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When it comes to making desserts, I’m usually a minimalist. Oldies but goodies are fine for me, and the easier, the better. So when the occasional urge to make something chocolaty comes over me I’m more likely to turn to a simple mousse than a multilayered torte or lushly frosted cake. Chocolate mousse seems to have fallen out of fashion, but it’s still a fine, light chocolate dessert – which, these days, is almost an oxymoron.

For the prospective mousse maker, there are lots of recipes to choose among. Every general French or American cookbook has one, often more than one. They’re all over the Internet too. Some are fairly elaborate, with many ingredients, cooking steps, and flavorings; others promise to be simple and easy. I’m sure they’d all be good, but I’ve never found a recipe that’s as minimal as the one I usually make. It has only two ingredients: semisweet chocolate and eggs.

I think I invented this, one day when I wanted a mousse but didn’t have any cream on hand – heavy cream being an almost ubiquitous ingredient in mousse recipes. For each portion I use an ounce of chocolate and one egg. Here are the components for four servings, with the eggs separated.
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I start by melting the chocolate in a double boiler. Most other recipes I’ve seen add cream or butter or water to the chocolate at this point. On its own it melts slowly and stays very thick, but that’s not a problem. I’m also not obsessive about the type of chocolate. I use what’s in the pantry, and if it’s plain Baker’s chocolate, that’ll do. (And if all I have is unsweetened, I just add a tablespoon of sugar per ounce of chocolate.)
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While the chocolate is melting I beat the egg yolks with a hand mixer until they’re thick and pale. Well, sort of thick – I don’t make a big deal of that step, either. Some recipes cook the egg yolks with cream and sugar, rather than mixing cream with the melting chocolate. Again, not I.
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I beat the melted chocolate into the yolks a little at a time, so they don’t get so much heat as to scramble them.
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I beat the egg whites to peaks in my big Kitchen-Aid mixer and fold them into the chocolate mixture. This time I overbeat the whites a bit, stiffening them so much that they needed a lot of folding and lost some of their volume as a result. But that’s not a problem, either: the mousse is still good that way. I’m not sure you can hurt a chocolate mousse.
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When my mixture was all combined I realized the custard cups I had set out were too small. The filled cups would have to be chilled in the refrigerator for at least several hours, some for a day or two. (Tom and I try not to eat more than one portion apiece on the first day.) So they had to be in containers large enough that foil or film coverings wouldn’t touch the mousse itself. I switched to larger cups, just for the refrigeration.
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At serving time, I transferred each portion to a smaller, more attractive dish.
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This is a very ordinary looking dessert, but it’s chocolate, and it tastes just fine. It could be dressed up – say, decorating it with rosettes of whipped cream, or a scatter of raspberries, or a few candied violets. But since the whole point of my mousse making is to have an easy family dessert, all I usually serve it with is a spoon.

In The Pyramid of Mud, the newest paperback Montalbano mystery to be released in English, it takes only to page 34 to find the intrepid Sicilian police detective regaling himself with one of his favorite things to eat: “a glorious pasta ‘ncasciata” that his housekeeper Adelina had made and left for his dinner. That dish appears in many of the 22 books in the series, always eagerly greeted and blissfully consumed by our hero.
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A few years ago I wrote here about my attempt to make that fabulous pasta ‘ncasciata, using the recipe in the cookbook I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri. My version was a bit of a disappointment – a decent baked pasta dish, but not extraordinary.

I knew that there’s no single, canonical version of pasta ‘ncasciata, but they all should be good. Encountering it again in the new Montalbano story, I felt I should really give the recipe another chance.

I had ideas for changes I wanted to try, some because of guesses I’d made about vague recipe directions, and others to liven up the dish I’d made – about which, in my original post, I said “All the ingredients and textures blended too much. You didn’t get the symphony of individual flavors that a forkful of a truly great baked pasta dish provides. The eggplant was barely noticeable, the salami and eggs indistinguishable.”

Ingredients that are available in this country for Sicilian recipes aren’t always identical to the same-named items grown and made on their home turf. Thanks to American agribusiness, ours are often blander, more processed, less flavorful, and less fresh. I’d want to make allowances for that, while still keeping to the spirit of the book’s recipe. (Also, this time I was going to be extremely careful not to overcook the pasta.)

An occasion for my attempt soon presented itself: We’d invited a few good friends for a casual “family” dinner. These were adventurous eaters who wouldn’t mind being experimented on – at least, not if we also gave them lots of good wine! So I set to work.

To start, I peeled, sliced, salted, and fried two one-pound eggplants in olive oil. That was more eggplant, more thickly sliced, than I used last time, but the recipe merely says four eggplants, no size or slice thickness given. We like eggplant a lot.

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Next was to make a tomato-meat sauce. To perk it up, this time I infused garlic and peperoncino in the olive oil for browning my half pound of chopped sirloin. Then I stirred in a pint of my own light tomato sauce, salt, and pepper; and simmered for 25 minutes, until it thickened. That was more tomato and longer cooking than the recipe seems to call for, but its instructions on that point aren’t very clear, and I wanted more tomato richness. Having no fresh basil, I used parsley.

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I boiled a pound of imported Italian penne until they were not quite done, drained them and sprayed them with cold water to stop the cooking. The other ingredients to prepare were two hardboiled eggs, two ounces of mortadella or salame, and two cheeses: caciocavallo and pecorino. Last time I’d used a mild salame; this time I bought a livelier one: hot soppressata.
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My cheeses were the biggest accommodation to ingredient differences. The recipe calls for 7 ounces of tuma or young caciocavallo, plus 3½ ounces of grated pecorino. The only caciocavallo available here is somewhat aged – not soft and fresh, like Sicilian tuma, which isn’t here at all. The first time around, I hadn’t realized how much difference the age would make. The large amount of strong, dry cheese dominated and sort of flattened the flavors of the other ingredients. I didn’t want that to happen again.

Since caciocavallo is in the same broad cheese family as mozzarella (I’ve seen it called “mozzarella on steroids”), I decided to substitute mozzarella for some of the caciocavallo. The cheese in the picture above is 4 ounces of chopped mozzarella mixed with 2 ounces of grated caciocavallo.

I took a broad, shallow baking dish to assemble the ‘ncasciata, making layers of pasta, meat sauce, eggplant, sliced eggs, diced soppressata, and the cheese mixture. The recipe called for grated pecorino on each layer too, but I left it out this time.
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The top layer was eggplant, dabs of sauce, the cheese mixture, and just a light sprinkling of grated pecorino.
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The dish baked for 25 minutes in a 425° oven, sending out a very tempting aroma. Hopes (mine) and expectations (everyone else’s) were high as I brought it to the table. It looked and smelled so good that I began to serve before even remembering to take a photo of it – as you can see by the missing piece at the bottom right, below. (Thanks, Steven, for reminding me!)
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Well, this pasta ‘ncasciata was a definite success. All the flavors stood out as themselves and companioned beautifully with each other. The eggplant was luscious. The two cheeses balanced each other in taste and texture. The amount of tomato seemed just right: it was mostly absorbed by the other ingredients, providing flavor and moisture but no loose liquid. The soppressata tidbits were tiny sparks on the palate. The penne in the center were properly soft, and those at the edges nicely crunchy.

All in all, this was a dish I’d be bold enough to serve to Montalbano himself – at least if Adelina wasn’t around.

Though it hasn’t yet been a terribly cold winter here, there have been enough harsh winds, wetness, and dark, dreary skies to have me reaching for solid, rib-sticking recipes to counteract the chill. One especially comforting dish of that kind is fagioli con la cotica: white beans stewed with pork skin.

Pig skin is probably most familiar to Americans as the cover of a football, but pork skin is also relished as the crunchy crackling on a well-roasted fresh ham, and next as an ingredient in cassoulet, where its natural gelatins add body and succulence to that long-cooked dish of beans and meats. It does the same for this simpler preparation with beans and a small tomato sauce, which I first encountered in a trattoria in Rome’s Trastevere district long ago.

For my fagioli con cotica, I more or less follow a recipe in the Cucina Romana volume of the del Riccio series of regional Italian cookbooks. In my early years of visiting bookstores in Rome, I acquired 14 of these small paperbacks at $3 or $4 each. I’ve found their recipes very reliable, though like many cookbooks written in Italian they’re sometimes vague about quantities of ingredients – whence comes the more-or-less-ness of my following the recipes.

Overall, fagioli con cotica takes quite a long time to prepare, but the beans, the pork skin, and the sauce can all be done separately well in advance, and then combined for a final cooking of less than half an hour.

For a portion for two, I use a quarter-pound of dry white beans: marrows, if I can get them; otherwise great Northern. I soak them overnight, and the next day drain them, cover them with fresh water, and gently boil them, along with a sprig of rosemary, until almost done.
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The skin of a pig starts out very tough. There’s a reason they cover footballs with it! Several months ago my friend Michele shared with me a large sheet of it that she’d acquired, which goes in and out of my freezer as I need to take pieces off.
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This day I needed about four ounces’ worth. While that size piece was whole I dropped it in boiling water for 10 minutes, which softened it enough to be further cut up into short strips. Tom, my ever-expert knife man, did that for me, using a sharp, heavy butcher knife to intimidate the pork skin. Then the little pieces cooked in water again until they were tender. This took about an hour. The time can vary greatly with different skins, but it requires little attention other than checking from time to time on its tenderness.
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I started the sauce by sauteeing chopped onion, parsley, and basil in olive oil. (Rendered prosciutto fat would have been better than olive oil, but I didn’t have any.) In my mini food processor I pulsed a scant cup of my own preserved San Marzano plum tomatoes, stirred the puree into the pan with some salt and pepper, and cooked for 15 minutes.
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Then I drained the cooked beans, saving some of their liquid, and added them to the sauce, along with the cooked pieces of pork skin.
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The mixture simmered, uncovered, for about 20 minutes. The beans happily absorbed sauce, so to keep it all appropriately moist – just short of soupy – I stirred in a few spoonsful of the bean cooking liquid. The beans held their shape, the cotica softened a little more, and the dish was ready to eat.
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Homely in the best sense of the word, this is delicious, heartening food that warms the stomach and the spirit in equal measure. You can tell from its simplicity that it was born on the farm, and it still carries that kind of country pleasure. A bowl of these beans, some good crusty bread, and a glass of hearty red wine: just what we need in the dead of winter.

A very big birthday – one ending in zero – befell Beloved Spouse this week. We considered declaring it to be fake news and paying it no attention, but in the end we decided to celebrate it. In our house (as should be common knowledge by now), celebration requires dining on excellent food and wine, so that’s what we did – with a menu chosen by Himself.

We made a bold start with caviar and champagne. In addition to the relatively inexpensive American “osetra” that we’ve bought online in the past, the birthday boy snuck in a tiny jar of Russian osetra, for comparison. Alas: It was noticeably better than the domestic one, making it a costly taste to try to avoid acquiring. The champagne was Krug, a gift from a very good friend. And very Krug it was, a big, vigorous, richly flavored companion to the caviar.
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This luscious start, Himself averred, already began to ease the sting of the birthday’s bigness.

For the main course, he had requested saucisson en croûte, a large sausage baked in a pastry crust. I’d never made one before, but with a little help from Julia Child, in Mastering, I set to work. Early in the day I simmered a one-pound cotechino sausage in water until fully cooked and made up a batch of pâte brisée. Later I rolled out an oblong of the pastry dough, brushed the center with mustard, and set the cooled and skinned sausage on it. I encased the sausage in the dough and rolled out another strip to lay over the top, decorated it modestly and brushed it with egg glaze.
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The stuffed pastry baked in a hot oven for 45 minutes.

For a vegetable, the birthday celebrant joined me in the kitchen and washed, parboiled, drained, and sauteed a bunch of fresh Swiss chard in butter with chopped onion. As a condiment we served mostarda di Cremona, fruits poached in mustard syrup, which we bring back from our trips to Italy. The combination was excellent. Though the pastry crust tried to fall apart at the slicing, it was very tasty, seeming to have imbibed some meaty essence from the juicy, spicy sausage.
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In keeping with the developing binational theme of the meal (American and Russian caviar, Italian sausage in French pastry, Italian fruits and Swiss chard) Tom selected two bottles from his wine closet to drink with the main course, one each from Italy and France, both vintage 2004: a Barolo riserva from Giacomo Borgogno and a Nuits-St.-Georges from Drouhin.
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He was curious to see which one would go better with the food. Here he is with the result.

The two wines behaved remarkably similarly with all the elements of the dinner, both feeling soft, even velvety, on the palate, and tasting of earth-and-mineral-inflected dark fruit. Neither wine was anywhere near its peak, but both showed well, enjoyably drinkable and fresh, while hinting of the greater complexity they’d be capable of in the future. The Barolo evidenced a bit more tannin, the Burgundy a bit more acid – but either wine would have served comfortably as the consort of the dishes. Another illustration of why so often Barolo and Burgundy are compared!

(In a rare fit of birthday moderation, we didn’t finish either wine; nor did we finish the champagne.)

To conclude this festive meal we indulged in a pair of purchased chocolate delicacies: a square of opera cake and a chocolate mousse tartlet.
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(We didn’t finish either of them, either.)

And so ended another decade of the culinary and enological adventures of Himself and his adoring spouse. We mustn’t wait too long to have Russian osetra again and another bottle of Krug. After all, who knows how many more decades we have in us?

On the occasional evening when Tom isn’t dining at home, I like to make a nice little dinner just for myself. I almost always choose chicken as my main dish, since he doesn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I do. One such opportunity came up just recently.

The recipes I chose for my meal, though interesting to read, gave me some concerns. Oh well, I thought; trying a new dish always involves some risk. In La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange I’d found a recipe for Poulet à la Casserole and also one for Endives à la Façon Flamande that I thought would go well with chicken. Acquiring the components was easy, because the only ingredients were the bird, two Belgian endives, and butter. The butter I already had.

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Madame is very particular about the size of her poultry, calling for two-pound young chickens in all her casserole-cooked recipes. We rarely see chickens that small here, but I found a fresh Cornish hen of the right weight.

The cooking method is ridiculously simple, but I wondered if it would work. It said to melt butter in a casserole dish. Once the dish was warm, put in the chicken, cover immediately, and let it cook untouched, on moderate heat, until the chicken was tender; about an hour. Then uncover the dish and “color” the bird in its butter.

Here’s the hen just going onto the stove.

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Two things worried me here. The butter was not supposed to brown at all during the cooking. I couldn’t imagine how it wouldn’t, in all that time on direct heat. And with no turning of the bird, why wouldn’t it become seriously stuck to the bottom of the casserole? But I did as directed, nervously looking in every 15 minutes, lightly nudging the bird, and turning the heat down or up a little, in my uncertainty.

Here’s the hen when I decided it was done, after an hour and a quarter.

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Indeed, the butter hadn’t burned, only turned more golden. But in the last several minutes, the hen had given out a lot of liquid (hardly visible in the photo), which I had to boil off before I could do any final browning. And when I tried to turn it over to start browning, it had – as I’d feared – stuck. Pitiful.
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Furthermore, and totally unexpectedly, the dratted thing would not brown. I tried long enough to be afraid it would just fall apart in the pan if I kept turning it, so out it came, almost as pale as it went in.

Next I was to “lift off the light crust” from the bottom of the casserole with a little water, stirring to make a simple pan gravy. Mine wasn’t exactly a light crust – it was mostly a mess of bits of chicken skin, but I did it.
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Meanwhile, I had been making the Flemish endive dish. For that I had to cut up the endives, wash and dry them thoroughly, pack them into a heavily buttered ovenproof pan, put a round of heavily buttered parchment paper on top, add a tight cover, and cook them in “a gentle oven” for two whole hours. No liquid at all.
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I started the dish at 325° but soon turned it lower, because I could already smell the endives cooking, and that didn’t seem right. At the end of two hours, they were supposed to have gathered together into a compact mass that, turned over onto a plate, would be a lightly golden cake. Mine wasn’t. The pieces were still totally loose, some brown and crisp, others pale and soft.
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Obviously, neither of these dishes could be considered a successful execution of a recipe from a classic, authoritative cookbook. But they were what I had to eat for my dinner, so I sat down dubiously to the ugliest chicken I had ever prepared and one of the least prepossessing vegetables.
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And yet . . . and yet . . . there’s a happy ending to this story.

My ugly little hen was absolutely delicious. As promised by the recipe, in its long cooking the butter had diffused through its flesh, enhancing its natural flavor. The light bitterness of my faux-sauteed endives was a good foil for the rich, buttery chicken; and the simple little pan gravy beautifully moistened both bird and vegetable. A light sprinkling of salt was all they needed.

So: two dishes far from pretty, but both very tasty. Could’ve been worse. I doubt I’ll ever make either of these recipes again, especially not for anyone other than myself, but I’m pleased that they provided me with a good dinner after all.

Earlier this week Tom attended a professionals’ wine tasting and truffle dinner given by a major Piedmontese winemaker. How I envied him that invitation! Then, to my joy, he came home that night with a “leftover” white truffle. The host, Michele Chiarlo, had given it to him, saying “I can’t take it back to Italy.”
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White truffles are a big deal, gastronomically. Their season is essentially over now, but their prices this year were sky-high. Those that are still available online are selling for $325 to $465 per ounce. So this 2-inch long, 0.7-ounce truffle, conservatively speaking, might have cost $225. Obviously, we do not eat white truffles every day.

We tenderly transferred the precious thing to a small, tightly closed glass jar, and by the next morning, its heavenly scent wafted out whenever the refrigerator door was opened. Immediately we changed our dinner plans for that evening.

We turned to our own first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana, which has a recipe for Carne Cruda all’Albese – a delicious veal tartare that, in its native Alba region, at the right season, is topped with a shower of thinly shaved white truffle. Our more domesticated version is very good with only plain white cultivated mushrooms, but here was our chance to have the real thing.

The very best carne cruda is made with the leg cut of veal, but good-quality shoulder meat works well too, and our recipe calls for that. With this truffle, we decided to go with the best veal: half a pound of lovely lean cutlets. We pulsed them to a fine tartare consistency in the food processor, which gives a more pleasing texture than does a meat grinder.
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We minced a few white mushrooms, squeezed the fragments in a kitchen towel to wring out all their juices, and mixed them into the veal, along with a pressed clove of garlic, a little grated parmigiano, some olive oil, salt, and pepper.
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Then we mounded the tartare on two plates and shaved the entire truffle over the top. This was a simplification of our recipe to better showcase the truffle. When using only mushrooms, we slice them very thin for the topping and add shavings of parmigiano, plus lemon quarters to squeeze over the dish at table. With the truffle, those adornments weren’t needed.

Just so the balance of nature and the universe could be preserved, the razor blade in our truffle slicer exacted payment in blood from us both – nothing serious, just the few drops that the gods always require as the price of any favor they do. If that’s what a white truffle costs, we thought, so be it. We happily dined with bandaged thumbs.
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Notwithstanding that carnage, the truffled tartare was wonderful. The veal rich, fresh, and delicate, with the mushroom duxelles and parmigiano providing a bit of lightness; the truffle shavings crowning it all with their unmistakable, unduplicatable woodsy-earthy-nutty-mossy-essence. Definitely worth bleeding for!

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P.S. You can see Tom’s writeup of that wine tasting and truffle dinner here.

Individual Leek Tarts

As a first course for my most recent dinner party – on what was predicted to be an extremely cold night – I wanted something warm and savory but not too heavy, to precede a cassoulet: good stick-to-the-ribs fare. I considered a large Alsace onion tart or individual cheese tarts; both very tasty but also things that I make fairly often for dinner guests. The two concepts coalesced in my brain, with a slight variation: Let’s do individual leek tarts!

Leeks are a great winter vegetable, and even though I’d never made or eaten leeks in a tart, I was confident they’d be good that way. None of my cookbooks had recipes for it, but a little online research produced many, all quite similar. As the main difference among them was the relative proportions of the ingredients, I decided this was a do-it-however-you-like deal. So I did.

One of my local grocery stores carries excellent big leeks, sold individually rather than prepacked in bunches. I bought three.
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When Beloved Spouse began cutting them up for me, the white and tender green parts of only two of them filled a four-cup measure, so I stopped him there. (No problem about the extra: leeks never go to waste in my kitchen.) I melted butter and olive oil in a sauté pan and cooked the leeks gently until they were just tender.
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At that point the online recipes variously said to add either heavy cream, light cream, or half-and-half, as well as grated gruyère. Instead I stirred in a cup of mascarpone. When it had fully melted and smoothed out, I added half a cup of gruyère, and the tart filling was ready.
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For my pastry shells I used a pâte brisée recipe from Simone Beck’s Simca’s Cuisine. I like it because the dough is made with a whole egg and white wine, which give it a little flavor boost. Three-ounce balls of dough are just the right amount for my 4½-inch fluted tart pans.
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After filling the shells with the leek mixture I distributed another half cup of gruyère over their tops and baked them at 375° for 30 minutes. They were just beginning to brown when I took them out of the oven.
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All this was done the day before the dinner party. Cooled and covered, the tarts sat overnight in a cold room. At dinner time the next day I put them under the broiler for ten minutes to complete the browning.

Alas, I can’t show you the final result. In the bustle of serving the meal I purely forgot to take a photo of the tarts. But they were a great success, and the guests loved them. The vegetal brightness of the leeks, the lush creaminess of the mascarpone, and the warm, buttery crunch of the pastry played off each other beautifully.

If those little tarts had a fault, it was more richness than was perhaps advisable for diners about to tackle a cassoulet – but we all finished them anyway!