Open-arse tart

This is a sad story. It was forged in ardent romantic illusion and quenched – this very evening – in the cold mud of disappointment. There will be a flutter of redemption and solace at the end, but not enough to match the initial high hopes. I was in love with something I had never seen or touched. I had heard great things, of its soft scent, its delicious flavour, its near magical powers to transform from something hard, cold and green to tender, giving, open flesh almost in the blink of an eye. The object of my imaginary desires was the medlar.

Medlar blossom

Let’s start with a pretty picture of medlar blossom to represent the dream.

My appetite was whetted by occasional references on Gardeners’ Question Time and a short account of the fruit in Andrew Dalby’s excellent The Shakespeare Cookbook. The attractive and intriguing traits of the medlar are these. It does not ripen like ordinary fruit – or at least it does, but it’s not ready to eat until it’s rotted, or more properly ‘bletted’. It is like an apple in miniature, arranged around five pips, but while these are larger than apple pips, the fruit is smaller. But best of all, it sounds like a fruit with a sense of fun and humour, for it was known, in the sixteenth century as an ‘open-arse’. If you look at it from a certain angle you can see what those jolly Elizabethans meant.

medlar open arse

This is the bottom of the fruit

My interest in the medlar was not easy to satisfy. It’s not for sale in shops. But then, at the beginning of this month, it was for sale at the farmers’ market, so I bought a punnet and took it home. I laid the little greeny-brown fruits out on the dining table and waited for them to blet. And waited. And waited. Not only did they take ages to blet, they did it one at a time. About one a day. It has taken almost three weeks for the whole lot to reach the edible stage. What happens is the firm apple-like greeny-white flesh turns a soft dark brown.

Medlars bletting

Medlars stubbornly waiting to blet

This was my first indication that the medlar might be hard to love but there were two redeeming features. The bletted fruit had delicately spotted skin and smelt exactly like an orchard on a damp morning, a smell I happen to like.

This evening I set to making a bastardised version of the medlar tart in The Shakespeare Cookbook. And this led to by second disappointment. The medlar did not give its flesh up easily. Maybe my medlars were smaller or more bletted than the ones Andrew Dalby had in mind. His suggested method was to “cut the medlars in half and scoop out the soft flesh with a teaspoon”. I ended up with a tiresome mixture of pulp, pips and skin on my hand and not much in the bowl. For me, grumpy squeezing and picking out the pips worked best in the end.

Will there be a third disappointment? Will the medlar be as fragrant and delightful to eat as they all promised… Find out in a few short lines after the recipe:

Pastry
225g plain flour
grated zest of ½ lemon
tiny pinch of salt
110g unsalted butter
½ tbsp caster sugar
2-3 tbsp cold water

 Filling
at least a dozen bletted medlars*
2 tbsp soft brown sugar
2cm3 fresh ginger
150ml whipping cream1 egg, separated
1 tsp cinnamon
* If you don’t have medlars, and you probably don’t, you could try replacing them with a large peeled and grated Bramley apple.

Preheat the oven to 180°C (reduce for a fan oven). Butter a tart or flan case.

In a mixing bowl stir together the flour, salt and lemon zest. Lightly rub in the butter. When you reach the rough breadcrumb stage stir in the sugar. Add the water one tablespoon at a time and stir with a fork until the crumbs start to bind. Give them a quick squeeze to bring it all together as pastry. Press this into the tart case, prick the base all over with a fork, and bake for twenty minutes.

Pricked tart case

When it’s done remove it from the oven and turn the heat down 20°.

Meanwhile, get the pulp out of those medlars any way you can. Put it in a saucepan with the brown sugar and grate in the ginger. Heat gently and stir till this mixture is smooth. Add the cream and heat again until it’s hot but not boiling. Beat the egg yolk and stir it in. Keep heating and stirring until the mixture thickens.

Pour this custardy mix into the cooked flan case. Bake for another fifteen minutes.

tart baked but not covered

Baked filling

I felt uncomfortable with the nakedness of my tart so I whipped up the egg white with a spoonful of caster sugar to make a soft topping. Spread this on and bake for another ten to fifteen minutes.

Tart with meringue topping

Less of an open-arse, more of a full moon

Tasting notes: Actually not bad. I’d cook it again if somebody brought the medlars round to my house ready-bletted and got the pulp out for me.

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Portable crumble with a dipping sauce

A friend of mine had a baby last week. They’ve had to stay in hospital a few more days while the baby gets over an infection so I went to see them this evening after work. And took some biscuits. I wanted them to be healthier and more interesting than hospital food but the hospital kitchen has the last laugh. While mum and dad were eating biscuits and I was admiring the baby we came up with the idea that takes these from semi-sensible biscuits to portable crumble.

Dip them in custard.

I don’t mean ‘proper custard’ made with vanilla pods, scalded milk and eggs but completely artificial bright yellow custard made with milk and a sugary powder. The kind you get in old people’s homes, schools and hospitals. The baby’s mum is ordering custard with tomorrow’s dinner.

The recipe is based on one in Baking Magic by Kate Shirazi. The main difference is the substitution of grated fresh apple for dried:

60 ml sunflower oil
75g unsalted butter
110g soft brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
100g rolled oats
150g wholemeal flour
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
generous 1/2 tsp cinnamon
50g fresh blueberries
120g peeled and cored apple

Preheat the oven to 180C and grease or line two baking sheets.

Very VERY gently soften the butter. You don’t want to make it liquid or cook it in any way. When it’s soft enough to pass a spoon through it pop it in a large mixing bowl and beat it with the sunflower oil and sugar till all the sugar is dissolved. Make sure it’s cooled to room temperature then stir in the vanilla and egg, followed by the oats.

Sift over the flour, bicarbonate of soda and cinnamon and stir. Finally throw in the blueberries and grate the apple straight into the bowl.

Give the mix one last stir then plop the mixture one tablespoonful at a time onto the baking sheets. The mix is pretty stiff and dry so you might want to flatten each dollop slightly with the back of a spoon.

Bake for ten or so – the biscuits should just be turning from golden to brown.

Let them cool on a rack while you prepare the custard…

blueberry apple crumble biscuit

Blueberry and apple portable crumble biscuits (best served with custard)

Alongside the crumble cookies, I made rugelach, this time following a Baking Magic recipe to the letter. The filling was apricot jam, chopped almonds, sugar and lemon zest and the result was very sweet and zingy. A real contrast to the relatively sensible crumble biscuits. Once I’d made them I realized the shape, like a miniature croissant, was exactly the same as that of Ukrainian rohalyky.

Rugelach rohalyky

Rugelach (or rohalyky)

Rugelach literally means ‘little twists’, rohalyky means ‘little horns’ and yet the sound of the words and the shape is so similar there must be a common ancestor to these pastries.

I’ve found recipes for both in two of my favourite cook books: Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food (rugelach made with a curd cheese dough) and Savella Stechisin’s Traditional Ukrainian Cookery (rohalyky made with a yeasty dough). I’m looking forward to getting further into the similarities and differences  very soon.