from one generation to the next
The Cookbook Guru this month is exploring Elizabeth David’s classic “English Bread and Yeast Cookery.”
Thirty plus years ago, when I first became interested in cooking more than just the food I had eaten growing up, I would borrow the local library’s limit of three books per week so I could learn about food in the wider world. Australia was a different place then. It was the hippy era. People were dabbling in vegetarianism and macrobiotics and we were only just beginning to embrace our migrant cultures from Italy, Greece and the Balkans. This was fifteen years before I had a chance to travel.
I had deliberately passed over the shelf of books about English food, after all, it was a familiar diet, then I discovered the post WW2 English food writers Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David. They both cooked with ingredients I could readily buy, they used methods I was familiar with, but more importantly they both explained the finer details of the roots of the food they cooked. These women were passionate foodies, keen to educate the British about good food, flavoursome preparation and wider choices. It was their effort to shake Britain out of the post war rationing doldrums that they’d endured until mid 1954.
Reading “English Bread and Yeast Cookery” by Elizabeth David all those years ago was my first exposure in print to the richly intertwined development of society through food. Her erudite book covers subjects from salt to storage, grain milling to loaf moulding, from the middle ages to the 1970s. The one strong vein that runs throughout this book is her contempt for the poor quality industrial bread to which England had been (and continues to be) subjected.
As expected, there are numerous wholewheat bread recipes, but also included are rustic hearth loaves, griddle cakes and obscure regional breads which David flatly states she hasn’t tried. What is surprising is her contempt for sourdough and the inclusion of French and Italian specialties.
I’ve lovingly kept my 1977 edition of this book and every now and then I take it from the shelf for a casual read, but the truth is, I’ve only ever made one recipes from it. A friend first prepared this cheese tart for me many years ago. I loved it so much, it became a core menu item on my finger food menu when I was in catering in the 1990s. The pastry is fine crumbed and robust, the filling rich and sharp, and as the tarts bakes the crust and custard meld into a manageable whole. When I was making this tart recipe regularly, I tried many different cheeses in the custard filling. Both sharp cheddar and gruyere work well instead of the blue cheese.
I couldn’t resist a remake of Ms David’s Tarte Aveyroinnaise or Roquefort quiche. I followed the ingredients list closely except I used Fermipan instant dried yeast which doesn’t require activation. To comply with my diet, I substituted spelt flour for unbleached bread flour and used lactose free milk and cream.
Elizabeth David’s method takes up more than a page of detailed explanation and while it’s interesting to read, it’s pedantic and long winded. My synopsis follows.
125g white spelt flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon instant dried yeast ( I use Fermipan brand)
3 tablespoons of thick cream or soft butter
100g soft blue cheese, crumbled
3 tablespoons of thick cream
4 tablespoons milk
Nutmeg, pepper and salt to taste.
to make the pastry:
Mix together the flour, salt and dried yeast and make a well in the centre. Lightly whisk together the egg and cream, add it to the flour then mix the ingredients together to a firm sticky batter.
Sprinkle flour on the bench, turn out the dough and give it a light knead until it’s smooth. Form into a ball.
Clean the bowl then grease it with butter. Return the dough to the bowl, cover it with a plate and leave it in a warm place to rise until it is doubled in bulk, about 2 hours.
Grease and flour 1 dozen 1/2 cup muffin tins and place a small square of baking paper into the base of each.
Turn the dough out onto a floured bench and lightly knead it again.
Divide the dough into 12 large walnut sized pieces and put them into the muffin tins.
Cover with a tea towel and allow to rest for 1/2 hour.
Preheat the oven to 200C fan forced.
Using floured fingers, mould the dough up the sides of the tins.
to make the custard:
Thoroughly mash the cheese with the back of a fork. Lightly whisk together the eggs, cream and milk, then add it to the cheese and gently whisk it together with the fork.
Season the custard with black pepper and a little freshly ground nutmeg.
Spoon 2 tablespoons of custard into each pastry shell.
Bake at 200C for 10 minutes then reduce the heat to 180C and continue baking for a further 7-10 minutes.
The tarts will be puffed and just starting to colour.
Ms David states the tarts should be served immediately.
We liked them at room temperature and I know they reheat well.