Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Laura Esquivel | Caramelised Onion, Red Pepper and Goat's Cheese Tart

There is a unique relationship between literature and film, a tentative symbiosis between the written word and the cinematic image that allows the latter to adapt, appropriate or negotiate the former. Many films are based on novels, short stories and plays but what determines the dynamic of this relationship is a different matter. Sometimes the film rises to the challenge of the book: Coppola's Apocalypse Now is as brilliant as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Sometimes, it's a disastrous affair: think of the adaptation of The Scarlet Letter or of Vanity Fair. And then there are times when the film surpasses its literary origin, so much so that we have no idea it's even based on a book, as with J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear or Hitchcock's Psycho.

Writers will often object to the cinematic treatment of their book, mainly because they feel that the integrity of the book has been compromised, that the film is not 'true' to the ideas and ideals of their story. The sequel to Winston Groom's Forrest Gump famously begins with the line 'Don’t never let nobody make a movie of your life’s story' although 'Whether they get it right or wrong, it don't matter'. This latter, I think, is a valid point. Reading a book or adapting it for the big screen is a perverse and promiscuous act in which texts are ravished and authorial intentions are made irrelevant. Rather than closely compare the film to the book and judge it on its degree of fidelity, one should look at it as a medium in its own right and appreciate it on its own merit.

I have seen and loved Alfonso Arau's film Like Water For Chocolate but I haven't read the book; perhaps one more title to add to my ever growing list of Must-Read-Before-I-Die books. The film is in the style of magical realism, blending food, passion, the mundane and the magical with muted, matter-of-fact simplicity. The following is from the first chapter of the book, entitled 'January', which begins with a recipe that requires chopping onion:
The trouble with crying over an onion is that once the chopping gets you started and the tears begin to well up, the next thing you know you just can't stop. I don't know whether that's ever happened to you, but I have to confess it's happened to me, many times. Mama used to say it was because I was especially sensitive to onions, like my great-aunt, Tita.
     Tita was so sensitive to onions, any time they were being chopped, they say she would just cry and cry; when she was still in my great-grandmother’s belly her sobs were so loud that even Nacha, our cook, who was half-deaf, could hear them easily. Once her wailing got so violent that it brought on an early labor. And before my great-grandmother could let out a word or even a whimper, Tita made her entrance into this world, prematurely, right there on the kitchen table amid the smells of simmering noodle soup, thyme, bay leaves, and cilantro, steamed milk, garlic, and, of course, onion. Tita had no need for the usual slap on the bottom, because she was already crying as she emerged; maybe that was because she knew then that it would be her lot in life to be denied marriage.
Above: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Still Life with Onions

The film  interweaves themes of self-growth, the banality of evil and female emancipation with the reticence of life in the kitchen. Food permeates the entire story, becoming infused with emotion and it turn transforming life into a voluptuous, ardently fragrant and utterly sensual experience.
For Tita the joy of living was wrapped up in the delights of food. It wasn't easy for a person whose knowledge of life was based on the kitchen to comprehend the outside world. That world was an endless expanse that began at the door between the kitchen and the rest of the house, whereas everything on the kitchen side of that door,on through the door leading to the patio and the kitchen and herb gardens was completely hers - it was Tita's realm.
Laura Esquivel, Like Water For Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments,
with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies

~ Caramelised Onion, Red Pepper and Goat's Cheese Tart ~

I love tarts, both sweet and savoury, and although my friend SA insists that the pastry simply serves the purpose of a shell destined to hold a delicate filling and can therefore be discarded once it has fulfilled its destiny, I think otherwise. For me, what makes or breaks a tart is a balancing act between crust and filling. This tart encapsulates all the Mediterranean influences in my cooking, from the sweet caramelised onions and feisty red pepper to the crumbly goat's cheese and fragrant herbs.

I wanted a flaky kind of pastry for this tart, so I slightly raised the amount of butter. I also used the fraiser technique for blending the dough without overworking it. The result was superb both in terms of how easy it really was and in taste.

Shortcrust pastry:
110 g unsalted butter, very cold and diced
200 g plain flour
pinch of salt
3 tbsp icing cold water
1 small egg yolk

4-5 medium onions, peeled and sliced
4 tsp olive oil and butter, mixed
1 red bell pepper
125 g goat's cheese
30 g feta cheese
2 medium eggs
230 ml double cream
1 tsp mixed herbs
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
 salt and pepper

Make the shortcrust pastry: Dice the butter and put it in the fridge together with the flour for 30 minutes prior to making the pastry. To make the pastry, sift the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl, add the diced butter and, using your fingertips, lightly rub the rubber into the flour until it forms course breadcrumbs. Add the icing cold water, a tablespoon at a time, and using a knife or fork stir it in until the dough just comes together. 

Turn out the dough onto a clean surface and form into a rough ball.  Using the heel of your hand, push a small amount of the dough away from you flattening it. Gather the dough together and repeat as above 3-4 times until you get a round, soft ball - this will give it a flaky texture. You should not overwork the dough. Shape the ball into a flat rectangle, wrap in clingfilm and chill in the fridge ideally for a couple of hours or at least for 30 minutes.

Take the pastry out of the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature for about 10-15 minutes. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry. If it starts getting sticky, sprinkle more flour on the surface and the rolling pin. Transfer the pastry into a lightly greased 36cm x 12cm rectangular fluted, loose-bottom flan tin. If it breaks, just patch it up. Prick the base with a fork, cover with clingfilm and chill for about an hour.

Half an hour before taking the pastry out of the fridge, heat the oven to 185 C.

Remove the pastry from the fridge, cover the sides with foil and place a large piece of crinkled baking parchment on top. Fill this with baking beans and bake in the middle of the oven for 20 minutes. Remove the foil, baking paper and beans, patch any cracks with left-over pastry and glaze with egg yolk beaten with a little water. Bake for another 10 minutes or so until dry and lightly golden.

Prepare the caramelised onions: In a wide, thick-bottomed pan heat a mixture of olive oil and butter (about 3-4 tsp). Add the onion slices and stir to coat them with the oil. Spread the onions out evenly over the pan and cook over low heat until softened but not browned (about 10-15 minutes), stirring occasionally

After the onions have become translucent, add a pinch of sugar to start the caramelisation process. If you find the onions are drying out or burning, you can add a little more olive oil or butter. Cook the onions stirring occasionally, until they are sticky and have turned dark brown. This will take another 30-45 minutes. At the end of the cooking process, add the balsamic vinegar for depth of flavour and season to taste. Remove from the heat and allow to cool at room temperature.

Prepare the red pepper: While the onions are caramelising, turn on the grill to medium high. De-seed and cut the pepper in big pieces. Place under the grill with the skin facing up and cook until softened and the skin starts to blacken. Remove from the heat, allow to cool slightly and carefully peel the skin off. Cut the flesh in thin stripes and put aside.

Assemble the tart: Increase oven temperature to 190 C.

Arrange the onions and pepper slices over the base of the pastry case and scatter the crumbled goat's and feta cheese. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs and cream together. Add the seasoning, grated nutmeg and mixed herbs and stir to blend. Carefully pour the mixture over the onions, pepper and cheese. You could also sprinkle a tablespoon of Gruyère cheese on top, if you like.

Bake in the middle of the oven for 30-35 minutes until set and golden brown. Serve warm or lukewarm with a green salad.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Queen of Hearts | Strawberry Tart

What I like about nursery rhymes, and this goes for folk tales as well, is their outwardly innocent simplicity and their unassuming tone. I also like them for their palpably raw sense of reality, often shocking and taking unexpected turns. Many nursery rhymes used to parody the politics and leaders of the time or spread scandalous or rebellious messages. I find it ironic that what was once an instrument of communication of dissenting opinion about current events has now become an unsuspecting source of delight for children. I remember fondly those silent nights when my father would read to me little rhymes from my Mother Goose book and the characters and stories would leap out of the pages -  tumbling down hills, falling off walls, jumping over the moon. 'The Queen of Hearts' was one of my favourites, perhaps because of its promise for a tart, perhaps because of its evocation of a summer's day.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Eugenio Montale | Lemon Bundt Cake with Lemon Curd

My search for a lemon poem took me, via the as yet unexplored Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee, an evidently captivating travelogue through the citrus groves of Italy, to twentieth century Italian poet  Eugenio Montale. Any writer who proclaims to have 'wanted to wring the neck of the eloquence of our old aulic language, even at the risk of a counter-eloquence,' is bound to attract my attention. In his poem 'The Lemon Trees', written in 1925, Montale offers a less than sensual poeticized image of lemon gardens.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Andy Warhol | Roasted Tomato and Pepper Soup

As the story goes, it was American art expert, gallery owner and erotic author Muriel Latow who gave Andy Warhol the original idea to paint Campbell's Soup Cans by suggesting 'something you see everyday and something that everybody would recognize. Something like a can of Campbell's Soup.'

Warhol's artwork, consisting of thirty-two canvas paintings each depicting a particular tinned soup variety offered by the company at the time, was shown for the first time in July 1962 in Los Angeles, California. The exhibition marked the debut of pop art as a significant art movement. The semi-mechanised process of production, the non-painterly style and the commercial subject were in contrast to the fine art values but also the mystical idealism towards which abstract expressionism was veering.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Seamus Heaney | Blackberry and Apple Torte

The simple joy of blackberry picking! The wild anticipation, foraging through the urban jungle, the excitement of the pick, and when you think you've picked enough, you spot one more, perhaps a little out of reach - and don't they invariably seem to be the juiciest of the lot? You tiptoe and stretch and brave the thorns until the hand reaches the treasured clot and you pluck the fruit with a triumphant smile. Blackberries, it seems, have many different meanings in folk stories. They often symbolise sorrow and remorse or arrogance, as in the Greek myth of Bellerophon, a mortal, who tries to ride Pegasus to Olympus, falls and becomes blind when he lands in a thorny bush. This obviously functions as a cautionary tale. Seamus Heaney's poem, 'Blackberry-Picking', echoes some of the myth's associations but I think it presents a more physical although painfully compelling reality.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Jane Austen | Bakewell Tart

I've already written elsewhere of my tentative relationship with Jane Austen, but as this post is about a quintessentially English dessert, the bakewell tart (not to be confused with bakewell pudding), it seems inevitable that I should turn to Austen once more. As far as I know, there is no reference to the tart in Austen's novels, but the small town of Bakewell, which is associated with the tart, does get a brief mention in Pride and Prejudice.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Emily Dickinson | Honey-Roasted Figs and Plums with Blueberries

When I first came across the poetry of Emily Dickinson, I was fascinated by the simplicity of her verse, her unconventional punctuation and her idiosyncratic capitalisation. I was also intrigued by the reclusive nature of an author whose poetry seems to have overlooked the Civil War that tore up her country. Dickinson's engagement (poetic or otherwise) with the war still remains equivocal and there have been numerous attempts to either justify or explicate her political stance. Perhaps we are mistaken to expect poets to perform the role of chronicler directly responding to the historical events of her time. Perhaps poets are best left to sing the song they sing best not out of circumstance but pleasure.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Sylvia Plath | Fig and Plum Torte

To describe The Bell Jar as a feminist novel concerned with the disjunction between the dominant patriarchal social reality and the anticipations of a young woman battling against not only gender and identity stereotypes but also her own mental fragility is perhaps to state the obvious. Sylvia Plath presents a heroine who invariably finds herself confronted with having to choose between opposing poles and who ironically (and tragically) serves no socially identifiable purpose. What good does a degree in English literature do if you don't know how to cook, take shorthand, speak a foreign language or dance?

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Herta Müller | Plum Frangipane Tart

I admit! Ηers is not a household name and it was only after the awarding of the Nobel prize for literature in 2009 that I heard of her. Herta Müller sets her stories amidst the cruelty and terror of a totalitarian state, usually in Communist Romania under the oppressive regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu. The Land of Green Plums is a novel concerned with displacement and disconnection, with minorisation and isolation as it explores the disruption of normal human relationships resulting from the trauma that the threat of violence causes.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

D.H. Lawrence | Fig Frangipane Tart

Lawrence's poem 'Figs' is less about eating customs or the botany behind the title's fruit, although both form an intrinsic part of the text, and more about women; or rather about the symbolism of figs which reveals the poet's attitude to female sexuality.

The proper way to eat a fig, in society,
Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,
And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.
Then you throw away the skin
Which is just like a four-sepalled calyx,
After you have taken off the blossom with your lips.