A prodigious attitude to cream
A recipe for Tarte Dijonnaise. Words and photographs by Rosanna McLaughlin.
Good morning and welcome to Cooking From Life: a Vittles mini-season on cooking and eating at home everyday.
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Cooking from Life is a Vittles mini-season of essays that defy idealised versions of cooking, eating and living. The season will be a window into how food and kitchen-life works for different people in different parts of the world. Cooking as refusals, heritage, messiness, routine.
Our second writer for Cooking from Life is Rosanna McLaughlin.
A prodigious attitude to cream
An essay, and recipe for Tarte Dijonnaise, by Rosanna McLaughlin
Despite the fact they lived in the middle of Coventry, the front door to my grandparents’ house was always open during the day. My grandfather, an artist, had an insatiable appetite for meeting and sketching people, because of which all sorts of characters arrived at the house unannounced. It could be Barry the Green Man in his pagan costume, carrying a pair of bagpipes that he would play at full volume in the front room; it could be the punks my grandfather had befriended while out on his mobility scooter. Or it could be the troubled opera singer from around the corner, banished from the house for a decade after my grandmother found him deliberately spilling a glass of wine onto the carpet at a party, but eventually welcomed back into the fold.
My grandmother, the daughter of a chorus girl and a factory worker, married my grandfather in 1954. She was a lifelong literary connoisseur, and the first in her family to go to university. He was the unexpected progeny of a conservative Home Counties household, a wonderfully eccentric and chronically unhygienic man who believed that bathtubs were where you put dirty dishes, hands existed for holding paint brushes, and pudding was a gift from above. Both despised any kind of domestic small talk. ‘You’ve got a degree and you’re talking about the bins?’, my grandfather once said, bitterly disappointed that his guests weren’t discussing loftier things like beauty and poetry. Yet despite this ostensible aversion to domestic small talk, my grandmother was a tremendous cook, and the kitchen was the beating heart of my grandparents’ social life.
Because of this, house guests soon got wise to the best time to turn up. 11am for coffee and biscuits, or midday to be in with a chance of lamb stew, watercress soup, breaded plaice, pears in red-wine jelly, chocolate pudding, or any of the other wonders my grandmother routinely produced for lunch. I remember one summer morning, when a member of the ambulance crew – regularly called in when falls became a frequent occurrence in my grandparents’ life – was having such a pleasant time that he turned off his radio and stuck around in the garden for a few hours. At my grandmother’s request, I brought some French butter biscuits to him on a plate, along with a cup of coffee (always served with cream), which he enjoyed as he relaxed in the shade of the ivy.
My grandmother died last November, a few years after my grandfather. When I think of them now, I think of their house, crowded with friendly faces right until the end. I think of my grandfather’s incorrigible sweet tooth, and how, even after he lost a leg to diabetes, he managed to acquire illicit bars of nougat from the Lidl across the road. I also think of sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table, assisting with the preparation of meals while listening to her strong opinions on all manner of cultural and political matters. Once, while shelling peas or peeling spuds, we discussed an article about interventionist strategies for dealing with obesity. ‘If I had my jaw wired shut,’ she announced, ‘I’d suck double cream through a straw’. Another time, in her late eighties, after reading a Sally Rooney novel, she declared that she had given up on the English language entirely and henceforth would only read novels in French.
But most of all, I think of the tarte Dijonnaise: a puff-pastry base covered in a rich mixture of cheese, mustard, egg and cream, then layered with onion and red pepper. It was a recipe my grandmother turned to when my wife Melissa and I visited, as we are both in the clutches of the dreaded vegetarianism – a dietary choice my grandmother once described as ‘anti-social’. Beside the omelette, it was one of her few staple dishes that didn’t involve meat or fish. And so, the tart could often be found on the kitchen table at lunchtime, when we joined whichever motley crew of guests had assembled to avail themselves of my grandmother’s culinary offerings, cultural judgements and endless store of red wine.
Towards the end of her life, when my grandmother’s mobility was limited, the kitchen could be a precarious place. Spoiled cream cakes might be found on the pantry shelves, alongside potatoes so green and sprouted they looked like sea urchins. By then, she had largely taken to cooking by dictation, issuing instructions to family members from her armchair in the living room. As my grandmother grew older, she rarely left the house, and the generosity of her table enabled her to bring the world to her. She knew the role that food played in sustaining friendship and community: cooking was an act of goodwill and kindness that brought people together.
A few years ago, at Melissa’s request, my grandmother typed up the recipe for the tarte Dijonnaise, copying it from a yellowed newspaper clipping she kept tucked inside the cover of a Delia Smith cookbook in the pantry before adding her own comments in brackets. Although Melissa and I have made the tart many times at home, preparing it in the months after my grandmother’s death has felt bittersweet. The pastry base is as much a conduit for cream, mustard and cheese as it is for grief. Yet cooking it is a way to bring my grandmother to our own kitchen table, a few hundred miles from Coventry on the Sussex coast.
The crunching sound the tart makes as it breaks under the knife evokes glasses clinking around my grandparents’ small kitchen table, or meals shared in their dining room, surrounded by bookshelves overflowing with piles of leaflets, bus timetables and ancient fruit stones. Its flame-red flecks of pepper are as bright as my grandmother’s hospitality, and the kick of mustard is as gratifying as her conversation. The tart is always delicious, but it never tastes as good without my grandmother there to oversee proceedings, and her prodigious attitude to cream.
(Based on a tart from Maison Bertaux, according to a recipe by Mark Hix)
250g puff pastry rolled to roughly 20x30cm (I use a ready-rolled sheet)
1 large onion, finely diced
2 red peppers, seeds removed, finely diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
150g medium or strong cheddar, finely grated
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons double cream
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, or more to taste
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste.
Preheat the oven to 200°C/fan 180°C/gas mark 6. Get out a 20x30cm (approx.) baking tray – ideally a shallow one, 1–2cm in depth. Line with baking paper.
Add the diced onion and peppers along with the olive oil to a medium pan. Cover with a lid and cook over a medium heat, stirring often, for roughly 15 minutes, until the vegetables are softened but not browned. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.
While the vegetables cool, lay the pastry on the baking tray and bake for 10 minutes. The pastry will be slightly risen and pale gold, and will sink again as it cools. Set to one side.
To the onion and pepper mixture, add the cheese, eggs, cream, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper. Stir to combine and adjust the seasoning to taste.
Flip over the pastry sheet in its tray then spread the topping mixture over it in a thick, even layer. Return it to the oven for 18–20 minutes, until lightly browned at the edges.
Serve preferably warm, with salad perhaps.
Rosanna McLaughlin is a writer and editor based in East Sussex. She is the author of two books, Double-Tracking: Studies in Duplicity (Carcanet, 2019), and Sinkhole: Three Crimes (Montez, 2022), and co-editor of The White Review.
Vittles is edited by Rebecca May Johnson, Sharanya Deepak and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead. The recipes in Cooking from Life have been tested by Ruby Tandoh.