EVERY WEEK Beverly Reed bakes 16,000 cherry tarts. And what cherry tarts. Their supreme quality was recognised on Thursday when a panel of chefs, food writers and experts voted her tarte aux cerises the best supermarket product of the year.
Her tart, sold by Marks & Spencer's, won the gold medal at the 1995 British Quality Food and Drink Awards presented by Supermarketing, the trade magazine. It nudged just ahead of Sainsbury's traditional dry-cured bacon, leaving in its wake, in no particular order, a band of assorted category winners: a cluster of Safeway products, mini-portions of blue Stilton, mature Cheddar and coleslaw rolls, hand-cooked jalapeno chips, and (yes) vegetarian wine; Asda's lentil hash; Sainsbury's angel hair pasta; Young's microwave ocean pie; Walkers Speyside Shortbread; Bendicks Bittermints; Ame Rose designer mineral drinks; and Enigma, a new canned lager with an enigmatic "second generation widget".
What was unique about Beverly's cherry tart, said the judges, was that a supermarket producing food on a large scale could make an item as good as one made in the patisserie department of a first-class restaurant - and sell it at such an attractive price (pounds 3.49).
Perhaps Beverly would like to share her expertise with us? And why not. Beverly is a 27-year-old from Preston in Lancashire, and now development chef with the 100-year-old Welsh cake-making company Avana, which is based in Aberavon.
She made a false start in catering after working as waitress in a Harrogate Forte hotel (smiling at people when you don't mean it is not her forte). So she went to college to learn to cook, and in a short time has built up a dizzying CV which includes spells as a patissiere with Claridges in London, two Michelin-starred hotels in Switzerland, and the two-star L'Ortolan in Reading, which has a reputation for its desserts.
Beverly is a slim, modest young woman with remarkably long hands and thin fingers, the mark of the concert pianist - or of the pastry cook. Cool hands are what you need for pastry, aren't they?
"You don't need use your hands at all to make pastry," says Beverly. "Not once you've left catering college." And so our lesson is conducted almost entirely around an electric mixer.
Beverly has travelled to London to give the demonstration, in the pastry kitchens of the M&S development chef, Colin Ryall, who's an old Dorchester hand. Colin immediately starts to explain that it's important when making sweet pastry to pre-gelatinise some of the flour. "How do you spell that?" I ask him. He gives me a funny look: "I'll come back later." Beverly quickly intervenes. "People think pastry is very difficult to make. Actually it is very easy." With a machine.
With experience you can learn to make good pastry by hand. With a machine you get it right first time. It's neither laborious nor time-consuming, as long as you're not so impatient you can't bear to allow a one-hour period to chill the pastry when you've made the pastry dough, and another half-an-hour to chill it once more when you've rolled it out to line the flan tin. It bakes in 40 minutes.
I watch her make one tart and cook it. It's superb. I follow her instructions, and hey, this is perfect too. At home the next day, I repeat the performance, offering the cherry tart to my mother-in-law in the evening. She doesn't believe I have made it. "You bought this at Marks & Spencer's, didn't you?" Sometimes, you just can't win.
Colin is right about the flour, says Beverly. Pastry-making is all about how you handle the flour. Flour contains gluten, the elastic stuff which allows bread dough to balloon up; the more you work the flour the more you stretch the gluten, and the more elastic the dough gets. So you try to avoid this when making pastry, mixing in the flour with the other ingredients as gently as possible. You're trying to make a weak, crumbly dough, explains Beverly. She takes up a piece of rolled-out pastry and breaks off a bit easily. "You can't break it if it's been worked for a long time."
Beverly has set out ingredients: butter, icing, sugar, eggs, flour, vanilla essence.
The butter: Unsalted, preferably, but add a tiny bit of salt to the pastry mixture, for flavour. The butter must be softened so you can work with it easily. No problem. Leave it out of the fridge in the warmth of the kitchen for an hour. You could also soften butter from the fridge by hammering it with a mallet, or by washing it with a fork. But whatever you do, don't heat the butter so that it melts.
Icing sugar: This makes a crisper pastry than either caster sugar or regular sugar.
The eggs: It's important to measure the precise amount, or else the mixture will be too dry or too moist.
The flour: This should be all-purpose flour, and certainly not bread- making flour which is high in gluten.
Beverly puts butter and sugar in the mixer, and in two minutes has beaten them to a smooth cream. She adds half the egg. Now she adds two spoonfuls of flour, beating it in to stabilise the mixture. (I guess we are pre- gelatin-ising the flour? "That's right.")
She beats in the rest of the egg. And now the critical point. She turns the mixer to its slowest speed and adds the flour. Very quickly it turns to a crumbly dough. She removes this, and in less time than it takes to write these words has pressed it into a compact shape, lightly rolled into an oblong, about eight inches by four. Wrapping it in clingfilm, she pops it into the fridge to chill.
An hour later she rolls it into a circle, 12 ins across and, draping it over the rolling pin, lowers it on to a tin flan case, pressing it into the fluted edges with her thumbs, taking off the surplus pastry by rolling the pin across the top. "My mother used to cut off the surplus with a knife," she says. Throughout her childhood she remembers her mother making pastry for the family two or three times a week. By hand.
While the pastry in the flan case is chilling in the fridge for half an hour, she whips up the filling in no time at all. Using this pastry base, you have many options. You could fill it with a lemony custard for tarte au citron, or you could do an apricot or plum tart, as indeed they do in the factory. You could equally bake the tart blind (with a layer of dry beans or rice on a circle of baking paper) using it when cool as the base for a summer tart of berries or soft fruit.
In the recipe below we give Beverly's frangipane filling for the award- winning cherry tart. Frangipane was originally a creamy filling made with egg, butter, sugar, milk and almonds, invented in France, so they say, by an Italian called Mr Frangipani. But now it can apply to almost any almond-based filling.
TARTE AUX CERISES
Makes one 8in flan
It makes good sense, says Beverly, to double the quantities and make two tarts. The second tart can be frozen.
150g/6oz softened unsalted butter
50g/2oz icing sugar
one small egg (about 50g/2ozs)
250g/10oz plain flour
tiny pinch salt
2 drops vanilla essence
For the filling:
125g/4oz softened unsalted butter
125g/4oz ground almonds
125g/4oz icing sugar
2 small eggs (about 125g/4ozs)
2 drops almond essence
50g/2oz plain flour
about 40 Morello cherries in syrup, stoned (or fresh stoned cherries)
2 tablespoons cherry jam
1 tablespoon apricot jam (for glaze)
In a mixer beat the softened butter and icing sugar to a smooth cream. Beat in half the egg. When this is well mixed, beat in two tablespoons of flour. Mix well. Beat in the rest of the egg. Add the vanilla essence.
With the machine on its slowest speed, mix in the flour, stopping as soon as the mixture forms crumbly lumps. On a marble slab, press into a compact shape, and lightly roll out into an oblong. Cover with clingfilm and chill for at least an hour. (If convenient you can leave it to chill for as long as you like, 24 hours or more).
Remove the dough and work it in your hands like Plasticine till it is pliable. Sprinkling the surface lightly with flour, roll the pastry into a circle 12in across, allowing two inches to overlap both sides of an 8in flan tin. Roll the pastry over the rolling pin and flop it down over the flan tin, pressing the pastry into the fluted edges with your thumbs. Trim surplus pastry away. Leave to chill at least 30 minutes (or as long as you like; you can bake it at your convenience).
Preheat the oven to 350F/180 C/Gas 4.
To make the filling: beat the softened butter, icing sugar and ground almonds together till creamy. Then beat in the eggs, one at a time. Then beat in the flour, adding the almond essence. That's it.
Spread a layer of cherry jam to cover the base. It stops the pastry going soggy when the wet filling is placed on top. With a palette knife, spread the filling up to two-thirds full (it will expand in the oven).
Top with cherries. No need to press them in as the filling rises up round them. (Beverly actually uses unsweetened frozen Morello cherries, not yet available from retail outlets).
Bake for 40 minutes, till the pastry is golden brown and the filling is bouncy to the touch. Leave to cool before turning out of the flan case. Glaze by brushing with a solution of apricot jam, heated with a teaspoon of water.
To serve: eat cold or, if preferred, heat in the oven. Preheat the oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4 and place on a baking tray till warmed through, checking to see that it does not burn.
Optional: serve topped with a blob of whipped cream or creme fraiche. !
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