Flaky pastry, caramelized apple & crunchy nuts create the perfect contrast of textures
Remember the fairy tale of the princess and the pea? This story starts a little like that.
Since before I can remember (when I was just the littlest suggestion of a loaf inside my mother’s stomach, in fact) I’ve spent my summers at my parents’ house in Italy. High up in the mountains just before the border between Tuscany and Umbria, it’s one of the most beautiful, relaxing places I know. Due – in no small part – to the fact that it’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere.
Melt in the mouth pastry and soft, sweet apple slices
These family summer holidays revolved around a handful of activities: eating, drinking and swimming on a daily basis, with the occasional bit of sightseeing thrown in for good measure if I could be bribed with an ice cream at the end of it. Because we were miles from the nearest civilization, a percentage of pretty much every day would be spent in the car getting from A to B, swimming towels spread on the back seats to stop the hot leather burning our legs, Paul Simon and JJ Cale on the stereo and my brother and I bickering over one thing or another (when we weren’t joining forces to complain about our parents’ dubious taste in music, Paul Simon excepted).
On one of these many car journeys, an incident occurred which has become a story my Mum loves to tell. We were driving down the motorway, me not even old enough to speak, when I started to bawl my eyes out. I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t ill and as far as they could tell there was absolutely nothing wrong. The crying continued to such a point that my Dad eventually decided to pull into a service station so my Mum could jump out and see what was the matter. As she lifted me from my seat she noticed that the tiny label at the back of my t-shirt had wrinkled up ever so slightly and absentmindedly tucked it back in. The crying stopped immediately.
Serve these tarlets with a large dollop of rich vanilla ice cream
This Princess and the pea-like sensitivity is something that has been known to occur in other areas of my life. I’ve always been obsessed with the texture of food, turning my nose up at things that didn’t feel quite right in my hands or on my tongue. One of the foods that I’m particularly fussy about is apples. It may be something to do with my heritage - my Mum’s allergic to them and my Dad grew up on an apple farm – but a bad apple is something I simply can’t stand. When raw they have to be just right, the skin taut and tart, the flesh sweet and juicy and crisp, and on the rare occasions I eat them cooked, the texture has to be spot on, too much mushiness or even a hint of mealiness and I’ll put down my spoon in disgust.
When we talk about food, we often group everything into the general category of ‘taste’, taking little time to think about the individual flavours, textures and aromas that combine to create an individual dish. The rise of molecular gastronomy has made us more aware of texture through fancy foams, jellies of this and spherification of that, but I’m talking about texture on a much more basic level, how it contributes to what we taste and to how much we enjoy a meal. Where would a brownie be without its fudgy centre, a steak without a juicy melt in the mouth feel? Imagine an apple without its crispy crunch or ice cream without its slick smoothness and suddenly a lot of the appeal is lost. Apparently the human tongue can detect crystals in ice cream which are approximately 40 micrometers in size. To put that in perspective, one micrometer is a 1/1000th of a millimetre, meaning it’s a pretty tiny crystal that can turn a smooth creamy treat into something substandard, or ‘grainy’ tasting to the human tongue.
Cold ice cream puddles across warm layers of delicate pastry
The recipe below is all about texture and mouthfeel. The apples are cooked just how I like them, thinly sliced, skin on to retain the flavour and heated until soft and melting but far from mushy. The pastry below is flaky and crisp, lightened by layers of butter and scattered with crunchy nuts which contrast wonderfully with the melt-in-the-mouth apple and smooth, sweet caramel. Served straight from the oven, these tartlets work wonders served with a scoop of the smoothest vanilla ice cream, warm against cold, soft against crunch, creating magical mouthfuls which tantalize your tongue with every bite.
Short of serving a shop bought dessert or scooping some ice cream straight from the tub, these tartlets are one of the simplest recipes I can think of, involving just a handful of ingredients and a few minutes of your time. But for minimum effort you can reap maximum reward, and I hope that once you try these lovely light, sticky little mouthfuls of taste and texture, you’ll make them time and again.
Going, going . . . gone
Caramelized Apple, Cinnamon & Pecan Tartlets (adapted from Taste.com.au)
375g all butter puff pastry
2 medium sized apples, I like Braeburn or Cox
Juice of half a lemon
2 tbsp butter, melted
2 heaped tbsp pecan nuts, coarsely chopped
2 tbsp golden caster sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Good quality runny honey & vanilla ice cream, to serve
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. Line a large tray with baking parchment.
Quarter and thinly slice the apples, then place them in a bowl and mix with the lemon juice to avoid browning. You could peel them if you like, but I think the skin adds a lovely texture and tartness to the dish.
Divide your puff pastry into six equal pieces and roll each into a rectangle no more than 5mm thick. Using a sharp knife, mark a border (without cutting through completely) all the way round each rectangle, a couple of millimetres from the edge. Lay your apple slices in two rows, long side to long side, overlapping each other slightly.
Brush the melted butter over the tarts, making sure not to knock your apple slices out of place. Sprinkle over the nuts and golden caster sugar, distributing evenly, then dust each tart with a little cinnamon.
Bake for 20 – 25 minutes, or until the pastry is puffed and golden, and the apple slices soft and caramelized.
Serve warm, drizzled with a little honey and accompanied by a big scoop of vanilla ice cream.