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.


Spinach and Sorrel Soup, The Sonnet

Soup is one of the best foods ever invented, so why are most of the references to it in literature unashamedly dismal? Soup is usually a metaphor for hard times, dour landladies and dubious chefs. The 20th century American author Margaret Halsey captured the ‘sad soup genre’ perfectly when she said that the broth she was served ‘tasted as if it had been drained out of the umbrella stand.’

So here comes the fightback. This spinach and sorrel soup should have a sonnet written about it. Or a novel in which the protagonist is restored to good health and good fortune after just one spoonful. It’s the rich, deep, full-throttle green of a vintage racing car and gives instant vigour and zip to anyone who so much as looks at it. 

Sorrel is a beautiful herb,  especially this red-veined variety, but it’s often hard to find in the shops. I have a friend who keeps an allotment purely so she can maintain her sorrel supplies. But this week I spotted an entire tray of potted sorrel in my local shop, with reduced  price stickers attached.  So I rescued the lot.

You may know by now that I love picnics and long walks. My mum used to put a flask of soup in one pocket of her coat and hot cheese, tomato and mustard rolls in the other and we would set off. Spinach and sorrel soup would be the perfect walking companion. Make it, eat it and start writing in rhyming couplets.

Spinach and Sorrel Soup

Serves 4

1 floury potato, chopped into smallish, even-sized chunks

I medium onion, cut into similar sized pieces

1 clove garlic, sliced

1 knob butter

500ml vegetable stock

400g fresh spinach, coarsely chopped

40 sorrel leaves – the sorrel gives a delicate lemon background flavour, but if you can’t find sorrel, add an extra 50g or so of spinach and add a little grated lemon zest

Handful of micro herbs such as coriander and red amaranth to sprinkle over at the end – or just some chopped chives

Spoonful of cream (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt the butter in a pan and cook the onion, garlic and potato together gently for five minutes or so, without colouring them. Add the vegetable stock and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down to a gentle simmer for around 15 minutes until the potato is soft. 

Add 200g of the spinach and all the sorrel leaves, season with salt and pepper and cook for a further five minutes. The sorrel leaves give a delicate lemon background flavour, but if you can’t find sorrel, just add an extra 50g or so of spinach instead and a little grated lemon zest. Take the pan off the heat and add the remaining uncooked spinach. Blend immediately and adjust the seasoning. Serve with a drizzle of cream, if using, and a sprinkling of herbs. Adding half the spinach at the end keeps the magnificent deep emerald colour of the soup. 

Spinach tart and homework

I’ve rescued a heap of Victorian homework from a London junk shop. Signed ‘John, 1848‘, every sheet is lined with miserable aphorisms. ‘Caution is the only protection against imposing‘, ‘Venerate sacred institutions‘, ‘Nominate the just‘. You get the picture.

Weirdly, having rescued one batch of ancient homework, I immediately found a whole heap more in my roof. I live in a 19th Century school house and like most things in this place, the roof is on its last legs. When the builder took the tiles off he found the eaves had been packed with old homework – and it’s even more miserable than poor old John’s.

Thinking about the endless scraps of paper that we throw away so freely, I started to wonder about all the cookbooks that go out of print each year. Perhaps, like actors, they say they’re ‘resting.’ And yet while they ‘rest’, other far less impressive recipe books are doing a can-can down at the bookshop.

As a tribute to discarded cookbooks everywhere, and dedicated to 19th century John, here’s my version of a spinach and parmesan tart from one of my favourite recipe books of all, Quaglino’s: The Cookbook.

Spinach and Parmesan Tart

Serves 8

For the pastry

225g plain flour

125g slightly salted butter

2 egg yolks

For the filling

150g freshly grated Parmesan

450 g spinach

30g butter

freshly grated nutmeg

2 eggs, plus 3 extra yolks

200 ml double cream

150g Mascarpone cheese

Rub the flour and butter together with a pinch of salt. When thoroughly mixed, whisk three tablespoons of cold water to the eggs yolks and pour into the flour. Quickly roll it together into a ball, wrap it in cling film and cool it in the fridge for an hour or so.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C. Roll out the pastry, line a loose-bottomed 25cm tart tin and line it with silver paper. Tip in the baking beans and bake blind for ten minutes. Remove the paper and beans and cook for a further 6 or 7 minutes until golden.

Reduce the temperature of the oven to 150 degrees C and prepare the filling. Wilt the washed spinach with the butter for a few minutes until it looks like bedraggled seaweed but still retains its bright green colour. Squeeze it out like a dishcloth and then sprinkle with a little grated nutmeg.

Beat the eggs, cream and Mascarpone together until smooth. Then repeat the following formula twice…layer of eggs, cream and Mascarpone, layer of spinach, sprinkling of black pepper, hefty dose of parmesan. Finish with a final dose of the eggs and cream mixture and a snowdrift of parmesan. Bake in the oven for around half an hour, or until golden and set. Finally, grate a little more parmesan on top and a trickle of extra virgin olive oil. Delicious with a green salad. Delicious with just about anything actually. I ate it for breakfast this morning, with a cup of PG tips on the side.