The scent of savoury custard cradled in buttery pastry as it emerges from the oven is one of the joys of a perfect quiche. The town of Lorraine on France's north-eastern border with Germany is considered the birthplace of quiche - hence quiche Lorraine - but it seems a forerunner called féouse was known in Nancy as early as the 16th century. The early versions had a yeasted crust, whereas today we use shortcrust or puff pastry.
The Alsace-Lorraine region is famous for both savoury and sweet quiches. The savoury varieties are usually made with vegetables, bacon and even rillettes set in custard, while the sweet quiches use local fruits, especially plums. The custard is generally made with eggs and cream, but some versions are part fresh cheese and part cream. The folk from Lorraine, however, insist quiche Lorraine contains only bacon, eggs and cream in shortcrust pastry; never cheese. The standard formula for the custard is three 60-gram eggs to 600ml of cream with seasonings.
The inspiration for the shortcrust pastry I've used here was a visit to the three-starred restaurant Frédy Girardet in the Swiss village of Crissier in 1980. The amuse-gueule was a sliver of onion tart with a shimmering onion-flavoured custard suspended in a crisp flaky crust that I could see wasn't puff pastry. Back in Sydney, my partner Josephine and I experimented with the simplest methods and achieved a near-perfect match for the master's magnificent tart.
I like to use a handmade method for this buttery shortcrust of two parts butter to three parts flour and just enough water to bind it. I sometimes use sparkling mineral water for a lighter crust. The logic behind the formula is to allow space for the richness of the flavoured custard filling.
Sift the flour with a good pinch of salt onto a work surface, scatter very cold diced butter over it, then toss with a pastry scraper to coat the butter. Splash with cold water then smear the ingredients away from you in a downward pushing action with the heel of your hand. Gather the partially combined dough and repeat; the French call this fraisage. The dough will look messy, with streaks of butter through it; these create a mild degree of flakiness to the cooked crust. Repeat this action to make a relatively smooth dough then form into a disc, wrap it in two layers of greaseproof paper and refrigerate it for at least half an hour. Don't let the dough get too hard, however, or it will have to be hammered before it can be rolled and this activates the gluten, causing the pastry to be tough.
Place the dough on a lightly flour-dusted work surface, dust it with flour and rub flour on the rolling pin, too. Roll out the pastry, lifting it and dusting it underneath, if needed, then rotate it and continue rolling until it's about 8cm-10cm wider than the tart tin.
The best tart tin for the job is a metal one about 3cm deep, with a removable base. Dust excess flour off the pastry, then roll it over the rolling pin and unroll it over the tart tin.
The key to a perfect quiche or tart shell is a crust that remains dry and flaky after the custard is cooked, so it needs to be baked blind: lined with foil, filled with weights and cooked for 10 minutes, or until the sides are firm. Metal or ceramic pastry weights are best, but if you don't have these, dried beans are a good option. I never use rice - it takes too long to absorb the heat of the oven.
Remove the foil and weights, and continue baking the crust until it's dry and golden.
Now add any pre-cooked ingredients such as asparagus, eggplant, zucchini or prawns, top with the hot custard and continue to bake. I combine the beaten eggs and seasoned, near-boiling cream, then slide out the oven shelf to add the custard so setting begins immediately once the shell is pushed back into the oven. Continue baking until the custard is set. Take care not to overcook the custard, or it will balloon up and fill with bubbles, and frankly taste unpleasant.
Test close to the prescribed cooking time by inserting a fine-bladed paring knife, which should emerge dryish. The custard needs to rest a little before serving - have a shallow bowl or smaller cake tin ready on the bench and place the quiche on top and gently allow the sides of the mould to drop to the bench, leaving the tart suspended on the base. Have a flat platter or wooden board on hand, then carefully slide the quiche off the base and onto the serving platter.
To cut the quiche, place two fingers on the outer edge of the crust and position a sharp serrated knife between them, with the tip in the centre of the quiche, then cut straight down. Use a cake slice to serve it.
The perfect quiche should have a crisp, flaky, slightly caramelised shell with walls that are not too thick, but strong enough not to crumble when cut. The custard should be silken and set only enough to hold its shape when portioned. The big test is with a soft-ingredient quiche, such as the onion tart we used to serve at Claude's: 2.7 litres of cream infused with an onion and a bay leaf for 30 minutes before being combined with beaten eggs, then ladled into the pastry crust for baking. The tip of the sliced tart would bow to one side, the silken custard just holding within the crisp, flaky crust.
It was a triumph.
Its origins may date back to the 16th century but the classic pairing of quivering custard and golden shortcrust never gets old, writes Damien Pignolet.