Plum Tarts…and a Book Review

September 3, 2009  •  Desserts, Fruit, Tarts

I’ve been reading Confections of a Closet Master Baker, by Gesine Bullock-Prado (Sandra Bullock’s sister, I must share, although I’m certain she gets sick of being referred to in this way) as part of a sort of food blogger’s book club. We were to read the book and create something based on the book, and that was easy for me, even though I’m far from a master baker. I was inspired by her description of making her version of her mother’s Zwetschgendatschi after she had lost her mother to cancer:

“So I set about making the dough, an industrial mixer replacing my mother’s steady hands. I efficiently slice the plums, line them up in a fancy round fluted tart pan, sprinkle them with sparkling granules of sanding sugar, and walk away. None of that homey rusticity of a sheet pan of plums dusted with regular sugar. Nothing sentimental, sad, or remotely reminiscent of death about this task. No sir. Just a professional pastry chef making pastry. Slip the tart into the sterile convection oven. Set the timer. Walk away. Take it out when time’s up. Start weeping.”

– excerpted from Confections of a Closet Master Baker,
by Gesine Bullock-Prado

Thankfully, I haven’t lost my mother to cancer, but I do fully relate to the emotions that food can elicit in all of us. So I was inspired by this passage, and since it was also about plums, I decided to create something with my very own Italian plums from my tree.
My Flaky Tart Crust recipe is intended to make either 3 nine-inch crusts, or 2 eleven-inch crusts. But there is always a small amount left over after trimming the tart and I save these small pieces of dough wrapped in plastic in the freezer. They fit a small personal tart sized pan perfectly.

Although the Italian plums look blue, once you rinse them and especially after they cook, they turn a reddish-purple color that is lovely to behold.

I simply pressed the leftover pieces of dough into the small tart pans (with removable bottoms) and docked the dough with a fork…

…then spread a very small amount of my Frangipane on the bottom of each one…

…before layering them with plum halves and dusting them with sugar.

I like to make tarts with Frangipane both because I like the almond flavor and because I like the way it puffs up around the cooked fruit, holding everything together.

These tarts were perfect after about 40 minutes in the oven – aren’t they gorgeous?! I urge you to buy Gesine’s book – it’s a fun read and she’s a wonderfully witty and engaging writer. Here are some discussion questions from her website – thought you might be interested in my answers!
In many ways, Gesine’s recipes are a tribute to the people who have shaped her life. What memories do you bring to the kitchen when you cook? Who is the most memorable cook in your family?
I’ve always loved to cook – from as early as I can remember making butter-sugar sandwiches and easy bake oven cakes. I was fortunate to have a mom who invited me into the kitchen, instead of shooing me out, and taught me things. As a young kid, salad prep, making fried chicken in the electric skillet, and her special macaroni with hot dogs and tomato soup that we would get when my parents were going out stand out in my mind. As I got older, I began calling her for her recipes – Beef Marco Polo, her Crab Louis recipe – and then calling her from college with my new recipes, like my friends Apricot Chicken. I see the cycle comtinuing now when my own daughter calls me from CU for cooking lessons – or as only today’s technology allows, sends me a text message with a photo of one of her creations (latest was pesto rice with roasted red peppers and shrimp and she even made the pesto herself). I LOVE that she has the cooking bug!
Wisely, Gesine does not give out her macaroon recipe—her lifeblood. Are there secret recipes or secret ingredients in your repertoire? Or a recipe that never quite delivers the same results as the relative who made it famous?
I stink at making brisket. Shouldn’t be that hard, right? But it never turns out right, even though my mother in law makes a great one and even though I make plenty of other slow cooked meats that are tender and delicious. In terms of sharing recipes, I think it’s the highest compliment when someone wants mine and I always share. I’m not trying to make a retail business from my recipes though, and perhaps would feel differently if I had a storefront selling those items.
Gesine celebrates the pleasure of dessert, but she is also troubled by America’s obesity problem. Discuss the points she raises about quality baking and helping children develop a healthy attitude toward sweets. What is the best way to ensure that they become neither obese nor anorexic, like many members of the Hollywood culture that Gesine had to flee?
My great grandmother always said (at least that’s who I think said it to me), “Everything in moderation.” I’m sure she isn’t credited with that line, but honestly that’s the secret. I indulge in real butter, heavy cream, ice cream, cookies, and wine – and more than once a month I can tell you! But I also eat alot of fresh vegetables, cook with healthy ingredients like olive oil, and try to get variety in my diet. The biggest parenting mistake I made when my kids were young was to allow them to eat “kid food” every night – mac & cheese, chicken tenders, spaghetti, etc. – instead of just dining on real food with us. That’s a crutch working parents fall into and I was guilty of that. But I see now when I cook with kids – in my classes, in the Seed to Table school garden programs – that kids are naturally curious. And when they cook it (especially if they’ve also grown it) they will generally try eating it. Nine times out of ten they also like it – although today a young student spit out my squash salad right in front of me and wiped his tongue! [PS I just saw that my cooking with the Bear Creek Elementary School was on the channel 4 news tonight at 5 but fortunately they left this kid’s spitting out of it!]
Gesine shares childhood memories of stolen Oreos and craving the processed food everyone else seemed to have, while feeling ashamed of the ultra-healthy lunches her mother made for her. How does this compare to your upbringing? What are your earliest memories of food restrictions and cravings?
I have a family secret – I used to hide the bananas so that nobody else in the house would eat them and I’d get them all to myself. Usually I’d finish them off, but occasionally my mom would find a blackened bunch rotting under the baking sheets or something. I didn’t need to hide food – my parents would have let me have them I’m sure! I don’t remember my parents forbidding foods, but I also don’t recall being served a soda or potato chips until junior high school at a friend’s house. I also know we had Wheaties (which I loved) and my best friend next door had Captain Crunch. But I don’t ever remember a discussion about it or an issue about it – we all knew if we went to someone else’s house we could eat what they had, and for some reason I don’t remember begging my mom to have that stuff at our house. I do remember coming home for lunch each day from elementary school (seems like it was miles but recently I looked it up on Google Earth and it was like 2 short blocks). Every day we had soup (chicken noodle or tomato), a sandwich (PB&J – I can’t recall a single lunch meat ever), fruit cocktail, and some Fritos with a glass of milk. When you look at that meal, it’s actually not too badly balanced nutritionally, but it’s everything a kid would love for lunch. I guess that’s why we didn’t complain!
Gesine’s closeted hobby turned into a successful business venture. What secret hobby lurks in your daydreams? What would it take for you to pursue it fulltime, embarking on a new path in life? Would it spoil the fun if you turned your hobby into a business venture?
When I launched Cooking with Michele I was concerned I wouldn’t like to cook anymore, or I would lose enthusiasm for cooking with others. Actually the opposite has happened – I jump at any chance to cook with people and have added so much volunteer work through Operation Frontline and the Slow Food Seed to Table school gardens program. Instead of spoiling it, I feel like my work is now fun – something I rarely felt in corporate America!
Gesine’s recipes very much capture her cultural heritage. What ancestries would be reflected if you were to write a memoir packed with recipes?
My generation had mom’s who were largely stay-at-home moms , and they were looking for some adventure. With the expansion of cookbooks, cooking shows by Julia Child, and the like in the ’60s, my mom began experimenting. Frogs legs, Chinese steak, and some weird pickle in a meatloaf are a few things I remember. I think I picked up that desire for improvising on global cuisine from my mom. And we still discuss recipes and menus for entertaining today.

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