Get your fingers stuck into an English fruit pie, urges Annie Bell
French fruit tarts by comparison to English pies are always beautifully turned out, a bit like the French themselves. All those domed orange apricots with their glistening jelly glaze, raspberries that spiral inwards in a single layer, and blackcurrants piled high and dusted with icing sugar that conceal a thick undercoat of frangipan or creme patissiere, and beneath that the pastry that is always crisp and dry.

Almost too well behaved, really. Increasingly, I yearn for messy English affairs of buttery shortcrust pastry filled with fruit and sugar, a partnership that ensures thick syrupy juices that will seep into the pastry as it cooks so it emerges from the oven deliciously soggy on the base, while the top remains crisp and short.

Plums are especially good at this, dripping with bittersweet crimson juices that bubble out as they cook. I have always preferred cooked plums to raw except at the very height of the season, especially now that we're into rather hard imports. And given what a lousy year it has been for fruit generally you might as well bake the rest of the orchard harvest as well.

Apples and pears are nicest of all when there's a quince thrown in. These knobbly uneven fruits dusted with ash-coloured down are so deeply scented that my recent haul from Neal's Yard completely took over the larder. Its musky scent is of overly ripe apples with a little pear thrown in, and according to my editor one of his "top 10 favourite smells".

You only need mix one or two in with other fruits, and given the grainy, pasty nature of the quince it marries beautifully with the succulence of other fruits. Sometimes I buy quince paste readymade, the type that appears on posh cheeseboards in a thick jammy slice, and spread it as you might raspberry jam in a Bakewell tart sandwiched between a layer of almond sponge and of pastry.

But that is to return to well-behaved fruit tarts. One person who fully understands the misbehaved kind, the "magical chemistry of pastry and fruit", is Nigel Slater, whose "bottom- crust fruit pie" in his new book Real Cooking (Michael Joseph, pounds 18.99) says it all. It has the Slater hallmarks of being caramelised and sticky in the friendliest of ways, and as usual with Nigel, he has legitimately cut every corner he can to simplify the result so that all you end up with are the good bits. Why have top and bottom crust when a single sheet of pastry will do? It encases the fruit like a purse open in the middle, with caramelised fruit spilling out of the centre.

My other favourite this season is griddled fruit pies. You don't need a proper griddle for these: any black, iron frying pan will do. Like old- fashioned bakestone cakes, they are cooked on top of the stove, the pastry toasts and chars on the outside, and inside they are filled with a warm mushy compote. Eaten hot from the pan with creme fraiche and the fruit juices spooned over, they are seriously good.

Griddled blackberry pies, serves 4

1 x pastry recipe (see `Autumn fruit pie with quince' below)

Filling:

225g/8oz blackberries

50g/2oz caster sugar

1 vanilla pod

To serve: 1 soupspoon fruit liqueur or eau-de-vie (optional)

creme fraiche

Place the blackberries, sugar and the vanilla pod in a small saucepan, cover and heat very gently until the fruit gives out its juices, the berries will turn a cloudy mauve but remain whole. Remove the berries to a bowl leaving the juices in the pan, add the liqueur if using. Divide the pastry into four. Lightly flour a work surface and roll one piece at a time into a rectangular shape. Cut two circles 10cm/4in in diameter. Place a soupspoon of filling in the centre of one and brush the edge with milk. Place another circle on top, lift the pie on to your hand and press the edges together. Pat it to flatten it out as much as possible so that the pastry will cook evenly. Assemble the remaining pastries likewise.

Heat a flat iron griddle or an iron frying pan and cook the pies over a very gentle heat until they are toasted gold on each side. Take care that they don't burn; you can use a palate knife to turn them. Rewarm the blackberry juices. Serve the pies with a dollop of creme fraiche and some of the blackberry juices spooned over.

Nigel Slater's bottom crust fruit pie, serves 6

Nigel describes this in his new book Real Cooking as "a classic American- style fruit pie with a crumbly, tatty-edged crust folded round the fruit like a big open pasty". It takes no skill. The point is to make the magical chemistry of pastry and fruit as easy as possible. Any fruit is suitable, though I have the most delicious results with plums and damsons.

200g/7oz plain flour

125g/412oz butter

800g/134lb fruit (yellow, red or dark purple plums, damsons, gooseberries, blackberries, apples etc)

75-90g/ 3-312oz sugar

a little milk or egg white for glazing, and a bit more sugar

Make the pastry: put the flour into a bowl, cut the fat into chunks and rub them into the flour with your fingertips, lifting up handfuls of both and rubbing them between your fingers till they look like large breadcrumbs. Stir in a little cold water, about two tablespoonfuls. Bring the dough together with both hands to form a ball. It may need a little more water. The dough should be firm and not at all sticky. If it is, then add a little more flour. Try not to fiddle around with it too much, you will toughen it. Chill the pastry while you do the fruit.

Cut the plums in half and remove the stones. If you are using damsons instead, you should leave the stones in. Gooseberries should be topped and tailed. Apples should be quartered, cored and sliced into bite-sized chunks.

Set the oven at 190 (fan oven)/ 200 C (electric oven) /400 F /Gas 6. Take the pastry out of the fridge and roll it out into a rough circle. Use a wine bottle if you are not the sort of person who has a rolling pin. The pastry should be about 30cm/12in in diameter. Lift it on to either a steel baking sheet, a small roasting tin or, most suitable of all, a 25cm/10in metal pie plate. This is easiest to do if you roll the pastry round the rolling pin first, then unroll it on to the tin.

Dump the fruit in the centre of the pastry in a pile. Sprinkle with sugar. You will need more for gooseberries and damsons, less for plums and apples. Fold the edges of the pastry over the fruit as far as they will go. They will not, and should not, meet in the middle. A pie with a big hole in the middle. Brush the pastry with milk or egg white (use your fingers, it will save a brush) and scatter with more sugar. Bake for about 40 minutes in the preheated oven until the pastry is golden brown, the fruit tender, and the juices from the fruit are bubbling out a little.

Autumn fruit pie with quince, serves 6

If you like lots of custard then double up the quantity.

Pastry:

250g/9oz plain flour, sifted

pinch of salt

150g/5oz unsalted butter, chilled and diced

40g/112oz caster sugar

1 large egg yolk

milk

caster sugar for dusting

Filling:

275g/10oz each quince, pear and eating apple

juice of 1 lemon

75g/3oz soft brown sugar

Place the flour and salt in a bowl and rub in the butter until the mixture is crumb-like. Add the sugar and the egg yolk and just enough milk to bring the pastry together, one or two teaspoons. You can do this in a food processor. Wrap in clingfilm and chill for at least one hour.

Heat the oven to 170C (fan oven)/180C (electric oven)/350F/Gas 4. Peel, quarter and core the fruit - do the quince last as these discolour fastest. Cut into slivers and toss with the lemon juice. Place the trimmings in a saucepan with 275ml/10fl oz of water, bring to the boil, cover and simmer over a low heat for 20 minutes. Strain and return liquor to saucepan, and reduce to a few tablespoonfuls.

Lightly flour a work surface and roll out two thirds of the pastry to line a 23cm/9in tart tin 2.5cm/1in deep. Drain the fruit, toss with the sugar and pile this into the pastry case. Roughly trim the pastry edges and paint the rim with milk. Roll out the remaining pastry including the trimmings and lay it on top of the fruit. Crimp the edges using the tip of a knife, hence sealing them, then trim the remainder.

Paint the surface with milk and scatter over a fine dusting of caster sugar. Bake for 35-45 minutes until nicely golden and crisp at the edges. Serve about 15 minutes out of the oven or at room temperatures.

Custard:

150ml/5fl oz milk

150ml/5fl oz double cream

50g/2oz caster sugar

3 large egg yolks

reduced fruit liquor

1 dessertspoon Poire William liqueur or Calvados (optional)

Bring the milk and cream to the boil in a small saucepan. Whisk the sugar and egg yolks together in a bowl, pour the cream over them whisking, then pass the custard through a sieve back into the pan. Heat over a gentle heat until it coats the back of a spoon, then stir in the reduced fruit liquor and liqueur if using. The custard can be reheated but it's also delicious cold.

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