Tomato season seemed to stretch endlessly this year. It took ages for autumn to actually start and when it did, it seemed to leap straight into winter. And by a miracle, some tomatoes survived. I am not talking about glasshouse tomatoes grown out of season, but late (late) summer tomatoes, grown on a Victorian farm and brought to me by my friend Verdiana on Saturday. Verdi and her husband Paolo are very generous and I cannot think of a time they have ever come over empty-handed. Once she gave me some cookbooks she no longer needed (hello Heston Blumenthal!) and a couple of fine porcelain cups, another time a bag of dried rose petals, some aged balsamic vinegar and a bottle of her favourite lemon infused Italian extra-virgin olive oil, and this time it was a paper bag full of tiny bright orange, ripe, late (late) summer tomatoes.
I had sort of forgotten about tomatoes – the ones you buy out of season in little plastic tubs in the shops are tasteless and frankly, I would rather make tomato-eating a celebration of sweet summer goodness rather than a year-round habit. The sweet ripe baby tomatoes that Verdi had brought over were a bonus gift from a long hot summer and I pounced on them with delight. They made such a contrast to the walnuts and autumn pears I had on the table. And they tasted so very sweet, like tender berries with none of that typical acidic tomato taste. There were so many of them, some of which were splitting, that I used about half the next day in a torta salata, which means “salty cake” which is what savoury pies are often called in Italian (and the tomatoes were so sweet I could have almost made them into a torta/cake).
A classic brisee pastry forms the base of this torta salata, which is blind baked and then topped with a ricotta filling and studded with whole baby tomatoes and baked again. The pastry is easy to make in a food processor (though you can also do that step by hand) and can be made up to a day ahead and kept in the fridge until you need to use it. Once made, the torta salata lasts 2-3 days covered in the fridge, though it lasts less than 24 hours in my house. The savoury ricotta filling is a lovely contrast to the tiny tomatoes which are kept whole, and are a sweet soft burst when you do bite into them. Serve as an appetiser for a dinner party (serves 8) or as a lunch or light supper with a salad for four people.
torta salata con pomodori e ricotta
220g plain flour
110g unsalted butter, diced and cold from the fridge
80ml iced water
2 small Spanish onions, peeled and finely sliced
dash olive oil
30g grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
250g baby tomatoes, washed and stalks intact
Place the flour, butter and salt in a food processor and pulse until the mixture is a fine grainy texture like sand. Pour in the water and process briefly until it just comes together. Tip out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead quickly so that the mass is a thick disc. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for an hour (or more, up to a day).
To make the filling, place a dash of oil and the onions in a non stick frypan and cook on low heat for about 10 minutes until softened and translucent. Set aside to cool. Place the ricotta in a medium sized bowl and add the cream, parmesan cheese, nutmeg, salt and pepper and stir until well combined. Stir through the cooled onion and place the bowl aside until ready to use.
Preheat the oven to 180C. Line the base of a 28 cm diameter tart tin with baking paper and butter the sides of the tin. Once the pastry has rested, roll it out onto a lightly floured work surface. I place a sheet of cling film onto the pastry when I roll it out so it does not stick to the rolling pin. Line the tart tin with the pastry, pressing down so the base and the sides of the tin are covered and trim the excess pastry. Place a large sheet of baking paper on the pastry and place baking weights (or dried beans or chickpeas) on the paper. Bake for 20 minutes then remove the weights and bake a further 5 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly.
Spoon the ricotta mixture onto the cooked pie base, flattening it with the back of a spoon. Dot the ricotta with the tomatoes, pressing then lightly into the filling. Bake 45 minutes or until the ricotta is set and the base is cooked through and the sides of the pastry are golden. Serve warm or at room temperature.