Sunday, 1 September 2013

Prickly Perfection

Crostata di Sfoglia con i Fichi d'India
Puff-Pastry Tart with Cactus Figs

Yes- I am very brave and just a little bit crazy- at least in the kitchen that is! And that is why I took it upon myself this morning to make this incredibly awesome little tart from a bunch of dangerously prickly pears! Read on with caution...

I saw them at the market hall, a fresh delivery, straight from the old country... sun-kissed Sicilian cactus figs- how could I resist? Well, I wish I had resisted a little longer and hadn't felt brave enough to pick them up without wearing gloves!
I DID pick it up with one finger below the base and one on the very top. which should have been safe... but well, it wasn't!

If you do happen to get your fingers pricked, Nina, my favourite little Sicilian vendor at the market, recommended rubbing your hand against an outdoor wall- and yep- it does help... a little! Best thing is to wear gloves though, or to pick them up using some kitchen paper. Life's too short to have cactus thorns in your hands for too much of it! Also- use paper towels so you can throw them away- you don't want those little invisible spikes sticking in your dishcloths as you will never get them out of there either! ;-)

So, how do you peel them? Probably the safest bet is to stick a fork into one end to hold it firmly in place on your cutting board and to cut away slices from the peel from the top down, turning the fruit as you go, then you can cut off the ends when the fruit is smooth and harmless! That's the way I did it- I worn gloves to pick them and I didn't wear gloves when I prepared them either! But I would suggest you do... otherwise you will be mad at me when I say "I told you so!)

So... now you can chop up those technicolor taste-bombs in safety! My whole inspiration to attempt this madness, was the fact that they do make marmalade from cactus figs in Sicily. Now- I have never tried it- but I have munched many a fresh "Indian fig" in my time, so I thought I would risk making a jam-like topping for one of my frying-pan baked tarts from them. What could I possibly have to lose? I am not one of those people who says "I couldn't give a fig!"... because today, I could give 4!

The fig pieces (from 3 fruit) went into a frying pan with 1 tablespoon of sugar, a tiny pinch of salt, 4-5 ground coriander seeds and a teaspoon of cinnamon. I stirred them through and let them bubble away gently for 4-5 minutes, then removed about a third of the nicest, most intact pieces and let the rest carry on boiling away.

After 5-6 minutes more cooking, of course the cactus figs begin to disintegrate and turn to a rich syrup (they are 99% water anyway!) and you have all of those seeds, which are the main reason people don't like this fruit, swimming around in it. Now is the time to pass the syrup through a sieve, colander or if you are only making a small amount like I did, to fetch them out with a slotted spoon. Of course you will still have lots of seeds in the pieces that you set aside, when you add them again towards the end, but you have removed at least 50% of them... and let's face it- they are part of the deal! If you don't like them... sorry folks! You need to be looking for another pie!

The next step was to return the syrup to the heat and to add a little polenta into the mix, to help to bind some of the remaining water and to thicken the syrup considerably, so that it will work as a pie topping without soaking through the base. 1 teaspoon, dissolved into a little water was enough- in it went, up to the boil it came... and then off to one side it went to cool down. Because now it was pastry time!

To make doubly sure this would work, I made a double-layer base for my little tart... this was just a saucer-sized affair here! I cut 2 circles and laid them into my smallest frying pan together, and then cut the remaining pastry into strips of about 1" and laid them around the outer edge in 3 extra layers. This would give a little height, to hold the filling... and also give more of those yummy layers to bite into and crunch down on... yum!

I pricked the base of the tart with a fork a few times before adding half of the topping, then popped it onto the stove top for 2-3 minutes on a high setting, until the pastry began to first soften-up due to the butter in it melting, but then to gradually begin to puff up. At that point, I transferred it to a hot oven, at least 350°F for 5 minutes, after which time the sides had risen up considerably- thus allowing me to add the rest of the filling.

Back inside it went for a further 10-15 minutes on the middle shelf to finish baking. A few minutes before the end, I took it out, gave it a light drizzle of honey and then returned it for 1-2 minutes under the broiler, just to make it extra-yummy... and then I had to resist temptation for at least 10 minutes until it was cool enough to eat- lol!

I am sure it would be equally delicious served cold, but have no way of knowing for sure because I ate it straight away! And it was totally delicious- very refreshing and light, but yummy with the hint of spice! And the moral of the story? Sometimes you just have to try some crazy sh...t in the kitchen! More often than not it is going to be awesome!

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