Chocolate & Spice

chocolate, spice and the other pleasures in life

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The First Time (Part I)

The first time for anything is an occasion you will always remember. The first time you rode a bike, kissed a guy, bought your first pair of high heels and baked your first cake. It's been a while since that last memory – that particular occasion would strike a familiar cord with most Singaporean school girls in the 90's who had to learn as part of their Home Economics class, the skill of rolling up a "swiss roll" without cracking it!

I then spent a large part of my teenage years in the school kitchen every Wednesday and Saturday afternoons putting together dishes, cakes and pastries of varying levels of difficulty as part of the lesson plans for my GCE "O" Levels for Food & Nutrition. The height of difficulty for me then was baking a fruit cake for Christmas which involved starting the whole process in September (6 hours of slow baking following 2 hours of prep!) after which I basted the cake with brandy for 3 months after – imagine the fumes when I finally cut the cake at our Christmas dinner! Rarely did I let a recipe go untested, even those on the back of flour bags/raisin & chocolate chip boxes, magazines and generally anywhere; as long as a recipe interested me, I would clip it, compile it in a file and try it out.

Following those intense years of baking and cooking, my skills fell into a period of long disuse where, like any other teenager, shopping, partying and going out took precedence over anything kitchen-related.

Time has turned a full circle and I find myself now, more than 10 years after setting down my spatula and apron, with time on my hands to play with flour, sugar and eggs again. Even enough time on my hand to compile recipes from all over including Epicurious, the back of produce boxes, magazines and favourite recipes of friends. As I haven't made anything more complicated than a peach pudding-cake in the past couple of years, and much as I want to dive right in and try all the lovely complicated-looking cakes in my cookbooks (the food blogs Nordljus, Kuidaore and Cupcake Bakeshop by Chocklit, amongst many others are big inspirations), I refrain and decided to start right from the beginning with simple basic recipes. I tried 3 simple recipes over the course of a week and will post separately on each of them beginning with the first below.

The Rustic Apple Tart

A couple of weeks ago, A was having a tough time at work, working all hours of the day (and much of the subsequent weekend) to complete a transaction after we drove back from Sydney earlier in the week. So inspired by an article I had read recently about apples, I decided to chance making a rustic apple tart with some leftover Pink Lady apples in our fridge following one of Nigel Slater's recipes from his book Real Cooking with some necessary adaptation, as a treat to cheer him up. It looked simple enough and I had most of the ingredients in my pantry already.

I love Nigel Slater's recipe books as most of his recipes are easy to recreate for daily meals. And now that I'm in Melbourne with easier access to the more easily-available ingredients for Western cooking (like artichokes, leeks and the like), it's been a pleasure trying out many of his recipes. I did hit a snag though when I tried his Lentil Soup with Mushrooms and Lemon using red lentils – one would naturally think that the soup would be orangey at the very least and not the sludge-like green mess (more porridge than soup) I ended up with. Tasty though it was redolent with the flavour of mushroom cut through with lemon, I couldn't stomach eating it although A had no problems! Thankfully, his recipes for sweeties don't usually have such tragic results.

Nigel Slater's recipe called for fruits like apples, plums, gooseberry, damson and blueberries and I only had apples in the fridge and wasn't about to trek out in the cold to buy the rest of the fruits (which would also be phenomenally expensive in winter). My only concession was to add some sultanas I had in the fridge. I was a little nervous with the pastry as I still lacked basic baking equipment and had to guess-timate the quantity of each of the ingredients (using a can of tomatoes to get an approximate idea of how much was 250g of flour). Worse still was the light kneading of the dough and rolling it out as I had to improvise using our dining room table and a wine bottle to do so and the dough stuck to the glass despite generous flouring of the surface. After transferring the dough to the baking tray, I spread the sliced apples out in a fan shape throughout 85% of the pastry, sprinkled the sultanas, drizzled some honey and dusted the top with caster sugar before folding up the edges roughly leaving part of the tart uncovered (explaining why the tart is "rustic"). It was with much relief when I finally bunged it into the oven.

I needn't have worried all that much even with all the guess-timating on my part – evidently, I hadn't lost all of my skills from those sweaty afternoons in the school kitchen! Light and flaky, the shortcrust pastry was a much better result than what I remembered from my long-ago pastry sessions – it's likely to be as a result of the weather in Melbourne being more conducive to pastry-making (without the heater, the temperature hovered around 20'C indoors, outdoors being 15'C). No picture of this as I hadn't used eggwash but milk as instructed by the recipe and I thought the resulting pale pastry too unappetizing to photograph. A didn't have any problems with it though, happily wolfing up a couple of slices with ice-cream and a generous splash of cream.

After finishing the tart, I belatedly recalled the section in Damien Pignolet's cookbook French titled "The Pastry Kitchen", which has helpful step-by-step photos and a more precise recipe for pate brisee (shortcrust pastry) and resolved to use that instead next time. I haven't reproduced either of Nigel Slater's or Damien Pignolet's recipes here as I trust that any true cook out there would have their own version of apple pie/tart using a pastry of their choice.

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