Category Archives: Pies and Tarts

Tears and Sap: Maple Pecan Brown Butter Tarts

9 tarts 2I very rarely cry, so when I found myself sobbing, twice in a span of less than a month, I had to take a step back and examine what exactly was going on here.

The first time I cried, I was halfway through the book  “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green.  I noticed a slow tricking of tears sliding down my cheeks. Within an hour, there was full on gushing. No question about it, I was sobbing. I went through a full box of Kleenex. For those not familiar with this book, I don’t want to give too much away in case you plan to read it. Let me just say that it is raw, genuine, alternately sad and funny and honestly all-out poignantly heartbreaking.

The book falls under the category of “YA (young adult) Literature.” At their core, YA books are for and about teenagers and pre-teens, usually between 12 and 18 years old. Full disclosure here, I am not in that age category. I will, however, admit that I am a sucker for this genre of writing. I have read the Harry Potter series (All seven books. TWICE!), the Twilight series (Team Jacob all the way!), and the Hunger Games series. The thing about these books is that good writing is good writing. If the characters are believable and the plot is compelling, its appeal will span a wide age range.

The second incidence of tears occurred this week, as I was binge watching “The Big C”, late at night when sleep eluded me. It was during the third episode of season 4 when again I noticed the quiet dribble of tears making their way, ever so slowly, down my cheeks. The main character, Cathy (brilliantly played by Laura Linney) has terminal melanoma. To ease the burden for her husband and son, she selflessly checks herself into a hospice to die. Her 17 year old son feels totally helpless and wants to do something for his mom. He sneaks into the hospice at 5:00 am and while his mom is deep in a morphine-drip induced slumber, he covers the ceiling above her bed in a huge collage of family pictures. When she wakes up and sees what he has done, it is all I can do to hold it together.

If my children are reading this,  you now know what to do with those thousands of pictures I tortured you by taking as you were growing up.

As I thought about my tears, specifically how they began as a leisurely crawl and progressed to a full on waterfall, I couldn’t help but make the maple syrup analogy. (Even in my deepest sorrow, food is not far from my thoughts. I must have a well developed right cerebral cortex!) When maple trees are tapped for their sap, the initial flow is just a mere dribble. As the weather warms up, the flow increases.

Our friend, Harold, who lives close to our cottage has a sugar bush. Every spring he gives us a 2 litre jug of maple syrup. Last summer I baked some raspberry tarts for him. He asked me if I had ever made maple tarts. He said they are just like butter tarts, but instead of corn syrup to sweeten them, you use maple syrup.

Butter tarts are the quintessential Canadian treat. Sadly, my experience with butter tarts does not come from a tattered recipe handed down from generation to generation. For me, butter tarts will always be associated with the summers I worked as a counsellor at an overnight camp. On our day off, my friends and I would hitch hike from camp into the nearby town of Haliburton Ontario. When I think about some of the rides we accepted, climbing into the back of pick up trucks with strange men, I shudder. But, in our defence, we were young and the part of our brain that deals in common sense was not yet fully formed.

When we arrived in town our first stop was the laundromat. Then, while our clothes were spinning, we shopped at Foodland, for a picnic lunch and treats to keep us fed until our next day off, as camp food was less than stellar. We would park ourselves on the beach by the lake and eat our feast. We always finished with a huge box of butter tarts. They were tooth achingly sweet but we craved that sugar rush. The main source of sugar came from high fructose corn syrup. We had no idea what an evil thing it was in those days.

So when Harold told me that you could substitute maple syrup for the corn syrup, I felt my insides do a little flip! Could it possibly be true? He brought me a recipe and I tucked it away, vowing to try them as soon as the sap began running again in the spring. It just seemed wrong to make maple tarts in the summer. Well, I am thrilled to report to you that, yes, maple tarts are real, and they’re spectacular!4 tarts square 625I fiddled a little bit with Harold’s recipe and added some whole-wheat flour. I like the earthy depth of flavour that it contributes. I also browned the butter in the filling. Browned butter has an intense aroma and nutty flavour that really complements the maple syrup in the filling. These tarts are undeniably sweet, but the flavour profile is layered, with the molasses in the brown sugar contributing an assertive acidic sweetness, while the maple syrup adds a deep, caramelized toasty sweetness. There is a touch of cider vinegar and salt in the filling, to help balance all the sweetness. ingredientsThe dough comes together fairly quickly. No food processor is needed. I used Michael Smith’s dough recipe. His method involves grating frozen butter into the flour and then using your hands to gently knead it.grating butter 

cutting rounds of dough

muffin tin lined with doughI added toasted chopped pecans and raisins to mine, but feel free to leave them out if you like.raisins and pecansraisins and pecans in tart shellsWhen you brown the butter for the filling, stay by the stove and watch closely. It can turn from brown to black in the blink of an eye. Transfer it to a measuring cup when it reaches the perfect shade of brown. This will stop the cooking process instantly. It will smell nutty and toasty. brown butterResist the urge to sample as soon as they come out of the oven. Let them cool completely before you try to remove them from the muffin pan.baked tartstarts on parchment paper

Click here to print recipe for Maple Pecan Brown Butter Tarts.

broken in half 4

Traditions and a Brown Butter Apple Tart

two tarts 2 625 sqTraditions. All families have them. Those little rituals passed down from generation to generation that help shape your family by creating a sense of interconnectedness, you know, that warm fuzzy feeling that makes you appreciate being a part of this clan. Traditions can help create memories that fill your mind with laughter, love and joy. Hopefully your family has multiple positive traditions and not too many of the negative ones, that sadly get passed from generation to generation, like the ancient family recipe for guilt and passive-aggressive bullying!

Almost every summer my siblings, their spouses and kids and my mom descend upon us at the cottage for the Labour Day weekend. About eight years ago my youngest sister and brother and I were swimming in the lake and the next thing we knew, we had swum from our cottage to a little island in the middle of our lake, and back again, about a 2 kilometer swim. No one can really remember how the decision to swim this little marathon came about, but we have repeated the swim every summer since then. Lest you think we are elite athletes or something like that, let me assure you we swim the entire way with head-up breaststroke. None of us likes putting our heads in the water. So we talk and laugh, and cough the entire way there and back. My husband insists I wear a waist belt that has a little swimmers safety flag attached to it so that boats can see me and not run me over. He loves me dearly, I guess!the swimmersOver the years, various other family members have joined us and in 2009, my then 9 year old niece did the swim for her very first time! She is part mermaid. Last year my brother’s new wife joined us for the first time and we almost had to boot her out of the club when she started doing a proper crawl stroke and actually got her head wet. This summer she is 7 months pregnant, so we excused her. My brother made up some baseball hamstring injury excuse so he did not join us either. My 14 year old nephew completed the swim for the first time this summer and we were all very thrilled about that.

I have one brother-in-law that is known for his competitive nature. The first year he joined us for the swim, he was upset that my sister and I were swimming faster than he was. He claimed that it was his swim trunks that were slowing him down. Apparently they were not very aerodynamic as they kept filling up with water. Being the keen competitor he is, he removed the swim trunks, and swam commando. We made him promise to never do that again! Every third year, my cousin Lewis joins us, and he has come to treasure this new tradition, as well as the Double Coconut Granola and yogurt breakfast that awaits him when he is done. In addition to my little safety flag, we always have a canoe alongside us just in case someone gets too tired. This year my brother-in-law Guy got coerced into the role of spotter.

Regular readers of this blog may already know that my drink of choice in the summer is a cold glass of Prosecco. While I have no problem drinking alone, (I find my own company very amusing!), cracking open a bottle and sharing it with my sisters is even more enjoyable and has become a tradition that we have all come to love. However, this past weekend we only drank one bottle of Prosecco. We discovered a new wine that we all fell in love with. My siblings and mom brought me a case of assorted wines as a little thank you gift.bottle and glassWe all became smitten with a California wine by Ironstone called “Obsession.”. Made from the Symphony grape (a hybrid of the muscat and grenache gris grape), this wine was luscious. My brother-in-law chilled it in the freezer an hour before we served it. It has floral and citrus notes, with peach and pear overtones. It is clean and balanced with a crisp and slightly acidic finish, which saves the wine from being too cloyingly sweet. It is the perfect aperitif wine. A new tradition has been born!

I decided to test a new Rosh Hashanah recipe over the weekend since I had my niece Kailey here with me. Although she is only 12, she is an extremely gifted baker. She did all the baking and I shot the pictures. We made a brown butter apple tart, a take on the traditional Rosh Hashanah Apple Cake. Browned butter is one of those magical culinary techniques that makes everything taste  and smell better.

kneadingrolling dough

lining tart panlining pie shellThe custard filling is enhanced with vanilla bean and brown butter. It doesn’t get much better than that.  Topped with thinly sliced apple rings, this tart is sure to become a new Rosh Hashanah or fall tradition at your house.apples 2

placing applesbrown butter fillingNot only did my niece bake the tarts, she also helped wash the dishes!washing dishesicing sugar

Click here to print recipe for Brown Butter Apple Tart.

a slice

 

The Scent of Nostalgia and a Very Full Tart.

baked 625 sqAt this time of year, the scent of pencil shavings takes me right back to my childhood. I can close my eyes and clearly picture standing in the basement storage room where my mom had bolted the hand crank pencil sharpener to the shelf.hand crank pencil sharpener 2I would stand there for a good 45 minutes using great care to put a perfect point on each and every one of my 48 pack of Laurentian Coloured Pencils. (Or you may remember them as Pencil Crayons.) Did you know that the little white oval on each pencil was there so you could write your name on the pencils? I had no idea until this week!Pencil crayons 2Sometimes our friends would come over to use it because most kids in our neighbourhood only had the little hand sharpener. We were a very modern household. There was always a scurry to see which one of my sisters would get to go first. No one wanted to be last, because that meant you had to empty the pencil shavings. Inevitably, the shavings would spill on the floor and then our mom would yell at us to clean it up. Then there was the nasty blister you would develop on the webbing between your thumb and first finger, from gripping the handle on the sharpener for so long. So, all in all, a bittersweet memory I guess!laurentien package 2My personal favourite colours were #3 Poppy Red and # 7 Peacock Blue. #22 Sky Magenta also holds a very special place in my heart! I think this must be where OPI got the inspiration for naming their nail polish colours. I am too young to remember this, but apparently, the Laurentian company was taken to task for political incorrectness. In 1962 they changed the name of #14 from Natural Flesh to Blush Pink (Flesh comes in all sorts of colours!), and in 1966 #21, originally given the moniker Indian Red, was reborn as Chestnut.

Of all our senses, smell seems to have the strongest connection with emotional memories. Howard Eichenbaum, director of the Laboratory of Cognitive Neurobiology at Boston University explains this phenomenon,

“After a smell enters the nose, it travels through the cranial nerve through the olfactory bulb, which helps the brain process smells. The olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain. As a member of the limbic system, the olfactory bulb can easily access the amygdala, which plays a role in emotional memories. Olfactory has a strong input into the amygdala, which process emotions. The kind of memories that it evokes are good and they are more powerful.”

Sadly, Laurentian Coloured Pencils are no longer available for sale. There are other brands on the market, but it’s just not the same. And, if you can believe it, the Crayola brand now comes pre-sharpened. Kids today have no idea how easy they have it!

Although it has been years since I was in school, late summer will always be associated with those beautiful pencil crayons. Now as an adult, I celebrate the early fall colours at the market with the plethora of rainbow coloured produce.

I knew exactly where to go to look for inspiration. I have had Yotam Ottolenghi’s beautiful vegetable cookbook, Plenty, sitting on my shelf for over a year now. My daughter and I leafed through it, trying to decide what to make. We earmarked over 15 recipes we wished we could eat right off the pages (the photos by Jonathan Lovekin are reason enough to buy the book!), and finally settled on his “Very Full Tart.”, a Mediterranean style quiche packed full with roasted vegetables, feta and ricotta.

I will warn you right now, that this tart is a labour of love. From start to finish, it took almost 4 hours. Now, much of this was unattended time, waiting for dough to chill and vegetables to roast, but this is not fast food. We chose sweet potatoes, cauliflower, zucchini and corn to fill our tart with.roasted veg 2Roasted red and yellow peppers make a fine addition as well.peeling peppersThe original recipe calls for 11 ounces of “pie crust dough”. You could of course buy a ready made pie crust, but I thought this stellar tart deserved something better. I had been wanting to try Cook’s Illustrated foolproof pie dough for a while now. The secret ingredient in this dough is vodka!vodka 2 Cook’s Illustrated explains, “Since water bonds with flour to form gluten, too much of it makes a crust tough. But rolling out dry dough is difficult. For a pie dough recipe that baked up tender and flaky and rolled out easily every time, we found a magic ingredient: vodka. Using vodka, which is just 60 percent water, gave us an easy-to-roll crust recipe with less gluten and no alcohol flavor, since the alcohol vaporizes in the oven.”

This dough was a dream to roll out. It was supple and rolled out beautifully. The recipe makes enough for 2 tarts, so freeze one to use another day.tart pan ready for pie weightstart pan with weights

assembling 1assembling 2Ricotta, feta, cherry tomatoes, fresh thyme and some egg and cream finish off the tart.assembling 3assembling 4My daughter declared this the best dinner I have ever made for her. High praise indeed for a humble vegetable tart. It is possible that her effusive accolades were due in part to the fact that she just arrived home after living in a dorm for the past 6 weeks, working as an RA and TA. But I took a bite and damn if she wasn’t right. It was delicious!

A perfectly balanced tart, overflowing with caramelized goodness. The flaky buttery crust gives way to the creamy tangy filling, owing to feta, ricotta and cream and eggs. The extra time required to roast the vegetables adds a depth of flavour that makes it all worthwhile. I especially loved the little crunch from the roasted corn kernels and the sweet blistered cherry tomatoes that topped the tart.

Click here to print recipe for A Very Full Tart.

Click here to print recipe for Cook’s Illustrated Pie Dough with Vodka.baked 2 

Finding Religion in a Lime Pie.

Pie on cakeplate 625aYesterday at spin class, when I climbed down off my bike after an especially gruelling 55 minute class, I noticed a few drops of water under my bike. I checked to see if my water bottle was leaking, but no, the lid was screwed on tight. Suddenly it dawned on me that the liquid on the ground was my own sweat. If you are not a spinner, you may not realize the significance of this discovery. It is the athletic equivalent to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

There is a right of passage in the Jewish religion known as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  When a young boy turns 13 he has a Bar Mitzvah and we say “Today you are a man.” For girls the age is 12 and it is called a Bat Mitzvah (we mature faster!).

Today, after spinning consistently 3-4 times a week, for the past 6 months, I have finally worked hard enough to produce an actual puddle of sweat, albeit small, under my bike. I would have shouted, “Today I am a spinner” but I had not one ounce of energy left to even utter mazel-tov.

When I got home, all I could think of was celebrating with something sweet and salty to replace all those precious calories I sweated away. And then I remembered the “Oh My God” pie recipe my friend Marla had sent me. It seemed a fitting way to commemorate this milestone in my life.

Marla found this recipe on NPR’s series, Found Recipes. Cooks, bakers and food writers share dishes that have surprised or delighted them. Katie Workman, author of “The Mom Cookbook: 100 Recipes Every Mom Needs in her Back Pocket”, shared Chef Bill Smith’s recipe for Atlantic Beach Pie.

This is a traditional pie, served all up and down the North Carolina Coast. Similar to a key lime or lemon meringue pie, but with a twist. The difference is in the crust. Instead of a traditional pastry or graham wafer crust, this crust is made from saltine crackers. Bill parted with tradition and topped his simply, with whipped cream, instead of the traditional meringue topping.

slice on pie serverBill said that when he was growing up it was common knowledge in his part of the world that you would get very sick if you ate dessert after a seafood dinner. This pie was the only exception and it was served in all the seafood restaurants on the North Carolina coast.

Recently, Katie was dining at Bill’s Chapel Hill North Carolina restaurant, Cook’s Corner. After an amazing dinner of shrimp and grits, fried oysters and hush puppies, Katie says  she was stuffed and had no room for another bite. But then Bill brought out a slice of this pie. Katie took one bite and had her “When Harry met Sally” moment. All she could utter, between bites, was “Oh my god, Oh my god, Oh my god!”

What makes this pie so outstanding is the crust. Crushed saltines, a bit of sugar and softened butter are transformed into a thick, dense, crispy, salty crust. No dough rolling, just press it into a pan and pre-bake the shell, while you prepare the filling.crushing crackers

pressing crust into pie plateThe filling is made with lime (or lemon) juice, sweetened condensed milk and egg yolks.squeezing limesI learned a great trick for whipping cream ahead of time from pastry chef Anna Olsen. Her secret is to add 1 tablespoon of skim milk powder for each cup of whipping cream at any point during the whipping process to stabilize it. She says, “It doesn’t impact the taste or texture, but it stabilizes the whipped cream. You can pipe it, you can dollop it, every swirl and swish will stay in place for a full 24 hours. If you ice a cake you can cut it and you get these clean perfect slices and the whipped cream stays whipped.”whipping cream I decided to get fancy with my whipped cream and I put it into a piping bag, fitted with a star tip, to  top the pie. You could just spread the whipped cream over the pie with a knife, or even serve it on the side, with a slice.piping whipped cream

on wire rack

This pie is a study in contrasts. The crispy crust is in perfect balance with the silky creamy filling and the billowy whipped cream topping. The saltiness in the crust is utterly complemented by the tanginess of the lime and the sweetness of the condensed milk. This is beautiful harmony in a pie. slice on a plate 2Click here to print recipe for Oh My God Pie.

Berry Brown Butter Tarts

 

These adorable mini raspberry tarts actually started their life as a cherry tart. It all began a few weeks ago when my brother-in-law sent me a link to this blog. The talented Rowena of Apron and Sneakers made a stunning cherry tart. As soon as cherries started rolling into the market, I bought a big box and got to work.

I had such high hopes for this tart. Fresh cherries in a tart with a brown butter filling. What could be bad? To be honest, the filling was just too sweet for me. I have discovered that I only really like cherries in their raw form. I think it’s that slight snap when you bite into a firm cherry, as it gives way to the sweet juicy fruit inside. For me, when cherries are cooked, they lose what makes them so special.

While the filling was just ok, the crust was fantastic. Buttery, slightly sweet and browned to perfection it was reminiscent of a cookie. I knew I had to make this again, but in mini form so I could maximize the crust to filling ratio. Admittedly, mini tarts are more work than one big tart, but I was convinced it would be worth it. The stands at the market this week were overflowing with raspberries and the little wild blueberries, that make me scream with joy, were just starting to arrive. The heady scent of the ripe berries filled my car and made me slightly dizzy as I drove back to the cottage.

The dough comes together really quickly. No mixer needed. Flour, sugar, vanilla, a pinch of salt and some melted butter are combined in a mixing bowl. The original recipe uses all-purpose flour but I snuck in a bit of whole wheat flour, not because I am delusional to believe that 1/4 cup of whole wheat flour will make this a healthy dessert, but because I thought it would really enhance the nuttiness of this crust. I unearthed my mini tart pans from my basement graveyard shelf of unloved and useless kitchen gadgets. The dough just pressed into the tart pans, no rolling required.

To ensure maximum crunch in the pastry, the shells are pre-baked before filling. While they are in the oven, prepare the  filling. The butter is cooked over low heat until it turns a light brown. Do not walk away when doing this. It goes from light brown to black in a flash! The smell of the brown butter is intoxicating. Brown butter gives a real depth of flavour to the filling.

Click here to print recipe for Berry Brown Butter Tarts.

The crisp tart shell shatters when you bite into it, giving way to tangy berries in a nutty brown butter filling. These are summer perfection!