Saturday, August 15, 2009

Misadventures in Baking: The Great Smoky Tart Mystery of 2009

So, late Friday night I decided it would be great to bake up an apple fruit custard tart on Saturday morning. I made the pate brisee (tart dough) and the custard filling, then left them in the fridge to firm up while I went to sleep. I wake up Saturday morning bright and early (for a Saturday) at 7:45 a.m., and proceeded to get to work.

Soon afterwards everything went horribly, awfully, terribly wrong.

But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here. I should probably tell you something important, namely, this was the first time I was making a tart all by my lonesome, sans the help of my excellent chef instructor from the Institute of Culinary Education (I took two of their recreational cooking classes, highly recommended, do not let my dubious misadventures tarnish their fine name).

Lemme tell ya, I was a bit nervous about giving this a shot, but I'm also a bit fearless once I step over the transom into the kitchen (which can lead to some rather dubious outcomes, like the time I destroyed a silicon baking sheet and tortured my throat with noxious fumes, but that's a story for another day), so I decided to go whole hog and plunge right in.

Back to Saturday morning. I take my 6 inch disc of pate brisee out of the fridge, and plop it onto my lightly dusted cutting board (I felt pretty cool covering the board with flour using baker-like hand slashes and tossing the white stuff to and fro . . . I also apparently learned that I have a low standard when defining what's "cool"). Now, we were taught in cooking class to take this cold, hard, hockey puck of dough and bang the bejesus out of it with a rolling pin to loosen it up a bit. I bang away, and, unfortunately, I'm sure that I'm waking up the redhead.

(I will hereafter refer to my girlfriend as "the redhead," as she has read me the riot act and made clear in no uncertain terms that I shall not do anything to actually identify her publicly. I'm not sure what the fear is, but we'll just go ahead and assume for now that she's Valerie Plame's undercover co-worker at the CIA and that her hair is ginger crimson red and we'll all be happy. Why did I choose "the redhead" in particular? Well, it's sort of a tribute to the fine sportswriter Paul Zimmerman, a.k.a. "Dr. Z," famous for his insightful football analyses at Sports Illustrated, and who always referred to his beloved as "the redhead.")

Here's the cold, foreboding pate brisee:

The dough is not budging. It's like banging on a slab of concrete. So, I think, it just needs some time to soften up a bit. I leave it sitting on the cutting board, and plop down on the living room couch, searching for Twitter cooking buddies so someone might actually read this blog other than my mother. Unfortunately, I get a bit carried away on-line (one might argue I am doing so now as I write this), and 45 minutes pass.

This, apparently, is way too much time to leave a buttery pile of dough to its own devices. I bang away at it with the rolling pin a second time (again, I'm sure, waking the redhead, sorry honey), and it smooths out in no time. I roll from the center of the dough, turning it each time just like I was taught in class, and the dough starts to spread out, but not so nicely. The dough starts sticking to my rolling pin. And it occurs to me, that, numerous times, my chef instructor told me to flour the pin before rolling. Curses! So I flour the pin and the dough stops sticking.

But then giant, evil, monstrous cracks in the dough appear everywhere. I'm running and patching and mashing, and think I've got a handle on the problem. I try and drop the dough into the tart pan. In the words of that great poet and playwright, William Shakespeare: "nuh-uh." Not good. Not good at all. All the cracks I fixed reappear, and I start patching again, but the only way I can do it is by pressing down really hard, which is not a good idea because that will cause the dough to stick to the pan and I won't be able to pop it out when it's done. So I pull the whole thing out and put it back on the cutting board.

I try rolling again, and the dough decides to stick to the pin again. I re-flour the pin (hey, I think that's the first time I've ever used the term, "re-flour"), and give it another shot. I roll the dough into a fairly decent shape, but it's really starting to fall apart and get all mushy. I decide, enough's enough, and pop the whole cutting board, dough and flour and all, into the fridge, and give it a half an hour to come to its senses. That'll teach you, Mr. Brisee.

After 30 minutes, I snag it out of the fridge and the dough is much easier to work with. I actually remember this time and re-flour my pin, then roll away. I fold the dough over, drop it in the tart pan, flip it out over the edges, and roll the excess dough off the sides. Not too bad. I patch a few cracks here and there, cover it with foil, and grab my bag of beans that I plan on using as pie weights and- wait . . . no . . . trouble . . . this is not good . . . I have no beans . . . what to do? . . . oh ultimate answer machine (otherwise known as your favorite search engine) help me . . . change? . . . what? . . . I can use change? . . . pennies work great . . . conduct the heat . . . let's try this . . . saved!

As it so happens, I never seem to know what do with change, and drop it in a glass receptacle on my bookshelf at the end of the day. In doing so, I've amassed a pretty large pile of pennies over the years. Well, pennies, here's your time to shine. I dump them onto the foil, and stick the whole tortured mess of a tart pan, covered with mushy dough and topped with aluminum foil and American currency, into my 350 degree preheated oven.

Mean while, it occurs to me that it might be a good idea to clean up the nuclear winter of a counter top sprawled out before mine eyes. Hm, no paper towels. I look under the sink. No paper towels. I go to the pantry. No paper towels. Where, oh where, are the paper towels? And it hits me, a few days ago the redhead said to me, "Honey, we're almost out of paper towels." And yet, when I went to pick up everything that I needed to make the tart, yup, you guessed it, I forgot the paper towels. So I am left with none. However, what does reside in the pantry? A ginormous plastic wrapped package of toilet paper.


Sc. Int. Kitchen: Jason scrubs ferociously at the counter top's butter and flour miasma with a big roll of toilet paper wedged in his hand. Little bits of crumpled toilet paper fly everywhere.

End scene.


Now, at this point you might be thinking, "What fun! So much craziness. Melting dough! Buttery messes! Re-flouring! How can it get any worse?"

(This reminds me of the time back in 1993 when I was 23 and was giving my sister a ride in my car at the time, a 1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass Salon, which had a garish lovely brown/orange color but was a solid set of wheels to get around town. (Hm, I'm using capital letters and punctuation within a parenthetical, and parentheticals within parentheticals. Somewhere, I'm sure, the Gods of usage, grammar and style are howling like banshees. Hrumph.) Anyway, I was a bit depressed at the time, what with the best job I could obtain, after graduating with honors from a top 20 university with a degree in anthropology, being a busboy at the Casa Gallardo Grill ("We have 3 kinds of salsa, sir.") and then moving on to being a waiter at Houlihan's (a job so surprisingly stressful that half the waiters, including myself, had regular nightmares about work). I had recently lost my abode but had scrambled for a spare bedroom in a stranger's apartment, and was regularly bombing the law school entrance exam during practice tests.

My sister, trying to encourage me, kindly said, "Well, at least it can't get any worse." About 30 seconds later, a Lincoln town car plowed into my rear end, collapsing the entire trunk and leaving my car with a Wiley E. Coyote accordion-like look to it. We dusted ourselves off, did the "Are you okay/I'm okay thing," and got out of the car. We looked over at the Lincoln. Its entire damage consisted of the front license plate being just slightly awry. I was so broke at the time that I took the Lincoln driver's check and used it to pay my rent, driving the accordion-mobile around town sans repairs. Shortly after that, while I was rehearsing a play in a church basement theater, the car was stolen off a church parking lot.

There's a certain sinking feeling that hits you ever so hard when you are quite broke and walk out of a building to your parking spot, only to be confronted by the remnants of smashed window glass. I asked the police, "Why on earth would anyone want to steal a beaten in, smashed up, 17 year old car. He said, "1970s GM cars are the easiest cars to steal in America. All you have to is punch the steering column and jam a screwdriver in the ignition to start her up. In fact, there's a band of 13 year old car thieves operating in this neighborhood. Eventually, an anonymous caller tipped me off to where the car was. When I came by, I discovered a punched out steering column, broken windows, cut up upholstery, cigarette burns, vomit, and that they had slashed the tires and drove the car around on the metal part of the wheels (the sparks must have been pretty cool to look at, at least). It seemed like my car was the crime victim, not me. I got a junk dealer to give me $75 for my sad, ruined, wreck of a car. Pobrecito. So, if anyone ever asks you, "How can it get any worse?" Remember, it can always get worse. But I digress.)

It got worse. This is when the real fun ensues.

But let us backtrack again. When we first reviewed this recipe in cooking class, our friendly neighborhood chef instructor pointed out that the 8 tablespoons of butter called for in our book was a lot of butter. A ton of butter. Perhaps, dare she say, too much butter. She recommended using half of that instead to make the dough. I listen, nod my head dutifully, and completely fail to record this in my class cookbook (note to self: "Self, when the friendly neighborhood chef instructor recommends changing the recipe, take out a pen and change the recipe! Hrumph!").

So my dough, my pretty pretty pate brisee, is packing a mega-calorie cargo, a full 8 tablespoons of butter warheads, not the lesser and more easily absorbable four. And, unbeknownst to me, that butter, when confronted with 350 degrees of fun in my oven, decides to melt. Melt a lot. Melt through the seams in the tart pan. Drip out of the tart pan and fall through the grill (because I did not place the pan on a tray as, perhaps, um, maybe I should have). Hit the floor of the oven . . . and . . . burn. Burn and burn some more.

Now I smell smoke. I look at the oven and see smoke. Lots of smoke. Coming right on out the oven door. The smoke alarm goes off. I run to get a towel and wave in front of the smoke alarm to calm the shrill thing down when the redhead comes flying out of the bedroom, bleary eyed from lack of sleep (the redhead does not do Saturday mornings well), incredulous as to what is going on and definitely searching for a fire extinguisher. I explain the situation to her and, once the smoke alarm decides to shut-up for a moment, we turn towards the oven. I guess that the smoke is from dirt on the pennies and take the foil and coins off the dough, then drop the pan back in the oven. I open all the windows. The redhead goes back to bed. All is well.

Not for long.

The kitchen and living room grow dense with smoke again. The smoke alarm starts shrieking again. The redhead jumps out of bed again, while I towel wave like a maniac again, and then grab the tart out of the oven again, while she looks on quizzically (again).

One might contend that this is not going so well.

I decide that there must be something wrong with my oven. I move the entire tart to my toaster oven (which is surprisingly roomy and effective, accepting the tart pan with nary a complaint), grab our giant and awesomely powerful Vornado fan and aim it at the shadows and fog engulfing our apartment, systematically rotating the fan around the rooms to make the smokiness vanish. Success! The apartment's vista clears.

I gaze through the window of the toaster oven. Hallelujah! No smoke! But I happen to notice that the edge of the dough is well, shrinking (but, did I mention, luckily, no smoke). I wonder what is going on and take it out again. As I carry the tart pan over to the counter top, little polka dots of melted butter tumble to the floor. A thought hits me. I pop open the oven door and there, at the bottom, is a black gunky mess of burnt butter. Burnt, smoke emitting butter. A fount, if you will, of butter-smoke horror (cue "Ride of the Valkyries"). And, elementary my dear Watson, The Great Smoky Tart Mystery of 2009 is solved.

What next? Well, I choose not to give up, and try to save the edges of the tart from slipping into oblivion. I decide to reapply my now vindicated and non-smoke producing pennies on foil to the dough, then back in the toaster oven. After 20 minutes, I take it out, remove the foiled pennies, note that the edges don't look any worse, and go back in for more toasting. After another 20 minutes, I take a slightly browned tart shell out and let it cool. Those are some weak looking edges, dude, but at least I arrested their fall. This is not a Jericho tart.

After giving the tart a chance to cool off (and mellow out), I take my custard out of the fridge (I made this last night, which I have already said, but I want to be nice and remind you, because, well, given the voluminous number of words you've had to wade through if you've made it this far (keep going, photos are coming up next!), you may have forgotten and are wondering something along the lines of, "Custard? What custard? When did he make the custard?"). I jam a rubber scraper into the custard bowls, slop it all on top of the tart shell, and smooth away. And, you know, it doesn't look horrible. It doesn't look great, but it doesn't look horrible. Here it is:

Sadly, I used brown sugar instead of white granulated sugar, so instead of a nice yellow custard (yellow from the eggs) I ended up with a less than appetizing looking brown custard, however, given all my struggles, I would say that this was the least of my worries. After all, brown sugar, white sugar, no matter, as Captain Caveman, the world's 1st superhero, once said, "Sugar good!"

Now, I can only hope, that by covering the whole thing with artful concentric circles of fruit, it will be presentable. So grab some blueberries and slice up some strawberries and kiwis. Here they are, sliced and ready to dive into custard (aren't we all ready to dive into custard?):

So, moment of truth, I lay out the circling fruit, dump some apple jelly in a saucepan and warm it up so it's ready for glazing, grab my trusty silicon brush (I have this nagging thought in the back of my mind that some day all these fantastic silicon products will be revealed as cancer causing, stroke inducing, white supremacy loving, anti-Semitic sources of evil), and glaze away.

Here's the final result:

Not too shabby. Eating this buttery treasure may cause your left ventricle to shutdown, but, at least, as you gasp for your last breath, you might eke out the words, "Not . . . Too . . . Shabby." People, I think we might have something halfway decent here. We're going to share it with friends later and get the final verdict.

I can only hope, after all this effort, that the tart tastes good.

Pray for me folks, pray for me.


  1. Well the end result looks very tasty. I'm sure your friend, the Pastry Chef gave you some valuable tips re :the butter thing. Over working dough can be a bad thing as well, and that is most likely what happened to yours. After I roll out dough, I wrap it around my pin and slowly lay it over the tart pan. Make sure you have enough dough to tuck some into the edges and it won't fall, if you stretch it too much, it probably will. Then put it back in the fridge for around 15-20 minutes, until it sets back up a bit. This will also keep the edges from falling. When I didn't have pie weights I would use Coffee Beans, they work really well. I usually use a coffee filter or parchment paper rather than foil for my baking. But coffee beans can transfer the flavor so parchment maybe better in some cases. I also turn my dough a tiny bit as I'm rolling it out, its helpfull in preventing sticking. A Silpat can be your best friend for this as well. I use mine to roll out fondant, all the time. I have to say Jason, the red head is a very lucky girl. I have a computer nerd here at home and he cooks very little. But I'm working on it.

    Good Job

  2. No paper towels? The perfect opportunity to use those bar cloths I got you! And uncooked rice also works well for pie weights.
    The tart looks great! I'm sorry you didn't get to bring it up here! Hope you're feeling better and in shape to make us another tart soon!

  3. Thanks, Holly. The rice tip is really helpful. Maybe someday I should try it with a mixture of pennies, rice and beans!