Sunday, September 25, 2011
Spiced Plum & Fig Frangipane Tart - A Ghost Story
The garden behind our house in Scotland seemed endless, though it wasn’t, of course, when I snuck back in a few years ago as an adult. It sat in the center of a small fishing village, after all, and the land stretched back towards the old graveyard. There were high stone walls, small apple orchards, a rose garden, gooseberry bushes, a great lawn that no one ever mowed so shortly as to stop its being comfortable to lie on, beds of bluebells that squeaked under your wellie boots in the spring, and a pergola, overgrown with ancient, prolific grapes and plums, that dropped heavy, purple fruit down onto the mossy flagstones below in the early autumn.
In the northeastern corner of the garden, just where the two banks of pergola met and the grapes and plums merged, was a dark, dank place inhabited by ghosts. I mean that quite literally, and I can think of several people who spent a significant amount of time in the garden and can corroborate. But even those who didn't see anything, who had no inclination to believe in beings so unscientific, could not refute that the corner was unsettling. A chill that wouldn't lift even on the sunniest of days, a certainty that one was being watched. We all felt it. Even the youngest of children would point to that shadowy place and name their fear. "A fox!" I remember one person almost too small to talk crying out.
The ghosts didn’t stop our friends from coming to play in droves, though, and to gorge themselves on our plums while the season lasted. The more friends that came, the more windfallen fruit was eaten, and the further towards this forbidding corner it was necessary to edge in the collection of the wine-dark, egg-shaped plums - daring just a few feet closer to the shadows, seizing as many as one could grasp before kicking out, bolting back to the safety of the central lawn. Many years later, an unrelated search through the village records revealed that the same part of our garden had once been encompassed by the 12th Century parish church's graveyard. A mass grave for criminals.
All this is to tell how entirely the scent of ripe plum flesh; a whiff of wood smoke on the air as my father burned great piles of prunings; icy, chill-blained feet (I was inevitably barefoot in the bitter sea air, on those cold, damp stones); and a growing whisper of fear as the safe, sunny stretches of walk were picked clean of sweet, bloom-dusted, gently bruised fruit - these will always be autumn to me.
And autumn it is. Needless to say, this tart is not nearly so sinister, but rather undeniably comforting, warming and irresistible as the harvest reaches its height and the days draw in. Ginger and star anise both set off plums and figs, enhancing their perfume in a smoky way I find evocative of and perfect for autumn. Success depends on the ripeness of the fruit you use. The sugar content in plums is at its peak around here right now, and you can tell figs are ripe when the tiny opening at their blossom end starts to weep a drop or two of syrupy liquid.
7 oz (200g) flour
pinch of kosher salt
1 stick (4 oz, 100g) unsalted butter, diced
1 egg yolk
a little ice water
3 ½ oz (100g) unsalted butter
4 oz (125g) granulated sugar
2 oz (60g) flour
1 tsp ginger
¾ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp ground star anise
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 oz (125g) ground blanched almonds
½ lb (200g) smallish plums
½ lb (200g) ripe figs
Dry beans for baking blind
Lightly butter and flour a 9-inch tart tin that’s at least 1 ½ inches deep.
In a food processor, pulse together the flour, salt and butter until the texture of coarse breadcrumbs. (Alternately, you may use your fingertips to rub the butter into the dry ingredients). Add the egg yolk and pulse quickly, then only just enough ice water to bring the dough together – too much will cause your tart shell to shrink as it bakes.
Turn the dough onto a cool, lightly floured surface and roll out just large enough to line the tart tin. Gently press into the tin and trim to make sure the sides are an even height. Chill in the fridge for half an hour or cover with plastic wrap and chill longer if needed.
Place a baking sheet in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 400F (200C, gas mark 6)
Remove the plastic wrap, prick the dough in several places with the tip of a sharp knife, line the tart shell with aluminum foil or baking parchment, fill with dry beans, and place onto the hot baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, remove from the oven, and carefully remove the beans along with their parchment or foil. Return to the oven and bake for another 5 minutes until dry to the touch.
Meanwhile, use a kitchen mixer to beat together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Reduce the speed to low and add the eggs one at a time and then the vanilla. Meanwhile sift together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, and star anise. Remove the bowl from the food processor and use a spatula to gently fold in the ground almonds and flour. Spoon the frangipane filling into the tart shell and smooth with the back of a spoon.
Cut the plums in half lengthwise and remove the stones. Trim the stems from the figs and cut crosses into the tops. Gently squeeze the bases of the figs to open the “petals” you’ve created. Arrange over the almond filling, plums cut-side down and figs cut-end up in whatever pattern or lack thereof that you like. Gently place the tart onto the hot baking sheet and bake for 40 – 50 minutes or until the frangipane is risen, golden, and just set in the middle. Remove from the oven and cool at least 15 – 20 minutes before serving.