31 January 2011

Chinese New Year Pineapple Tarts Recipe (Open-face)


If you want a pineapple tart recipe that can rival the best from your aunty, grandaunty, grandmother or great-grandmother (or will at least not be laughed off the table), look no further.  150 tarts and 9 pineapples later, I have finally arrived at one that I am happy with. I have, however, to give credit where credit is due. No recipe could ever have a chance of matching a mother's or grandaunty's, unless it is from a matriarch herself, none other than the grandmother from whom all their recipes originated. My recipe is only decent because it was adapted from such a recipe in the first place.

If you are wondering whether this is THE recipe you have been waiting for, let me describe the pineapple tart for you. After all, there are many differing opinions on what constitutes the best pineapple tart - moist jam, caramelized jam, melt-in-the-mouth pastry, firm biscuit-like pastry etc.

This recipe yields pineapple jam that is moist and full of natural pineapple flavour. The spices are in such quantity as to complement rather than overshadow the beautiful honeyed taste of the pineapples. More importantly, you won't taste the sourish tang of lemon in this jam. I know that lemon juice is a very common ingredient in pineapple jam recipes, and my fellow baking aficionado C informs me that it is used to supply pectin to the pineapple jam. However, I find that most recipes add them in such quantities as to make the jam slightly sour and rob it of its natural pineapple goodness. The difference in taste is more pronounced than you would think - I could taste the juice in 80% of tarts I have tried this year, both commercial and home-made versions, and they suffered for it next to a pineapple tart unadulterated with lemon juice.  The pineapple jam I made set well without the use of lemon juice, so I do think it is not essential especially if there is enough sugar to 'set' the jam. Of course, getting good quality pineapples is essential to making good jam. Many people swear by Sarawak pineapples. I used 'honey' pineapples recommended by my fruit grocer this year, and they were fantastic.   Making pineapple jam is the most time-consuming aspect of making pineapple tarts - from peeling to grating to cooking the pineapple to the right consistency.  I tried grating the pineapples both by hand as well as with the food processor, and I have to say, the latter method is superior. Apart from saving you from accidentally grating your fingertips, machine-grating also results in pulp with shorter fibrous strands, which is to be desired.  Cooking the pineapple jam, which can take anything up to 2 hours, also requires some skill. The desired colour is golden yellow, and the jam should no longer be wet but moist. In deciding when to stop, you have to take into account that the jam will dry out further in the oven when the tart is baked.  So you are aiming for a degree of moistness that is slightly more than what you would expect in a finished tart.  If the jam is too dry, you will get a crispy jam 'shell' on top of your tart (yes, that happened to me), and if it is too moist, your pineapple tarts will get mouldy fast. For the same reason, do not be tempted to cut down on the sugar in the jam too much, as that will also cause your tarts to become mouldy. The jam has to be a little sweeter as the pastry in this recipe is not very sweet.

As testament to how good the jam is, take a look at this picture on the right.  I had sternly forbidden my kids from snatching pineapple tarts off the cooling rack. So Sugababe 2 slyly thought that I wouldn't miss a thing if she just pinched the jam from a whole row of tarts. You can see what challenging conditions I work under. Now I don't have enough good tarts for gifting (not that my family is complaining).

Now we move on to the pastry. In our family, we all differ in opinion as to what makes a good pastry. Grandma likes the pastry firm and biscuit-like, my husband likes it firm but yet tender, and I like it crumbly and melt-in-the mouth.  I was striving for the texture I liked, but my husband insisted that he really disliked that crumbly, powdery texture (no doubt melt-in-the-mouth) which always makes him choke.  I have to respect the guy who brings home the dough (so to speak), so this recipe achieves a texture that is firm (as in it won't break apart into little bits in your hand) and yet very tender. What we all agree on however, is that the pastry has to be very fine, fragrant, and buttery.  For that reason, the rubbed-in dough in this recipe has the highest fat to flour ratio that can be tolerated. The minimum ratio for a shortcrust pastry is half fat to flour, i.e. 50% fat to flour. This recipe has the highest percentage I have seen i.e. 66% fat to flour. It does result in a dough that is slightly trickier to handle, but the results are worth it.  The recipe for the pastry is actually very simple.  I have seen recipes that call for milk powder to be added, to achieve a 'melt-in-the-mouth' texture, but again, this compromises on the taste. And don't even consider using margarine or shortening, which gives that tell-tale plastic taste to commercial baked pastries.

If there is any secret to the pastry at all, it is in the use of salted Golden Churn butter. Or any salted butter of the highest butterfat percentage you can find (no less than 80%).  Most of the time, I bake with unsalted butter, but salted butter really makes a difference to this pastry. The other 'secret' is to work the dough as little as possible, since an over-worked dough results in a tough pastry. I used my fingertips to rub the butter into the flour, but my friend C recommends the use of a pastry cutter for this step (so that less heat is transferred), and I think this sounds like a brilliant idea which you should certainly try.

Pineapple tarts are painstakingly laborious to make, but when done well, they are well worth the effort, as nothing that you purchase commercially will ever come close.

If you are craving pineapple tarts, I hope this recipe will serve you well this Chinese New Year.  If not (and you find something better) then in the Chinese New Year spirit of generosity you must absolutely share it with me ;) From my home to yours, Happy Lunar New Year!

Recipe for Pineapple Tarts 

340 g plain flour
20 g cornflour
240g salted butter
1/2 egg
2 tsp vanilla essence
1 tbsp cold water
2 tbsp icing sugar

Pineapple Jam
3 big pineapples (grate and discard core. drain all except 3/4 cup of its juice)
284g caster sugar
1/4 tsp salt
2 inch piece of cinnmon stick
2-3 cloves
2 segments of star anise

1) Cook all ingredients for pineapple jam in a pot on the stove, ovver low heat. After 30 minutes, remove spices and continue cooking until the juice has dried up but pineapple jam is still moist (not wet).  This will take approximately 1 hour. Refrigerate.

2) Sift flours and icing sugar together, twice. Cut butter into small pieces and run into sifted flour.after it is completely rubbed in, add egg and then slowly add in the cold water (only if needed) to get a nice and fairly firm dough. Divide dough into 2 portions, wrap each portion in plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes. Roll out into 0.5 cm thickness between 2 sheets of plastic and then chill again for another 15 minutes.

3) Meanwhile, roll jam into small balls for easy filling.

4)  Take out dough and cut using a pineapple tart mould. Fill with jam. Work in an air-conditioned room. If dough is too soft to work with, flour your hands, the work table and rolling pin, making sure not to add too much flour to the dough or it will become tough. If necessary, flour the tart cutter before cutting each tart, so that the tart removes easily with all its patterns/grooves intact.

5) Arrange tarts on tray lined with baking paper.  Chill in fridge for about 10 minutes, then bake at 140C for about 30 minutes. When ready, leave to cool and store. Makes about 50 - 70 tarts depending on the size of the pineapple mould.

Almond Polvorones (aka Russian Tea Cakes/Mexican Wedding Cookies)

Every Chinese New Year, home bakers all around our little island will be busy baking up their Chinese New Year specialties for gifting or selling.  In our families, there is always this unspoken rivalry among the aunts and grandmothers as to who bakes the best pineapple tarts, kueh bangkit (a melt-in-the-mouth coconut cookie), sugee cake (a Eurasian almond cake) or kueh lapis (a multi-layered cake).  Needless to say, most of these treats are extremely time-consuming and laborious to make, for what else other than a completely masochistic recipe could set one's skills apart from the other?

Not daring to prove myself against these doyens of Chinese New Year goodies, I choose every year to bake the simplest (and yet oh so delicious!) type of cookie possible for gifting - Almond Polvorones.  The distinguishing characteristics of these cookies is their fragrant, nutty flavour and incomparably fine, melt-in-the-mouth texture.  My kids go crazy for these cookies and snatch them right off the cooling rack. Which creates problems for me since I need exactly 20 cookies to fill a jar ... and it drives me nuts when I am short of 1 or 2 due to these thieving little runts.

I find these cookies a welcome change from the usual Chinese New Year treats (as do my friends and family).  More importantly, I love it that they are so delicious and yet simple to make in large quantities, as that means I can bless more friends and family with these tasty treats. After all, isn't generosity and abundance the hallmarks of a good Chinese New Year celebration?

But don't let my characterisation of these as Chinese New Year cookies stop you from baking them for just about any other event or reason: for fund-raisers, Christmas, or just simply for an afternoon tea with friends. these Polvorones are simply beautiful when enjoyed with a cup of hot tea. 

Recipe for Almond Polvorones
(adapted from Epicurious)

For cookies:
1 cup (226g) butter, room temperature
1/2 cup icing sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup almonds, toasted, coarsely ground

For dusting: 
1 1/2 cup icing sugar/snow powder 
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Method: Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until light and fluffy. Add 1/2 cup powdered sugar and vanilla; beat until well blended. Beat in flour, then nuts. Divide dough in half; form each half into ball. Wrap separately in plastic; chill until cold, about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 170C. 

Whisk remaining 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar or snow powder and cinnamon in pie dish to blend. Set cinnamon sugar aside.* 

Working with half of chilled dough, roll dough by 2 teaspoonfuls between palms into balls. Arrange balls on heavy large baking sheet, spacing 1/2 inch apart. Bake cookies until golden brown on bottom and just pale golden on top, about 18 minutes. 

Cool cookies 5 minutes on baking sheet. Gently toss warm cookies in cinnamon sugar to coat completely. Transfer coated cookies to rack and cool completely. Repeat procedure with remaining half of dough. 

(Cookies can be prepared 2 days ahead. Store airtight at room temperature; reserve remaining cinnamon sugar.)

Sift remaining cinnamon sugar over cookies and serve.

1) You can easily substitute the almonds in these recipe with other nuts such as pecans, hazelnuts, macadamia, or a combination of the above. I used almonds simply because almond treats are popular and considered 'lucky'during the Chinese New Year. 
2) Note that icing sugar can be used if the cookies are to be consumed immediately, or if your climate is generally dry.  In humid weather, icing sugar will start to melt and turn gunky, so the use of snow powder is recommended instead, especially if you are baking these for gifting.
3) This recipe makes 40 cookies, each weighing 14 g (in dough form)

01 January 2011

Coconutty Banana Fritters (Goreng Pisang)

Move aside banana crumble, banana bread and banana cake. Goreng Pisang (literally, 'fried bananas' in Malay, and one of the most popular desserts in Singapore and Malaysia) is hands down the best way to use up overipe bananas. 

Who can resist deep fried banana fritters with a crispy coconutty coating and melty-hot banana insides?  I know I can't.  Have it piping hot, with a scoop of cold rum and raisin ice cream and a drizzle of maple syrup, and you will know why my kids literally BEG me to make this all the time.  

The secret to good deep fried banana fritters? Coconut, not so much as to overpower but enough to lend some fragrance to the crispy coating. Also, the use of baking soda and soda water help the fritters to fry up nice and crunchy.  Having said that, these fritters are best served hot, as they will inevitably become less crispy if left sitting for a while.    As a side note, I do wonder about that extra crunchy goreng pisang that is sold at Maxwell Market, which seems to stay crispy the entire dayI love the crunch but I really dislike the overwhelmingly bitter taste of baking soda in its crisp coating. So, don't be tempted to add too much baking soda to your fried goods as it can, and does, affect the taste!

Recipe for Coconutty Banana Fritters

1/2 cup self-raising flour
1/2 cup rice flour
1 tbsp cornflour/tapioca flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tbsp dessicated coconut
1 cup cold water/soda water

8 ripe or overripe medium-sized bananas (pisang raja variety is best)

1. Combine and mix all ingredients together to form the batter
2. Heat up sufficient vegetable oil for deep frying at high heat.  To test if oil is hot enough, drop 1/2 teaspoon of batter into the oil. If it sizzles and floats to the surface, the oil is at the right temperature.
3. Dip each banana into batter and deep fry in hot oil. Turn heat down to medium high and turn the bananas over occasionaly to brown evenly on all sides. Remove to drain on a paper towel when they turn golden brown. Do not over-crowd the oil with too many bananas. Depending on the size of the bananas, I usually only fry 2 or 3 at a time.
4. Serve piping hot with ice cream (vanilla or rum and raisin is best), and a drizzle of maple syrup or some cinnamon sugar.


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