Back to School Dinner: Harry Potter’s Treacle Tart

I have managed to get to 2011 without knowing what happened at the end of the Harry Potter saga. I still haven’t read any of the books, apart from the first chapter of the first book. Twice. To my niece and nephew when they were about 7 and 8. They are now 17 and 18…

I remember first hearing about Harry Potter back in 1997, on the radio and just off the ferry driving back to my parents for Christmas. The thing that struck me was JK Rowling apparently didn’t want to Harry Potter to be represented in any illustrations, so that people could imagine their own Harry. It didn’t take long for the marketing monster to take over and she gave in.

My 14-year-old (at the time) stepson (now a doctor of physics) was extremely impressed to learn that I went to a school that resembled Harry Potter’s in terms of organization, and bombarded me with all sorts of questions about it. Our houses were boring colors though and we played hockey rather than Quidditch. Or at least I tried. Friends generally wielded hockey sticks like golf clubs. I managed to die my hair green once (never try blue hair spray on blonde highlights…) We did not have butter beer either.

So I haven’t read the books but I have been to see all the annual Harry Potter films, with two very good friends I meet for dinner regularly. For Part 1 of the final film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, one of us was unavoidably detained though and couldn’t make it, so we decided to make a day of seeing Part 2. Part 1 on the small screen to catch up, lunch, then part 2 on the big screen. And I insisted on doing lunch for the interval.

As we’ve already gone back to school with Chicken Fricassée, the dessert needed to follow suit. Rice pudding is the first that came to mind is a smear of red on the top that could never be called jam. I never knew what it. It looked somehow spilt. Definitely odd and completely unappetizing. To this day I cannot stand rice pudding.

But if treacle tart was on the menu though, you had to scrabble to get a piece of. Usually square, with a criss-cross of pastry and pouring of thick yellow custard. Although I’d pass on the custard.

And guess what’s Harry Potter’s favorite dessert? Treacle tart! (thanks Wikipedia). It was therefore perfect for this pseudo school dinner dessert, and a Harry Potter marathon.

As an aside, treacle tart also features in another children’s film: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The child catcher uses the promise of free treacle tart to lure out the children. How I HATED the child catcher. Although a children’s film, I found Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to be one of the creepiest I’ve seen. I’d prefer to see Scream these days. Surprisingly It was written by Ian Fleming of James Bond fame, another descendant of my greatx4 grandfather.

I think JK Rowling did more than slightly better with Harry Potter. Having waited ten years, seen all the films and found out what happens at the end, I can now get on with reading the books, “replaying” the films in my imagination with all the details. Although I probably won’t be using my imagination much.

You maybe won’t hear from me for a while…

Treacle Tart

So treacle tart. What’s in it? Well not treacle, as such. But golden syrup. So why is it called treacle tart? Because golden syrup is a light treacle, others being dark treacle and molasses. It’s an inverted sugar syrup, produced when turning sugar cane into sugar. Corn syrup should be a good substitute.

This couldn’t be an easier recipe. Golden syrup, breadcrumbs, lemon juice and zest warmed and poured into a shortcrust pastry case.
As we’re back at school, I thought I’d use the shortcrust pastry recipe I learnt in school. I managed to learn some cooking basics in home economics classes. Although the kitchen resembled a laboratory.

Normally for basic shortcrust pastry the ratio is that the fat should be half the weight of the flour, as was my school recipe, which split the fat 50/50 of marg and lard. Lard being animal fat (and I’m not sure what I’d be looking for in French) I didn’t use it (but beware if you do ever see lard in French: it means bacon).
My pyrex tart tin is bigger than standard sizes, so I used the flour that was left in the bag – 240g – and unbelievably I had 120g of butter in the fridge.

It’s a similar method to the recent almond tart, in that you make up the pastry, chill it, roll it out, bake the case blind, prepare the filling and bake. But I realized that it’s way different, and the pastry for the Chez Panisse almond tart has a much higher butter content.

If you want to boost the gourmet factor when you serve it, sprinkle with vanilla sugar as Heston Blumenthal does.

Makes enough for a 9-10 inch/26-30cm tart tin. The smaller your tin, the more you’ll have for the criss-cross strips.

I also put in a sprinkling of vanilla powder found at Lakeland.

Serves 10 (or less if you make the portions bigger!)

For the pastry
– 240 g flour
– A pinch of (vanilla) salt
– 1 tbspn of sugar
– 120g chilled butter
– 4-5 tbspns water to bind

For the filling
– 454 g bottle of golden syrup (substitute corn syrup)
– 100g fresh breadcrumbs
– generous pinch ground ginger (optional)
– 1 lemon ( or 2 limes), zested and juiced

Making the pastry
1. Sieve the flour with the salt and sugar into a mixing bowl or food processor.
2. Cut the butter into small cubes and put it with the flour.
3. Rub in the butter or pulse in the food processor until it becomes like breadcrumbs.
4. Start mixing in the water.
5. When it begins to hold together finish mixing by hand, kneading until smooth.
6. Form into a flat disc, cover in plastic film and put in the fridge to rest for 30 minutes.
7. Heat the oven to 180°C.
8. Take the pastry out of the fridge and roll it out until it’s bigger than your tart tin.
9. Carefully place it over the tin and press to fit.
10. Reserve any excess to make strips over the top.
11. Bake blind for 15 minutes.

To make the filling
1. While the tart base is baking, put the golden syrup into a saucepan.
2. Zest the lemon or limes and add the zest to the syrup.
3. Juice the lemon or limes and add to the syrup.
4. Add the ground ginger if using
5. Heat the syrup for a few minutes.
6. Stir in the breadcrumbs.
7. Pour the syrup mixture into the tart tin. (If you have leftover pastry roll it out and cut into strips and place them to make diamonds across the top.)
8. Bake for 30 minutes or so.

Serve with custard or créme fraîche.


Back to School Dinner: Chicken Fricassée

Why is August always in such a hurry to get to September? Every year is the same. Maybe because I’m an Aoutienne, and generally take my holidays in August?

The beginning of September sounds the end of summer and marks La Rentrée in France, as elsewhere. Or Back to School time, which doesn’t have the same ring to it and is difficult to put into English sometimes. The “end of the summer holidays would be another one. Because La Rentrée goes beyond school, it’s like France “goes back” to whatever it was doing before the 8-week plus Grandes Vacances. Although not everyone goes on holiday for 8 weeks. But it’s the main event.

The run-up to La Rentrée starts back mid-Grande Vacances with the annual shop for shiny new school supplies, to the bonheur of supermarkets which go all out on their displays, plus ads on TV for excerice books. French kids have to buy everything for school. And then stuff it in their cartables, which end up weighing an average of 8.5 kilos the evening news will tell you, as getting ready for going back to school takes over from the how-heavy-is-the-traffic-on-a-Friday-night report.

I used to love it though, getting a brand new rubber and fountain pen, shiny new pencil case, the obligatory protractor and compass in a metal tin. Exercise books were supplied though.

My school was all girls, and also a boarding school. I lived locally and escaped every day however. We had a strict uniform, green (we looked like trees in winter with brown tights) with a tie and Startrite lace-up shoes and A-line skirt. Until the school taught me how to use a sewing machine and the skirt lost a lot of its excess fabric. And ripped when getting on the bus. I dealt with the shoes too, still brown but rather less chunky. Not with a sewing machine, thanks to Dolcis shoe store.

The school in itself was not unlike Harry Potter’s, lots of corridors and dark wooden panelling, with oil paintings all over the place, mainly still lifes of bowls of fruit but sinister looking. One corridor with a roof led from the main building to the dining hall, and I spent almost my entire time at the school thinking it was called the Cupboard Way, when it was actually called the Covered Way.

We had typical School Dinners of course. What were your favourite and detested dishes?

I brainstormed which school dinner I could revisit with my mother and brother, who thought of shepherd’s pie, fish pie, a hot pot, the roast beef dinner – slightly leather like finely sliced roast beef with insipid gravy and the wet cabbage that gave the hall its distinctive permanent odour, with roast potatoes that lost their roast sitting in the huge vats waiting to be served…

But the one that stood out for me, as much for being not too bad, was chicken fricassee. The chicken fricassee I remember was pieces of chicken in a slightly gloopy white sauce with chunks of carrot (which I didn’t like) and mushrooms, and if you didn’t eat fast enough (I was always last), a skin would form on the sauce.

Ultimately I managed to drop school dinners and start having lunch, packed. A Marmite sandwich and a Penguin biscuit, a much better combo.

The Larousse Gastronomique (English, 1967) states that “In modern French usage, the word fricassée applies almost exclusively to a method of preparing poultry in a white sauce”. But that “(to this day in English-speaking countries), the terms denotes various kinds of stew…made with white or brown stock and made not only from poultry but from meat, fish and vegetables”.
Guess we had the French one at school then.

I looked up several recipes for chicken fricassée, and none of them were the same. Some had wine in, some carrots, some mushrooms, some even finished with egg yolks. Some cook the veg first, others the chicken first, some flour the chicken, others not. To me the flour must be key in thickening the sauce. Some cook in the oven, others not. Having absorbed all that I did it my way, a simple version taking bits from all methods.

And although I’m sure our school cooks would not have added bottles of white wine, for the 2011 adult version, I decided to use it.

For method I decided to brown the vegetables first, remove them then brown chicken pieces gently to seal in the flavours. Then remove and flour and season them, add stock, wine and bouquet garni, and finish with thick creme fraîche.

Chicken fricassée

Serves 4

– 1 tbspn butter
– 2 tbspns olive oil
– 2 shallots, chopped
– 1 small branch of celery, finely chopped
– 20 average white mushrooms, sliced
– 4 chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces (my taste, chicken thighs or other pieces of chicken on the bone can be used)
– 3 tbspns of flour
– 200 ml chicken stock
– 200 ml white wine
– 1 bouquet garni
– 4 tbspns crème fraiche

Rice to serve

1. Heat the butter and oil in a deep frying pan or large casserole.
2. Brown the shallots and celery. Remove to a plate.
3. Brown the mushrooms until they start giving off their juice.Remove to the plate with the vegetables.
4. Brown the chicken in the pan. Remove to a plate and sprinkle all over with flour. (Remove to the plate with the vegetables.)
5. Add the stock and white wine to the pan with the bouquet garni
6. Add back the vegetables.
7. Add back the chicken.
8. Cook covered for about half an hour (keep an eye out that it doesn’t dry out. If it does, add a little more white wine or stock).
9. Remove the bouquet garni.
10. Stir in the crème fraîche and leave to warm for a couple of minutes.
11. Serve over rice.