Jean’s apple plate pie

Matt comes from a family of home-bakers. I’ve written before about how Granny used to make hundreds and hundreds of mince pies at Christmas, selling them to friends and neighbours. Her skills extended to apple pie too – the apple trees in their garden (presumably planted by Grampy) produced a massive crop and so Granny would turn the windfalls into foil-wrapped bakes that she supplied to her loyal following of customers.

Granny and Grampy’s house – note the apple trees and rows of chrysanthemums at the back

Matt’s family playing next to those amazing apple trees. Granny is wearing the blue cardigan.

Granny passed away in 2017, and her house and the apple trees are now sold, but her apple legacy lives on. Matt’s Mum, Jean, carries on the tradition with her perfect, melt-in-the-mouth apple plate pie. She made one at Christmas which Harry practically inhaled, it was so good, and I couldn’t help but compare this masterclass of good, old-fashioned pastry work with my rather clunky attempts. Plate pies are uncommon now, with restaurants and bakeries seeming to prefer the deep-dish American-style pie. If I make an apple pie it’s always deep, and the all-butter pastry that I make is tasty but prone to shrinking and can easily teeter over the edge to toughness. Jean’s pastry (and my Mum’s, come to that), remains crumbly and light. “What’s the secret?”, I asked.

Jean’s perfect pie

Jean replied: “The answer is lard. And margarine.” Marg! I can not remember the last time I had a block of margarine in my fridge. But then I recalled that at school, I was taught to make shortcrust with the combination of lard and margarine, NEVER butter. I had to think that the older generation of bakers may be onto something. And so, in the spirit of honouring the wisdom of our fore-mothers, I decided to have a go at making the famous Apple Plate Pie.

Jean explained that she used the ratio of half-fat to flour in her pastry, and that the fat is 50% lard and 50% Stork. So for one pie, she would use 12oz of flour, 3oz lard and 3oz Stork. In modern language that’s 300g flour, 75g lard and 75g Stork. Incidentally she also texted that I should use self-raising flour, which I instantly forgot, so I used plain. Simply whizz the flour with the cold fat in a food processor until thoroughly combined. This step is important – I have always rubbed fat into flour using my fingers in some mis-guided attempt at authenticity, but it leads to uneven lumps of fat that make for flaky, rather than short, pastry. The food processor gives a far superior result.

Blitz plain flour with Stork margarine and lard, using the food processor

Jean never uses the food processor to mix the water, preferring to use the classic round-knife method. So turn the mixture out into a bowl, add a few tablespoons of cold water and cut in with a table knife. (If you’ve got one of those knives with the white, faux-ivory handle, so much the better.) Once the mixture looks claggy then use your hands to bring it to a dough. It comes together in seconds. Give the pastry a very subtle knead to ensure everything is combined, then flatten out and put to one side. Jean usually uses her pastry straight away but I prefer to chill mine while I make the filling.

Cut cold water in with a round-edged knife and mix to a dough, then flatten and chill

On to the filling. Bramley apples are the thing to use – although one of mine was rotten inside so I substituted a few Braeburns, which turned out just fine. Peel, core and then slice the apples into chunky slices – if you want a smoother filling, like Granny used to, just slice the apples more finely. Two big bramleys should be sufficient for one pie, or 1 bramley and 2 smaller eating apples.

Meanwhile, prepare the filling – chop a few bramley apples to coarse slices

Pile the fruit into a pan with a tablespoon of sugar, a tablespoon or two of water, then cook over a low heat until pulpy. Give it a taste and if it needs more sugar, add it now.

Cook the apples with sugar and water until pulpy

Remove the apples from the heat and chill for half an hour or so, until cool. I’ve learnt from previous disasters to never put hot fruit on cold pastry so trust me on this one – apples in the fridge. My apples cooked down into a dry-ish pulp but if they turn out very wet, use a slotted spoon to remove the bulk of the fruit from the water.

Chill the finished apple filling

Now we make the pie. Pre-heat the oven to 180c and find yourself an ovenproof plate, about 20cm/8inches in diameter. I use a pleasingly retro white enamel one. There’s no need to grease the plate. Slice the pastry in half, then roll out the first half into a circle large enough to cover your plate. Lay it on the plate and lightly mould down the sides and edges.

Roll out the pastry to cover the base of an 8-inch oven-proof plate

Spread the apple filling on top. Don’t over fill here – any leftover fruit can be used for something else. Keep the fruit level with the sides of the plate, no higher.

Spread your chilled filling on top

Roll out the remaining pastry and place on top. Use your thumbs to press the pastry edges together, then use a sharp knife to trim the edges. Finally, slit a small hole in the centre to allow the steam to escape. Neither Jean nor Granny ever glaze their pie, so I didn’t either.

Cover with remaining pastry, seal and cut a steam vent in the middle

Bake at 180c for about 40 minutes until golden and obviously cooked through. When done remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle with caster sugar, then leave to cool slightly. Any leftover pastry can be used to make tarts, turnovers, cheese straws, cinnamon straws….whatever you fancy.

Bake at 180c for about 40 minutes or until golden, then dust with caster sugar. Use any leftover pastry for tarts or pasties! (Apologies for bad light…the finished pie was not ready until night-time)

The verdict? Excellent attempt! This is the best pastry I’ve made in years. I’m not saying it’s up there with Granny or Jean’s version, but I’m pleased with my efforts. It’s very important to me to take a family tradition and introduce it to my son, even if I’m not a Foster. My mum also makes plate pies though hers tend to have redcurrants in them – for me, this simple, comforting pudding is the taste of Sundays, Desert Island Discs and Antiques Roadshow. Food is such an important part of how families, and memories, are made.

Apple Plate Pie

Makes 1 20cm / 8inch pie

300g plain flour
75g lard
75g margarine (I use Stork)
cold water
2 large bramley apples or 1 bramley and 2 eating apples such as braeburn
caster sugar

To make the pastry, blitz the flour, lard and margarine in a food processor until thoroughly combined. Tip into a bowl. Add a few tablespoons of cold water and draw together with a blunt-edged knife until claggy – add more water as required. Bring the mixture together with your hands. Knead lightly to combine then press into a disk, wrap and refrigerate.

To make the filling, peel, core and slice the apples into thin slices. Tip into a pan with 2 tablespoons of water and 1 tablespoon sugar. Cook on a medium heat until pulpy. Taste and add more sugar if required. Chill for at least 30 minutes, until cool.

Preheat the oven to 180c and have ready your oven-proof plate. Roll out half the pastry and use to line the base of the plate. Spread the filling on top, until level with the sides of the plate. Roll out remaining pastry and place on top, sealing the edges with your fingers. Trip the edges with a sharp knife. Cut a vent hole in the top. (Use any remaining pastry to make tarts, cheese straws etc).

Bake for 40 minutes until golden. Sprinkle with caster sugar when hot. Serve hot or warm with cream, custard or ice cream.

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Pheasant braised in spiced orange juice, baked sausage ragu pasta, beef bourguignon pie, go-to chocolate muffins.

Reading: The Nordic Baking Book by Magnus Nilsson, Today We Die A Little – the biography of Emile Zatopeck by Richard Askwith, a re-reading of The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard for some Cazalet family escapism.

Also: Back to work properly after the pre-Christmas lull. Ordering this year’s cut flower and veg seeds. Using the NHS for my continued hand, foot & mouth issue and Matt’s dodgy chest.

Hot smoked salmon & spinach tart

I’ve been re-reading Alice B Toklas’ Murder in the Kitchen, the most brilliant compendium of food writing. Although her book was written in Nazi-occupied France, the murder in question is not war-related, but refers to the dispatching of pigeons, carp and the occasional duck that wandered into the kitchen. (A stiff drink and a few cigarettes is recommended for the murderer-cook.) Toklas was lover, muse, confidante and critic to friend-of-the-artists Gertrude Stein, and she learns to tiptoe around the artistic sensibilities of their famous visitors. A baked striped bass is chilled and then topped with colour-blocks of red mayonnaise, green parsley and the chopped whites and yolks of hard boiled eggs. Picasso, whilst appreciating the effort to create this masterpiece, says “But better for Matisse, no?!”*

This story came to mind because I attended an art dinner this week at Grand Union, the gallery and studio space in Digbeth, and I thought what a hard lot artistic people are to cook for. All credit to the brave chef! They’re a hard lot to please full stop. I’ve been helping Matt to prepare a new exhibition gallery and studios, upstairs from his workshop. He wasn’t impressed with my sanding but I think I passed the painting test, just about…

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Furniture and ceramics in Matt’s new gallery space

But back to matters of food and gardening. The hot weather has had a brilliant effect on the slugs: they’ve sloped off out of the sun. Great news. In their absence the beans and brassicas are rejuvenating, and the spinach and chard are leafing up nicely. I’m getting several bunches of sweet peas, cosmos, calendula and lavender a week, though the ammi is a bit drab this year. Oh – and the sunflowers are beginning to make their sunny brash presence known.

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July harvest of sweetpeas, potatoes, lettuce, courgette and stick beans

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The sunflowers are opening…all 24 of them

I don’t know if it’s the inspiration of Alice B. Toklas, or the sunny weather, or the allotment bounty that’s now arriving, but I’ve been lusting after doing some Proper Cooking. Yesterday I baked up a batch of hot smoked salmon and spinach tarts – a perfect light summer supper. The inspiration for these is a salmon and broccoli flan that my Mum used to get from Sainsbury’s in the 1980s, when we were kids. It had pale pastry and a deep eggy middle, and I loved it. This is a grown-up version for 2016 – I’ve substituted the broccoli for spinach, as that’s what I grow.

First things first, get yourself some decent smoked salmon. I used a roasted smoked salmon but regular (raw) cuts would work too – they’re going to be baked after all.

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Roast smoked salmon

Next, make a shortcrust pastry in the usual way. I used half-butter half-lard, like I was taught at school, as it makes for the shortest, crispest pastry. Bake the tart cases blind until the bases have dried out and are lightly golden. Incidentally, despite making pastry for years, mine always comes out wonky; it’s something I’ve learned to live with.

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Blind bake your pastry to get a good crisp bottom

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My pastry always goes wonky, no matter how hard I try…

For the filling, soften some spring onions in a touch of olive oil, and blanch the spinach in boiling water until it collapses. My spinach came from the allotment and is sturdy (I only used five or six leaves) but the supermarket stuff is more inclined to dissolve to mush so you’ll need a bit more. Be sure to drain it really, really well – squeeze all the liquid out with your hands – else you’ll end up with a soggy tart.

Spread the spinach, onions and salmon over the tart bases, then top with a savoury custard made from whisked eggs, cream and milk. Then it’s a question of baking until golden and puffy – but with a little wobble in the middle.

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Fill with salmon, spinach and spring onions before pouring on the custard and baking

I made four small and one large tart. The small ones make for a dainty summer starter and they’ve gone in the freezer for another day. Serve the tarts warm or at room temperature, with a mustard-spiked salad.

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Baked until golden and puffy

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Smoked salmon & spinach tarts

Hot smoked salmon & spinach tart

Makes 1 6-inch and 4 individual tarts, or 1 large 12-inch tart


400g plain flour

100g salted butter

100g lard

Iced water


About 200g roast smoked salmon

5-6 sturdy allotment spinach leaves, or a bag of shop-bought leaves

5-6 spring onions, sliced

Olive oil

3 eggs

200ml double cream

200ml milk

salt & pepper

First, make your pastry. Rub the butter and lard into the flour, add sufficient cold water to make a pliable dough, then cover and rest it in the fridge for an hour or two. Pre-heat the oven to 190c. Use the pastry to line your cases; leave an overhang if you can, to allow for shrinkage. Line with baking parchment and baking beads and bake blind for about 15 minutes, until the base is set. Remove the paper and beads and continue cooking for a further 5 minutes (for individual tarts) or 10-15 minutes for larger tarts, until the pastry is lightly golden. Leave the tart shells to cool and then trim the edges with a serrated knife if they need it.

For the filling, blanch the spinach in boiling water for 30 seconds then drain well. When cool, squeeze all the liquid out with your hands, then finely slice. Soften the spring onions in a little oil. Flake the salmon. Mix the fish and vegetables together and fill each of the tart cases.

Make a custard by whisking the eggs, cream and milk together with pepper and a little salt (not too much as the fish is salty).

Decrease the oven to 160c. Place the tart shells, still in their metal tins, on a baking sheet (this makes moving them around much easier). Pour in the custard to near the top, then bake for 15 minutes (individual tarts) and 30 minutes (larger tarts). They should be golden and puffed but still with slight wobble. Cool for 15 minutes or more before serving.

* If this makes no sense, I’ll explain: Matisse was famous for his colour-block works of art.

Matt’s favourite sausage rolls

It’s the winter solstice and – briefly – the sun has come out. It’s a welcome respite from the seemingly never-ending grey and rain. Yesterday morning we took a stroll around Edgbaston Reservoir, which at this time of year is noisy with overwintering geese. Amongst them is their silent friend, the heron.

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Spot the heron

The reservoir is a green lung only five minutes from our flat. The regular flow of joggers, dog-walkers, sailors and rowers have plenty of views to keep them occupied: there’s Tolkein’s two towers (or at least, the towers that inspired the book); the city-centre with its sky-scrapers and new library; the post-industrial land surrounding the Birmingham canal and, my favourite, a gold-topped Buddhist temple. Chuck in the Tower Ballroom and a car park full of teenagers smoking illicit substances, and you have a microcosm of Birmingham as a 21st century city.

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View across the water to St Augustine’s church

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Plenty of Canada geese at this time of year

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Winter fungi on an old tree stump

The winter solstice happens to coincide with our first-date-aversary, which we mark by eating some kind of meat, covered or topped with some kind of pastry. (This is because on said first date we had a memorable steak and oyster pie).

This year I made sausage rolls, the kind I usually make at Christmas anyway so it was just a question of bringing the baking day forward a little. Cheap, claggy sausage rolls are an insult to the pig that died to create them. But a proper, home-made sausage roll, fresh from the oven: this is the stuff of the Gods.

I actually got the recipe for these from Delia Smith years and years ago, and have just adapated them a little to my taste. The most important thing is to make a flaky pastry with a lot of butter, and to flavour the sausage meat with fresh lemon and herbs.

For the pastry, you need to grate the butter and then get it super-super cold before mixing it into the flour; I usually stick it in the freezer for fifteen minutes or so. The idea is that it stays in larger lumps than normal, so that when the lumps melt the steam gives the pastry that lovely, flaky texture.

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Grate your butter then freeze it for ten minutes to firm back up

If you’re feeling indulgent, you can go BIG on the butter: the best rolls I’ve made had a 75% butter to flour ratio. If that sends you over the edge, just use 50% butter to flour – this is the same ratio as in regular shortcrust pastry. So take your butter, add it to plain flour and gently combine, before making into a pastry with cold water. Voila.

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Work the butter into the flour, keeping large lumps of fat

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Add cold water to work into a dough, then pop it in the fridge for an hour or more

The pastry needs for chill for an hour or so, so make the filling next. I use good quality sausagemeat from a local farm shop, and turn up the flavour with fresh herbs and lemon zest. Thyme, sage and rosemary all work well.

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The farm shop is your friend: sausagemeat from Packington Moor

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Flavour the sausage with lemon and herbs

Next we need a small onion, finely diced and softened in a touch of olive oil.

Add a chopped, softened onion

Add the chopped herbs, lemon zest and onion to the sausagemeat, season with a touch of salt (not a lot) and black pepper, then chill the mixture in the fridge until you’re ready to make the rolls.

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Then just mix it all together

Assembly is a question of rolling and splodging. Roll the pastry out to about the thickness of a pound coin, then slice into straight-ish rectangles. Place a line of sausage down the centre, leaving a good gap either side. I never measure anything so can’t offer any guidance here, but you want them to look like this:

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Roll the pastry, cut into strips, then put a line of sausage meat down the middle

Then we just roll them up, using a touch of egg wash to seal the seams, and chill again for ten minutes. The chilling is important as if the butter gets too warm the pastry will be oily rather than flaky when baked.

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Roll up, using a slick of egg wash to seal the seam, then chill before slicing and baking

Last step is to brush the rolls with egg-wash and slice to the desired size. Go small for cocktail hour, or large for lunch. Bake at 190c until golden and oozing with glorious butter.

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Cocktail-size, fresh from the oven

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If you really love him, go super-size

Matt’s favourite sausage rolls

Makes about 40 cocktail-sized rolls

For the pastry:

200g butter (or 300g if you’re feeling indulgent. I use salted butter)

400g plain flour

Cold water – about 100ml

For the filling:

1 pack sausagemeat, about 400g

Zest of 1 lemon

handful of herbs – try thyme, sage and/or rosemary

1 small onion, finely diced

Salt and pepper

olive oil

1 egg, beaten, to glaze

First make your pastry. Use a box grater to grate your butter onto a plate, then freeze it for ten minutes or so until very firm. Put the flour in a bowl, add the butter and use a scraper or table knife to work the butter into the flour. We’re looking to distribute the fat into the flour without breaking it up too much. Add a splash of cold water and bring the pastry into a ball – use more water as required. When it’s a pliable pastry, wrap in film and put in the fridge for an hour minimum.

To make the filling, empty the sausagemeat into a bowl, finely chop the herbs and add them to the sausage along with the lemon zest. Fry the onion in a splash of olive oil until soft but not brown, about 15 minutes. Add to the meat, season to taste, then mix together. Refrigerate until needed (this is important, else the warm onion could melt your pastry.)

To make the rolls, lightly flour a work surface then roll the pastry into long rectangles, about three times as long as wide. Trim the edges to neaten them up (see picture above).

Place a line of sausage down the middle of each rectangle. Paint a little egg wash along one edge, then roll the pastry over and seal the seam.  Repeat with each rectangle, place on a baking tray and refrigerate again for 10 minutes.

Preheat oven to 190c. Brush egg wash over your rolls then cut to the desired size and bake. Cocktail sausage rolls take about 25 minutes – larger ones will take a little longer. Cool slightly then EAT.