5 April 2012

But wait just a minute

Oh boy -- have I missed out on posting a single word in March! How did this happen? Who is to blame? There was no conspiracy plotted by the Russian government to interrupt my blogging -- I didn't have to transmit any information to Vladimir in exchange for the freedom to write about cakes and other deliciousness; nobody twisted my arms; I wasn't abducted by aliens. Nothing, really nothing prevented me from showing up duly with a new story, except only-God-knows-what. But wait just a minute...I'm not being quite truthful here.

Stay with me; I need to circle around to first tell you that I turned into a troubled sleeper lately, quite a novelty for me, for I considered myself something of a slumber natural. Tellingly, I’m not good at all to deal with insomnia calmly. When it rolls in, I swiftly get into a state and ventilate about a pending sleep deprivation, a subsequent slow performance at work, a possible bout of gut-wrenching depression that, in my book, always goes hand-in-hand with a substandard diet of candy (M&M’s), and so on, and so forth. All that makes me even more wound up to peacefully depart to bed, except, I discovered, if I watch TV. So staring into yet another wakeful night I felt free to subject my groggy eyes to the viewing of The Colbert Report programmed by the TV geniuses on repeat the whole night through, seeing me off into the next day’s wee hours. The gentle observer would dub the phenomenon as dumbness, but let me just tell I consider that time well spent, if only for one reason alone: through the Colbert Report I learnt about Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, a book that I would give my every free waking hour for days that followed. And not just once, for after reaching the end I would turn to the first pages and start again. I’ve downed it three times, in a row.

I love reading. All those stories, fictional or non-, unfolding behind the freshly crisp or time-battered pages; the way the pages rustle, if new, and whisper, if old, under the gentle nudge of my fingers; the graceful prose stretching from word to word; the characters, real or imaginative, leaving a trace, however subtle or palpable, of themselves in my mind well after a book has been devoured.

There are dozens of cherished tomes on my book shelves, but there are very few that have gripped me, literally and beyond, the way Katherine Boo’s did. Hers, in large brush strokes, is a true account of the life in a Mumbai slum, the life, as it transpires, that is full of hope, of search for opportunity in the poignantly unequal urban India, as much as it is the life full of demise, physical, moral and emotional. For three years Boo followed the slum dwellers about their daily routines, documenting, patiently, non-judgementally, the tender and heart-breaking truths behind the walls of the Mumbai international airport, the walls that separate a slum from the luxurious hotels and the lives of the rich.

Irrespective of some parts that were too overwhelming to read, so much so that I had to put the book down for a while, it is not a grim story of the grisly reality. Showing the abject poverty, the festering hunger, the ambient corruption, all personalized, let’s just say it’s bound to quietly put many a thing into perspective for the reader, at least it did for me.

I think of Abdul, a scaredy-cat sixteen-years-old, squatting in front of his family hut, sorting out garbage that young, fearless ribby scavengers like Sunil had brought in from their charges along the Sahar Airport Road. He assigns plastic to one pile, aluminium scraps to another, getting ready to schlep it all to recyclers, providing therefore an income for his family of eleven. I think of Meena, a fifteen-year-old, living in, or rather, beaten into domestic submission, contemplating suicide. I think of young but late boys Kalu and Sanjay, and what had possibly gone through their minds before they died. I want to forget none of them; I won’t. I also think how often I forget what I’ve been blessed with – health, home, food, job – and how this book, how these youths, remind me not to.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers -- a must-read. Which is what I’ve been up the last three or so weeks. But wait just a minute...that’s not the single thing I repeatedly did back then. I also got to make -- huk! -- whole lemon tart.

The recipe comes from Melissa Clark’s In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite, a book of her essays and recipes originally written for her veritable NYT column. Although not entirely unimaginable as such, this whole lemon tart business surprised me quite a bit. You see, the lemon tart we make at Gebr. Niemeijer is the kind made with fresh lemon cream presiding over a toasty sweet pastry shell. Whisk that concoction of sugar, eggs and lemon juice over boiling water non-stop, come what may, for as long as it takes to get to the right temperature without complaining and/or sobbing, and you are not a rooky any more. That you can forego the shoulder strain to make a nice lemon tart did never occur to me before.

All you need to do, except fixing an almond tart shell, which itself is a cinch, is blend a couple peeled and deseeded lemons with sugar, mix that all up with eggs and melted butter, and blissfully send the band in a pre-baked tart shell to be cooked in the oven. No pain, no gain? I don’t think so. What you’ll get is a very fine lemon tart, fresh and tongue tickling, its flavour no lesser zealous than that of the tart with the airy, and punchy, and pompous stovetop lemon cream. The lemon flavour in this version is more subdued, and relaxed, velvety, even -- and with the pastry, rather than on it, if you know what I mean. I like it.

And…looking so sunny and bright, it would make a fitting Easter sweet, this whole lemon tart.

Happy Spring, Reader!

Whole Lemon Tart

Adapted from In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite, by Melissa Clark
Yield: 8-10 servings

There are two things in the original recipe that I did differently. First: I reversed the way the pastry dough is made. Instead of cutting the butter in the flour-egg mixture, I creamed the butter first, adding the rest of the ingredients – confectioners' (powdered) sugar, almonds, egg – one after another, flour being mixed in last, which is, actually, how I learnt to make sweet dough at work. Another reason being I don’t own a food processor to pulse the butter into the flour as Clark does.

Second: since the butter was so immoderately (to my taste) seeping out of the lemon filling, I dialled down the amount of butter in more than a half, and the recipe still worked like a charm.

Last: I like my lemon tart more sour than sweet, which is why I also decreased the amount of sugar here, but just a mite.

For the almond tart shell:

110 g (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold and cubed
40 g (1/3 cup) confectioners’ sugar
85 g (1/2 cup lightly packed) ground blanched almonds
Freshly grated zest of 1/2 lemon (I used zest of a whole lemon)
Pinch salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
190 g (1 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour

For the lemon filling:

2 large lemons
220 g (1 cup plus 1 1/2 Tbsp) granulated sugar
17 g (2 Tbsp) cornstarch
Pinch salt
45 g (3 Tbsp) butter, melted
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting (optional)

1. In a medium bowl and using a hand-held electric mixer, beat the butter at medium speed until it starts to soften, about 1 minute. Add the confectioners’ sugar and beat until light and fluffy, 1-2 minutes. Mix in the ground almonds, salt and lemon zest; scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the egg and beat until incorporated. Add the flour, and using your hands combine it with the rest of the mixture. Don’t knead or squeeze; the motion of your hands should resemble that of the claw in a teddy picker – grip, and release, grip, and release. This way you mix in the flour without working it too much. Stop when the dough – it will be crumbly – just comes together. Press into a disc, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 1 hour or overnight.

2. When ready to bake the tart, roll the dough out between two sheets of parchment paper into a circle 35-cm (14-inch) in diameter. Line a buttered 24-cm (9-inch) tart pan with the dough and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

3. Pre-heat the oven to 160 C (325 F). Line the tart shell with the parchment paper and fill with baking weights/beans/or copper coins. Bake until the tart shell is pale golden, 20-25 minutes. The tart shell can be baked up to 8 hours before filling.

4. To make the filling, grate the lemon zest and place it in the bowl of a blender (or that of a food processor). With a sharp knife, cut the tops and the bottoms off the lemons. Stand each lemon up and remove the white pith by following the curve of the fruit with the knife. (First time I did a clumsy job and left a few bits of the white pith here and there; as a result, the lemon filling tasted slightly bitter.) Cut the fruit into thin rounds and remove the seeds. Put the fruit in the blender and add the sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Blend until thoroughly combined. Scrape the mixture into a medium mixing bowl.

5. In a separate bowl, whisk together the melted butter, egg, egg yolks, and vanilla. Pour the egg-butter mixture into the lemon mixture and whisk to incorporate. Pour the lemon filling into the tart shell and bake until the top is bubbly and lightly browned, 30-45 minutes. Cool completely in the pan. Cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days. Before serving, dust with confectioners’ sugar, if desired.

1 comment:

J said...

Its true, now you mention shoulder strain, whisking food can be a really hard job!