This is a classic Elizabeth David recipe. I can clearly remember learning to cook it with a friend while I was a student cooking in a shared hall of residence kitchen, in a block rather glamorously located opposite Selfridges (it was bulldozed a few years ago). For many years I cooked it so regularly that it became a sort of signature dish. It is ideal either as a starter for a formal meal or as a vegetarian lunch with salad (and perhaps some new potatoes).
I haven’t cooked it for a while, but this weekend it provided the perfect start to a rather traditional dinner party menu. As some of our guests had warned that they might be a little late – and given that it has been so cold – a casserole seemed the obvious answer for the main course, especially when Irene discovered this amazing Rowley Leigh recipe for Daube de Boeuf. Cooked for 12 hours at a very low temperature the meat was incredibly tender, all the work was done the night before and it could be reheated once everyone had arrived. An onion tart seemed suitably special and French and would provide a golden, creamy contrast before the dark Daube. I served it in modest portions with a small serving of baby leaves with a mustard dressing, or ‘avec sa salade’, as they say on French menus.
As I hadn’t made it recently, I went back to the original recipe and was glad I did – I adapted my normal pastry recipe following her instructions for pâte brisé, and refrained from my normal thrifty habit of including some whole eggs in the filling, rather than just the egg yolks as specified by Elizabeth David, both to good effect. I found a very good use for the egg whites, which I shall post shortly – and here’s another one in the meantime.
These quantities fill my 26cm tart tin and serve 6 as a main course or 8-10 as a starter. You do need to start the pastry at least 3 hours before you want to eat. If you’re entertaining, you can do most of the preparation early in the day and assemble the tart 45 minutes before dinner, as I did.
150g plain flour
pinch of salt
I started with my normal quantities for buttery shortcrust, added a whole egg and mixed everything in the food processor until the dough was just coming together (you may need to add a little cold water – I didn’t). I then briefly kneaded the dough into a ball before following Elizabeth David’s instructions for pâte brisé: gradually stretch out the dough with the heel of your hand, bit by bit, to form a ragged sheet. Gather the dough up – my plastic dough scraper made this very easy – and repeat the process. Form the pastry into a ball, wrap it in cling film and leave it in the fridge for at least 2 hours. This produced the best behaved and neatest pastry I have made for some time, so I will definitely be using this method again. Elizabeth David says that chilling the pastry for at least 2 hours stops it shrinking in the oven, and it works!
3 large, mild onions (about 650g)
a little oil
salt, pepper and nutmeg
3 egg yolks
150g crème fraîche
Peel the onions, cut them in half and slice them thinly. Heat the butter with a dribble of oil in a wide frying pan with a lid. Do not be tempted to skimp on the butter – this is not a recipe to eat everyday, and butter is essential to the taste and silky texture of the dish. Add the onions and cook them gently with a lid on for 30 minutes, stirring from time to time to make sure they are not catching. By the end they should be beautifully soft and golden yellow. Take off the heat and season well with salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg. In a bowl, beat the three egg yolks well and mix in the crème fraîche. Stir into the onions and leave aside until you are ready to bake the tart.
Roll out the pastry to line the tin quite thinly. As I wanted to enjoy pre-dinner drinks with our guests, I rolled out the pastry at tea-time and put the lined tin back in the fridge ready to be filled and put in the oven as the door-bell rang.
Put a baking tray big enough to take the tart tin in the oven and heat it to 200ºC/Gas 6. Add the filling to the pastry case, put in the oven on the hot baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes until risen and golden. Elizabeth David says to serve it very hot, but I actually prefer it warm. Either way, a green salad is the perfect accompaniment.