The Tripartite Tri-Pie-Tart

Gardeners, writers and artists have always understood the value of the number three: less boringly symmetrical than two, more complex than one. Where would Flaubert, Chekhov or Constance Spry be without it?  And scriptwriter Steven Moffat, whom I admire hugely, clearly loves it; he named one of his Doctor Who episodes ‘The Power of Three’ and one of his Sherlock Holmes episodes ‘The Sign of Three’.

I’ve been afflicted by insomnia again this week. Counting the hours until morning is, apart from being exhausting, extremely boring. At times like these, the BBC World Service and Radio 4 are vital companions. But when I eventually fall asleep and wake again, after what feels like only minutes, I find I’ve acquired very odd scraps of information from half-heard radio programmes. (I woke recently with the crazy idea that there was a dead cow outside, only to discover that it wasn’t the legacy of a weird middle-of-the-night radio drama, but was in fact true. But that’s a story I’ll tell another time.)

One morning this week I awoke with a completely unfamiliar word racketing around my brain. All I can remember is having the radio on for most of the night and hearing someone, somewhere saying ‘sizzi-jee’ and spelling it out very carefully – ‘s-y-z-y-g-y’ – just as I finally dozed off. A three-syllable word completely lacking in vowels is worth looking up in the dictionary, if only for its Scrabble potential.

  • Syzygy: a straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies, such as the Sun, Earth and Moon, in a gravitational system.

And, as so often, a fragmentary idea, in this case about three celestial bodies, led me towards something to cook. I’ve wanted to write about my tripartite tri-pie-tart for a while, mainly because the name makes me laugh. The tripartite tri-pie-tart is a pie that I thought-up during another bout of insomnia. But I had to wait until the English asparagus season before I could make it. And now, of course, I can.

The tri-pie-tart is a three-part pie that combines my son’s, my daughter’s and my favourite tart ingredients. My son prefers asparagus, my daughter likes leeks and I love spinach. So this is the tri-pie-tart that combines them all. And, as with syzygy, if you line up three celestial ingredients – in this case, asparagus, spinach and leeks – you’ll find there’s a gravitational pull towards the kitchen table.


For the pastry:

  • 225g plain flour
  • 125g butter
  • 2 eggs yolks
  • 25cm loose-bottomed pie tin

Wrestle with it by hand if you prefer, but I use a mixer. Cut the cold butter into cubes and combine with the flour and a pinch of salt. Mix until you have a dry, crumbly texture. Add three tablespoons of cold water to the egg yolks and whisk with a fork until combined. Pour half the egg mixture into the flour and continue to add until the pastry forms a ball. Try to do this as quickly as possible and don’t feel the need to use all of the eggs, if it doesn’t need it. Remove the ball, wrap in cling-film, flatten it down with the palm of your hand (it’s easier to roll later if it doesn’t emerge from the fridge as a massive, chilly globe) and place in the fridge for at least an hour. By the way, I’ve tried rolling pastry out straightaway, without resting it, just to see what happens. I ended up with a soft, string-vest of a thing that would no-more hold a pie filling than a sieve would. So now you know.

After at least an hour, roll the pastry out thinly. This is a nifty tip, if you dread man-handling your pastry into the tin. Roll it out onto the same piece of cling-film you used to wrap it in. That way, you won’t have to flour the surface on which you roll it which only adds a whole load of extra flour to the pastry which you don’t need or want. The added benefit of the cling-film method is that you can then pick up the cling-film, with its pastry disc attached and then just turn it upside down into the pie tin. None of that wrapping it round the rolling-pin and then unrolling it over the tin, which always sounds so much easier than it really is. Press the pastry into the edges of the tin and carefully peel away the cling-film.

Place a circle of tin-foil over the pastry in the tin, fill with baking beans, and bake in the oven at 200 degrees C for ten minutes. Remove the beans and foil and bake for a further seven minutes until the pastry case is golden in colour and dry in texture. If, when it emerges, there are any cracks, paint a little beaten egg over the cracks while the pastry is still hot and it will seal them. Lower the oven temperature to 140 degrees C.


  • 200g spinach
  • 2 leeks
  • 250g slim-ish asparagus
  • 2 eggs and an extra 3 yolks
  • 125g Mascarpone
  • 150ml double cream
  • 125g Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated. It doesn’t need to be that fine – you’re not aiming for cheese dust here

Cut the leeks finely, discarding the tougher dark green ends. Cook gently in a little butter for five minutes or so, until soft but not browned. Tip into a bowl, and, using the same pan, wilt the spinach briefly, adding a little more butter if necessary. Put the spinach in a second bowl. Finally, blanch the asparagus so that it is just, only just, cooked. Remove from the pan and run cold water over the asparagus to stop it cooking. All three of your celestial ingredients should still be a bright green hue, rather than sidling off into the khaki or olive-green end of the paintbox.

Mix together the mascarpone, cream and eggs, whisking in plenty of air. Spoon a quarter of the mixture over the tart base and spread it around. Layer on a quarter of the grated parmesan, followed by all the spinach, another layer of eggs and cream, a second layer of cheese, all the leeks, a third layer of eggs and cream, a third layer of cheese, the asparagus in a sun-burst effect and a final layer of eggs and cream. Bake in the oven, which should now be at 140 degrees C, for around twenty-five minutes, until the tri-pie-tart is a rich golden brown. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with extra Parmesan and a fine trickle of olive oil to give it some shine. Cast over some chive flowers if you like and eat the tri-pie-tart hot,cold or luke-warm. The syzygy is in the eating.


The Alumnae’s Lunch

Eating with a book is one of the great pleasures. Eating while talking about books is another, and second to that comes talking about books that have eating in them. I once gave a lecture at Newnham College, Cambridge about Virginia Woolf. Newnham was the venue for Woolf’s talks about women and fiction which formed the basis for A Room of One’s Own. In it, she contrasts the grim, gravy soup that students at women’s colleges survived on and the plump partridge and sole that fuelled the men.

The lunch at Newnham on the day of my lecture bore no relation to Woolf’s brown broth. I’d half-expected the kitchen staff to tip a knowing wink at A Room of One’s Own and give me a bowl of gravy. (I admit that I was in paranoid mood that day, having just been to the launch party for a new knitting book and been given blue-dyed spaghetti with bread-stick ‘needles’ poked in.) But the meal was as plentiful as it was delicious and I couldn’t help thinking how pleased Virginia Woolf would have been that the status of women, as measured by our lunches at least, had soared.

I thought of Woolf, Newnham and brown soup today as I sat down to lunch with three female friends with whom I share a particular bond. All four of us started PhDs at the same time. Between us, we produced doctoral theses on Conrad, Shakespeare, Victorian feminist poetry and contemporary fiction. (One of the entertainments when doing a PhD is to marvel at the apparent insanity of everyone else’s choice of subject; my favourite is still ‘the motif of decaying flesh in the works of J. M. Coetzee.’) If there’d been a medical emergency in the restaurant and someone had shouted out “Is there a doctor in the house?” we could have yelled back “Yes, four”.

Our lunch was a million miles from the parsimonious meals of Virginia Woolf’s experience; the food wasn’t particularly special but we had more laughs than I’ve had all year. Laughter is a vital component of the PhD experience, given that so much of it is gruelling, solitary, hard-dentistry and that it goes on for so, so long. Perhaps it was a lack of laughs that added to Woolf’s misery about her soup. Much as I love Woolf, her work is as thin on comedy as her Cambridge meal was thin on partridge. If she’d had three good companions to share her gruesome gravy with, she might not have noticed the food at all.



Permutations, Swapping Chairs and Beetroot


 It can be useful to sit in someone else’s chair every now and again, if only to scuttle back with relief to your own.

I’ve been sitting in B. S. Johnson’s seat this week, imagining his frustration at having his experimental novels widely praised but rarely bought. Johnson’s finest work, The Unfortunates, published in 1969,  involves permutations – so many of them, in fact, that it took me a whole afternoon to work out the number.

The Unfortunates has only twenty-seven short chapters, one of them a mere paragraph long. And yet it’s impossible to read the full version in a lifetime, however precociously early you start. The reason is that, apart from the first and the last chapters, the other twenty-five can be read in any order. This loose-leaved experiment was Johnson’s attempt to escape the linear restrictions of the conventional novel. Instead of being trapped inside a glued-on cover, The Unfortunates comes heaped-up in a box, with the disingenuous instruction that ‘if readers prefer not to accept the random order in which they receive the novel, then they may re-arrange the sections into any other random order before reading’. I’ve calculated all the possible permutations of those twenty five interchangeable chapters and the number I’m left with is:


which is otherwise known as fifteen septillion, five hundred and eleven sextillion, two hundred and ten quintillion, forty three quadrillion, three hundred and thirty trillion, nine hundred and eighty five billion, nine hundred and eighty four million different possibilities. You can never hope to read them all and it’s possible that the version you do read will be unique.

Johnson’s attempt to look at things from a different angle stemmed from his belief that we should try to ‘understand without generalisation, to see each piece of received truth, or generalisation, as true only if is true for me’. To generalise, he argued, is ‘to tell lies’. So, newly enthusiastic about avoiding generalisations while embracing the extraordinary possibilities thrown up by permutations, I planned my lunch.

My Great Auntie Susie ate exactly the same thing for lunch every single day of the week: pickled beetroot in vinegar, crumbly Lancashire cheese, a slice of brown bread spread with butter so thick that she could take an impression of her teeth from the indentations they left, and a mug of tea the colour of an old penny. By calculating the permutations, I made a beetroot salad for lunch today that is both specifically Great Auntie Susie’s, but is also a variation on her theme.


  • Bunch of smallish raw beetroot (bigger than snooker, smaller than hockey), leaves still attached – around one per person
  • Goat’s curd or very young goat’s cheese
  • Small salad leaves
  • Chopped chives
  • Handful of walnuts
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Lemon juice
  • Maple syrup

Cut the leaves and roots off the beetroot. Save the leaves for later. Wash the beetroot, but don’t peel them. Wrap them in a tight silver-foil parcel and bake in the oven at 170 F for around two hours. When they’re tender, take them out and peel them. Slice the beetroot and arrange on a plate with spoonfuls of goat’s curd. Wash and dry the raw beetroot leaves and scatter them on a plate, along with some other small salad leaves, the walnuts and a scattering of chives. Make a dressing from the olive oil, lemon juice and maple syrup – four parts oil, two parts lemon, one part syrup. Season to taste and trickle over the salad.

Eat the salad outside, sitting in someone’s else’s seat and staring at someone else’s view.

I imagine that B. S. Johnson would have been a good lunch companion. Sadly, he lost heart,  gave up on his ignored experiments and committed suicide at the age of forty. I would like to have told him that not only did I buy his book, but that I treasure it too.