As Easter approaches, many people look forward to the end of Lent – the period during which, traditionally, we deny ourselves a favourite luxury as an act of penitence and in remembrance of the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the desert before starting his ministry. For most, Lent starts on Ash Wednesday – the day after Shrove Tuesday, a pre-Lent festival of indulgence – and ends on Maundy Thursday.
In times past, Kent folk broke the monotony of Lenten fasting – particularly abstention from meat – with a simple pie filled with a mixture of ground rice, eggs, butter and sugar (and lemon and nutmeg), and with a handful of currants scattered over the top. The exact origins of the pie are unclear. Perhaps the first published version is that given by Eliza Acton in 1845, but I rather suspect that the pie was being made well before that time.
Similarly, there is dispute over date on which the pie is supposed to be eaten. According to Steve Roud, it is either the first Sunday in Lent, or the middle Sunday of Lent, i.e. Mothering Sunday. Eliza Acton, on the other hand, makes no mention of a specific day, but observes merely that ‘[the pie] is made in abundance [in Kent], and eaten by all classes of people during Lent.’
These days, you can find numerous recipes for the pie, but its core ingredients remain the same whichever version you choose. The filling is ‘puddingy’, rather like a proper old-fashioned Bakewell pudding (not the new-fangled tart) or baked cheesecake, and is enclosed (but not covered) by a pastry shell.
I suppose I would say this, but I think it’s delicious, and well worth making as a Lenten treat – or, for that matter, at any time of year! It certainly deserves a wider audience.
The following recipe makes sufficient for a 20cm tart.
For the pastry:
175g plain flour
75g butter, diced
3-4 tbsp cold water
For the filling:
(or 200ml milk and 100ml double cream for a richer version)
30g ground rice
75g softened butter, diced
75g golden caster sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 bay leaf
finely grated zest of 2 lemons
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 vanilla pod, seeds only
Heat the oven to 190C/375F/Gas 5.
Put the butter and plain flour in a large bowl. Rub together, as you would for a crumble, until the mixture has the appearance of fine breadcrumbs. Gradually stir in the cold water, mixing all the time, until it all just comes together to form a dough. Work it very lightly, then roll it out on a floured surface.
Ease the pastry into the tart case, and gently nudge it into the edges. Prick the bottom all over with a fork, and put it in the fridge for 20 minutes or so to chill and relax properly.
When it’s ready, bake the pastry case blind (with ceramic beans to weight it down) for 15-20 minutes. Remove the beans, then put the case back in the oven for another 5 minutes until it turns a light golden brown.
In the meantime, put the milk (and cream, if using) and bay leaf in a non-stick saucepan. Warm the milk gently, and then turn off the heat and set the pan aside for a short while to allow the bay to infuse.
Remove the bay leaf, add the rice to the liquid, and bring it all slowly to the boil, stirring all the time. Once the mixture has boiled, keep stirring until it thickens appreciably – this will take no more than a few seconds. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
In a bowl, cream the softened butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually whisk in the beaten eggs, and then add the lemon zest, nutmeg, vanilla, and rice mixture. Combine everything together thoroughly until you have a smooth but thickish batter.
Carefully pour the mixture into the cooked pastry shell. Scatter the currants over. Bake the pie for 25-30 minutes, until it’s turned golden brown and is set throughout. Leave to cool a little before serving. Good eaten warm or cold.