The last few days have been something of a tart nightmare. As I sit here now, shirt covered in so much flour that you’d think I’d been doubling as a giant’s rolling pin, I’m managing to type with fingers (and anything else remotely crossable) crossed.
Thursday’s citrus tart was a disaster. Yesterday’s chocolate tart was a disaster.
One of the things that strikes me, reminiscent of Julian Barnes’s A Pedant in the Kitchen, is a feeling that I know bugger all about what I’m doing.
That’s not simply the point that baking requires more pedantry than much else in the kitchen – you can’t hope to ‘get by’ without weighing and measuring properly, for instance, but also because, as Barnes revealed in that collection of a regular weekend column he had written for the Guardian that it’s also a sense of pedantically wondering exactly what a recipe means.
If it says to chop something ‘finely’, then just how fine is fine?
In the case of the last few days’ tart fiascos, I’m left trying to analyse just what went wrong.
Thursday was a disaster from beginning to end. Of my understood mistakes, the first was in not trusting my instinct over the pastry.
It had been in the fridge since I’d made up a batch for the previous weekend’s tart tatin. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I had been wondering why that pastry had collapsed and crumbled so much. Possibly it wasn’t mixed thoroughly enough. By Thursday evening, when I pulled it out of the fridge to thaw for rolling, there were some such doubts, and it had crossed my mind that I should bin it and start from scratch.
But ‘waste not, want not’, as the old adage goes. And I really do not like waste. So on I went, blindly baking a tart case that was more patchwork than a thing of well-rolled neatness.
After that, came the mistake of assuming that, when the Gordon Ramsay recipe read that ideally, the tart should be baked at the lowest possible temperature – but that most ovens barely managed below 120˚ – I thought that, since mine does, I should do exactly that and bake it at the lowest temperature. That didn’t work either: I ended up with an unset filling that was burnt on top.
Yesterday, I made a new batch of pastry. I took my time – even more so than before. The pastry case wasn't perfect, but better.
And then came the chocolate filling. I brought a combination of cream and milk just to boiling point and then poured it on the chocolate (70-odd % cocoa solids), exactly as instructed. Stirring vigorously, it was soon mostly melted, but some lumps stubbornly remained, so I popped the bowl over a pan with a little simmering water in it. Hardly dismal technique.
At the last, almost as though I turned away for a second and missed it, something happened and the mixture became lumpy – almost like tar. Hoping optimistically that it was still worth salvaging, I decanted it into the pastry case and basked as per the recipe. But when I'd finished, there was a sticky, oily liquid around the tart tin on the baking tray and, when I gently pressed the tip of my finger onto the filling, it came up oily too, flecked with brown.
Today, I took even more care. I whisked the cream and milk into the chocolate instead of using a spoon – absolutely as per the recipe. You add a beaten egg (or two, depending on the quantity) after that, before popping it into the pastry case. Everything seemed fine at this stage. The texture was fine – smooth and silky, if a little thick. Into the oven it went and I was feeling so much more optimistic. I licked the bowls in appropriately greedy fashion. Lovely.
And so I started writing this blog entry.
But when the tart came out, the same thing had happened as yesterday. Some time during the cooking, the texture had changed and, around the tart tin, was more oily liquid – although not as much.
I can only assume that something has split.
The recipe works – I've done it before so I know it does.
The eggs are as fresh as I can get. The flour is good quality and fresh. The milk and cream are fresh. So what is the issue? The chocolate seemed to be fine, but it's not the same chocolate that I've used before. Is that what's caused the problem with the chocolate tarts? But if so, why? If I don't know the answer to that question, can I avoid it happening again – or put another way, what do I need to do to avoid it happening again?
That's what I mean about pedantry: I lack the knowledge – the expertise – to be able to confidently analyse what has gone wrong, but I also have the sort of mind that is frustrated at not knowing precisely.
Still, at least today's pastry was an improvement.
And I shall be back.