The noted French chef Careme pronounced the vegetable torte well and truly dead by the first part of the 19th century.
“Tortes are no longer fancy enough to appear on our opulent tables, for the simple reason that their form is too vulgar,” he wrote in “Treatise on Hot Entrees.” “Even the bourgeois class looks upon them with disdain, and will only eat hot pates and vol-au-vents, whereas in the past, important people were happy to begin their home-cooked meal with a modest torte.”
He may have jumped the gun. I don’t think I’ve ever gone to a Mediterranean country--France or anyplace else--and not come home with a new recipe for one of these savory pies.
Throughout the Mediterranean you find variations. Usually, they’re based on the same vegetable themes--greens of all kinds, winter or summer squash, leeks, eggplant, onions. What really distinguishes one country’s pies from another are the fine points, the flavorings, the cheeses and the crusts.
A winter squash torte from Provence, earthy with sage and surrounded by a bready olive oil crust, would never be mistaken for a Greek pumpkin torte, the filling redolent with mint and leeks, set between layers of crisp filo dough.
At the same time, a Greek pie of spinach or bitter greens will be fragrant with dill and packed with feta cheese, while its French or Italian cousin will have a more moderate amount of Gruyere and/or Parmesan, as well as garlic, thyme, rosemary and parsley.
Tortes take a little bit of time to make, but they are forgiving. And you can make them in steps. The order in which you do things isn’t that important--you can make part or all of a filling one day, and the crust another (or vice versa), and put it all together when you’re ready to bake.
Because they keep so well, they also can be made ahead, or frozen. If you do the whole thing, from start to finish, you’ll be working for about an hour, but none of the work will be that difficult. The yeasted olive oil crust is about the easiest pastry I’ve ever made.
Best of all, they’re big, dramatic and versatile. You can make them in a tart or springform pan, as a double-crusted torte, or you can make a more open-faced galette and bake it on a cookie sheet. They are meant to be served as a main dish, and they’re good hot or cold.
Tortes make great party fare, but they’re also a wonderful meal for the family; and leftovers pack easily into a lunchbox. This is one way I can get my 3 1/2-year-old to eat spinach. Of course, he hasn’t read Careme yet.
Halve the squash and scrape away the seeds and membranes, then cut the flesh into 4-inch-square pieces. (If using butternut, cut it in half crosswise just above the bulbous bottom part, then cut these halves into lengthwise quarters and scrape away the seeds and membranes.)
Steam the squash until tender, 15 to 20 minutes, then transfer to a colander and allow to cool and drain for another 15 minutes (butternut squash will not be watery). When the squash has cooled, peel and place in a bowl. Mash it with a fork, a large wooden spoon, a potato masher or a pestle. Stir in the parsley, mint, nutmeg, feta and Parmesan.
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat and add the leeks. Cook, stirring, until tender and just beginning to color, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and continue to cook for another minute, until fragrant. Remove from the heat and add to the squash. Beat the eggs and remove 2 tablespoons for brushing the tart, then mix with the squash. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Brush a 10- or 12-inch tart pan or cake pan with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and layer in 4 sheets of filo dough, placing them not quite evenly on top of each other so that the edges overlap the sides of the pan all the way around. Brush each sheet with olive oil (or a mixture of olive oil and melted butter) before adding the next sheet.
Fill with the squash mixture and fold the edges over. Brush the folded-over filo with olive oil, then layer 5 more sheets of dough over the top, brushing each sheet with olive oil. Crimp the edges into the sides of the pan.
Brush the top with the beaten egg you set aside. Pierce the top of the pie in several places with a sharp knife.
Bake until the top is golden brown, 40 to 50 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. Recrisp the crust if necessary in a 375-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes.
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