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.