In 1615 English poet Gervase Markham mentioned 'a prune tart' in his book "The English Huswife, Containing the Inward and Outward Virtues Which Ought to Be in a Complete Woman".
In his beautiful way of writing he states:
"Take of the fairest damask prunes you can get, and put them in a clean pipkin with fair water, sugar, unbruised cinnamon, and a branch or two of rosemary; and if you have bread to bake, stew them in the oven with your bread..."
He goes on to explain in detail how to finish the prune puree and how to assemble the little tarts he likes to shape into little birds and flowers by first cutting out a pattern in paper to trace on the pastry. The tart cases or 'coffins' as they were called in times gone by, were raised by hand.
During Tudor times pastry had evolved from the Medieval inedible crust -that was there only to hold a filling- to sweet and savoury pastry to enjoy as a part of a dish. Eggs and butter or suet were beginning to be used making the pastry more refined and giving the cook the opportunity to be inventive with fillings as well as with decoration. If you look at Renaissance paintings especially by the Flemish and Dutch masters, you will notice the pies who are depicted on the tables as dramatic centerpieces, sometimes wildly decorated with stuffed swans or geese resting on top.
But it isn't the only change, the Tudor court wanted to show their worldliness employing Florentine sculptors and painters for great artistic commissions, decorating royal palaces and most likely even influencing the kitchen. Fruit pies called Florentines filled with thick fruit purees or marmalades and decorated with pastry strap-work were served as a final course, the very first time in history a sweet course concluded a meal. I can't but help to see the striking recemblance between an Italian 'Crostata di marmellata' and the Florentines at the Tudor court. In 1570 Bartolomeo Scappi, an Italian cook mentioned the different recipes for pastry in his book, it would take 30 years before a guide like that was published in Britain. 'Delightes for Ladies' was published in 1602 but Gervase Markham's book a decade later would provide a much easier to follow set of recipes.
It always pleases me to find links between Italian and British cookery, these are my two favourite cuisines and I feel there are a lot of things linking the two together, not only in dishes but also in philosophy.
Prune tarts bring back memories of my childhood. Normally only eaten on Ash Wednesday in my home town Antwerp, prune tart would be on our sunday breakfast table quite regularly. Our local bakery used to have the best prune tarts in sizes big and small and my mother used to buy a small one for me because she knew it is one of the few sweet things I truly enjoy.
For these prune tarts I tried to recreate a tart I had tasted years ago. As it is my favourite of tarts I can be very specific in how it should taste, the pastry can't be too sweet and has to be very thin making the prunes the star of the show filling your mouth with a soft puree full of subtle almondy flavour and coloring your tongue black. The pastry would merely be there to encase the prune puree and to give an extra texture and buttery bite to the tart but it is very important to get it right. You can't have the prune puree without the crust, they are entwined.
I called upon an old friend I used to visit in her bakery when I should be out partying. Now living a sunny life in Thailand running her own shop in baking equipment she gave me her recipe for the pastry, remembering her prune tart I gave it a go.
Although I prefer Gervase Markham's method of slowly cooking the prunes in the oven while you are baking a bread or stewing a tough cut of meat, one can easily -like he states as in his book - cook them on a moderate fire. However when stewed slowly in the oven, you do get a more intense flavour so next time you are cooking a Sussex Stewed steak, pop some prunes in the oven as well.
What do you need (makes 4, 15 cm wide tarts)
For the pastry (I halved the recipe, for 1kg of flour use 5 eggs)
- 500g organic plain white flour
- 250g cane sugar
- 250 g cold butter, unsalted and cubed
- 3 organic eggs
- vanilla, half a teaspoon
- 1g baking powder
- 750 g dried prunes
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons of Muscovado sugar or Molasses
- 4, 15 cm tart tins
- rolling pin
- greaseproof paper
- Combine the butter and the sugar using a wooden spatula or spoon
- Add the eggs and the baking powder
- Now start to add the flour cup by cup carefully combining the mixture with the wooden utensil you chose
- When the dough is too dry to work it with the wooden spoon, use one hands to gently pad the flour in. At this point it is easy to turn the dough out on a clean working surface.
- Be careful not to overwork the dough so as soon as the flour is combined well with the rest of the mixture shape it and wrap it it cling film.
- Chill the pastry overnight
- Soak the prunes overnight
- If your prunes have stones, remove them and try to remove some of the kernels using a nut cracker. The stones are hard to crack so never mind if you can't get them out.
- If you do get a couple (4 or 5) out, add them to the prunes to stew, they will give a wonderful almond flavor.
- Bring the prunes to the boil with the soaking water, the two tablespoons of muscovado or molasse sugar, the lemon juice and let simmer for about 30 minutes or until reduced.
- Let it cool, remove the kernels and when cooled puree with a blender.
- If the puree is too runny at this point, put it back on the hob to reduce a bit further. If you had to do this, let it cool again before further use. It will become more solid when cooled.
- Butter your tart tins and dust with flour
- Cut of a piece of your cold pastry, roughly the size of your tart tin. It will be very solid so start by pressing it down with a rolling pin on a generously floured work surface.
- Transfer your pastry to a piece of greaseproof paper
- Sprinkle some flour over the pastry and start rolling it until it is about 3 mm thick, when the pastry sticks to the rolling pin, add flour, keep adding it so the pastry stays dry.
- Check if your pastry isn't sticking to your greaseproof paper, cut off the extra pastry so you remain with a circle that is just a few cm larger than your tart tin.
- Gently turn the pastry over the tart tin and let it sink into the shape.
- Now use your fingers to set the pastry into the tart tin and crimp the edges.
- Don't overwork the pastry as it should remain cool.
- Transfer the tart pastry to the fridge while you do the other 3
For the lattice top*
- Roll out your pastry to 3 mm as stated above
- Cut 1 cm wide strips, dust them well with flour.
- On a sheet of greaseproof paper -dusted with flour- create the lattice as shown below
- Fill your pastry with the prune filling
- Gently but quickly turn over the lattice top to fit on top of the tart
- Now you will most likely need to adjust the straps of pastry so it is straight. Don't worry, if it is your first time it will either look horrible or you will be in luck and it will be quite straight from the first attempt.
- Crimp the edges of the straps, cool in the fridge and proceed the same way with the other 3 tarts
- Put in the middle of the preheated oven for 1 hour and 20 minutes.
You will most likely have leftover pastry, wrap it in clingfilm, bag it and freeze it for when you need it. Always keep prunes in your larder for when you are using your oven for a long time, you can bake the tarts at the same time and get more out of your energy usage.
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