I was leaving to spend the 2013 Chinese New Year with my mother, my brother and his family in Edmonton, Alberta. One of the last things I threw into my suitcase in Milwaukee was the only pineapple tart mold I could hurriedly find in my unruly miscellaneous baking drawer. This mold, with a serrated copper cutter and a wooden press, was a gift from my mother some 40 years ago. It had seen better days, but it would have to do.
When I pulled it out again in my brother’s kitchen a day later, its heart shape seemed perfect for the job. As I worked on the dough and the pineapple jam cooled, my mother, Jean Pick-Chin Loong, came and sat by me at the worktable. Together, we made our favorite treat for the new year. Gently, between her palms, she began to coax half-inch pearls of tart filling out of the sticky pineapple mass. Bits of jam clung to the frail skin of her hands, at 87 worn thin and translucent as parchment paper. When she’d finished and took her leave to rest, I saw I had 103 little tarts to make.
I won’t have my mom’s help for the coming Chinese or Lunar New Year, a two-week celebration that begins Jan. 31, because she passed away in December. I am planning, instead, to begin passing on the culinary baton – or rolling pin and tart molds – by recruiting my two teenage daughters to fill in.
Not so long ago, it seems, I was the pint-sized filling roller and my mother was the tart maker. It was a different time, in a different place. That was the Singapore of my childhood a full half century ago, where our tiny nothing-of-a-kitchen and, behind it, the room-of-many-uses, were the places where magical food was made. It was where I learned how to taste, eat well, yearn for amazing food and, eventually, cook. The memory of the smells (some maddeningly intoxicating, others not so much) stirred up all kinds of other recollections: of conversations and lessons taught at the dinner table, small arguments, shocking news, dreaded revelations about our less-than-glorious grades or misdeeds du jour and, happily, the discovery of new foods.
The fragrance of pineapple slowly caramelizing in sugar, with ground clove and a cinnamon stick or two for accent, is exactly the same whether stirred over a tropical outdoor stove or inside a winter-chilled Wisconsin or Canadian kitchen. Closing my eyes to take in the aroma, I imagined the heftier pineapples of Singapore and Malaysia. From the time we were tiny tots, we’d often travel by car from Singapore across the Causeway to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (then Malaya), to visit my relatives. The 250-mile trek meandered around small villages of thatch-roofed homes, rubber estates and tin mines that figured large in my mother’s family. (Her father had gone from poor immigrant Chinese pharmacist to wealthy rubber estate landowner and tin miner.) As a young girl, I made the six-hour journey less agonizingly long by craning my head out the window, mesmerized by the op-art effect of whipping by symmetrical rows of rubber trees. Those gave way to plantations of even more geometric pineapple trees, their dramatic, jagged crowns of fruit accentuated against frosted, barbed leaves.
The pineapple so beautifully menacing in its natural habitat would eventually be presented in an inviting fashion at our table – freshly cut, cooked in a syrup and served as a thirst quencher, or caramelized into a tiny bit of heaven in a buttery crust.
The composition of the pineapple tart was another art form in itself. Today, there are plastic molds that will cut and imprint a complex design along its edges, upon which one places that plump pearl of pineapple. My mother taught me to make tarts the old-fashioned way, using the copper-and-wood mold to shape the tart with a raised edge. Along that same edge, one would take another copper tool to pinch out designs. The other side of this pinching tool had a serrated pinwheel, used to cut narrow strips of dough to crisscross over the mound of pineapple filling. Before baking, the whole tart was given a coat of egg wash for a shiny glow. The well-made tart would hold a generous portion of pineapple, and while it could withstand several bites, it should be tender in the crust and yielding in the mouth.
My mother’s pineapple tarts were almost always perfect and plump. She never skimped on the quality or quantity of sweet pineapple, though as children we would eagerly volunteer to eat the evidence of those that did not meet her exacting standards. As far as we were concerned, every one was perfection.
When the tarts had cooled, my mother placed them in large glass jars (before the advent of Tupperware in our kitchen) made airtight by a round of parchment paper between each jar’s top and its lid. The crunching of the parchment announced that someone was breaking into the goodies jar in the room-of-many-uses – or that company was coming or one or more of us had behaved exemplarily that day.
During the extended Chinese New Year celebration, our pineapple tarts were surely a highlight of our offerings to guests. As my family went from house to house, visiting friends and relatives who served lavish desserts and treats, it became clear my mother’s handiwork was at the pinnacle, and we were silently proud.
Through the years, the practice of holiday house visits diminished, and after a time it became a matter of who found more interesting confections at which new store. In our family, though, pineapple tarts ring of a special time when we as children were woven into a tradition. We were proud to assist in creating a morsel that symbolized how well Mom did things, how she wanted to be viewed, and simply just how she was as a person. She executed to the best of her ability, creating something beautiful, satisfying and elevating – all in a single bite.
–– May Klisch
Tiny pineapple tarts demonstrate hospitality -- especially during the Chinese or Lunar New Year. My mother and I fine-tuned several pastry recipes over time, arriving at this one. The dough is rolled out and cut with pineapple tart molds. I have older molds, made of wood and metal; new plastic molds with ready-made designs are available online or from specialty stores. Fresh pineapple, spiced and cooked down into a jam, needs to drain well for these open-face tarts. While a mesh sieve works with the fresh pineapple, it will clog on the cooked. Instead, use the approach described here.
-- May Klisch
- Pineapple Jam
- 1 large fresh pineapple, peeled, uncored, large diced
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- Pinch of ground clove
- Pastry Dough
- 1 ¾ cups flour, plus extra for rolling
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 3 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
- ½ cup heavy whipping cream
- 1 whole egg, plus 1 yolk
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Egg Wash
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 to 2 tablespoons water
In a food processor, blend the pineapple chunks, including the core, into tiny chunks with the consistency of hash. Using muslin, cheesecloth or fine strainer, drain the pineapple hash.
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat, slowly stir and cook the pineapple with the sugar, cinnamon sticks and clove. Keep stirring as the liquid evaporates and the pineapple caramelizes into a dark gold jam, about 30 minutes.
Remove the saucepan from heat; discard the cinnamon sticks. Drain the pineapple jam:
Flip a medium-size mixing bowl upside down in a larger mixing bowl and heap the cooked pineapple on the upended surface. Excess syrup will drain down the slope and collect in the surrounding moat. Let the pineapple mixture drain for 30 minutes or until mixture has completely cooled. (Discard the syrup – or use it to top ice cream or sweeten a drink.) Roll jam by hand into balls 2/3-inch in diameter.
Meanwhile, prepare pastry dough. In a medium bowl, sift flour, cornstarch, baking soda and salt together. In a separate mixing bowl, combine butter, sugar and cream cheese; beat with electric mixer at medium-high speed until smooth. Reduce speed to low and gradually add cream. When incorporated, beat at medium speed about 5 minutes, scraping down sides several times. Add the whole egg, the yolk and vanilla, blending for 1 to 2 minutes. On low speed, add flour mixture, 1 tablespoon at a time, just until the dough comes together; do not overmix. Cover the dough and refrigerate for 15 to 20 minutes.
To assemble: On a floured surface, roll out the pastry dough to 1/6-inch thick. Use a pineapple mold to stamp out each tart, pressing on the mold’s center to imprint both the border design and make a depression. (Reserve ¼ to 1/3 cup of dough for decorating tarts.) Transfer to a nonstick baking sheet or one lined with parchment. Place a jam ball in the center of each tart, flattening it slightly once in place.
Roll out the reserved pastry dough to 1/8-inch thickness. With a serrated roller or a pizza cutter, cut “bands,” each 1/8-inch wide and 2 to 2 ½ inches long. Crisscross these over the pineapple jam. When you’re about ¾ done assembling a tray of tarts, preheat oven to 350 F. Complete assembly.
Make the egg wash. In a small bowl, combine the remaining egg yolk and 1 to 2 tablespoons of water; stir until fully combined. With a pastry brush, glaze each tart – including the border, pineapple and bands – with the egg wash.
Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until the tops are golden brown. Cool on a wire rack. Store tarts in an airtight container, separating each layer with parchment or wax paper. The tarts will keep for up to 10 days.