Lately, it seems to me that one of the most important things about being alive is, well, food. Even before this whole “baking thing” :) became a part of my identity, food has been as important as housing and education.
I come from a family where my grandfather laid the foundation for food appreciation… Heavy, dusty potatoes, long, gorgeously orange carrots, crackly-skinned poultry and lots of real cream and butter (lots of it.) My father has kept the tradition alive, too – among my favorite weekend dinners are homemade butternut ravioli with home-grown tomato sauce, barbeque ribs made with his secret hand-mixed chili powder, and crisp, creamy sweet potato fries.
It’s not just the holidays and weekends when we eat well. My mother claims not to enjoy cooking, but I don’t buy it for a minute. I’ve seen her make potstickers, mixing together the skin with only flour and water, chopping pork and herbs for the filling. I’ve seen the way her face lights up when I taste test a new red bean filled bun. She likes to cook for the same reasons I do: to savor something delicious, and to watch other people do it too.
When I was in middle school, lunch was the only unhealthy meal I got, paid for out of a vending machine. I’d wolf down a bag of potato chips, a pack of sour gummy worms, and a bottle of Dr. Pepper. Not so much anymore. When I eat out, it’s sushi or potato and mushroom piroshkies; when I pack it myself it’s a turkey sandwich on homemade bread and a blackberry yogurt.
Most of the things I blog about aren’t healthy, but I don’t treat myself to chocolate cookies and peanut butter cheesecake every day. I know you’re meant to eat these things wisely and share the rest. It’s important to us to eat healthy, and that’s what we do. And even when it’s not completely “healthy,” like when we generously add heavy cream to our mashed potatoes or deep fry halibut cheeks, at least we know we’re using quality ingredients.
I can hardly remember the last time we bought bread, since my mother makes it all herself: fresh tomato basil, ciabatta, carrot dinner rolls, naan, pita pockets and hamburger buns. Our herb garden is flourishing under the shy Seattle sunlight, and the vegetables are following – acorn squash, Japanese cucumber, arugula, snow peas, butter lettuce. We’ve got the promise of apples, pears, currants, and Asian pears to come.
As for what we don’t grow or make, we get pickier and pickier as the years go by. We’ve switched mostly over to organic fruit now at the grocery store. We love the fresh, firm fish that the Puget Sound has to offer. I like to use organic evaporated cane juice instead of white granulated sugar. We still only buy what we can afford, and we budget our shopping list, but we have definitely gotten choosier.
When Mother’s Day rolled around this year, I settled on making a Jam Tart. I didn’t exactly plan ahead, so Sunday morning I had two hours to get the whole thing baked. I put the tart crust dough in the freezer to chill, and then I rummaged through the fridge until I realized we didn’t have any jam left. Drat.
I remember, as I drove to the closest grocery store, being annoyed at myself for not making fresh jam myself earlier. Blackberry? Orange marmalade? Strawberry? I could have made all of those from scratch, I thought. When I got to the store – one I wouldn’t have picked if I hadn’t been pressed for time – I stood before their unimpressive selection of jams and jellies.
I didn’t even bother looking at the inexpensive generic brands or the sugar free versions. I picked up a jar, turned it around, scanned the ingredients. I grabbed another, checked the origin of the fruit. On the top shelf, I finally found one small jar of marionberry preserves – a little glass thing faceted like a black diamond. The brand seemed solid and the ingredients looked good. It was also two dollars more pricey than anything else.
But I didn’t think twice before buying it and running back to the car, barely on schedule.
Inexplicably, days after the tart was eaten and gone, I found myself thinking about that jar. There was definitely nothing wrong with the jam. It was smooth, sweet, fruity – but it was expensive. And it wasn’t even eaten straight from the jar with a spoon or spread onto a crusty loaf. It was baked into a tart. In hindsight, perhaps I should have bought something a little more affordable. You have to make sacrifices somewhere, right?
Am I turning into a food snob? I swore I never would. But I’m the one person of my friends who won’t eat if we go to Qdoba or Wendy’s for lunch, instead walking to the next door Trader Joe’s or waiting to go home to eat. I shop for fruit the way some girls shop for shoes. And even though we can’t exactly afford it, I beg to go to Whole Foods on special occasions.
I think it’s a good thing to care about your food: where it comes from, what it’s been treated with, how fresh it is. But I think I’ve also got to consider what things are really worth, and when they really matter. It’s easy enough to buy a little $6 jar of jam when the only thing I spend my own money on is ingredients. But when I’m on my own at college three months from now, I won’t be able to get away with those kinds of food purchases all the time.
I think the key is balance. I won’t compromise my food ethics, and I’ll always have an appreciation for good food. But I’ll never force it on anyone else, and I’ll still have to be responsible about my purchases. Maybe not everyone will agree, but I think that’s just another aspect of caring about your food. For now, I’ll take it one meal at a time, forkful by forkful of Mother’s Day jam tart.
In the food world, this jam tart has a great resume. It’s from David Lebovitz’s new book Ready for Dessert, and I found it over at Smitten Kitchen, where Deb has never led me astray. It has tons of good reviews through comments, and I knew it would be a winner as soon as I made it.
But you know what? It was just okay. I had a lovely Mother’s Day with my mom, grandma, and dad. We went out for dim sum and came home to a gorgeous afternoon. We cut open the tart, plated it. I went outside to photograph it and heard my family talking from inside.
“It’s… sweet. Wow.”
I took a bite and couldn’t believe it – it was definitely, definitely sweet. A little too sweet even by my standards. Maybe I did something wrong, since the tart had such great reviews all around. But we agreed that the crust was fantastic, a little crisp and a little soft and reminiscent of corn bread. I’ll definitely be making it again, maybe with a different filling… Sweet potato? Blueberries? Something savory, like grits? It would all work. Or maybe I’ll just use a thinner layer of jam.
So much for the $6 jar!
1 1/2 cups (210 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (70 grams) stone-ground cornmeal or polenta
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
9 tablespoons (4 1/2 ounces or 130 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
1 large egg, whole
1 large egg, separated
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
1 1/3 to 1 3/4 cups (450 grams) jam or marmalade
2 tablespoons (30 grams) coarse-crystal or granulated sugar
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt. In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, mix the butter and 1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar together until smooth. Add the egg, egg yolk and almond extract and beat until combined. Gradually add the flour mixture and mix until the dough just comes together.
Transfer about one-third of the dough to a lightly floured counter and shape it into a log about 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter. Wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it until needed, or stick it in the freezer.
Transfer the remaining dough to a buttered 9-inch (23-cm) tart pan with a removable bottom of a 9-inch (23-cm) springform pan. Using your hands, press the dough evenly into the bottom. If using a tart pan, press the dough up the sides to the rim of the pan and set the tart pan on a baking sheet. If using a springform pan, press the dough about 3/4-inch (2-cm) up the sides of the pan. Refrigerate the dough-lined pan until firm, at least one hour, or for half an hour in the freezer.
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Spread the jam or marmalade evenly over the dough in the pan. Cut the chilled dough into very thin discs with a sharp paring knife, or use a cookie cutter. Arrange them slightly overlapped in concentric circles over the jam to form a top crust. Whisk the remaining egg white with a teaspoon of water until frothy; brush evenly over the tart lid and then sprinkle with 2 tablespoons (30 grams) coarse sugar. Bake until the top crust is golden brown, about 25 minutes. Let cool completely.
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