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Award-winning Suffolk food writer Nicola Miller serves up a delicious treacle tart





Our toaster died the other week, but before it was despatched to the household waste centre, I released from its tray the shards of bread and crumbs that had gathered there.

As fanciful as this sounds, it was quite a dramatic visual record of the bread eaten in this household over the last month or so. (‘Or so’ carries a bit of weight there because I can’t remember the last time I emptied it.)

I started to think about what could be done with toasted breadcrumbs (although I must emphasise I mean freshly-toasted crumbs, not the contents of the toaster tray) and, in particular, what makes a breadcrumb great.

Nicola Miller's treacle tart is delicious for this time of year
Nicola Miller's treacle tart is delicious for this time of year

I have nothing against supermarket bags of white-sliced bread, and I’m particularly fond of the Jackson’s of York bloomer with poppy seeds sold in many supermarkets.

There’s something about a plain ham sandwich made with thin-sliced white that is just perfect.

Sadly, the Chorleywood Process had a detrimental effect on artisanal breadmaking, but there’s still something deeply familiar and nostalgic about the bread that results from it.

Like many, I grew up eating both this and unsliced loaves from a local bakery.

It’s harder to make good breadcrumbs from Chorleywood Process loaves, though.

Their crumb often disintegrates into little rubbery ribbons as if an eraser had been rubbed too hard across a page.

Often wodgy and stodgy, they lack the aerated structure of crumbs made from a more artisanal loaf.

This is frustrating because, once again, we’re living in a time when food waste is undesirable and unaffordable.

It is important to find a way to use every last scrap from a loaf of bread- no matter who made it. My advice? Chorleywood bread is better for making bread and butter pudding, Apple Charlottes, breakfast stratas or summer pudding.

Many of our traditional recipes that use breadcrumbs date back to when households either made their bread or bought it from a local baker.

The crumb dried out slowly and evenly, and slices of two-day-old bread could be revived with a scattering of water and gentle heat.

Despite its lack of preservatives, the bread lasted well, avoiding the damp, fusty mouldiness that besets fast-proved modern factory loaves.

It became stale rather than mouldy. The use of breadcrumbs were a matter of thriftiness and a way of bulking out meals to feed a passel of workers or a family.

Today it isn’t so simple. A lot of these recipes require multiple stages or lengthy periods of cooking: steamed or baked puddings made with breadcrumbs cost a fair bit of energy unless you use a pressure cooker (which is in itself an outlay); the broken, golden breadcrumb and fat-rich crust of cassoulet, a medieval peasant meal, took hours to form in the bottom of a wood-fed oven that was left on all day, and even the cooking of crumb-plump meatballs requires batch frying which can take quite an age when you have a few mouths to feed.

It’s easier and less expensive to use crumbs as a garnish: fried swiftly in a pan with herbs, garlic and lemon zest as a pangrattato for pasta, scattered on soup and stews, used as a breadcrumb coating for fried food, or as a thickener for sauces like Spanish romanesco are more economical energy-wise.

I’ve even scattered toasted, flavoured breadcrumbs over beans on toast.

The classic treacle tart is another recipe borne of the need to use stale bread creatively.

Its methodology is not unusual: you’ll see similar combinations of breadcrumbs, egg, double cream and pastry used in other tarts and puddings (the 17th-century carrot pudding being a case in point), but the treacle tart’s history is relatively recent.

It was mentioned by English author Mary Jewry in her cookbook, published in 1879 and The Food of England website has a very simple recipe published by the Newcastle Courant in July 1887.

Golden syrup was not invented until the late 1880s, so Jewry’s tart layered black treacle with pastry (back then, ‘treacle’ referred to any syrup byproduct from sugar refinery), quite unlike the treacle tart we know today.

However, some cooks do combine black treacle with golden syrup in their tarts.

I don’t because I find the medicinal notes of treacle a bit too much in a tart (interestingly, treacle was once considered to be a medicinal food).

Jewry’s tart is incredibly simple, as are the recipes on the Food of England website, but as time went on, cream and eggs were added to the syrup filling.

The pastry case evolved from a simple shortcrust to incorporate icing sugar, butter and egg yolks. However, in her first book, How To Eat, Nigella Lawson is adamant that the former is a more suitable base for such a richly sweet tart.

I am less adamant about this. This recipe evolved very much in the spirit of what I had in stock.

Traditionally, treacle tart is made with the zest and juice of a lemon.

I went with lime because I forgot to buy lemons, and after testing, I realised that the sundown warmth of lime worked as well- but differently- to the lemon’s bright early-morning sunniness.

I have replaced the double cream with crème fraîche, which has a sharper flavour and a lower fat content that, I think, offsets the richness of my tart’s buttery pastry base.

Last but not least, and as a nod to the contents of my toaster tray, I toasted freshly-made breadcrumbs made from the remnants of a Scottish Batch Loaf bought from Woosters Bakery.

They add incredible flavour to the tart’s filling, keep it from tasting overly sweet, and bring much-needed lightness to its texture.

Treacle - you know you love it!
Treacle - you know you love it!

Toasty Treacle Tart

For the pastry

200g plain flour

100g very cold butter,

small-diced

50g icing sugar

One yolk from a medium egg

A few teaspoons of cold water

For the filling

400g golden syrup

60g extremely cold salted butter, cubed

The juice and zest from one large lime

60g creme fraiche

Two medium eggs, lightly whisked

180g breadcrumbs from a fluffy white loaf

What you do

Lightly butter a 20cm ovenproof pie dish (or loose bottom tart tin). Heat your oven to 180°c/350f.

To make the pastry: place the flour and cubes of butter into a bowl and rub them together with your fingertips until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. (You can also use a food processor or pastry cutter to make your pastry). Add the icing sugar, stir it with a fork, and gently work in the egg yolk. If your dough seems too dry to form a ball, slowly add small amounts of cold water, a teaspoon at a time and stir until it holds together. Shape into a fat disc, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for half an hour. (Chilling

helps prevent the pastry from shrinking when it is baked.)

Heat a heavy-based frying pan over medium heat and evenly tip in the breadcrumbs when it is hot. Toast the crumbs until they are darkly golden, remembering to stir constantly to keep them from scorching. This will take about eight minutes; they will smell like toast. Remove the crumbs from the heat, place them into a bowl and set aside.

Flour your work surface, take the pastry from the fridge and gently roll it out into a circle large enough to line your tart dish/tin. Layer it over the pan, ensuring it covers the base and sides, trim any overhang, and use your fingers to make a pattern around the rim. Chill the pastry-filled tin in the fridge for another fifteen minutes.

Remove the tin from the fridge and line it with parchment paper before filling it with baking beans. This is called blind baking, designed to prevent the tart’s base from puffing up.

Put the tart in its tin on a flat baking sheet and place in the oven for 12-15 minutes or until the pastry edges have baked to the palest gold. Remove the

parchment paper and the beans. Reduce the oven temperature to 160c/ 320f.

To make the filling, take a medium-sized heavy-based saucepan and add the golden syrup and butter. Over low heat, stir until the butter has melted and mixed with the syrup. Remove the pan from the heat and leave to cool for five minutes. Now, stir in the lime zest and juice, the creme fraiche and the beaten eggs. Add the bread crumbs and stir them until they are just mixed. Pour this mixture into your pastry case, return to the oven, and bake for 35-45 minutes or until the filling is set with a little wobble. Keep checking because ovens vary.

Cover the crust with a little foil if it looks as if it’s browning too fast. Remove from the oven and allow to cool before slicing and serving.

Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale

Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020

Fortnum & Mason Cookery Writer of the Year 2022