Symphony of Sugar
As my friends’ schedules become increasingly hectic and I continue to get by without a car, recently I’ve been taking the bus more and more.
For a long time, I resented it. There is not a lot to love about public transportation.
I’ve spent too many afternoons running behind a just-missed bus or waiting listlessly for an hour, so I’ve become overly cautious and give myself too much time. I rush out of school in that awkward state between walking and running, my backpack heavy against my shoulders, moving quickly to get to the stop. I stare at the stretch of road, trying to see the green roof of the bus emerge from around the bend, and I hate feeling as though the bus will never come.
Most of all, I hate the weary ride itself. It’s an hour long ride to my house, even though it’s a 15 minute trip by car, and the hour never passes quickly. My bus has sticky seats, a dirty floor, the smell of too many people come and gone and a lurching, roundabout movement that leaves me grouchy.
But the good news is that I’ve found an escape. I tuck my ipod into the pocket of my backpack every morning, and as the bus lumbers towards me I untangle the headphones. I’m almost always tired, so I choose something easygoing and simple, with strings or a soft-spoken correspondent on NPR.
I have the sort of headphones that eliminate your sense of sound. If you put them on without music, the world becomes shockingly silent, the kind of silence that makes you forget what noise was. I no longer hear the man snapping baby carrots between his teeth in the seat behind me, or the obnoxious beat pumping from the row ahead.
Instead it’s like I’m underwater, submerged into a place of only warm drafts and light reflecting against chrome. Everything is nothing, and suddenly I can feel all my other senses so much more acutely – dramatic, but true! I always marvel for a minute at the effect, and then I turn towards the window and turn on a song. Then, for an hour, the world is nothing but the blooming trees slipping past my eyes and the subtle reflection of my face in the glass.
I listen to music a few hours every day, and for the longest time I tried to make music compatible with baking. But it takes a lot of focus to hear my songs while the mixer is whirring loudly or while water splutters against silverware in the sink. I’ve tried turning on a radio instead, but the sound is washed out every other minute if I need to use the food processor or whip some cream.
I regretfully concluded that the two weren’t compatible after all. So I’ve started working silently, without any other noise at all. I’ve found that the kitchen makes music of its own.
The rhythmic churn of the KitchenAid, the crackle and pop of lighting the stove, the clinks and rolling as I open and shut the aged drawers one after the other. There’s the dingdingding of the timer and the satisfying, gradual pop! of a new jar finally opened. I love the quiet raking noises of zesting a tangerine, the insubstantial thud of a flipped-over cup of flour, and the low, sticky bubble of cooking sugar.
When I look back, I always remember little details about the baking process. Take this tangerine meringue tart… If I close my eyes and try to bring myself there again, I remember the sandy texture of the tart dough coming together between my fingertips and the silkiness of curd on my spoon. I remember the vivid orange of spilled tangerine juice on the old white counter and the smell of cocoa powder.
And more than anything, I remember the distinct sounds of each component coming together, using every instrument in my kitchen to create something beautiful. Chocolate crust, tangerine curd, marshmallowy meringue… it’s like a symphony in three acts.
I think it might be my favorite song.
Although I am notorious for planning out baking projects weeks in advance, sketching and listing out the things I want to make, I made this tart on a whim. We had a bag of smooth-skinned, brilliant tangerines, and I knew their sunny sweetness would shine between a soft chocolate crust and a heap of swirly meringue.
The three components are very simple, although I admit that the meringue is tricky. It requires you to cook sugar and then pour it into whipped egg whites. I’ve been trying to master this technique for years, and I’ve always ended up with either scrambled eggs or a hard, frustrating lump of sugar on the side of my mixer. Today it worked.
I was so awed that two simple ingredients like sugar and egg whites could make something so ethereal and fluffy. This meringue melts in your mouth. It’s cotton candy for grown ups. It’s sweet, light, but sophisticated. It works beautifully with the other two richer, more assertive aspects of the tart. The contrasts in texture, flavor, and color made this tart pleasantly complex.
It’s worth mentioning that since I piped the meringue, instead of smoothing it on top, I had a lot leftover. I tried baking individual meringues and failed (burned them) but you might find a use for it. Also, the filling is just a tad too sweet for my taste, so next time I’ll include some lemon or decrease the sugar a bit.
Chocolate Tart Crust
Makes enough for an 11″ or thick 10″ tart crust
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon (generous) salt
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, diced
1 1/2 tablespoons ice water
Spray a 10″ tart pan with cooking spray or grease with butter. Meanwhile, combine flour, sugar, cocoa powder, and salt in a food processor. Pulse five seconds to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse sand. Add the water and pulse until a crumbly dough comes together (I needed an extra tablespoon of water.) Press into the tart pan and freeze for 30 minutes to an hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and place the tart pan on a baking sheet. Bake 18-20 minutes or until the crust is dry and puffy. (Mine was very, very puffy, so I pricked it all over with a fork when it came out and the puffiness died down. It was a little soft initially, but it cooled into a flat, hard crust.) Cool completely.
1/2 cup sugar, divided
1/3 cup cornstarch
1 1/2 cups fresh tangerine juice
1/2 cup water
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons grated tangerine zest
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
4 egg whites
Before making this recipe, you’ll want to make the chocolate crust (recipe above) or any crust you’d like.
To make the filling, combine 1/4 cup sugar with the cornstarch in a medium saucepan. Whisk together, then gradually pour in the tangerine juice and water, whisking until smooth. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture boils. Turn the heat down to low and cook for an additional minute. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, lightly beat the eggs together, then whisk in the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar.
Stir a small amount of the warm tangerine mixture into the egg mixture to temper it (keep it from scrambling by gradually warming it.) Pour the egg mixture into the pan with the rest of the filling and blend until combined. Cook for a minute longer until the filling is thick, making sure to scrape the bottom and creases of the pan. Whisk quickly to smooth the filling without overmixing.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract and tangerine zest. Pour into the baked tart crust (I poured it through a sieve to remove any lumps or bits of egg, but you don’t have to.) Wrap and chill while making meringue.
Make the meringue: stir the sugar and water together in a small saucepan, until it has the texture of wet sand. Heat the mixture over medium-high heat until it reads 240 degrees on a thermometer, the softball stage. You’ll know you’re there if, when you drop a bit of the mixture into a cup of water, it forms a flexible little ball. Don’t let the mixture get hotter, you really need the thermometer for this one. In the meantime, whip the egg whites until stiff peaks form, but don’t overbeat.
As soon as the sugar is ready, carefully pour the mixture into a heat-proof cup that you can pour out of. This does a couple things: it stops the cooking of the sugar, and it’ll make it easier to gradually pour into the eggs. With the mixer on low, slowly, gradually pour the sugar mixture into the whipped eggs. Avoid hitting the beaters or side of the bowl, where the sugar might splatter or harden, and go slowly. Once all the sugar is added, turn the mixer on medium and whip until the mixture is cooled and very fluffy.
You can either mound the meringue on top of the pie, or you can fill a piping bag and pipe (that’s what I did, using a Wilton 4B piping tip.) Either way, try to reach all the way to the crust and cover up all the filling, so you don’t see any orange. If you’d like, bake the pie for 15 minutes on a low rack at 350 degrees to brown the top, or use a hand-held torch. The tart is best eaten as soon as possible, but it’ll keep wrapped and chilled for 2 days.
Printer-Friendly Version – Tangerine Meringue Tart and Chocolate Tart Crust