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.

THE TRIPARTITE TRI-PIE-TART

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.

FOR THE FILLING:

  • 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 Art of Fugue Soup

If osso bucco is a com­plex sym­phony, baked alaska is a frivol­ous oper­etta and a jam dough­nut is a song by Cliff Richard, then a bowl of fine soup is a fugue. The best soup unites ingredi­ents that act beau­ti­fully together; sep­ar­ate but always enhan­cing and echo­ing each other, just like a fugue.

As I write this, I’m listen­ing to Bach’s The Art of Fugue. It’s a piece of music I can listen to end­lessly and often do. My fugue soup is the per­fect accom­pani­ment — and very sat­is­fy­ingly it’s not just fugal but frugal.

The only essen­tial thing about this soup is that it should be cooked so lightly as to keep its bright green hue — khaki veget­able soup is more requiem than fugue. But you can vary the ingredi­ents depend­ing on the sea­son. That way your soup will be both dif­fer­ent and the same, as is a fugue.

FUGUE SOUP

Serves 4

  • 2 litres veget­able stock
  • 200g pod­ded or frozen petit pois
  • 200g broad beans
  • 2 medium cour­gettes, cut into small dice
  • 200g fine asparagus
  • 1 clove gar­lic, finely sliced
  • 4 spring onions or scal­lions, chopped finely
  • Hand­ful herb flowers such as thyme or chive
  • Hand­ful chopped chives
  • Hand­ful torn basil
  • 2 table­spoons olive oil
  • Season­ing

Bring the stock to a sim­mer. Add the broad beans and blanch for 4 minutes. Remove with a slot­ted spoon and put aside in a bowl. When cool, peel off the leath­ery skins and dis­card. With the stock still at a sim­mer, add the asparagus and one of the diced cour­gettes to the liquid and blanch for 3 minutes. Remove these veget­ables too and put aside. Add the peas. Blanch for no more than 1 minute if they’re frozen and 3 minutes if they’re fresh, before remov­ing and once again put­ting to one side. Reserve the stock.

In a small fry­ing pan, gently heat the chopped spring onions and gar­lic in the olive oil. Allow to soften but not to brown. Add the second diced cour­gette to the fry­ing pan and allow it to soften too. Tip the onions, gar­lic and cour­gette mix­ture into the stock and cook gently for about 3 or 4 minutes. Add half the blanched peas and heat for a fur­ther minute. The cour­gettes and peas should still be bright green — it’s cru­cial not to over­cook the soup and thereby allow shades of com­bat trousers to enter the spec­trum. Pro­cess with a stick blender in the pan until smooth. Just before serving, tip in all the remain­ing blanched veget­ables that you put to one side at the start. Sea­son to taste. Ladle the soup into bowls in which you have placed some shred­ded fresh basil leaves. Top with a hand­ful of chopped chives and some herb flowers.

Eat while listen­ing to my favour­ite per­form­ance of The Art of Fugue, by the Rus­sian pian­ist Rustem Hayroud­inoff. It’s the ver­sion chosen by nov­el­ist Vikram Seth for the CD that he com­piled to accom­pany his exquis­ite musical novel An Equal Music. So in true fugal coun­ter­point, you can eat fugue soup, while listen­ing to the The Art of Fugue and read­ing about The Art of Fugue at the same time. What could pos­sibly be more fugal?