They all had dinner - fourteen of them round the immense three-pedestal table extended to its uttermost and even then they were crammed round it. They ate four roast chickens, bread sauce, mashed potato and runner beans followed by plum tart and what the Duchy called Shape - blancmange.
The Light Years, Elizabeth Jane Howard
Apart from the notable years in primary school when I took the MS Readathon very seriously, I have read more books in the past year than in any before. I feel lucky because, in a very practical sense, it is part of my job now. I don't have a long commute to read on any more, but I am constantly on the hunt for new books, and new food contained within them, so I generally put time aside every day to read. That is, until August arrived.
This summer, once I had finished the photo shoot, I sat down to tackle the task of arranging nine months of my handwritten passages, ideas and recipes into a book. I have returned to the novels featured in it for inspiration, or to check a detail, but I have otherwise found it very difficult to lose myself in a book. After a day in front of words, only some of which are making it onto the page in a way that pleases me, I'm more inclined to wind down with Stranger Things, or a podcast and some baking. Whenever I have opened up a new book, I have found it really difficult to keep my attention on the story.
And then my friend Livvy leant me a battered copy of The Light Years, the first in the Cazalet series. It is everything I love in a book - a big sprawling cast of intergenerational characters, a country house, plenty of food, and set in the last years of the interwar period. It engenders passion and enthusiasm in my friends who have read it, who tend to furiously identify with one or other of the characters. And now I have joined the club. I have read it much more slowly this month than I normally would - it is the kind of book I could inhale in a weekend, if I gave myself the chance. In October, once my book has been sent away to the publishers, I am going to do just that with the next in the series.
There are an extraordinary number of memorable meals contained in the book: big dinners with the family, bowls of raspberries and cream for the children on their arrival at the house, picnics by the seaside. For a dinner party in the not-too-distant future, I am now planning to poach a salmon, and serve it with peas and new potatoes, as Mrs Cripps the cook does, on the first day of the summer holidays. But, as our summer draws to a close, it was this plum tart that held my attention.
I have been gorging myself on plums recently. They remind me of a trip to France a couple of years ago; we stayed in a house in the Normandy countryside where we found, to our delight, a plum tree in the garden, groaning under the weight of the fruit. I made a plum tarte tatin for our last night in the house, and took a bag of the bounty back to England, where I promptly turned it into jam. It was a back to school jam, that year - I was scooping generous spoonfuls of it onto porridge or toast each morning, as I returned to work to begin new projects with new schools. It's an association that has stuck; the start of school now makes me think of plum jam. This week, as September arrived in earnest, when new backpacks and pencils and uniforms were brought out of cupboards, and as I entered the final month of drafting and editing the book, I felt that a recipe with plums would be perfect.
8-10 ripe English plums (Victoria plums are lovely here)
2 sticks cinnamon
1tbsp caster sugar
200g plain flour
20g icing sugar
100g unsalted butter, cold from the fridge
1 egg yolk
125g unsalted butter, softened
125g golden caster sugar
125g ground almonds
1/2tsp vanilla extract
20cm tart tin or loose-bottomed cake tin - at least 2.5cm deep
Baking beans or rice
1. Preheat the oven to 170C (fan forced). Slice the plums in half through the centre. Remove the stone, and arrange them, cut side up, in a roasting dish. Push the cinnamon sticks in amongst the plums, and sprinkle the tablespoon of caster sugar over the fruit. Roast them in the oven for 30 minutes, and then set aside to cool.
2. While the plums are roasting, make the pastry. Tip the flour, icing sugar and salt into the mixing bowl, dice the butter into cubes and rub it in until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolk and knead the dough together with your hands until combined. Try not to overwork the dough here; stop as soon as it comes together in a ball. Leave the dough to rest in the fridge for twenty minutes.
3. Once the dough has rested, roll it out until it is the thickness of a pound coin. Grease the tart tin* and carefully transfer the pastry into it. Push it carefully into the corners, and patch up any cracks or tears. Trim any overhang of pastry. Leave the pastry to chill in the fridge for twenty minutes.
* A note here: My tart tin has vanished somewhere, so I used a loose-bottomed cake tin and trimmed the sides of the pastry so they were around 3cm high, before the tart went into the oven. It worked beautifully, and was a simple way to get a straight-sided tart.
4. Scrunch a sheet of greaseproof paper up into a ball, then lay it into the tart (it will go in easier this way). Fill this with baking beans or rice that you use for blind baking, making sure you press them into the corners. Transfer the tart to the oven and bake for 20 minutes, then remove the baking beans and paper and cook for another five minutes, until golden.
5. While the tart shell is baking, you can get on with making the frangipane. Beat the butter and sugar together until light and creamy, then beat in the egg and vanilla. Fold through the ground almonds. Once the tart shell is golden, spoon the frangipane into it and bake in the oven for another twenty-five minutes.
6. Remove the tart from the oven, and let it cool in the tin for five minutes. Remove it from the tin, cool to room temperature, and then spoon the plums on top of the frangipane. Serve with something sharp - crème fraîche, sour cream or yoghurt all work a treat.