There is rarely much in the freezer. Coffee beans, a tub of vanilla ice cream and another of Italian lemon sorbet (I mix them, try it), blackcurrants for yogurt smoothies, a bag of damsons for breakfast compotes, some frozen peas and a packet of emergency crumpets. And another thing: a sheet of all-butter puff pastry. Pastry that I thaw and roll as thinly as I dare, scatter with nuggets of crisp pancetta, butter-softened shallots, a grating of parmesan or fontina and a few sprigs of thyme, then bake until the edges are puffed and golden. A tart I can slide straight on to a wooden board and bring out for lunch.
Deep tarts, those blind-baked pastry cases filled with deep and quivering savoury custard, onions and lardons of bacon, are all well and good when I’m in the mood to bake, but they are something of a performance in comparison to the ease of a puff pastry tart. Both have their place in my kitchen, but the parchment-thin puff pastry version is the one I make most often, no doubt due to the fact I have most of the ingredients almost permanently to hand.
Though tempting, it is a mistake to load up the pastry with thick layers of cheese and vegetables. The delight of such baking is that it is light and crisp, qualities that you risk losing with too heavy or rich a filling. The time spent in the oven is short, so bacon, mushrooms and the like should be cooked briefly first, then scattered over the raw pastry just before baking.
This week I made sweet tarts, too. Banana pastries, baked twice, once to cook them to a crisp honey gold and, secondly, to add a sticky maple syrup glaze. We need not stop at bananas; thin slices of poached apricots (even those from a tin) are worth considering, as would be a handful of blueberries. Almost worth having a freezer for.
Pancetta, thyme and fontina tart
You can add other ingredients here. A few mushrooms, sliced thinly and sautéed with butter, garlic leaves and thyme are a possibility, as are thin slices of cherry tomato, basil oil and spring onion. Cheese is best added in small amounts and finely grated, otherwise you might as well make pizza.
Makes 2 thin tarts
pancetta 250g, in one piece
olive oil 5 tbsp
thyme 20 small sprigs
puff pastry 250g
Set the oven at 220C/gas mark 8. Remove any thick skin from the pancetta and cut the meat into small dice, with no pieces larger than 0.5cm. Pour the olive oil in a shallow pan, place the discarded pancetta skin in the oil – its fat will enrich the oil – and warm gently. Peel and halve the shallots then dice finely and add to the pan together with the cubed pancetta.
As the shallot softens and the pancetta sizzles, stir regularly, moving everything round the pan from time to time. Add the leaves from half of the thyme.
Coarsely grate the fontina. Cut the pastry in half and roll out each sheet to a rectangle measuring 32cm x 20cm. Place an empty baking sheet in the oven. Line a second baking sheet with baking parchment.
Lay the pastry on the baking parchment. Divide the grated cheese between the pastry sheets, scattering it evenly over all but the outer rim of the pastry. Scatter the softened shallots and the pancetta and its fat over the pastry, discarding the pancetta skin as you go. Add the remaining sprigs of thyme then place the baking sheet on top of the hot sheet already in the oven.
Bake for 15 minutes till the pastry is crisp and lightly risen, then remove from the oven and cut into wide slices.
The thinnest of tarts. It is worth rolling the pastry as finely as you can. Try placing the pastry on the baking sheet before adding the bananas. It makes life much easier than transferring them fully laden.
puff pastry 125g
icing sugar 2 tbsp
maple syrup 4 tbsp
For the cardamom cream:
green cardamom pods 10
double cream 250ml
icing sugar 1 tbsp
Set the oven at 220C/gas mark 8. Place a baking sheet in the oven to heat up.
Melt the butter in a small pan, remove from the heat and set aside. Roll out the pastry very thinly, then cut out 4 discs about 12cm in diameter. Place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
Peel the bananas and slice thinly, then place in a single, slightly overlapping layer on each disc. Brush the bananas and the rims of the pastry with the butter then dust generously with the icing sugar.
Place the baking sheet on the heated sheet in the oven and bake for 12 minutes. Remove from the oven then trickle the maple syrup over the bananas and return to the oven for 5 minutes until the pastry is deep golden brown and the fruit is sticky and glistening.
Meanwhile, make the cream. Crack open the cardamom pods and extract the dark seeds, then crush to a powder using a spice mill or pestle and mortar. You need 2 tsp of the ground spice. Pour the cream into a cold mixing bowl and add the icing sugar, ground cardamom and a couple of drops of vanilla extract. Beat till thick, stopping once the cream will hold its shape on the whisk.
Serve the tarts hot from the oven, with the cardamom cream.
Greenfeast: Spring, Summer by Nigel Slater is out now (4th Estate, £22). To order a copy for £16.99, go to guardianbookshop.com