FOOD Custard pies are no longer the poor relation
A quiche - or "kweesh", as we used to call it in our house - is a sublime thing when carefully considered. I am constantly perplexed that this savoury custard pie is overlooked for ethereal little mousses - made from similar ingredients - that are looked upon as being, how shall we say, more posh? Well, I have made and eaten quite a few posh quiches in my time; I have also eaten some real shockers.

Perfect quiche is not an easy thing to make but making a poor quiche is simple. All it needs is laziness and a complete misconception as to its construction.

Rolling out pastry to an adequate thickness, lining a shallow, fluted tart tin with it, pouring in a mixture of egg, milk and broccoli and finally baking in the oven for 40 minutes is not quiche. Oh, no. Most definitely not. Real quiche is made in a deep tin (a good 4cm), lined with the thinnest pastry, baked blind (very important) till crisp, then filled with a nicely seasoned mixture of cream and eggs and egg yolks. The flavouring ingredients should be sensitively chosen - broccoli has never been sensitive - and not interfere too much with the gentle tremble of the custard. Depth is crucial too. This is why the "wine-bar quiche" can be so awful, with its almost equal layers of undercooked pastry and tawdry filling.

The best quiche might still be the one from Alsace-Lorraine. There is much controversy as to the correct combination of ingredients. I have made quiche Lorraine with and without cheese, and I am not sure which I prefer. Gruyere is not one of my favourite cheeses when cooked and it can overpower the subtlety of the egg and bacon. If a nuance of cheese is to be enjoyed, puree a modicum of cream cheese into the mixture.

My mother's kweesh was really just a bacon and egg pie. She used to put sliced tomatoes into the custard which would float to the top and crinkle up as the pie baked. The recipe for the tomato and saffron quiche comes from that memory. Incidentally, a mixture of cooked shellfish - prawns, lobster, mussels etc - can be a glorious addition. Distribute on top of the tomato mulch before pouring in the custard.

Another classic of Alsace-Lorraine is the onion tart. Not really a quiche and certainly not as deep; the filling should be more onion than custard.

Quiche Lorraine, serves 6

for the pastry

50g/2oz butter, cut into cubes

110g/4oz plain flour

pinch salt

1-2 tbsp iced water

1 egg yolk

a little beaten egg

Blend together the butter, flour and salt until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Tip into a large, roomy bowl and gently mix in the water and egg yolk with cool hands or a knife, until well amalgamated. Put into a plastic bag and chill for at least one hour before rolling.

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/gas mark 4.

Roll out the pastry as thinly as possible, line a 20.5cm/8"-wide by 4cm/112"- deep tart tin and blind bake - line the uncooked pastry case with a sheet of tin foil and fill with some dried haricot beans, for instance - for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, reserving the foil and beans. Brush the inside of the case with the beaten egg, which will form a seal. Return to the oven for a further ten minutes, until it is golden, crisp and well cooked, particularly the base.

for the filling

8-10 thin rashers of rindless, smoked streaky bacon (Italian pancetta is perfect) cut into 1cm/12" pieces

1 small packet cream cheese

4 egg yolks

3 whole eggs

400mls/34 pint double cream

12 bunch chives, finely chopped

a little salt and much pepper

freshly grated nutmeg

Lightly fry the bacon in a dry non-stick frying pan until a little crisp and some of the fat has run out. Drain on kitchen paper and spread evenly over the base of the cooked tart case. Whisk the cheese with the egg yolks and whole eggs. Stir in the cream and chives and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Turn the oven down to 325F/170C/gas mark 3.

Pour the custard into the case. Fill it as full as you dare - there is nothing more sad than a half-filled quiche. If you find it easier, fill half the case first and the rest once it is in the oven, using a deep spoon. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes until set. Allow to cool for at least ten minutes before eating, as hot quiche tastes of very little.

Tomato and saffron quiche, serves 6

For the pastry, follow the ingredients and cooking methods as above.

for the filling

2 x 400g/14oz tins chopped tomatoes

2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

a little salt and pepper

400mls/34 pint double cream

1tsp saffron threads

2 eggs

4 egg yolks

12 leaves fresh basil, coarsely chopped

salt and pepper

Put the tomatoes, garlic and seasoning in a stainless steel pan and allow to simmer for a good half hour - at least until the mixture is well reduced and jammy, as it needs to be spread on to the pastry base, and must not be sloppy.

Put 3 or 4 tbsp of the cream in a small pan with the saffron. Warm through and leave to infuse for five minutes. Beat together the eggs and yolks and pour in the rest of the cream and saffron cream. Do not use a whisk now as the saffron threads will curl around it. Instead, stir well with a wooden spoon and add seasoning. Stir in the chopped basil and season.

To assemble the tart, spread the tomato over the tart base, pour in the saffron custard as described in the above recipe and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, as before, until pale golden brown on the surface.

Alsatian onion tart, serves 6

Once again, use the above recipe for the pastry, but make it with self- raising flour. The result is a fluffier texture to the pastry. Also, use a shallower tart case but pre-bake it in the same way. The bulk of this tart is made up of slithery sweet, golden onions, only just set by egg yolks and a little double cream. Thyme provides a good background flavour, and a spoonful of mustard and some anchovy both add savour.

for the filling

75g/3oz butter

900g/2lbs (preferably) white-skinned onions, peeled and very thinly sliced

3 egg yolks

275mls/l2 pint double cream

3 anchovy fillets, finely chopped (optional; but they add an extra dimension to the flavour. Salt can be used instead)

1 level tbsp Dijon mustard

12 tsp fresh thyme leaves

freshly ground black pepper

Melt the butter in a wide shallow pan. Tip in the onions and gently sweat over a moderate heat for at least one hour until pale yellow and soft - it is important to ensure that the onions are completely floppy before adding to the custard. Cool.

Mix together the egg yolks, cream, anchovy fillets (if not using, add salt), mustard, thyme leaves and pepper. Carefully mix the onions with this mixture, check for seasoning and pile into the pastry case. Bake in the oven until it is a rich golden colour and just firm to the touch. Leave for ten minutes before eating