Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Affairs of the tart...

I am a lady of my word.

You may think it's a touch frivolous, but food can take me to extremes. I really am that devoted to the culinary cause that I will travel. And not just around the country. To a different country. And not just for the general cuisine of a nation. For one thing. In fact, a thing which is of such miniscule dimensions, you can demolish it in one whole bite.

But love is love and it makes the individual an irrational being. So, as promised, I travelled to Portugal in search of the king of tiny kings - the Pastéis of all Pastéis: The Pastéis de Belém. In my defence, I did need a break and when considering places to escape to, Lisbon was everything I desired in a city (seafood, lard-based pastries, interesting architecture). But yes, it was those palm-sized perfections that took me there too.

A concentrated locale of monasteries, pastries and shrines to the sea, Belém is a tram/train ride away from the centre of Lisbon. As mentioned in a previous post, the place is home to what are thought to be the best Portuguese custard tarts in the whole wide world, served by one eatery alone - Pastéis de Belém. Pilgrimages are made to the shop, such is its cult status (my own journey a testament to this). It would seem that in Belém, religion is not just found in its monastery. To eat in, customers sit down and meditate over a small pile of pastries, whilst those martyrs more pressed-for-time lean at the counter and consume theirs whilst standing. To take away, which by the way, is a novel experience as the Portuguese seem to have no concept of eating food anywhere else but the place they buy it, a hexagonal-shaped tubular box is filled for that special epiphany on the move. However you buy them, accompanying the tarts are celestial dustings of cinnamon and sugar (given to you in sachets if you choose them to-go). The cafe itself is of a similar darkness to the neighbouring monastery and as we were not blessed with the best weather throughout our stay, we chose to get five to eat outside, since the sun had just made an exclusive pope-like guest appearance.

Box de Belém

Sitting excitedly on the benches, I tipped out a tart into my hand from the box. It was still warm from the oven and looked not dissimilar to the one's I get from Sid's. After a brief dust of cinnamon and sugar, I tentatively bit into the Pastéis. Its pastry was crisper than I was used to. The residual heat emanating from the filling lent it a slightly wobbly mouthfeel. But (and this is a big "but") despite the pastry's superior texture, it wasn't quite as delectable as the ones back home, whose vanilla-scented filling is whipped butter-smooth. The Pastéis de Belém's interior in comparison had a slight lumpiness to it, and depended on the cinnamon to give it that boost in flavour. This is not to say it wasn't delicious (I did consume my entire share with a contented, sugar-high smirk) - it just wasn't as good. Sacrilegious? Probably. No doubt the people of Belém are mapping out some kind of warped monastic blood vengeance in response to this, but then they are 985 miles away (give or take) so I'm not exactly quivering like the custard in a freshly bitten Pastéis.

The Pastéis de Belém

Well, that, and they'll never find me.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Cup of Chai?

Nothing in this world seems to be original anymore.

I’ve been dredging the depths of my creative conscience to think of an excitingly flavoured cake to bake and I really thought I was being supremely novel with my idea of one spiced with chai, but no, it’s not a new suggestion in the slightest. One bright morning last week, curiosity abound, I had a little search on the internet and to my sort of surprise, there was an abundance of recipes using the delicately scented ingredient. Most of them are in the neat form of cupcakes and are found, unsurprisingly, in America (home of the ‘extra hot, extra wet, skinny, grande chai tea latte’. Oh, and it still amuses me that they say “chai tea”, both words being synonymous) as far as I can tell. But it doesn’t matter – sometimes you just have to admit you’re already behind the times. Coincidentally, I’ve been really inspired by Flickr’s cupcake conclave recently, mostly by the very talented Sean Gin and his beautiful creations and photos. The cakes he takes pictures of are such perfection in two layers that you can’t help running to the kitchen to line a bun tin with paper cases.

So I’ve moved from the notion of one cake to many smaller versions. This recipe is, at least, original in that I concocted it myself, but knowing my luck…

(My muffin cases are too large for the tray resulting in fairly mishapen cakes)

Makes 12

For the chai extract:

  • 2 chai teabags
  • water

For the cake:

  • 125g unsalted butter
  • 50g soft light brown sugar
  • 75g golden caster sugar
  • 2 free range eggs, beaten
  • 125g plain flour
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • 1 ½ - 2 cardamom pods's black seeds, ground (depending on how fragrant you like your food)
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp ground ginger

For the icing:

  • 115g unsalted butter
  • 225g icing sugar, sieved through to make sure there are no lumps
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ground cinnamon, for dusting

Place the teabags in a small saucepan/heatproof jug, cover with as little water as you can manage and bring to the boil. Occasionally press the bags lightly to release as much flavour as you can, and once the fragrant liquid is as dark as you can get it, remove the bags and reduce the tea down to 1-2 tablespoon’s worth of ‘essence’. Leave to cool quietly as you line your bun tin with some pretty little paper cases and then continue to make the cake batter. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Make sure that your butter is extremely soft* by beating it for a moment, add the two sugars and cream together like there’s no tomorrow. Once you have attained that ethereal fluffiness and the mix is a fair few shades paler, beat in the eggs, a little at a time (if the mixture metamorphoses into a curdled mess, do not panic, the flour will remedy this). Stir in the cooled tea. Sieve in the flour and baking powder, add the spices and fold gently until you have a smooth, thick mound of batter. Divide into the awaiting cases (I gloss over this part in one sentence because I know it’s fiddly but with some two-spoon dexterity and a lot of practice you can become quite adept at doing this quickly and equally). Place in the upper realms of your preheated oven and bake the wee bairns for 15-20 minutes (check them at 10, just in case) until they are cooked through (insert a knife into one and see if it comes out clean) but not coloured. Remove from the oven and leave the cakes to cool in the tray for five minutes before releasing them to an awaiting rack and letting them cool down completely. Once they are cold, make up the icing by beating the softened butter with the sieved icing powder and vanilla until it becomes thoroughly blended and voluptuous. Taste to check whether the amount of vanilla is to your liking – add a little more if it seems bland. Blob the icing on each cake and then swirl or slap or apply in whatever creative manner you desire. If you’re a perfectionist, you could pipe it on, but as these are reminiscent of the aromatic hot beverage, I’m not certain that perfect rosettes are called for here. Dust ever so lightly with a sprinkle of cinnamon and the cake is complete. If you want to serve these some time in the future you can store them un-iced and be all arty later.

The result is the most perfumed, tender crumb smothered in a viscous vanilla velvet. A great spin on the cute cupcake and a worthy addition to any afternoon tea.

*In the winter I do this by placing the mixing bowl with the measured out butter in the oven and turning the fan on and the oven’s temperature settings a millimetre up from 0°C a bit in advance, obviously pre the preheating. I suppose if you have a microwave you could put the butter in, very cautiously, on the lowest setting for a brief moment. The result may not be as even as the oven method's though and you really don’t want to risk melting the butter.