Food & Drink: Quiches even real men would eat: This staple of the cold buffet is a great centrepiece for any meal, and does not require the talents of a master chef

I AVOID 'quiche' when I am eating out, unless I am in a restaurant that I know will cut no corners in its preparation. Unfortunately, such places are rare, even in a country where quiche (in name if not in soul) is a staple of the cold buffet. Laziness, penny-pinching and plain ignorance have a lot to answer for.

This is a great shame, as a good quiche makes a marvellous centrepiece for any lunch or supper, and you do not have to be a master chef to pull it off.

The pastry should be your first concern. Far from being a mere container for the filling, it is there to add an extra dimension of texture. Most of the time I use a fairly standard rich shortcrust dough. If you make your own, avoid cheap fats, which ruin the flavour, and over-handling, which makes the crust tough (use a processor if you are heavy-handed).

Pastry should always be cooked on or in metal, which conducts heat swiftly and efficiently. China or earthenware quiche tins should be saved for presentation only. Invest in a set of tart tins with removable bases - non-stick coatings are not necessary.

Baking blind is the next trick (see recipes). It takes more time, but is worth it for the extra crispness. When you turn the oven on, slide a baking sheet on to the central rack to heat up with the oven. Cook both unfilled and filled pastry cases on this to give an instant blast of heat.

Finally, quiche never tastes better than when warm from the oven. By all means bake the case up to 24 hours in advance, but once it is filled get it into the oven and eat it on the same day, before it gets damp and limp.

Fillings for savoury tarts are legion, but when it comes to quiches there are clear dos and don'ts that apply whether you make a classic quiche Lorraine or something less traditional. The biggest is 'don't use milk' for the migaine, the custard mixture common to them all. Cream is called for - this is not for the health-conscious - and the richer the better.

Creme frache comes out top of the league, followed by double cream on its own or mixed with soured cream, or with single cream at a pinch. If a recipe calls for fromage frais or yoghurt, always use a full-fat variety. Cutting calories or cost with low-fat equivalents leads to rubbery, weeping curds and the downfall of the noble quiche.

The proportion of eggs to cream dictates the firmness of the curd. For the lightest, most delicate of all, use egg yolks alone (three yolks to 8fl oz (240ml) cream), but for a more solid texture use whole eggs (two eggs to 8-10fl oz (240- 290ml) cream). As well as salt and pepper, season with freshly grated nutmeg.

No two ovens seem to cook at exactly the same rate, so use timings as a rough guide. The quiche is done when the filling is just - but only just - set in the centre. If you use a deep tart tin (roughly 1 1/4 -1 1/2 in in depth), you should allow a few minutes extra, but keep checking.

Choose other elements with due consideration: the quiche should not be treated as a repository for a mish-mash of left- overs. The bona fide quiche Lorraine is a triumph of simplicity - smoked lardons or strips of first-class smoked back bacon fried in their own fat, a rich migaine and nothing more.

The addition of fried onions, shallots or small cubes of gruyere is less orthodox but not without merit.

I happen to have a particular aversion to large chunks of broccoli and parched slices of tomato on the surface, but the modern quiche is open to wide personal interpretation. Do remember, though, that restraint is far more stylish than overladen muddle.

Basic rich shortcrust

and baking blind

Pastry quantities can be confusing. In the past, Xoz pastry meant pastry made with Xoz flour. I tend to go for the more obvious approach - to me 12oz pastry means 12oz made-up pastry. This is the basic shortcrust I use for most quiches.

Makes about 12oz (340g), enough for one 11in (27.5cm) tart tin

Ingredients: 8oz (225g) plain flour, sifted with a generous pinch of salt

4oz (110g) chilled butter, diced

1 egg yolk

chilled water

Preparation: Rub the butter into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Make a well in the centre, add the egg yolk and mix with enough water to form a soft dough. Knead briefly to smooth out, then wrap in clingfilm and chill for at least half an hour in the fridge.

Roll the pastry out and line the tart tin. Rest in the fridge for 30 minutes. Prick the base with a fork, line with greaseproof paper or foil and fill with baking beans.

Bake blind at 200C/400F/gas 6 for 10 minutes. Remove beans and paper and return to the oven for 5 minutes or so to dry out. Cool (at least until tepid) before filling.

Leek and gruyere tart

With its high proportion of leeks to migaine this seems to me more of a tart than a quiche proper. It is fairly robust, for hearty eating rather than a delicate luncheon.

Serves 6-8

Ingredients: 12oz (350g)

shortcrust pastry

1 1/2 oz (45g) butter

1lb 10oz (735g) leeks, trimmed and thinly sliced

1 1/2 tsp caraway seeds

8fl oz (240ml) creme frache, or double cream

2 eggs, lightly beaten

3oz (85g) gruyere, diced

salt, pepper and nutmeg

Preparation: Line an 11in (27.5cm) tart tin with the pastry and bake blind (see above). Melt the butter in a wide pan and add the leeks and caraway seeds.

Stir, then cover and cook over a low heat for 15-20 minutes until leeks are just tender, stirring occasionally.

Draw off the heat and stir in first the creme frache or cream, then the salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg. Taste and adjust seasonings. Stir in the eggs.

Scatter the gruyere over the base of the tart, then spoon in the leek mixture, smoothing down evenly. Bake at 190C/ 375F/gas 5 for 30-40 minutes until just set and golden brown. Serve hot, warm or cold.

Smoked salmon and

shallot quiche

Quite the grandest of the quiches here and, to my mind, the choicest. This is definitely a quiche for a special occasion. Do not try to cut corners - creme frache is absolutely the thing to use here, though if you really cannot get it, mix double cream with an equal quantity of soured cream. Anything less drags the quiche right down and is not worth bothering with.

Serves 6-8

Ingredients: 10oz (285g)

shortcrust pastry

4oz (110g) shallots, sliced

2oz (55g) butter

4oz (110g) smoked salmon, cut into thin strips

1tbs chopped fresh dill

finely grated zest of 1 lemon

3 egg yolks

8fl oz (240ml) creme frache or double cream mixed with soured cream

salt and pepper

Preparation: Line a deep 8in (20cm) tart tin with the pastry and bake blind (see above). Cook the shallots gently in the butter until translucent without browning. Beat the egg yolks with the creme frache or cream, dill, lemon zest, salt and pepper. Distribute shallots and strips of salmon evenly over the base of the pastry case. Pour in the cream mixture. Bake at 180C/ 350F/gas 4 for about 30 minutes until just set. Serve warm or cold.

Grilled aubergine and red

pepper tart with goat's cheese

Very 'Med' and very good - grilling the vegetables imbues this tart with an unusually delicious smoky flavour, while full- fat, strained Greek or Greek- style yoghurt is rich enough to replace cream without damaging the balance of the tart.

Serves 6-8

Ingredients: 12oz (340g)

shortcrust pastry

3 large cloves garlic

1 large aubergine

2 large red peppers

8fl oz (240ml) Greek-style

yoghurt

2 egg yolks

1 egg

3oz (85g) goat's cheese, sliced thinly

1tsp finely chopped rosemary leaves

salt, pepper

Preparation: Line an 11in (27.5cm) tart tin with the pastry and bake blind (see above).

Thread the cloves of garlic on to a skewer. Grill garlic, aubergine and red peppers close to the grill, turning occasionally, until all are thoroughly charred. The garlic will be ready first and should feel soft to the touch. Remove from the skewer, cool for a few minutes, then peel.

The aubergine, too, will feel soft and squishy when ready. Drop into a plastic bag and leave until cool enough to handle, then strip off and discard the skin, cut up the flesh roughly and leave to drain in a colander. Cook the peppers until they are blackened and blistered all over, then drop into a plastic bag and leave until cool enough to handle. Strip off and discard the skins; cut the flesh into strips.

Press aubergine gently to expel excess moisture, then drop into the processor with the peeled garlic and a couple of spoonfuls of the yoghurt. Whiz until smooth, then add remaining yoghurt, eggs, salt and pepper and whiz again briefly to mix. Spread half the filling on the base of the pastry case.

Cover with strips of red pepper, then smooth over the remaining filling. Arrange cheese on top and scatter wlth rosemary. Bake at 180C/350F/gas 4 for 25-30 minutes until just set. Serve warm or cold.

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