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Seriously buttered.

I’ve been considering it for quite a long time, starting from when I read the chapter on tea-time in one of my favorite cookbooks, The Cooking of the British Isles (1969, Time-Life Books). Great Britain has a reputation for producing dreck,* I know. But I’ve made over a dozen classic dishes so far, in and out of the cookbook, with nothing but great results.** To my (increasingly educated) mind, this is a simple cooking tradition that has put centuries of practice into fighting against the rain, and has figured it out. It warms the belly and fortifies the soul. I’ll believe the reputation only if my winning streak runs out.

In the tea-time chapter, the author tells of a conversation he once overheard between two elderly Englishmen. One loves crumpets, crackled and steaming on a platter. He always went for the bottom crumpet, knowing it would be utterly saturated with butter.

I’d never made crumpets before, let alone eaten them; New Jersey doesn’t really know from British food.*** But that visual was enough to sell me. Here’s what I did.

  1. The recipe calls for short, round tins, top and bottom lids removed, as you are to butter them and set them right in the pan as molds for the frying crumpets. Flan rings or large, round cookie cutters are recommended. I have neither, but it also suggests tuna cans with the tops and bottoms removed. Three cans of Bumble Bee Chunk Light later, I learned that tuna cans aren’t made with identical tops and bottoms anymore, as presumably they were in 1969****, and the modern rounded bottoms are virtually impossible to remove with a can opener.
  2. But! I had individual tarts with removable bottoms. That sounds very saucy, I know, but the truth is, they worked.
  3. The recipe is very easy to put together; it’s basically yeasted pancakes with a pinch of sugar, just enough for the yeast to snack on. What was a half-plastered Cirque du Soleil act was cooking the crumpets one by one, since I (also) don’t own a flame spreader (is that that term?). I have a huge skillet I could have used but only an average-sized burner. The butter in the pan kept wanting to burn, so I switched off between two average-sized pans. By the time I finished drips, splats, and assorted smears decorated much of the stove top and the big bowl. Dried, the batter is much like Gorilla Glue. Same color, no less.
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You just sit there and think about what you’ve done.

4. You’re also supposed to remove the molds once the crumpets set, but they’re scalding. The recipe just says to remove them, but offers zero clue as to how to do it. It’s worth noting that this cookbook was written for an American audience. I’m picturing the English author and staff giggling as they thought of the panicked antics we’d use remove those hot molds, trying not to burn our fingertips. ‘Make fun of our cuisine, will you? Yank wankers!’

This wanker used a set of tongs, which kept slipping and dropping the mold back into the gooey raw crumpet.

Most did turn out lovely, though, those I didn’t drop or dent, and I buttered them all. Look at the pretty scalloped edges; that’s the fancy tart pans. As far as taste and texture, I don’t agree with what I’ve read about crumpets, that they’re similar to an English muffin. These are very light, crisply browned on the outside and fluffy and tender inside, with a pleasantly sour taste. But I must agree with the Englishman who always went to the buttery crumpet on the bottom. He’s right on.

*Points for working a Yiddish word into a post about British food? Anyone?

**Okay, once, but it’s because the recipe wasn’t explicit enough. I’m trying it again.

***Our claim to fame is the three Ss: Sinatra, Springsteen, and summer traffic.

****I was in utero for all but 2.5 months of that year, but should have had the foresight to have taken notes. Curses.

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Today I told my Facebook tribe that when my friend Rachel made me the gift of a tart pan, my very first, I flipped out. It’s because for as long as I can remember an Alsatian apple tart has danced in my head where sugarplums ought to. Now I could finally make one. Last night I did.

Only one venerable restaurant in my area made this dessert, a place I visited a few times growing up. It was so lovely that I think I ordered it every time. And now I’m glad I did, because the restaurant—I’m still in shock—recently closed.* I might be the only one in my area now who makes this tart.

Letting that thought wash over me.

I confess I don’t remember where I got the recipe. But Google can help you if you’re tempted to be a part of the Alsatian Apple Tart workforce. Join me, and let us rise above the frozen $11 apple hucksters of the land!

Here’s what I did.

1) Zipped up the pâte brisée (that’s the pie dough) in my Cuisinart. Chilled the dough in the fridge for 30 minutes, then pressed it into the pan. You can do the same if you’re as lazy as I was last night**, or you can roll it out. Those stalwart cooks who roll it out can probably boast a more consistent thickness, as opposed to me, who had to coax the finished product from the removable base this morning with all ten fingers, like a surgeon who’d lost his subway fare inside an appendicitis patient.

This is the dough in my happy new pan, after docking (when you prick it all over with a fork so it doesn’t bubble up in the oven).

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2) I covered the dough with tin foil and poured dried beans into it. This also keeps the bubbles down while the crust bakes. Pie weights, widely available at cooking specialty stores***, are an expensive frill. Set the tart on a rimmed cookie sheet. This is always a good idea, because pies like to leak. This went into the oven for 12 minutes.

The last time I was at my favorite organic farm I bought up their last bushel of apples, which they procured from an Amish farm in Pennsylvania. I think they’re Honey Crisps. The recipe called for Golden Delicious, but you can use whatever you want (except don’t use McIntoshes. They’re too soft, and are best for eating out of hand or for applesauce. You want an apple that will keep its structure even after a hit with a 375-degree oven).

3) I cut up, cored, and peeled three apples per the recipe, but I needed another small one. Tossed the slices in a bit of granulated sugar, and made a pretty flower that ended up oddly off center. 15 more minutes in the oven.

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4) I made a custard of sugar, milk (you can use milk and cream), and eggs and whisked it up. Using a measuring jug is the ticket here because you need to pour the custard on top of the tart. For some reason there was only room for half of the custard before it started overflowing, which is another solid reason why the crust was as irretrievably stuck to the base as it was (see ‘subway fare’ above). I poured the rest into two 1-cup ramekins, plunked them into a Pyrex pan, and filled the pan with water halfway up the sides of the ramekins. (This is a bain-marie, which gently cooks custard desserts. If I was to put the custard ramekins in the oven straight up, they would have scorched.)

When the tart came out, it looked like this. Well, in the morning it did. I shot the earlier shots last night by my unfortunate overhead kitchen light. Note the change in light from lurid to pleasantly natural!

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And when I cut it, it looked like this…

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And this was my breakfast. I put in on a dish with an apple on it. You can kind of see it peeking out the right side. IMG_7517

Here’s what I liked about this tart: The crust was wonderfully tender and the custard delicate. And I had a surprise: I really enjoyed the experience of eating an apple dish that didn’t call for cinnamon. Until I made this, it hadn’t occurred to me how cinnamon always seemed to show up whenever there was an apple around. It’s great, of course. But it’s become predictable. Eating just apples with no other spices was clean and pure.

Here’s what I didn’t like: Nothing.

And I have one more custard to eat.

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*The Fromagerie, in Rumson, NJ. It had changed owners and all and wasn’t the same. But I’m still reeling.

**Like I don’t do this every single time I make pie.

***I love you, Williams-Sonoma, and my condolences on the loss of Chuck. But I doubt his mother or grandmother used fabricated pie weights for their crusts, either. They used beans.

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