiling. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool a little. Next, melt the chocolate and the remaining cream together in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of gently simmering water. Stir to combine and then remove from the heat.

Beat the egg yolks with electric beaters until pale, thick and creamy. With the beaters running, add the glucose mixture in a very thin stream – the mixture will turn light and creamy. Beat in the melted chocolate a spoonful at a time. Take the cream out of the fridge and gradually fold in the eggy chocolate mixture. Pour into the lined loaf tin and transfer to the freezer. The parfait can take several hours to freeze so it’s best to make it the day before required. Remove from the freezer an hour or so before serving to thaw slightly

To make the honeycomb, line a shallow tin with baking paper or foil brushed with oil. Combine the sugar, golden syrup and honey in a large pan and stir over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Stop stirring but leave on the heat until the temperature of the mixture reaches 150°C. Use a confectionary thermometer for this, or test by dropping a little of the mixture into a glass of cold water. If it cracks and turns into a hard ball, it’s ready. If not, continue cooking. With a whisk at the ready, add the bicarbonate of soda, then remove the pan from the heat and whisk: the mixture will froth up dramatically. Quickly pour into the prepared tin and leave to harden – this might take an hour or more – then break into pieces or crumbs, whatever you prefer.

Cut the parfait into slices and arrange on plates with some raspberries, a scattering of honeycomb and a drizzle of honey if you like.

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edited main eton mess

In truth, the world doesn’t need another recipe for Eton Mess. They’re not exactly thin on the ground. But I’m sharing this because it’s such a favourite at Pen and Spoon HQ – it’s virtually synonymous with summer for us.

Although traditionally made with strawberries or bananas, this British classic really is a blank canvass to paint with what you fancy or have in the fridge. In my book, it has to contain fruit, cream and meringue, but beyond that I’m up for scoffing most variations (bring on the banana and caramel).

This version obliges you to make meringue rather than use the shop-bought stuff, but it’s really very little bother, especially if you don’t have to separate the eggs.  After I wrote a piece for the Guardian about the current egg-white craze in the UK and US, the kind ladies from Two Chicks liquid egg white company sent me some of their product to try.  Although I have an aversion to most pre-prepared ingredients (illogical, I know, as I happily cook with shop-bought pasta), I can report that these are brilliant. They whip well and save you the hassle of using up the yolks, or worse, throwing them out.

close up strawbsChocolate Meringue Eton Mess

For the meringue

  • 2 egg whites
  • a good pinch of cream of tartar
  • 120g fine caster sugar
  • 3 tablespoon cocoa powder, sifted

For the rest of the Mess

  • 500g strawberries, hulled and quartered
  • 1/2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • about 4 tablespoons icing sugar
  • 300ml double cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, or to taste

Heat the oven to 110°C/225°F and line a baking sheet with baking paper. In a scrupulously clean and dry bowl, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until soft peaks form that hold their shape. Very gradually beat in the sugar until glossy, then fold in the cocoa. If you don’t fancy the chocolate version, omit the cocoa from the egg whites, but add the scraped-out seeds of a vanilla pod to the cream.

Using a spatula, spread the mixture out on the prepared baking sheet to a thickness of about 1.5cm – it doesn’t matter about the shape as you will be breaking this up into bits. Bake for about 1 hour 15 minutes, then turn off the oven and leave the meringue to cool with the door open. This might take a couple of hours.

strawbs in tabAs soon as the meringue is in the oven, place half the strawberries in a pan and crush with a masher. Add the balsamic vinegar and half the icing sugar, and simmer for 10-15 minutes, or until the fruit has cooked down to a thickish sauce. Set aside to cool. (I know you can simply blitz the fruit to a sauce in a blender with a little icing sugar, but it’s especially flavourful if you do it this way.)

cream being stirredWhen – and only when – the meringue is cold, whip the cream with the remaining icing sugar and cinnamon to a soft dropping consistency, being careful not to over-beat. Add more cinnamon or sugar to suit your taste.

choco shards

Crumble the meringue and fold through the cream. Gently fold through most of the strawberry sauce and most of the strawberries.

Distribute into bowls and serve drizzled with the remaining strawberry sauce and topped with the remaining strawberries.




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How to make a picnic pie

Picnic pie

I know. Lavish picnic preparations are often harbingers for lousy weather.  But I believe it’s still worth making an effort when it comes to al fresco food.  The sky might cloud over and chill winds might blow, but delicious things to eat can rescue any outdoor occasion.  And picnic pies are perfect al fresco fare:  yummy ingredients enveloped in flaky pastry that can be eaten warm or cold. They’re far tastier and lovelier than sandwiches but equally transportable, and not that difficult to make. Especially this one.

collage of countrysideI’ve made lots of picnic pies over the years. Nigella does a delicious version (although she doesn’t really intend it for picnics) called Pizza Rustica. I once made this to the letter and although it was fabulous, it was quite a process to make and involved a long shopping list. I’ve also made muffuletta-style sandwiches by scooping out the insides of rustic loaves, filling them with tasty goodies, and popping the lids back on like Paul Hollywood does with his Picnic Loaf.

This picnic pie is based on a recipe by award-winning food writer Rose Prince. The genius of it is the layering of herby egg pancakes with the other ingredients, making this a really satisfying picnic feast. The recipe is from her book Kitchenella (also view it on her video); she sensibly goes the simple route, using ready-made puff pastry and an egg, ham and cheese filling.

By all means, use ready-made pastry without guilt,  but I’ve included my recipe for a quick and easy pastry simply because I didn’t have any ready-made to hand. Also, because I’m a zealot for using leftovers at the moment, I added stray bits and bobs from the fridge: a few rashers of bacon, a chorizo cooking sausage, some different cheeses and even some leftover cooked bulgur wheat! Served up on a picnic blanket with a simple chopped salad, it was perfect outdoor food on a recent glorious sunny day.

close up of pie

Picnic Pie (based on a Rose Prince recipe from Kitchenella)

Serves 2-4

For the pastry

  • 250g plain flour
  • 125g cold butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 4 or more tablespoons ice-cold water

For the filling

  • 4 eggs
  • a general handful of finely chopped herbs like parsley, dill, basil, chives
  • a knob or 2 of butter
  • sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper
  • slices of ham, cooked bacon, chorizo, prosciutto, mortadella
  • grated or crumbled cheese like cheddar, mozzarella, parmesan, provolone
  • cooked leftover grains or pasta
  • vegetables like onions, courgettes or peppers (tomatoes are a bit too wet)

For the pastry, place the flour in a large mixing bowl and grate in the butter (hold the end of the butter with a piece of foil to prevent it melting). Using a palette or butter knife, cut the butter into the flour until completely combined and the mixture resembles large breadcrumbs. Gradually add the water, cutting it in with the knife, until the mixture comes together into a dough. Tip onto a lightly floured work surface, quickly shape into a disc, then wrap in greaseproof paper and chill for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

While the dough is resting, make your egg pancakes. Whisk 3 of the eggs together with the herbs, and season well with salt and pepper. Heat a small frying pan – mine has a base diameter of 17cm but a little smaller or larger won’t matter. Pour in a very thin layer of the egg mixture, swirling it around the base to cover completely. Cook for a minute or so, then flip and cook the other side. Repeat with the rest of the mixture – you should make about 4 pancakes. Set aside, then cook up any other of the ingredients: dice the vegetables and sauté until tender, or fry off bacon and chorizo.

When the dough has rested, set the oven to 200C/ 390F/gas mark 6. Divide the dough in half, pop one piece back in the fridge, and roll the other piece into a disc large enough to accommodate the egg pancake leaving a 4cm border all the way around. Place on a piece of baking paper, then start layering your ingredients. Start with a pancake, then add layers of meat, vegetables, cheese and so on. Repeat the layering until the pancakes are used up. Be generous – the ingredients will sink a bit as they cook down – but you’re not looking for a picnic tower here! Roll out the other half of dough so that it will comfortably cover your filling and hang down over the bottom piece of pastry. Press the pastry edges together and then roll them up so that you have a snug pie.  Make a slit in the top with a sharp knife and shape a little flower around the slit if you have any dough trimming. Brush with the beaten egg.

Slide the pie on its baking paper onto a baking sheet. Lightly beat the remaining egg. Lightly brush the pie all over with the beaten egg and bake for about 25 minutes, until golden. Enjoy warm or cold in slices.

collage picnic


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