Here’s part two of my Tuscan feast for you to enjoy with your family and friends. You can find part one here.
Starter: Selection of salads
We’re back from our morning ride and I need something quick, simple and tasty to put on the table while I finish the main course. Big platters of crowd-pleasing salads are ideal. My all-time favourite is made from sun-ripened juicy tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella (or even better burrata), fresh basil leaves, olive oil, fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Chop, scatter and serve – who needs a recipe? But what you do need is great, fresh ingredients. Feel free to turn it into tricolore salad with the addition of a perfectly ripe avocado.
Here’s another salad which relies on perfectly ripe ingredients chopped and scattered on a plate. This time it’s a richly scented, ripe orange fleshed melon, served with thin slices of slightly salty Parma ham on a bed of rocket with a dusting of freshly ground black pepper. This works equally well with fresh black or white figs.
Lastly, a salad which takes advantage of fresh seasonal produce and a good artisan salami. No need to skin the peaches. I’ve used flat white vine peaches here but the usual yellow ones or even nectarines will be just fine – so long as they’re ripe and juicy. I’ve chopped the salami into bite-sized pieces, placed everything on some rocket and, only because I had it in the fridge, added some radish sprouts and seasoned with a dusting of fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper.
Ecco – three delicious fresh salads to ward off the hunger pains. Typically, I would serve these with my home-made focaccia.
You might be thinking “Salads, are you mad, it’s the depths of winter!” In which case can I suggest a warming soup.
Dessert: apricot and almond crostata
Crostata sounds so much more exciting and foreign than a pie or tart, doesn’t it? I love its rustic appearance, versatility and the ease with which you can make it. People get stressed about making pastry but this is really simple as you don’t have to roll it out or blind-bake it. The crust is very forgiving.
Ingredients (serves four hungry cyclists)
- ½kg (1lb) fresh, ripe apricots
- 2 tbsp caster or raw cane sugar
- 2-3 tbsp liqueur or water
- 1 small jar (1 cup) apricot jam
- 180g (1½ cups) plain (all-purpose) flour
- 75g (¾ cup) finely ground almonds
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 50g (½ cup) coarsely chopped toasted almonds
- 125g (9 tbsp) soft unsalted butter
- 75g (½ cup) caster or raw cane sugar
- 1 large organic egg, approx. 45g (1⅔oz) without shell
- 1 large organic egg yolk
- ¼ tsp fine sea salt
1. Start by making the filling. Cut the apricots in half, remove the stone and place in a saucepan with 2 tbsp of sugar, the liqueur (or water) of choice and the apricot jam for about 5-7 minutes until the fruit has softened. Leave to cool.
2. Make the crust by creaming together the butter and sugar – preferably with a mixer – until light and creamy.
3. Add the egg and egg yolk and continue to mix until combined and the batter is smooth.
4. In a separate bowl, mix together the sifted flour, ground almonds, salt and baking powder.
5. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix just until the dough comes together. Cover with cling-film (plastic wrap) and place in the fridge for at least half an hour.
6. Preheat oven to 190°C/170°C fan/gas mark 5 (375°F/350°F fan).
7. Once the filling has cooled and the dough has chilled, split the dough in half. Using your hands, press half of the dough into the bottom and up the sides of a 23cm (9″ ) tart pan with a removable bottom. Ensure that it’s evenly distributed in the pan.
8. Spoon the apricot mixture into the crust. Mix the coarsely chopped and toasted almonds into the remaining dough and, using your fingers, break up the remaining crust mixture into small pea-sized pieces and drop it across the top of the tart. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t cover completely the filling – it looks more rustic.
9. Bake the tart in the preheated oven for about 25 minutes or until it is lightly browned. Remove from the oven and allow to cool before serving at room temperature with a dollop of mascarpone cream, fresh cream, crème fraiche or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Sheree’s Handy Hints
1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.
2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the crostata in the oven, put the timer on for 3-5 minutes less than it should take to cook and then check regularly.
3. If you think the crostata is browning too quickly, particularly at the edges, cover it with an aluminium-foil tent.
4. I like to use my own home-made jam in the filling but, if you don’t have any home-made, a quality bought one will be just fine.
5. You can use an almond liqueur such as Amaretto or maybe even an apricot grappa – think about flavours that go well with your fruit. I used a couple of spoons of my home-made peach and vanilla vodka.
6. Just in case you’re wondering whether I have an illicit still in the flat, I should clarify. In order to use up the large amount of alcohol my husband receives as gifts from clients, I took some fresh white peaches, skinned them and put them in sterile kilner jars, added a vanilla pod and covered them with vodka. I then left the jars in a cool, dark place for at least six months. The fruit is delicious and then I use the leftover liqueur on all sorts of desserts from pancakes to ice cream. I’ve successfully done this with a variety of fruits but my favourites are peaches and raspberries.
7. I now apricots aren’t in season in France in February so use bottled or another fruit which is readily available. I’ve successfully made this tart with rhubarb and ginger, plums, peaches and figs.