Saturday 18 August 2007

Dreaming of Chinese New Year

One of my favourite celebrations of the year, besides Christmas, is Chinese New Year. For me, growing up, Chinese New Year was always a time when family got together to celebrate the start of what was hoped to be a prosperous new year. On top of that, my memories of CNY are also filled with food. It is customary when visiting friends and relatives to bring along mandarin oranges as the word for them in cantonese sounds like gold. In return, you also receive oranges and are usually treated to an array of sweets and cookies.

You're probably wondering why I'm talking about Chinese New Year in August. Well, the reason is simple, its the theme for my entry into SHF #34. When I read that the theme was local or regional specialities, I knew immediately that I had to make pineapple tarts. Although you can get pineapple tarts year round in Singapore now, they are particularly associated with Chinese New Year where there are often served to guests when they come a visiting. Having spent so many years away from home, they are one of the foods that I miss the most. I have never been able to find them outside of Singapore and often have my parents bring me a few boxes whenever they come to visit.

For those who have never had a pineapple tart, they are really more like a cookie than a tart and they are filled with a pineapple jam that has been spiced with cinnamon, star anise and cloves. The pastry itself has a tender, flaky crumb that marries perfectly with the sweetness of the jam. Pineapple tarts are just one of those things that I find impossible to stop at just one. Can you?

Pineapple Tarts
From Shiok!

Pineapple jam:
4 cans (about 500g each) pineapple chunks in natural juice
1 whole star anise, broken into petals
3 cinnamon sticks
7 cloves
450g caster sugar, plus more as necessary

For the pastry:
400g plain flour, sifted
2 tbsp caster sugar
⅔ tsp salt
250g cold unsalted butter, cubed
3 egg yolks
2 tsp vanilla extract
50 ml iced water
1 egg, beaten with 1 tbsp water

To make the pineapple jam, drain pineapple, reserving juice, and chop it very finely in a food processor. Combine with juice, spices, and sugar in a large, wide pot. Stir well over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Taste, then add more sugar as necessry for good tart-sweet balance.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring very frequently, until the mixture is reduced to a thick, amber-colored jam, 1½ to 2½ hours. Watch it carefully towards the end of cooking, stirring constantly to prevent it from burning. Let cool completely. Store in a clean airtight jar.

To make the pastry, whisk flour, sugar and salt together in a large mixing bowl until well blended. Add butter cubes and rub them in with your fingertips or a pastry blender, until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Whisk egg yolks, vanilla, and water together and drizzle evenly over flour mixture. Stir with a fork to bring dough together into a ball. Knead lightly for 5 seconds, then divide into three portions. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour. Repeat this step to make another batch of pastry as you will need at least 2 batches of pastry to finish using up the jam. Alternatively, the jam will keep well in the fridge for use at a later time.

While dough is chilling, pinch off small teaspoonfuls of pineapple jam and shape them into little balls about 1-1.5cm in diameter. Warning: the jam is very sticky so it is a good idea to have a wet towel nearby.

To make open tarts (as in the opening picture), roll out pastry dough about 5-6 mm thick. Cut out tarts with open tart cutter. Place one ball of jam onto the centre of each shape and pat it down gently. Place tarts on baking sheet and gently brush the rims with eggwash if desired. Bake at 325°F/170°C for 15-18 minutes, until pastry is pale gold. Cool on a rack.

To make closed tarts (as in the picture below), take a walnut-sized ball of pastry and flatten it to a round about 4 mm thick with your fingers. Place a ball of jam on pastry and bring up edges to enclose. Pinch off excess pastry and pinch seams well to seal. Then, roll ball between palms to make it evenly round. Brush tart with eggwash and stick a clove into the top for decoration. Place tarts on baking sheet and bake at 325°F/170°C for 20-25 minutes, until pastry is pale gold. Cool on a rack.