Friday, July 17, 2009

a winter story for high summer

I've returned from Beijing, and it appears that my blog hasn't vanished in my absence. It's looking a bit cobwebby though, isn't it? I've got links to update and a month's worth of everyone else's updates to read, but first, I have to get my entry for the Summer 2009 edition of Novel Food together so that I can just sneak in under the wire.

Getting together my entry has been an adventure. I think I may have set a new record for the longest time between preparing a dish and actually getting it written up. And to be perfectly honest, I also did this Novel Food challenge backwards. I had limited ingredients, limited kitchen supplies, and perhaps worst of all, a limited library, so I started with the ingredients, and worked my way out.

When my grandmother went for one of her routine check-ups on my uncle's house (he doesn't spend much time in Beijing; it's used mostly as a sort of showroom for the antique furniture he sells), she came back with two big sacks of fruit from the nectarine tree and the apricot tree in the courtyard. Most of the apricots were tending towards overripe. Some of them were bruised. My grandmother deemed them unsuitable for the fruit bowl, and I knew the opportunity was too good to pass up: I could use them in my dish for Novel Food.

In an effort to keep my ingredients to a minimum, I made a freeform apricot tart. Lacking both vanilla and almond extract, and finding only sealed bottles of brandy in my grandfather's liquor cabinet, I macerated the apricots in whiskey.

Once I had the dish, I needed a literary work. I knew I'd read some novel or story in which apricots or apricot tarts (or fruit tarts, at least) had played a role, and so I turned to Google to see if anything jogged my memory. Wonderfully, it did. I rediscovered a book I read more than fifteen years ago, one that I had almost, but not quite, forgotten. Unfortunately, I couldn't get hold of a copy in Beijing. After putting out a distress call to friends, I found someone who was willing to read the relevant bits and write me a refresher. (Thanks, Charlene!)

So my choice, if not quite inspiration, for the Summer 2009 edition of Novel Food is Adele Geras' Apricots at Midnight. The book is a collection of short stories told to the narrator, a young girl, by her Aunt Pinny. The common theme is their connection to a wonderful patchwork quilt made by Aunt Pinny: the daughter of a dressmaker, Aunt Pinny pieced it together from her mother's scraps.

"Apricots at Midnight," the title story, is tied to a patch of red velvet cut from the lining of a highwayman's cloak. Well, not quite a real highwayman: he's actually a shy, unassuming man by the name of Mr. Triptree, who happens to be married to a rich society dame who loves to host lavish affairs. Mrs. Triptree's costume ball is the social event of the year, and Pinny's mother is asked to make Mr. Triptree's costume.

Pinny hears tantalizing details about the refreshments from the butcher and the baker in the days leading up to it: whole roast suckling pigs, with oranges stuck in their mouths, roast peacock presented with its tail feathers spread, and a fairy castle in royal icing, "set in a snowdrift of sugar... complete with turrets, and pennants flying and a thousand windows at least."

When Mrs. Triptree's maid falls ill, Pinny's mother is asked to stand in and mend costumes as necessary during the event, and so Pinny comes along. She meets Mr. Triptree before the party begins; he confesses that he'd much rather escape the entire affair and have dinner at his club. Later, she watches the party from the top of the stairs; Mr. Triptree sees her, waves, and shortly after, comes up with two big trays of food, explaining that he thinks Pinny will enjoy the feast much more than the grown-ups. It appears that he's quite right:

"Oh, my dear, if only I could list for you all the delightful things piled up on those two trays! Little china baskets where marzipan strawberries and cherries lay in green leaves, slices of pink salmon, with crescent moons of lemon lying beside them, roast pork, roast peacock, cakes decorated with icing sugar violets, pale asparagus fingers, and brave scarlet circles of tomatoes. Right in the centre of one tray, there was a bowl of fruit: grapes, and tangerines and apricots with plush skins the colour of sunset."

I've written before about my fascination with midnight feasts, so you can imagine how much I loved the idea of this one as a child. Even now, I think Mr. Triptree has the right idea: I wouldn't go so far as to disappear from the party entirely, but I'd certainly find a quiet corner in which to feast in peace. In fact, that strategy works quite well with this tart.

Apricot Tart

The pastry used for this tart is "blitz" or "rough" puff, a quick-and-dirty version of true puff pastry. Be sure to roll out the pastry as thinly as possible. Too thick, and it'll turn out like rather buttery flatbread.

(Serves one, with leftovers)

Dump one cup of flour and a half-teaspoon of salt into a big bowl. Cut in one stick of chilled butter, and work the pieces in with your fingertips until the largest lumps are no bigger than peas. Add chilled water a few tablespoons at a time, until the mixture is crumbly, but holds its shape when pressed together.

Turn the mixture out on a clean countertop. Press it into a rough rectangle, and roll it out with a rolling pin to a half-inch thickness. Fold it into thirds, as though you were folding a letter. (It'll be crumbly and messy; just press it together if it falls apart.) Roll out the dough again; fold it again. Repeat the process one more time, then wrap the dough and stick it in the fridge to chill.

Take six or seven ripe apricots, cut them into halves, and put them in another bowl. Add a quarter-cup to a third-cup of sugar (depending on the ripeness of your apricots), and a splash of brandy or whiskey. Toss to combine. Cover and leave in the fridge to macerate.

Once an hour has passed, preheat the oven to 350F.

Remove the dough from the fridge. Roll it out in a rough circle, and transfer it to a baking tray. Arrange the apricots on the dough, and fold the edges over to create a rough border. Pour over any syrup that has gathered in the bowl.

Bake for forty to forty-five minutes, or until the pastry is golden and the filling is bubbling. Serve warm with cream.


One Rotten Apple said...

This looks like such a great autumn dessert. I don't know why. I don't even eat dessert anymore. But it does. With a giant cup of tea, a big blankie and a huge book. Oh how I swoon over your culinary adventures.

Lisa said...

"Serve warm with cream." I should say so! That unorthodox tart looks great—the apricots look so plump and luscious and sinfully delicious.

I had never heard of that author or collection of stories; I'd like to check it out sometime.

Thanks so much for going above and beyond the call of duty to take part in our event once again! I hope we'll be hearing more about your trip.

Simona said...

I like the title of the book! And what a fun story! Mr. Triptree sounds like an endearing character. Definitely an interesting take on the Novel Food concept. Thanks for participating!

adele said...

One Rotten Apple - I'm glad you like the look of it. Maybe I can persuade you to start eating dessert again? :P

Lisa - It's a lovely collection. The writing's lyrical and whimsical; probably a good book for reading aloud.

As long as I have internet and some sort of kitchen setup, I'm doing this challenge. :)

Simona - Isn't he great? I can't help but feel a bit sorry for him - maybe Mrs. Triptree was less of a socialite when he married her?

librariane said...

Oh man, this sounds like a great little book--I'll have to search my library website for it.

And great on doing it backwards! I toyed with that idea for the next one, as I have a recipe I really want to do (I even have pictures ready to go), but not sure of a book yet... ;)

adele said...

librariane - It's a charming book. I'm glad I rediscovered it!

I think technically, the challenge asks us to start with a book, but it was an interesting exercise in creative thinking. :)

librariane said...

I think you're right... and the librarian in me is a little more powerful than the foodie in me, so the need to share a great book will most likely win out anyway. :)

Flory said...

i've said this before on several other blogs, but i really really wish i had access to all these northern-hemisphere temperate fruits. cheaper access. cheaper, fresher, better access. it looks delicious. "Apricots at Midnight" sounds like my kind of dish and story.

(and please have that mad hatter tea party. they are so much fun)

adele said...

Flory - I think it's a tradeoff. You get mangosteens and durians and dragonfruit, right? I had New England friends who thought dragonfruit was a Photoshop trick when I showed them pictures. :P