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Mother wasn’t right about white flour

Making pastry with wholemeal flours can lead to a modest baking revolution

Photo: Pamela Timms.
Photo: Pamela Timms.

It feels as if the earth has shifted slightly in my kitchen. For all of my baking life I’ve believed that the best pastry is made with white flour; that it should be as light as air, held together by the finest butter, and that it’s highest purpose is to melt instantly upon contact with the tongue.

I have believed this to the very core of my being because my mother told me it was so. Light, white pastry was one of her many Commandments of Cooking, which also included: Porridge should always be salty, the best food is plain food (preferably a maximum of three ingredients), and most things are best without nuts.

Pastry made with wholemeal flour, she believed, was just wrong, likely to make your pies unappetizingly tough and fit only for a life in a 1970s hippy commune.

Partly my mother’s generation still believed that pastry’s only function was to encase delicious fillings. It was a time when men still worked in coal mines and pastry pies like the Cornish Pasty were devised as a way for them to carry their meat and vegetables to work. The shape of the pasty, with a crimped seam for the hungry worker to hold on to meant there was also no need for cutlery. My father never, as far as I’m aware, went anywhere near a mine but growing up, the apples in a tart, the fruity filling of a mince pie, the steak and kidney under it’s shortcrust topping were still very much the main event. The idea of putting anything in the pastry apart from flour, butter, salt and water would have been unthinkable and pointless for both my mother and I.

Then recently I started to experiment with savoury pastries, using more unusual flours and adding herbs, cheeses and nuts and was devastated to find that, for once, my mother wasn’t right. Subtle additions to pastry make a dramatic difference to the overall dish.

So this tart is a celebration of a modest baking revolution, one that I hope you’ll try, if you haven’t already because, although I don’t think my mother would have believed it, it’s really, really delicious.

Caramelized Leek, Sweet Potato and Walnut Tart

Serves 4-6

For the pastry


250g wholemeal flour (I used spelt flour, which is especially delicious but if it’s not available, use atta)

1 tsp salt

50g walnuts

75g butter, diced small

1 egg, beaten with 4 tbsp of iced water


Blitz the flour, salt and walnuts together in a food processor for a few seconds until the walnuts are all broken up into very small pieces (not quite powdered). Add the butter and blitz again for a few seconds until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Pour in all but about one tablespoon of the egg/water and blitz again until the pastry starts to bind together. Tip it out on a lightly floured surface and form the pastry into a ball, adding a little more water if necessary. Wrap the pastry in cling film and put it in the fridge for about 30 minutes while you make the filling.

For the Leek and Sweet Potato Filling


700g sweet potato

500g leek (the white and light green part only)

2 tsp of panch phoron spice mix (optional but delicious if you happen to
have some lying around)

2 tbsp olive oil

25g butter


Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius.

Peel and chop the sweet potato into 2cm dice. Tip it into a bowl with the panch phoron and one tablespoon of the olive oil. Spread the sweet potato pieces on to a baking tray and then bake for about 30 minutes or until they are soft and slightly caramelized.

While the sweet potato is in the oven, cut the leeks into 1cm slices. Melt the butter in a large pan, add the other tablespoon of olive oil then add the leek. Cook gently, until the leeks are very soft and caramelized around the edges—stir frequently to make sure they don’t burn. Let the vegetables cool a little, then mix them gently together.

Take the pastry out of the fridge and place on a piece of non-stick paper. Roll it into a circle about 3mm thick. Then place the paper and pastry on a large baking sheet. Spoon the vegetables into the centre of the pastry and then gently fold the edges of the pastry circle up over the vegetables, pinching any splits together. Brush the pastry with the remaining tablespoon of egg/water. Bake for about 30 minutes or until the pastry is golden brown.

The Way We Eat Now is a fortnightly column on new ways of cooking seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains. Pamela Timms tweets at @eatanddust and posts on Instagram as Eatanddust.

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