My theory is that pie fixes everything. I mean it doesn’t guarantee that Mitt Romney won’t take over the world, or ensure world peace or anything, but it fixes a lot. Like a shitty day, a bad break-up, bankruptcy, a case of ebola. I jest of course, but you get what I’m saying. I think pie is the perfect dessert. It’s one of the most perfect things in life, like a new puppy or a really nice tree. Not one of these store-bought deals that lazy people bring to potlucks, but a real live pie that’s been fretted over and made with love and lust and maybe even a few tears. That’s how I feel about pie and that is how I try to make pie. I don’t think you should make one if you’re not in love with it. Go buy a bag of Jam Jams.
Three years ago my friend Susie bought me a Jamie Oliver cookbook for my birthday. Hers rolled around a couple of months later and when I asked what she wanted for her birthday dinner she picked a bunch of recipes from the book that had jumped out at her and told me to go crazy. One of the desserts she’d pointed out was a toffee apple tart…a pie with vanilla bean shortcrust pastry, dulce de leche filling, topped off with apples tossed in icing sugar. It looked a little intimidating, but it was on the birthday list and I couldn’t back down from the challenge and take a nap like I normally do. Me and pastry are like that bomb diffuser guy in The Hurt Locker. He manages to pull it off every time, but you know in your guts that one of these days it’s going to end in disaster. I totally get why people go to school to learn how to make pastry. It’s an art form, and anyone who tells you otherwise should not be allowed in your house. Grandmothers know how to do it instinctively, and even some moms. The women (and a few of the men) in my family are geniuses at it, but I don’t do it as much as I should so I’m not great at it. It’s like parallel parking. If I could make a perfect pie pastry and parallel park, man I would be so happy.
And then there’s the dulce de leche. Popular in Europe, Latin America, and Bonavista North. One of the most divine and terrifying sweets known to mankind. Terrifying in that making it involves ignoring the warning label on the can that says “DO NOT BOIL UNOPENED CAN, IT MAY EXPLODE” and boiling the unopened can. It’s a little hard to describe how it tastes…sweet and creamy, tangy, almost like someone swirled a little cream cheese in. There’s this famous scene that didn’t make the cut in Castaway where Tom Hanks gets pulled off the raft and when the guys get him on the big tanker, there’s yelling and a big commotion and this shot of the cook running down to the kitchen and grabbing a can of already caramelized condensed milk. As he’s running he’s pulling off the flip top lid, he takes a spoon out of the ass pocket of his jeans and gets a spoonful into Tom and saves his life. Not really, but that’s how good it tastes. So perfect it’s worth the possibility of a small kitchen explosion. In South America grandmothers use dulce de leche to make alfajores. In Pound Cove on the northern end of Bonavista Bay, my nan spooned it into homemade pie pastry, or little mini tartlets. Whether South American nans wear freshly laundered underwear on their heads and sing “Jesus Loves the Little Children” while kneading bread is still a mystery to me, but I like to think I’ll find out someday.
I met a guy at a potluck recently, let’s call him Will, because that’s his name. Will was the foodie of the group and made my smoky paprika roast potatoes look like kindergarten next to his perfectly cooked beef kabobs. It was like Miley Cyrus and Judi Dench showing up at the same party. We got to chatting about the obvious and our conversation turned to pastries and the like. I asked him if he’d ever tried Jamie Oliver’s magic pie with homemade dulce de leche. He said no, but that he had made his own dulce de leche before.
“Me too!! So stressful though you know?”
“Holy shit, do you do it closed in the can? That shit can explode everywhere.”
I was confused. If Jamie Oliver said it was ok, and my nan said it was ok…wasn’t that ok? Will proceeded to tell me he did his in a can but with a few puncture holes in the top to ease the pressure and avoid kitchen explosions.
“Really? Because Nan would put a dozen in a pressure cooker on Sunday and go to church.”
Will was speechless. One point for Nanny.
Toffee Apple Tart
For the shortcrust pastry:
1 vanilla bean
5 tbsp butter
1 cup powdered sugar
a small pinch of salt
2 scant cups flour
zest of 1/2 a lemon (optional)
2 egg yolks
2 tbsp cold milk or water
For the filling:
2 14 oz cans of sweetened condensed milk
4 medium-sized cooking apples
2 heaping tbsp powdered sugar
Peel off the labels and put your unopened cans of condensed milk in a high-sided pan, covered with water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer constantly for about 3 hours with a lid on top. It’s very important to remember to keep checking the pan, as you don’t want it to boil dry – otherwise the cans will explode. It will give you the most amazing toffee. Put the cans to one side and allow to cool. Make your pastry. Score down the length of the vanilla bean and remove the seeds by scraping a knife down the inside of each half (keep the pod for making vanilla sugar). Cream together the butter, powdered sugar and and salt and then rub in the flour, vanilla seeds, lemon zest and egg yolks – you can do all this by hand or in a food processor. When the mixture looks like coarse breadcrumbs, add the cold milk or water. Pat and gently work the mixture together until you have a ball of dough, then flour it lightly and roll it into a large sausage shape – don’t work the pastry too much otherwise it will become too elastic and chewy, not flaky and short as you want it to be. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and place in the fridge to rest for at least an hour. Remove it from the fridge, slice it up and line an 11 inch tart mold with the slivers. Push them together, then tidy up the sides by trimming off any excess. Place the tart mold in the freezer for an hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Peel and quarter the apples and remove the cores, then slice finely and toss in the powdered sugar. Remove the pastry base from the freezer and smear the caramel from both cans of sweetened condensed milk over it. Place the apples on top and pour any remaining juices over. Cook at the bottom of the preheated oven for about 40 minutes, to give you a crispy base and bubbling toffee over the apples. Serve with vanilla ice cream.
From Jamie’s Dinners (Hyperion, 2004)
This was maybe my fourth time making the magic pie and my first time trying the pastry with a food processor. Although there was no exploding lamb marinade like the first time I broke it out, I think I pulsed the the first ingredients a little too much; not so much coarse breadcrumbs, more like fine powder. Strike one. Strike two, I generally suck at pastry and came close to tears, but pie is supposed to be made with tears, right? Strike three, when I took the sorry looking log out of the fridge my dad was over for a coffee and I cracked under the pressure of slicing and forming the pastry in front of the man who’d probably seen his mom make thousands of perfect pies. Maybe I should have put underwear on my head, I don’t know. Next time no food processor, no witnesses, more patience, and a pair of drawers.
Dulce de leche is so good that you could spread it on Masonite and people would still love it. Which is a good thing because that’s kind of what the pastry felt like to me. No complaints from Justin and supper guests Katie and Duncan, but I think Gordon Ramsay might have thrown a pot at my head.
I’m not one for people posting, but these pics of Duncan and the dulce de leche were too good not to share with the world. This was what Tom Hanks’ face looked like after the first spoonful. He was so happy he was like, “Wilson who?”
Don’t be scared. Give this one a go and you won’t be sorry. I’m afraid of everything (raw chicken and coffee grinders) so if I pulled this shit off, anyone can. I wouldn’t recommend a pressure cooker while you’re at mass, but maybe a glass of whisky and a clean pair of underwear.