Rick Stein is probably the first chef personality I became familiar with and remains the only one who I have any real affection for. I remember watching one of his TV shows as a child, French Odyssey – it was compulsory family viewing. I loved the sound of his voice, his dog Chalky and how he communicated directly and personally with the cooks, gardeners, growers and local food experts he met as they travelled by barge on a canal through south-west France. Rick Stein speaks as if everything is a marvel, a wonder. It’s easy to become absorbed in his language, moving with the intonations of his voice. To be a television chef engaging your audience is part of the job description but there is an authenticity to Stein and he seems so genuinely enthralled about the food and people around him, as if he too, like his audience, is learning and tasting things for the first time. Perhaps it was this show that first inspired a love of France – the countryside, the people, the language, but most importantly, the food.
When the show ended we bought the cookbook and after that our collection of French cookbooks seemed to expand – each one offering new ingredients, new stories and new recipes. But every year or so we come back to Rick Stein’s French Odyssey sometimes for a recipe, but often to look at the pictures and to read the words or the funny inscriptions Georgie and I wrote to Mum Christmas 2005.
Mother, my dearest,
This is your Christmas present
for you to use in 2006.
Make lots of dishes so delicious
our lips will be forever licked
Entrées and mains,
with this book you’ll be skipping
through French country lanes.
Savoury, sweet or sour,
everyone knows their mouths will devour!
Before Georgie came home for the summer she emailed us a “List of Delicious-ness,” all the things she would like for us to eat over the summer. Georgie wished for Caribbean pie, lamb and potato curry, Thai beef salad, chocolate self-saucing pudding, roast lamb, pork chops with caramelised apples and onions. Most of the items on the list are firm family favourites that we have been cooking and eating for years and like favourite films and books, none ever tire. I don’t dare to hazard a guess at how many times my mother has made lamb and potato curry. Every time all four of us sit down to a meal, the table set and wine poured, it feels so very long since the last time and even longer since this was habit and normal and the only thing we really knew.
I have been thinking about what I wrote a few months ago about working and what my working life will look like as it begins to take shape. I thought perhaps I would never have a regular 9 to 5 job, that perhaps I would always have irregular hospitality hours and irregular writing hours on the side. But it’s becoming clear that what I value and look forward to is cooking and eating, most especially dinners. Dinners are great. Irregular hours here and there are not conducive to great dinners, or even dinners at all.
So for Georgie’s last night in Wellington we had a great dinner, entrée and dessert taken from Rick Stein’s French Odyssey and the main event taken from Paris, another one of our French focused books. For the entrée Dad and I made seared scallops served on a muddle of lentils with a herb tomato sauce. The lentils were savoury and knubbly, the tomato sauce was bright and garden fresh and the scallops were sweet and tender. For the main course Mum made spiced duck with creamy, wilted, beautiful savoy cabbage. Then Georgie and I made prune and almond tart to honour the list of delicious-ness.
The pastry is short, almost shatteringly so, with a rich and buttery flavour. The prunes are meltingly tender, moist jubes of brandy sweetness. Then the almond, in its traditional almond role, pulls everything together, balances it out, gives the tart substance and body. The almonds, the brandy, the succulent semi-dried fruit remind me of Christmas flavours. And Christmas in our house really only means one thing – family dinners (and breakfasts and morning teas and lunches and afternoon teas and evening nibbles…)
This tart recipe reminds me of the economy of many French dishes. While at first glance the ingredients list may appear daunting and the instructions a bit winded, the case is often a little of a lot. This recipe uses only 4 tablespoons of brandy (we add more, as can be seen in our adapted version below), 35 grams of ground almonds and 55 grams of sugar. There is moderation to be found in French cuisine, which Rick Stein I think understands so very well.
Prune Almond Tart
Adapted from Rick Stein’s recipe. Many thanks to Georgie for the gorgeous photos.
300 grams dried or half-dried (mi-cuit) prunes
6 tablespoons brandy
1 large egg, lightly beaten
35 grams ground almonds
55 grams caster sugar
250 grams crème fraîche
icing sugar, for dusting
Extra crème fraîche to serve
225 grams plain flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
130 grams chilled butter, cut into pieces
1.5 – 2 tablespoons chilled water
For the pastry:
Sift the flour and salt into a food processor or a mixing bowl. Add the pieces of chilled butter and work together until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs. With the processor running on low or with the blade of the knife if making pastry manually, stir in the water until it comes into a ball. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead briefly until smooth.
For the filling:
Place the prunes in a medium bowl and pour over the brandy. Leave to soak for at least one hour, turning them over every now and then to help them soak up the alcohol.
Roll out the pastry on floured surface and then line a greased tart tin, roughly 25 cm across the base. Prick the base with a fork and chill for 20 minutes.
Pre-heat oven to 200°C. Line the pastry base with baking paper and a layer of rice or baking weights and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the paper and beans and bake for another 4-5 minutes. Remove the pastry base and brush with a little of the beaten egg before returning to the oven for a further 2 minutes. Remove the tart, set aside and lower the temperature to 190°C.
Pick the prunes out of their brandy bath and scatter them on the pastry base. To the brandy add the ground almonds, egg, sugar and crème fraîche and beat until smooth. Pour the almond mixture over the prunes and bake for 45 minutes until golden brown and a skewer inserted into the centre of the tart comes away clean.
Dust with icing sugar and serve warm or at room temperature with crème fraîche, yoghurt or whipped sweetened cream.