They never went away, of course, but it does feel like apples are back. As are the complaints. Too floury! Too hard for my filling! Sour! Too sweet! Not sweet enough! Not like they used to be! “I am not eating that old-person apple” (my son regarding a speckled rennet). Our fruit bowl is full, and this week’s recipe is inspired by la torta di mele (apple cake, and also known as la pite di mele), which is somewhere between a pie and a tart filled with apple, dried fruit and nuts, and typical of the mountainous region of Carnia in Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
I have had my eye on the recipe for more than 20 years now, since seeing it on page 74 of Claudia Roden’s The Food of Italy, then later in various regional recipe books. Older recipes often call for small pomi selvatici (wild apples), and as a consequence suggest using “the quantity of sugar necessary”, which, based on the wild apples I have bitten and then hurled across the field, I imagine is considerable. Modern recipes recommend all sorts of apples – red, golden delicious, rennet (which are rather like russets) – and cut in all sorts of ways: grated, sliced, cubed. Even with eating apples, though, with their wildly differing sweetness, an open mind about the amount of sugar is a good idea: add 100g, then taste before adding any more.
With birthday cards and lining pastry tins, I never learn. I start big! “Happy birth,” I scrawl, and the poor “day” gets squashed against the edge of the card, like a child’s face against a car window. With pastry, I use too much for the base, effectively stealing from the future lid. Fortunately, lattice exists, which requires much less pastry and is miraculous: even when you think you will never make that last strip, you do. So what started out as a la pite di mele became a crostata crossed with strudel crossed with a mince pie, which I liked so much I made it again, and again.
I made one with my niece this very morning and, while it was baking, we discussed both cream and custard, also cream and custard. Meanwhile, the bag of soft sugar was still sitting on the counter and reminded me of Nigella Lawson’s genius Barbados cream in How To Eat. The genius that is a mixture of double cream and Greek yoghurt covered with soft brown sugar; it’s another recipe that leaves the quantity of sugar to the maker – her guidelines are “a good covering or thick carpet”. She also suggests resting for 12 to 24 hours, which was far too long for this warm tart and its makers.
Apple, almond and walnut tart
Prep 30 min
Chill 1 hr
Cook 40 min
For the pastry
125g butter, diced
200g plain flour
50g ground almonds
A pinch of salt
Zest and juice of 1 unwaxed lemon
100g icing sugar
2 tbsp cold milk or water
For the filling
750g apples – I like russet or cox’s orange pippin)
100-150g soft brown sugar (the amount will depend on the apples)
100g ground almonds
100g crushed walnuts
10g pine nuts
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
2-3 tbsp grappa
Make the pastry by rubbing the butter into the flour, almonds and salt until the mxture resembles breadcrumbs, then add the lemon zest, icing sugar and enough milk or water that the dough comes together into a ball. Wrap and chill for an hour.
Quarter the apples and cut away their cores, but don’t peel, then either slice very thinly (a mandoline or the cheese mouth on a box grater works well for this) or grate into a large bowl. Add the rest of the filling ingredients and the lemon juice , and mix well.
Heat the oven to 200C (180C fan)390F/gas 6. Roll out two-thirds of the pastry, then use this to line a 25-30cm tart tin. Spread the filling evenly over the base, then roll out the remaining pastry and cut into strips for a lattice. Criss-cross these on top of the filling as neatly or as messily as you want.
Put the tart on a heated baking tray, then bake for 40 minutes, or until deep golden brown. Leave to cool, then slice and serve with cream or custard.