The café at which I work has a specials board. Like most specials boards it is big, black and made of slate, and to many strictly set menu-adhering customers, a cumbersome distraction to the ambience of the room. Before I worked with food I was an indoctrinated menu-follower. It is handed to you politely by a smiling waiter, and you can see the dishes which are clearly categorised under their headings, and you think, ‘Wow, what a choice!’ Then, because the waiter has to, he says, ‘Would you like to hear the specials?’ And, because you’re polite, you say, ‘Yes please,’ even though you’ve already made up your mind. He lists off a random selection of words – ‘sea bass’ ‘fennel’ ‘crumb’ and one or two you actually don’t understand but you’re too embarrassed to ask. Inevitably, you don’t eat a special dish, especially if the board is behind you, at the back of the room, or around the corner. It all requires a little extra effort.
That was me before I worked at this café. Now I realise, the specials board is where the chefs have their fun.
This big piece of slate is there for the chef to scribble all number of weird and wonderful things (within reason). The café, a local bakery bustling with customers buying their fresh sourdough, a flat white to-go or eating a leisurely breakfast of scrambled eggs and roasted cherry tomatoes, has three special requirements: a soup, a salad, and a quiche. Within these categories the chef can do as she pleases. (That said, the salad is now a pot pie as it is winter; just the word salad makes me feel malnourished and cold.)
So, a vegetable and chestnut pot pie stands in for summery salad, the soup is warming and rich, the quiche… a wintery quiche? A good quiche is exquisite – the custard light and creamy, pastry with a buttery tender crumb – but you usually associate it with a summer picnic. A Christmas quiche needs to be hearty with flavour, rich with cheese and unbelievably comforting. A Christmas dinner in a pie.
Having conquered the butternut squash, the courgette, rosemary, goat’s cheese and everything that is seasonal and indulgent, I was stumped. Perusing my Tamasin Day-Lewis cook book ‘Smart Tart’, bought, apart from the fact that I’m in love, for quiche inspiration, I noted a section entitled ‘Christmas’. Could this be the answer to my prayers? After a quick flick and noting there were no quiche recipes (shock) in this section, I was prepared to throw the book aside in despair when I thought, ‘Where’s my love of adaptation gone?!’ Opening it back up I saw a recipe for ‘Sausage Tart’ – a shortcrust pastry shell filled with sausage meat, apples, onions and sage.
Can this become a Christmas quiche?
Yes, dear reader, it can.
The sausage meat and sweet caramelised apples are nestled within the softly set custard. I scattered gooey chunks of blue cheese across the top to melt into the cooked egg, speckling the surface dark blue like an egg-shell. A slice of this sage-scented pastry immediately conjures Christmas. And it is now proudly displayed across the specials board, ready for that daring customer to venture off-menu.
Adapted from ‘Smart Tart’ by Tamasin Day-Lewis
Although the café uses a specific thyme and paprika shortcrust pastry, Tamasin’s pastry recipe is, of course, flawless. A 20 to 24cm tart tin requires 180g plain flour and 90g unsalted butter, rubbed together with cold fingertips (or whizzed in a food processor) until forming breadcrumbs. Add 1 tbsp of cold water so it forms a ball of dough (it may need a few extra drops). Flatten it into a disc, cover in clingfilm, chill for at least half an hour, then roll it out to line your tart tin – once slightly larger than the tin, lift one edge of the pastry over the rolling pin and flop it back down over the tart tin. Push it into all the crevasses. The warmer it gets the more fiddly it becomes! Chill again for another thirty minutes, then it is ready to blind bake.
Scrunch up some greaseproof, smooth it out and push it into the corners of the pastry mould. Fill to the brim with baking beans or uncooked rice. Don’t worry about trimming the overhanging pastry as it can shrink when baked. Bake at 170C for 25-30 minutes. Once the base is golden and has a sandy texture remove the beans, glaze with beaten egg then bake for another 10 minutes.
A 24cm blind-baked pastry case
1 pack of pork sausage meat
12 leaves of sage
2 red onions
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 eggs plus 2 yolks
250ml double cream
120ml full fat milk
150g Stilton or blue cheese
Freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat the oven to 140C and place a baking tray on a shelf in the lower third of the oven.
- Peel and chop the red onion into large dice. Heat some flavourless oil in a frying pan and once hot throw in the onion and sauté until golden and softened.
- Meanwhile cut the apples into quarters, core and slice into wedges. Add to the frying pan with the onion and allow to soften and caramelise.
- Chop the sage into fine strips and scatter over the cooking onions and apples. Season a little.
- Rip open the bag of sausage meat and squeeze out small blobs into the pan until all is gone. It can be messy! Stir with a spatula or fish slice and leave to cook, the pink meat turning dark brown.
- While the sausage is cooking make the custard. Crack the eggs into a bowl and add the two yolks. Pour in cream and milk then whisk together, seasoning to taste. Add another three or four chopped sage leaves to the egg mix.
- With a pastry brush, spread the Dijon over the pastry base.
- Once the meat is cooked through – no pinkness in the centre (breaking up the meat with a fish slice can speed up the process) – tip everything from the pan into the pastry and spread to the edges. Slowly pour over the egg mix; there will be too much for the case so go gently.
- When it is full rip off chunks of blue cheese and scatter across the top. Grate over some fresh nutmeg.
- Bake on the hot tray for 30 minutes. To check it has cooked through, gently shake the tray and if the centre still appears loose and sloppy give it another 5 to 10 minutes. Once set it will have a slight wobble.
- Once cool, trim the overhanging pastry with a sharp knife and gently lift out the quiche by pushing up the loose bottomed base.
- Tuck in.