Paper Chef #8: Cheese & Crema di Olive Nere Torte on Cheddar Shortbread with A Salad of Ratte Potatoes, Baby Spinach and Prosciutto
For the 8th edition of Paper Chef, judged by Sarah of the fabulous The Delicious Life , the final ingredient list came down to Cheddar cheese, olives, spinach and potatoes or cream. What a serendipitous selection! I simply couldn't resist taking part. The problem was, there were so many things I could think of making using the shortlisted ingredients, I was paralysed by indecision. However, as I was making my weekend grocery shopping rounds, I finally had a galvanising moment, having set eyes on the loveliest La Rattes - ratte potatoes - from Jargeau, along the Loire in France. Like chubby little fingers in shape, this thin-skinned waxy variety is delectably creamy-fleshed and fine of texture - and really really good simply sauteed in olive oil or butter, needing no other seasoning frankly than some flakes of Maldon sea salt or grains of fleur de sel.
I made some cheese tortes, inspired by a recipe I'd seen from Nancy Silverton's excellent Pastries from the La Brea Bakery, stirring together ricotta, mascarpone, some mature English farmhouse Cheddar, and parmesan. The tortes are spiked with some crema di olive nere, which is really like an Italian tapenade minus the tuna fish. Once baked, the puffy little golden discs are then plopped atop Cheddar shortbread, which I thought would afford a nice crumbly contrast to the richly cheesy tortes. The savoury cheesecake is accompanied by a warm salad of crisped ratte potatoes folded together with shards of caramelised prosciutto and tender leaves of baby spinach. While I had it for dinner, I think it would be right in keeping at a leisurely brunch.
Cheese & Crema di Olive Nere Torte on Cheddar Shortbread with A Salad of Ratte Potatoes, Baby Spinach and Prosciutto
For the Crema di Olive Nere: Blend together 15 pitted oil-cured black olives, 1 chopped anchovy fillet, 1 tsp well-drained capers, 1 chopped clove of garlic, 1 tsp rum, and 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil in a food processor, pulsing to obtain a fine and nubbly - but not completely smooth - texture. Scrape the paste into a bowl and set aside. You will only be using 1 Tbsp of the paste; save the rest for use as a spread on crostini.
For the Cheddar Shortbread: Using a pastry blender or your fingers, cut 60gm of well-chilled unsalted butter into a bowl with 75gm plain flour which has been seasoned with 1/8 tsp salt and 1/8tsp cayenne pepper. When the mixture resembles oatmeal, stir in 1/2 cup of finely grated mature Cheddar. Tip the mixture into a buttered 7-inch square baking tin, pressing down firmly to level the surface. Chill the dough for at least 30minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 150 degrees Centigrade. Bake the shortbread for about 40 minutes or until pale gold. Stamp out four 3-inch circles with a cookie cutter whilst hot. Leave in the tin for 10 minutes before lifting the circles out (be careful - the shortbread crumbles very easily) to a rack to cool. As for the remnants, they make a tasty cook's reward...
For the Cheese Tortes: Grease four 3-inch metal rings (which are at least 1.5 inch high) with melted butter. Preheat the oven to 190 degrees Centigrade. In a large bowl, thoroughly combine 250gm mascarpone, 250gm ricotta, 1/2 cup finely grated parmesan, 1/2 cup finely grated mature cheddar, 2 eggs and 1Tbsp minced fresh thyme leaves. Fold in 1Tbsp crema di olive nere. Add salt and pepper to taste. Place the metal rings on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Spoon the cheese mixture into the rings, filling to just below the rim. Sprinkle each with some more finely grated mature cheddar, about 1 Tbsp per torte. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until firm and golden brown.
(While the tortes are baking, prepare the following)
Very thinly slice half a red onion. Macerate the onion with a touch of salt, a tiny pinch of caster sugar, and a spritz of lemon juice so it loses a little of its edge. Set aside.
Lightly toast 2 Tbsp pinenuts in a dry pan. Set aside.
Heat a little olive oil in a large heavy non-stick frying pan. When the fat is hot, lay down 2 prosciutto slices and let them sizzle till crisp and slightly caramelised around the edges, turning once. When done, pull the prosciutto apart into rough shards. Drain on paper towels. Set aside. Do not wash the frying pan.
For the Sauteed Potatoes: Place 12 ratte potatoes (or other new potato variety no more than 1 inch in diameter) in a large saucepan, along with 1 tsp black peppercorns, 2 bushy thyme sprigs, 2 bay leaves, and 3 smashed garlic cloves. Add cold water to cover by 1 inch and season the water assertively with sea salt. To quote Thomas Keller, "The water should taste like the sea. It must be highly seasoned, since it will flavour the potatoes as they cook." Over a high heat, bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 10 to 20 minutes (depending on the size of your potatoes) until the potatoes are tender. Drain the potatoes, discard the herbs and such, and pat the potatoes dry with paper towels. Slice each potato in half lengthwise. Using the same frying pan containing the prosciutto-flavoured olive oil, add more olive oil to generously film the pan surface. Over a medium-high heat, add the potatoes in a single layer and saute 5 to 10 minutes, turning occasionally, until golden and crusty. Sprinkle the potatoes with good salt (preferably Maldon or fleur de sel).
To Serve: Just before the cheese tortes are ready, make the salad. Toss the reserved prosciutto shards, drained macerated red onion, and sauteed potatoes together with a large handful of baby spinach leaves, anointing with a generous glug of extra virgin olive oil, adding more salt, freshly ground black pepper and lemon juice to taste if necessary. Stir in the toasted pinenuts last. Divide the salad between four plates. Place a disc of Cheddar shortbread on each plate. Pull the cheese tortes from the oven, and gingerly lift the metal rings off using a pair of tongs. Deftly slide the tortes onto the waiting shortbread discs with the aid of a thin, wide metal spatula. Serve immediately.
Serves 4 as a starter, or 2 as a light lunch.