(NEW YORK TIMES) - My relationship with berries follows the same arc as so many relationships: ignorance, discovery, infatuation, growth, complacency and, then, happy coexistence.
Stage 1 – blissful ignorance – sees me growing up thinking that raspberries came in a bottle of an overly sweet cordial that you’d dilute with water and drink after school. It was called mitz pettel (“raspberry juice”) and had never seen a fresh raspberry in its life.
Stages 2 and 3 – discovery and infatuation – hit me hard during what I rather grandly called the “European Tour.” The reality was delightfully ungrand: It was 1986 and my best schoolmate and I landed in West Germany, bought two old bikes and proceeded to cycle through the Netherlands and Belgium, to Paris. It took us a month and, along the way, I fell in love with berries.
Coming from a land of tree-borne fruit, I couldn’t get enough of the delicious reality of low-lying bushes and plants offering up more fresh berries than I could possibly consume. Our paths were paved with gold, our fingers stained with purple and I was (metaphorically, thank goodness, given my position on the bike) head over heels.
Stage 4 was growth and learning, when I was working in my first professional kitchen at Launceston Place in London, under the tutelage of the chef Rowley Leigh. He was showing me how to make a summer pudding, and just as he had inverted the berry-filled and wine-soaked bread onto a platter to serve, he inverted everything I had thought about berries until then.
For me, they were to be treated with a degree of reverence and restraint; I’d grown up seeing them placed, individually, on top of the rare gâteau in a few cafes in Tel Aviv, Israel. Here, however, Rowley was doing with berries what Middle Eastern cooks do with herbs: using them in absolute abundance. They were not things you would use to garnish or finish off a dish. They were the very building blocks of the dish itself.
By the time I mastered berries, I also knew I wanted to become a pastry chef, so I got a job at a London chain of patisseries, Maison Blanc. Alas, rather than learning the fine art of French cake making as I thought I would, I found myself on a production line throwing raspberries onto individual crème pâtissière-filled tarts. Within a very short time, my love affair with berries had entered the posthoneymoon phase: complacency. This was not what the catalog had promised at all.
Complacency did not feel right, though, so I hopped off that particular conveyor belt and moved forward. The years that followed had a moderating effect. They brought with them a slightly more measured, less intoxicated approach. When I set up my own shop window at Ottolenghi in Notting Hill, raspberry-swirled meringues soon became part of our signature look, alongside many other fruity delights.
My relationship with berries has since kept on moving toward that happy stage of balanced coexistence. The berries are still there, of course, used in all sorts of ways in all sorts of dishes: blitzed to make a purée for icing or buttercream; kept whole in a batter, as with the blueberry cake here, or slightly crushed so the juices start to bleed; hiding inside of a roulade, waiting to be revealed; or sitting royally as they do in this pistachio tart.
The figs, dates, lemons and pomegranates are just as much there as well, splashing their color through all that I bake, the fruits of my childhood and the fruits of my first trip away from home. It feels as if the arc has come full circle and I’m allowed the best of all worlds.
RECIPE: BLUEBERRY, ALMOND AND LEMON CAKE
TIME: 1 1/2 hours, plus cooling
1/2 cup plus 3 Tbs unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for greasing the pan
190g caster sugar
1 tsp lemon zest, plus 1 tablespoon lemon juice (or more juice as needed)
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 large eggs, beaten
90g plain flour, sifted
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
110g almond flour (ground almonds)
200g fresh blueberries
70g icing sugar
1. Heat oven to 200 deg C. Grease a 21-cm loaf pan with butter, line it with a parchment paper sling and butter the paper. Set the pan aside.
2. Place butter, sugar, lemon zest and vanilla extract in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on high speed for 3 to 4 minutes, until light, then lower speed to medium. Add eggs in three additions, scraping down the sides of the bowl a few times as necessary. The mix may split a little but don’t worry: It’ll come back together once you add the dry ingredients.
3. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and almond flour. With the stand mixer on low, add the dry ingredients in three additions, mixing just until no white specks remain. Fold in about 3/4 of the blueberries by hand, then scoop batter into the prepared loaf pan.
4. Bake for 15 minutes, then sprinkle the remaining blueberries over the top of the cake. Return to the oven for another 15 to 20 minutes, until cake is golden brown but still uncooked. Cover loosely with foil and continue to cook for another 25 to 30 minutes (less for a 9-inch pan, more for an 8-inch pan), or until risen and cooked, and a knife inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Remove from oven and set aside in its pan to cool for 10 minutes before removing cake from pan and placing on a wire rack to cool completely.
5. When cake is cool, make the icing: Add lemon juice and icing sugar to a bowl and whisk together until smooth, adding a bit more juice if necessary, just until the icing moves when you tilt the bowl. Pour over the cake and gently spread out. The blueberries on the top of the cake may bleed into the icing a little, but this will add to the look. Let icing set (about 30 minutes), slice and serve.
RECIPE: PISTACHIO AND RASPBERRY TART
TIME: About 3 hours, plus chilling
(For the pastry)
1 cup plus 1 Tbs plain flour, more as needed
1 Tbs plus 1 tsp caster sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
5 1/2 tsp cold unsalted butter, cut into 2cm pieces
1/4 tsp white wine vinegar
2 to 3 Tbs ice water
(For the pistachio filling)
350g raw, shelled pistachios
4 Tbs unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp lemon zest, plus 1 Tbs lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 tsp almond extract (almond essence)
1/8 tsp salt
3 large eggs
150g caster sugar
1 Tbs plain flour
150g fresh raspberries
1. Make the pastry: Place flour, sugar, salt, lemon zest and butter in a food processor and blitz for about 15 seconds, until it reaches the consistency of fine breadcrumbs. With the machine running, add vinegar and then add water slowly, 1 tablespoon at a time, until mixture comes together (you may not need all the water). Form dough into a ball, wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
2. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out dough to form a circle about 33cm wide and 2mm thick. Carefully transfer the dough (wrap it around a rolling pin, if that helps you) to a 26cm round fluted tart pan with 3cm-high sides. Press the dough securely into the corners of the pan and trim the crust ½ cm above the rim of the pan, then refrigerate for 30 minutes.
3. Heat oven to 200 deg C.
4. Line the dough with a large piece of baking parchment and fill the tart with dried beans or pie weights. Bake for 25 minutes, or until pastry is golden brown around the edges. Remove beans and paper and continue to bake the pastry for 8 minutes until the base is golden brown. Remove from oven and set aside.
5. Lower oven temperature to 170 deg C.
6. Make the filling: Spread pistachios out on a baking sheet and roast for eight minutes, until they are hot but haven’t taken on any color. Remove from oven and carefully transfer 100g nuts to a cutting board and set aside. Immediately blitz remaining nuts in a food processor while they are still hot. Keep the machine going for 6 to 8 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl a few times when the nuts stop moving, until you get a thick smooth paste and the nuts begin to ball up in the bowl. Add melted butter, lemon zest, juice, vanilla extract, almond extract and salt and pulse a few times until combined. Roughly chop the reserved pistachios.
7. Place eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk on high speed for 3 to 4 minutes, until soft peaks form. Reduce speed to medium and slowly add the sugar until incorporated. Add flour, pistachio paste and chopped pistachios and mix on low until combined. (You may need to scrape the pistachio paste off the bottom of the bowl.) Pour the mixture into the tart shell, spreading it out evenly. Sprinkle raspberries over the filling and bake for about 35 minutes, until golden brown around the edges, pale golden in the center and set.
8. Remove from oven and let cool completely in the pan. Once cool, the tart can be lifted out of the pan and transferred to a platter to slice and serve. The filling should be soft, but still hold its shape when sliced.
Serves 10 people