A fennel and mozzarella tart, with questionable results

When I was growing up, we had a phrase, an often-repeated piece of kitchen folk wisdom as trite and fundamentally meaningless as any other: we eat all our disasters.

What can I say? It’s nicer than “shut up and eat it, because there isn’t anything else” – the solidarity of gallows humour for burnt stews and sunken cakes. I’m yet to hear any piece of folk wisdom or street smarts that didn’t reduce either to meaning nothing or just being a memorably pithy example of a logical fallacy. But this one has stuck somehow.

We eat all our disasters. My mother said it a lot, jokingly in the main, as she very rarely miscalculated in the kitchen. She would probably have known better than to attempt yesterday’s lunch.

All of which is a floridly round-about way of saying that I fucked this up but ate it anyway.

Fennel & mozzarella tart with hummus

It’s a pseudo-quiche of fennel and mozzarella, and it went a little askew. Oh, the flavours worked well enough, I just failed to anticipate quite how much water is locked up in fresh fennel and inexpensive mozzarella.

A fun way to build either vegetarian or vegetable-heavy meals is taking one of the “side dishes” in Silver Spoon and thinking “well, that’s basically a main, isn’t it”. That’s where this idea came from.

There’s a baked fennel recipe in there that’s pretty much just boiled fennel, in a dish, dotted with mozzarella and butter, baked with beaten eggs poured over. There might be cream. It’s like a freakish aniseed-y tortilla. It’s far too heavy to be a side, tricky to pair with things as a main, slightly too eggy, and a thoroughgoing faff to clean off the dish you bake it in.

It also sounds like a fairly sensible candidate to become a pie or quiche of some kind. If only because that solves the cleaning problem. More dairy will also mitigate the eggs somewhat. It really should work. What could go wrong?

Water. Fucking water, that’s what.

Bailing out the failboat

Being basically celery with delusions of grandeur, fennel is quite wet. So is mozzarella. Also: yoghurt. In hindsight, the resulting liquid fracas should not have been hard to anticipate. You really shouldn’t find yourself, at the age of twenty-nine, swearing like a particularly hungover docker while pouring water off the surface of a quiche. But there I was.

It didn’t set. Or rather, it largely did, and then it gave off liquid. This was something of a blessing as the resulting structure was sound enough to drain the water off without collapsing, and the quiche/pie/tart/swamp was therefore largely serviceable. In fact, after draining and popping back into the oven, it looked and tasted as though it had worked out fine.

But it’s not really tenable, is it – a quiche recipe with an instruction step for drainage?

So what to do?

Give it largely did set, and the liquid became a problem later, I’m a bit stuck here. You could knock out the dairy, making the whole thing more solid, and hoping the mozzarella is enough to dull the egg taste. That’s basically what Silver Spoon relies on; that and a long cooking time to drive off the moisture. That might risk ruining the pastry, and I’m still broadly unconvinced by the resulting flavour.

This leaves only a few poor options I can think of:

  • Roast the fennel
  • Fry the fennel
  • Press out the liquid
  • Use a different cheese

Pressing the liquid is the only one that won’t change the flavour, and I’m not wholly convinced it’ll work.

Anyway, here’s what I did. If you can fix it, I’d love to know.

Ingredients:

Steaming fennel

  • Pastry (in this case around 300g of fresh shortcrust)
  • 2 decent-sized bulbs of fennel
  • 250g or so of Greek yoghurt
  • 2 eggs
  • A ball of mozzaella

Instructions – with obvious caveats:

It’s the usual deal with the pastry – make it, roll it out, line a springform. I like to add a little oregano to the dough sometimes.

Quarter the fennel bulbs, so the layers will separate easily. To soften the fennel, I steamed it for about 8 minutes. This removes less of the flavour and freshness than boiling. Put it to one side to drain, and consider pressing out some liquid when it’s cool.

Beat the eggs and yoghurt together, and add a little salt and pepper.

Dot the bottom of the pastry case with mozzarella. Then add a layer of fennel, using most of it. Follow this with most of the mozzarella, then the rest of the fennel. Top with any remaining mozzarella, then pour in the egg and yoghurt mixture.

Put it in a high-ish oven for around 40 minutes, maybe longer.

Optionally, if you’ve not fixed it, check on it half way through, notice it’s swimming in liquid, yell “cockpigeons and fuckpipes!” then very carefully tip off as much water as you can before returning it to the oven.

The finished thing is quite subtle. The aniseed harshness of the fennel is gone, but the core crisp flavour remains. The mozzarella isn’t consistently stringy – it largely cooks through into the filling, adding an overall butteriness. There are gooey pizza-ish stretches of cheese on top and in between some of the fennel chunks, which work quite well, and the reason I’d be loathe to lose the yoghurt is that the slight sharpness cuts through all this richness in a way that cream just wouldn’t. I guess you’d maybe just use less in future.

But there it is – an edible disaster of sorts, and I’m not wholly sure how to fix it.

2 thoughts on “A fennel and mozzarella tart, with questionable results”

  1. I wish I had an answer to the liquid situation, but the end result does look delicious – surely cannot go wrong with those ingredients flavour wise. Good post – and amusingly written, given the travails involved.

  2. Made this for lunch today and it was great. Few changes:

    3 eggs
    Roasted fennel x 2
    Roasted pepper x 1 (for some sweetness)
    Crème fraiche rather than yoghurt, and a few teaspoons rather than 250g

    And I didn’t actually read your method, so mozzarella was only on the top, not the bottom.

    But otherwise totally the same…

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