“Millions of peaches, peaches for me”

Peaches are everywhere at the moment, gorgeous, sweet peaches and I couldn’t ignore them when I was planning the menu for last weekend’s Underground. Saturday night’s five course dinner ended with this peach and almond tart and I’m sharing it because it’s a simple enough make-ahead dessert that looks quite impressive.

And also because a recent guest to Shelley-belly’s Underground asked me to (and you know how I love requests).

When I started playing with the peaches and trying to decide what to make I thought I’d try a play on an apple tart fine because I love the appearance of the fruit fanned out over the pastry.Then I thought I’d do a sort of Bakewell tart (usually made with cherries) because I wanted to incorporate almonds into the dessert.

I knew I didn’t want to do a large tart that would require slicing, I wanted little, individual tarts that look pretty on the plate. So this, a combination of the two, was the result. It’s really easy, needs a bit of prep but doesn’t really require much more than patience.

You’ll need:

  • Frangipane
  • Fresh peach puree
  • Puff pastry
  • Peaches
  • Icing sugar
  • Soft butter
  • Lightly toasted flaked almonds*

Frangipane

  • 100g blanched almonds (ground)
  • 100g butter
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 1 egg plus 1 egg yolk beaten together
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • About half teaspoon almond essence

In an electric mixer (or with a wooden spoon if you the have the muscle for it) cream the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. With the beaters running gradually add the egg and almond essence. Turn the mixer down to low speed and gently mix in the ground almonds and flour. This will keep in the fridge for a few days.

Peach puree

A couple of peaches go a long way so tread lightly otherwise you just end up with a big bowl of peach puree sitting in your fridge and nothing to do with it but make Bellinis… okay, I just heard it. Make a lot, there’s nothing wrong with a peach Bellini made with fresh peach puree (couple of tablespoons of peach puree, top with chilled Prosecco, enjoy).

If you have any peaches that feel like they may be a little too soft to slice neatly for the top, use those for the puree. Rinse a couple of peaches, remove the stones but don’t bother removing the skin, blitz the flesh in a blender until smooth. Taste for sweetness – my peaches were really sweet and didn’t need any additional sugar but all fruit is different. If your peaches are not as sweet or if you prefer the puree a bit sweeter add some caster sugar, a little at a time. Push the puree through a fine sieve to remove bits of skin. This will keep in the fridge for a couple of days but oxidizes quickly so cover with cling film (with the film pressed right down onto the surface of the puree) as soon as you’ve made it.

Puff Pastry

If you have three days and the stomach for it, make your own (but you’ll have to find a recipe elsewhere), otherwise just use a good quality store-bought puff pastry.

A 500g package of puff pastry will give you four or five eight to ten tarts (depending on how big you make them).

Roll out the pastry and cut the pastry circles**. They should be no more than a couple of millimeters thick and each tart will need two pastry circles, one slightly smaller than the other. The larger one should be about the size of a regular side plate.

Peaches

Again, a few peaches go a long way so don’t slice too many. Thinly slice enough fresh peaches to fan out over the top of your tarts.

Okay, once you’ve done all that you’re ready to start building your desserts.

First, smear a good, thick layer of frangipane onto one of the smaller pastry circles – and I do mean a good, thick layer, don’t be stingy, it’s not attractive.

Then place the small circle, frangipane-side down, onto the centre of one of the larger pastry circles. Wet your finger with a bit of warm water and run it over the edge of the pastry circle to seal it then fold  (crimp, pleat, whatever) the edges of the large pastry circle over the small circle.

Next, gently smear about a table spoon of peach puree over the top of the pastry, avoiding the edges.

Fan the peach slices out over the top of the puree, don’t leave any gaps.

Dust with icing sugar.

Using a pastry brush, brush the whole thing with soft butter.

These can be made a day before so stop here and refrigerate the pastries if you’re serving later. About 45 minutes before you’re ready to serve remove from the fridge to allow the pastries to warm to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 200 c/ 400 f, sprinkle the toasted almonds over the top of the pastries and bake for around 20 minutes. The peach puree gets insanely hot so make sure you let the pastries stand for a few minutes before serving.

For Saturday’s dinner I served the tarts with a warm, almond scented homemade custard and the one in the photos is served with double cream – ice cold jersey cream, whipped cream, clotted cream, ice cream… just about anything creamy will work as an accompaniment.

*The almonds will toast in the oven but I like to toast them a little before hand, I love the extra crunch it gives to the finished dish.

** After rolling out the pastry let it stand for a minute or two before cutting as it may shrink a little.

I’d love your feedback if you decide to give this recipe a try. Enjoy.

The date for the next dinner at Shelley-belly’s Underground will be confirmed later this week and details will be posted on the Underground page. In the meantime, if you’d like more information you can email shelleybellyunderground@yahoo.com.

Custard, Amaretto flambé bananas, toasted banana bread soldiers

“A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools,” Douglas Adams.

I’m not great at desserts. I can do them but I’m better at the savory stuff. And I knew that for our first dinner at Shelley-belly’s Underground, which took pace on the Saturday just gone, I had to wow my guests (or at least, try) with every course – and there were six of them (courses, that is, not guests).

So I chose to do a kind-of deconstructed banana cream pie – I know, boring, right? Everyone is doing some kind of deconstructed dessert at the moment, but it’s because people like them. I mean your standard pie, a Graham Cracker crust with a banana-cream filling topped with whipped cream is okay, it’s fine, it’s good enough. But a little pot of chilled custard served with shortbread fingers for dunking, come on! Way better than a slice of pie. You are in control. You decide. You are the master of your custard to shortbread ratio in every mouthful. The master of the whipped cream, when to have it, when to leave it. The master of the banana, do you eat it all at once? You decide. It’s the perfect dessert.

And banana? Is banana as overdone as deconstructed desserts? I don’t know, I’d hazard a guess that the top selling dessert on any restaurant menu is the banana one, or at least it’s in the top two, I’ll concede that banana might lose out to chocolate occasionally.

So this was the dish: chilled homemade custard, Amaretto flambé bananas, toasted banana bread soldiers, whipped cream, toasted almond flakes. Most of this can be done in advance, at the very least the custard, the banana bread, and the toasted almonds, so the only cooking required while your guests bang their spoons on the table is that of the bananas. Oh, and toasting the banana bread. But if you’d rather skip it, you can serve the same dessert with shortbread biscuits, homemade or not, we don’t judge.

When I first conceptualized this dessert I did it thinking I wanted a set custard, a crème brûlée without the caramel. For this, I turned to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Everyday and a recipe hidden in those clever pages enticingly dubbed “Foolproof crème brûlée”. The clue is in the name, “Foolproof”, there was no possible way I could mess this up. Except that I did. In fact, it was an unmitigated disaster in three layers. On top, a layer of nearly impenetrable yellow rubber, followed by a layer of very attractive scrambled custard floating prettily on a pond of murky vanilla juice.

To borrow Douglas Adams’ sentiment, if not his exact words, when HFW wrote this recipe for foolproof crème brûlée he clearly hadn’t banked on the likes of me.

To Plan B. A bowl of regular, chilled custard. I stuck with Hugh’s custard recipe, it’s the same basic recipe you’d find in any recipe book really, and the principle was sound (this is not a case of a bad workman blaming the tools, just a case of a bad workman). I made a few idiot-proof adjustments, leaving me with a risk-free dessert.

These quantities gave me enough for around 12 regular portions, or three portions if I was only feeding the custard-loving men in my family. That’s how it is with custard. 

  • 1 litre heavy cream
  • 2 vanilla pods (if you’re feeling vanilla extravagant, otherwise just one)
  • 160 g caster sugar (Use more if you’d prefer your custard a bit sweeter, but go carefully, it is sugar, it is not our friend)
  • 12 medium egg yolks – from the best, free range, organic eggs you can find

Split the vanilla pods down the length and scrape out the seeds. Put the seeds, pods and cream into a saucepan and heat to just below boiling. The cream should quiver a little but not bubble. Remove from the heat and let it stand for a couple of minutes.

While you’re waiting for the vanilla to flavor the milk, in a bowl big enough to hold all the custard, whisk the caster sugar and egg yolks together – a hand whisk is fine for this but whisk until the yolks are pale. Slowly, really slowly, a little bit at a time, add the hot milk to the egg and sugar mixture, whisking all the time. When all the milk has been added, pour the mixture back into a saucepan and return to a low heat. Keep stirring until the custard has reached the desired thickness, this usually takes six to eight minutes, strain into a clean bowl or jug, cover with cling film (with the film pressed right down to the surface of the custard to prevent a skin from forming) and refrigerate until needed. It will keep in the fridge for a couple of days and can either be served cold or gently reheated on the stove. Don’t refrigerate after reheating, once only.

That’s it, regular vanilla custard. If that’s all you came for you can stop reading now. If you’d like to know about the rest of the dessert, read on.

Banana bread

This makes two loaves – halve the recipe if you wish but I find one loaf is never enough.

  • 170 g butter plus a little extra to grease the loaf tins
  • 450 g all purpose flour
  • 6 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 a teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 1/2 a teaspoon of salt
  • 1/2 a teaspoon grated nutmeg (if you’re not a fan of nutmeg you can leave this out or use cinnamon instead).
  • 4 very ripe large bananas
  • 220 g caster sugar
  • 2 large eggs – from the best, free range, organic eggs you can find
  • I prefer not to use nuts in my banana bread but if you wish you can add about 250 g of chopped or broken walnuts.

Preheat the oven to190 c and prepare two 10 x 20 cm loaf tins (grease and line the base with baking paper).

Mash the bananas in a large bowl – I like to use a potato ricer to mash the banana but a fork or potato masher works fine.

Melt the butter on the stove or in the microwave – not hot, just melted – and add it and the sugar and eggs to the banana. Stir together well.

Sift the flour, baking powder, bicarb, salt and nutmeg over the banana

mixture and mix together well. Add the chopped nuts if you’re using them.

Share the mixture equally between the tins and smooth down the top. Oven temperatures vary, the loaves should bake for between 45 and 55 minutes until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.

Cool in the tin for 15 minutes, remove, cut a slice, top with cold butter and enjoy. Then, cool the rest  completely before wrapping in foil to store.

To plate the dessert you’ll need:

  • Homemade vanilla custard – this can be made the day before.
  • 3 banana bread toast soldiers per person – you can use a store-bought banana loaf but it is really easy to make it yourself. For this dessert it is better if the banana bread is a couple of days old. Toast the soldiers on all four sides under the grill in the oven – watch closely, it will burn quickly due to the high sugar content.
  • whipped cream (not from a can, not ever from a can)
  • 3 or 4 chunks of flambé banana per person – the banana chunks can just be fried in butter but I flambé them in Amaretto at the last minute to give the dish an extra level of flavor and the Amaretto and butter make a great sauce to pour over the bananas. I also add a sprinkle of salt to the bananas while they’re frying. Remember to let them cool a little before serving, hot banana can be lethal. 
  • 1 tablespoon of toasted almond flakes per person (these can be bought toasted but toasting them yourself just takes a few minutes – simply scatter them onto a baking sheet and pop them into an oven preheated to 180c. They’ll take about five minutes to toast to golden brown but check them every minute or so and give the baking sheet a shake).

This post is quite long and wordy, if there’s anything that’s not clear please let me know.

If you’re interested in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s book, River Cottage Everyday, it is available on Amazon.

Oh yes, fried pastry!

In planning and preparing a meal of eight courses for a birthday dinner (not my own) I really battled with the dessert course.

The theme was, loosely, Chinese. The preparation, endless. The decor, turquoise and white with many orchids and candles floating prettily in bowls of water. The courses, multiple. The cocktail, Jack Daniels Honey with iced tea and lemonade. The dessert, undecided until one of the last minutes.

I spent two days painstakingly stuffing and pleating pot stickers, making a masterful (if I say so myself) master stock, braising ribs to an unctuous hot and sour stickiness … I won’t bore you with more of the details, you get the picture.

During all of this I waited and waited for dessert inspiration to come and it never did. Finally, in a moment of near desperation (minutes after that point in the evening when you’ve already served seven courses and timidly, and with absolutely no confidence, say “um, would anyone like dessert with their jasmine tea?”  And your guests stubbornly refuse to do the polite thing and say “no thanks, just tea for me.”) – I grabbed the puff pastry from the freezer, rolled it out, cut it into strips about 3 cm wide and dropped them into hot oil.

Roll and cut

Now, I’m pretty sure I’m not the first person in the world to fry pastry – the Italians have a dessert called cenci (rags of dough) made from a flour, egg, water, sugar pastry, fried in a similar fashion but doesn’t really puff up much – but in that moment, as I watched my silky, pale strips of pastry puff up into magnificent, golden tubes of awesome I felt like a pioneer. I felt like the first person in the world to fry puff pastry. If not, I wondered, why are we not all doing this all the time? Simple and delicious.

Try it, please.

  • Puff pastry – you can make your own, I didn’t
  • Clean oil of a fairly neutral variety with a high smoking point – I used Canola
  • Powdered sugar

Deep pot with about 4 cm or 5 cm of oil in it – heat to around 190 C. Be safe. Hot oil is dangerous.

Roll out pastry using as little flour on your rolling pin and work surface as possible.

Cut into strips about 3cm wide and 10cm long (although I think any size and shape will do).

Drop 3 or 4 into the oil at a time – don’t crowd the pan.

They take a minute or so to puff up and start to colour. Flip them over for a couple of seconds to make sure they colour all over.

Carefully remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.

Leave to cool for a few minutes then dust with powdered sugar.

Serve immediately.

Fried and sugared

There is nothing Chinese or even loosely Chinese about this dessert but it is delicious and surprisingly light – no need to serve with jasmine tea if that’s not what you’re having. They would also be good with an espresso, a liqueur or just on their own.

Note – I experimented with a variety of thicknesses, from paper-thin to about half a cm and found that the best ones were made from pastry about 3mm thick – they had a crispy exterior but maintained a bit of a chew in the middle.