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Mid-summer picnic, including the prettiest salad ever made

One of those hot summer weekends where you have to get outside as much as possible to absorb the sunshine in the hope of storing it up for the long winter months. We had a picnic planned with some friends and luckily our local market was on excellent form, so I was able to pick up plenty of mixed leaves and interesting veg. I settled on making a simple roast vegetable tart and some little cheesecakes, packed into jars for easy transportation. 

Two salads and a roasted vegetable tart

If this isn’t the prettiest salad you’ve ever seen, I won’t believe it! I am ecstatic with it, it’s like summer in a bowl! The leaves are mixed with a handful each of parsley and dill, then topped with slivers of radish and deseeded cucumber, finely sliced salad onions, pomegranate seeds and finally, edible flowers. So beautiful. Actually I found eating the edible flowers a bit suspicious. I’d not tried them before and I’m not sure I will again, but who cares when they look so nice!

Tomato salad now seems so much less glamorous, involving randomly chopping various sizes, colours and shapes of tomatoes and popping them in the colander over the sink with a generous sprinkle of salt to drain for half an hour. Then just anointed with a little red wine vinaigrette and a good handful of my new favourite, chopping-free Greek basil.

This vegetable tart is a bit of a cheat really. It looks much more involved than the actual amount of effort it entails. A good mix of different coloured veg is all you need to make something like this look fabulous. Hence my purchase of some round yellow courgettes. These courgettes  look like hand grenades to me (clearly I would be useless in the army) and it is a bit of a shame to chop them up rather than relish their natural shape. So I roughly cube the 2 yellow courgette bombs and 1 green courgette and half a red pepper. I put them in the oven at the same time as the cheesecake filling (see below) which is suboptimal, as the oven temperature is too low at 140C, but needs must, I don’t have all day. After half an hour, the veg are softened and slightly coloured at the edges. I don’t mind the lack of colour too much, knowing that they will go back into the oven in the tart anyway.

Once the cheesecake is done, I crank up the temperature to 180C and roll out the entire block of puff pastry into a sheet about the thickness of a pound coin, about the size and shape of my baking tray. I always always ensure that I buy all butter pastry for two reasons – I really think the flavour of the non-butter stuff is totally lacking – it just feels like such a ruinous thing to do to a meal – why add something tasteless when it can be tasty? Plus I feel that butter is much healthier than the processed veg fats in the other kind. Anyway, enough pastry-rant. I cut a border a couple of cm from the edge all round the pastry square, making sure I don’t quite cut all the way through, to will form the sides of my tart. The central square is pricked with a fork to allow the air to escape and keep the centre from rising too much. This then goes into the oven, untopped at the moment, for about 15mins. I don’t bother egg-washing the pastry to make it pretty and shiny – that always seems like such a waste of an egg to me. When I take the pastry out of the oven I press down the centre where it has invariably risen a bit, then smear over a thin layer of pesto. Then the filling – i arrange the pre-roasted courgettes and peppers, with some of the sunblush tomatoes and artichoke hearts from the deli. In ordinary circumstances, I would have added cheese too, a little salty feta or a tangy goat, but I know my audience today has some non-cheese lovers, and since there will be a cheese platter, I decide to go cheese free. Back into the oven, for I think another 10mins or so. Once finished I drizzle over a little olive oil, add olives and a handful of basil leaves.

Raspberry and emergency-strawberry cheesecakes

I was making this one up as I went along and vastly underestimated the amount of cheesecake filling I needed to make these – hence 2 different types. Next time I will be sure to check the volume of my jars beforehand. Hence two recipes after an emergency trip to the shop for more cheese!

Raspberry

So, for the avoidance of doubt, this made enough filling for 4 200ml jars, rather than the 8 I had hoped for!

I wanted a soft light cheesecake filling, somewhere between a baked and unbaked cheesecake. So I decided to make a sort of baked cheesecake cream which I could then decant into jars afterwards. I toyed with baking the cheesecakes in the jars, but in the end decided I wanted to achieve a layered effect by alternating cheese and fruit puree. So for the baked cheesecake cream, into my food processor went 300g full fat cream cheese which I whipped around for a minute, followed by 150g caster sugar, again whipped together for a minute or two. Meanwhile dissolve a tablespoon of cornflour into some milk (1-2 tbsp) then mix in 50ml double cream and 2 eggs and a half teaspoon of vanilla extract. Whizz this into your cheese mix until well blended. Then decant into an ovenproof container (I just used a ceramic baking dish) and bake on 140C for up to half an hour, checking after 15mins, then every 5 mins thereafter. Apologies for the wildly different baking times, but it will depend on the size of dish you’ve chosen and the depth of the mix. Mine was about 1inch deep and took 25mins. It should be just set with a slight wobble to the middle. Allow to cool.
Whilst your cheesecake filling cools, crush some hobnobs – I used about 200g in a plastic food bag with a rolling pin. I decided against making a traditional biscuit base with melted butter due to time constraints and laziness, but by all means do! This resulted in the biscuits absorbing some of the moisture from the cheese, so the base was less crispy, but fine by my tastes.

In another effort to save time, I had bought a pack of ready made raspberry coulis, although when I opened it I realised it wasn’t really going to work as it was much too runny and lacked the lovely bright pink raspberry colour I wanted. To make up for this I briefly, roughly, crushed some fresh raspberries and mixed them with a bit of the coulis to make a thick sauce. I was disappointed with the colour, but it tasted just fine.

Once your cheesecake mix is cooled, mix it up a bit and prepare for layering. In order to make it easier to reach into the bottom of the jar without smearing the mix all over the sides, I made a makeshift piping bag out of a food bag with the corner cut off. Line a mug with the bag (with the cut corner inside the cup!) which makes it easier to fill the bag up. Then start layering.  A generous layer of crumbs, followed by cheese, fruit, cheese, fruit, cheese. I contemplated another layer of crumbs, but next to fruit I thought they’d just be a soggy mess. Chill thoroughly

Strawberry

By the time I had realised I had insufficient cheese, I didn’t have enough time to bake more filling, so these are using an unbaked cheese mix. Using 200g cream cheese, mix in about 50g caster sugar and the zest of 1 lemon. I could have added whipped cream, but I feared it might not have stood up to the heat so well, so kept it simply at that. A layer of the hobnob crumbs, a layer of the cheese and some sliced strawberries, which I glazed with a little strawberry jam warmed in the microwave.

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