Archive for March, 2013

Tarte Tatin. Photo courtesy of the blog of Christine Pae.

Tarte Tatin. Photo courtesy of the blog of Christine Pae.

Look, there’s no big secret to a successful Tarte Tatin, the traditional French apple tart baked with the crust on top, and then flipped over to serve. I don’t know why people think there is. Or perhaps, there is a secret, and I’m about to reveal it to you. Ready? Here it is: don’t try too hard. Don’t complicate things. I’ve often heard people bemoan their inability to make a good crust, thinking it’s harder than it is. And, believing they can’t make a good crust, they just give up, and deprive themselves of this heavenly dessert, looking at me as though I were a wizard for being able to conjure one up in my kitchen. Or if they can manage the crust, they then worry about caramelizing the bottom (which becomes the top) of the tart.

I say this: Skip the caramel top. Instead, make a simple brandied caramel sauce to drizzle on afterwards. Then, all you need is a good crust and 6-7 non-mealy, somewhat tart apples.

Here is how to make a crumbly, buttery, delicious crust:

In the bowl of a food processor, put:

1 ¼ cup flour, a pinch of salt and 1/3 cup cold butter, cut into pieces.

Process for a few seconds until the mixture is the consistency of rough sand.

(If you don’t have a food processor, just use a regular, large bowl, and two butter knives to cut the butter into the flour. This is not a big deal. I grew up doing it this way, and it really doesn’t take long. Plus it’s kind of satisfying to criss-cross the knives through the mixture, going after the larger butter clumps until the consistency is right.)

Now add three tablespoons of ice cold water, and process/mix again.

That’s it. Knead the mixture together into a ball, and flatten slightly with your palm. Wrap in Saran wrap and place in fridge for a half hour.

While the crust is chilling, peel and slice about 6-7 apples. I like to use half Granny Smiths, half some other kind like Fuji, Pink Lady, Macintosh, etc. Avoid Red Delicious or Golden Delicious. If you have an 8 year old helping you with measurements, and a two year old puttering around with bowls of flour and sugar and generally making a mess on the floor, you can feed them some of the peels. (Yes, in some respects, these smallish creatures bear a striking resemblance to piglets.) Place the slices in a large bowl and sprinkle with sugar (I use about 2 tbsp, but you can use more for a sweeter experience) and cinnamon (about half as much as the amount of sugar you put). Squeeze half a lemon into the bowl, and toss.

Take out a pie dish and butter it generously. Lay out the apples in it, in several layers. You may want to make the first layer into a pretty pattern, as that will end up being the top of the tart. The pie dish should be very full, a bit higher than the edges of the dish, as the apples will soften and fall in on each other. Put a few (4-5) small pats of butter on top of the apples.

Take out the crust and roll it out on a piece of wax paper. If necessary, dust your rolling pin with flour. The crust will be crumbly, so roll it slowly, taking the time to re-stick any bits that threaten to separate from the main piece. When it is big enough, flip it onto the pie dish. Tuck in any overhanging bits. With a fork, poke a few sets of holes in the crust, to let the steam out.

That’s it. Place in a preheated oven at 350 degrees (Fahrenheit) and bake for about 45 minutes, maybe a bit more, until the edges of the crust start to turn golden. You might want to place a piece of foil below the pie dish, in case apple juices burble out.

When the pie is done, remove from the oven, and let sit for a good hour or so. Then, place a plate over it, and flip the dish over, so that the tart ends up crust down on the plate. You might need to coax some of the apples down from the pie dish with a knife.

I tend to leave it at that, and serve warm with two things: crème fraîche (which is NOT the same as sour cream) and the brandied caramel sauce.

Voilà. Bon appétit. It’s not apple season in most parts of the world now, but apples are widely available, and this is a dessert that is always a hit.

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An original manuscript page from J.G. Ballard's CRASH, found at http://www.fountainpennetwork.com/forum/index.php?/topic/164727-j-g-ballards-pen/

An original manuscript page from J.G. Ballard’s CRASH, found at http://www.fountainpennetwork.com/forum/index.php?/topic/164727-j-g-ballards-pen/

There is true magic to be found in good editing. If you are a writer hesitating in the least about spending money on an editor, I say this to you: Do what you can, and spend what you can afford, for the best possible one. It’s the single greatest thing you can do for your work.

In order to get my manuscript in as tip top shape as possible, I conducted some extensive research and found a gifted editor who also turns out to be a gem of a human being. His name is Steven Bauer, and you can find him here. I may have worked and reworked my manuscript for years, all the while receiving valuable feedback from critique partners and writing teachers and agents, but nothing has come close to the depth and breadth of the insight I received from this editor. And now that I am going through the line edits, I see unfolding before me pure wizardry.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit I’ve always been a sucker for playing with words. In eighth grade, our English teacher gave us “précis” exercises, paragraphs we’d have to whittle down to a set number of words without losing any of the meaning. I reveled in this challenge, and in the satisfaction of coming in just under the word limit. Perhaps this is why, just a few weeks into joining Twitter, I’ve come to enjoy the 140 character limit so much. The challenge is all the greater for the purist (stick in the mud?) in me who shies away from the usual text speak abbreviations, of the “R u going 2 go thru b4” ilk, although I greatly enjoy and admire folks who have found their own, creative ways to put colloquialisms into short form, à la @djolder.

Anyhow, I’ve spent the last few days going over every single edit that the above-mentioned fabulous editor marked up. This was his second reading; the first resulted in a 20 page developmental report which, in thoughtful and articulate prose, summarized the plot, themes and characters of my novel with breathtaking clarity, and highlighted a few very important issues which were holding the manuscript back from being the best I could make it. Best of all, it contained concrete suggestions for how to fix the problems, thus leaving me encouraged and chomping at the bit to get down to work, rather than despondent at the massive morass of undefined work ahead.

This current round of edits constituted the line edit of the revised manuscript. Some pages were chock full of tiny suggested changes, and I accepted every single one. When three pages went by without any edits, my heart leapt. Either the writing was tighter, or it was just strong enough to lose the editor in the “continuous dream” of which John Gardner writes, and make him forget his red pen. Here’s an example of a paragraph that stands much improved after his touch:

Before:

My heart jumped at this, for I wanted nothing more than to greet the morning alone in the quiet of the temple, without his shadow over me. I skipped out of the room, then tiptoed past Ma in the kitchen. Something gnawed at me inside, the way it did when Bapu did, or made me do, something of which I knew Ma did not approve. But this time I pushed that feeling aside. I parted the bead curtain at the front door as quietly as possible, but not quietly enough to escape Ma’s hearing.

After:

My heart jumped, for I wanted nothing more than to greet the morning alone in the quiet of the temple, without his shadow over me. I skipped out of the room, then tiptoed past Ma in the kitchen. Guilt gnawed at me, as when Bapu did, or made me do, something I knew Ma did not approve of.  But I pushed the feeling aside and parted the bead curtain at the front door as quietly as I could.  Ma heard me anyway.

See how those slight changes make the paragraph so much stronger? And here are a few specific ways in which to get rid of extraneous words:

Things swirl together, they don’t need to swirl around together.

You don’t have to feel your way around the room, you can just feel your way around.

A single bell on a piece of string is also a single bell on string.

Don’t focus your mind on something, just focus on it.

Don’t listen to the sound of bangles, listen to the bangles.

Sit on the ground, don’t sit down on the ground.

 

It seems obvious to me now, as I read these examples, but when you are immersed in 98,000 of your own words for the umpteenth time, trying to make sure the story arc is complete, the main characters have changed, the dialogue is smooth, the tension is high, there’s very little of you left to pay attention to the extra words. But that’s what an editor is for.

 

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BookClub

Yesterday afternoon, as I prepped my home to host and run the first meeting of K’s book club, I felt an odd nervousness. What if the girls—the gaggle of eight year olds arriving straight from a birthday party—were just not interested? The book was The Secret Garden, which I knew for a fact some of them did not enjoy, and did not finish. K was among those. For the first couple of weeks of the month, I had reminded her repeatedly to read the book, until it became clear she just was not nearly as absorbed by it as she was by the Goosebumps series with which she’s recently become obsessed. I worried that the other girls would come grudgingly, that their lack of interest would be indicative of a failure on my part or, worse of society in general.

I used the precious time that the toddler was asleep and K was at the birthday party to make afternoon tea sandwiches (cuke and butter, cuke and cream cheese, salmon and cream cheese) and set out a bone china tea set, to dash out to buy a bouquet of roses (the main flower of the garden in the book) and set up a table of pencils and markers for the girls to draw their own secret garden. I created personalized binders, and book review sheets, and all the while I thought: I could be using this time to read, to write, to exercise, to do any number of things for myself which are always the first to fall by the wayside. I grumbled at myself for, once again, putting too much of myself into something that could yield disappointment, for caring too much.

At exactly five o’clock, they arrived, carpooling from the birthday party. I opened the door and let in a gush of cold air and a tumble of jabbering kids, one of whom immediately showed me the copy of the book she read and told me how “cool” it was that she was reading the selfsame copy her mother read 30 years ago. They flung their jackets on the newel post and disgorged their birthday loot (panda-themed bracelets, goodies, stuffed pandas) on the couch and chairs and floor. They set upon their binders, looking at the book review sheets, and coloring the stars to rate the book. Are there snacks? they asked. I told them there was tea, finger sandwiches and scones, and they squealed in delight and asked if they could have tea right away. (I spared them treacle and porridge and beef-tea, which would have been more true to the book. What is beef-tea anyway?) My worries dissolved.

What followed was the most enjoyable and satisfying 90 minutes I have ever spent with a bunch of 8 year olds. We fell into an animated, engaging, literary discussion of the language, plot and characters of The Secret Garden. We talked about the use of “broad Yorkshire” and how the choice of language, although at times difficult to decipher, added immeasurably to the sense of place. We discussed the ways in which the book is different from what the girls usually read, and they made astute observations about “the Harry Potter era” of books. We talked about attitude, how it can change, what made Mary a “sour” child, whether she helped Colin for himself or for her or for some other reason. The girls told me about which parts they “connected” with the most. We discussed the “magic” of the garden. We talked about what constitutes a “classic.” The girls were raising their hands, jumping up and down for a chance to express themselves. We could have gone on for much longer, but we had not budgeted enough time.

They all had tea, and downed the scones and sandwiches and berries. They drew elaborate secret gardens of their own, with tree houses and swimming pools. They discussed and negotiated the choice of the book for May (From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), and clamored for their copies of the April book (Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing), announcing they were going to start reading it right away. And then they all left in a whoosh like flock of twittering birds, gathering up their birthday goodies, riffling through the pile of clothes for their pink and purple and blue jackets, and clattering down the stairs to the cars of the three parents who were going to redistribute them to their respectful homes in the neighborhood.

They left behind scone crumbs on the rug, a coffee table strewn with teacups and plates, a water bottle, a plastic bag from a party favor, and a very pleased hostess. Among all the things I have volunteered to do, this one so far has yielded the highest satisfaction-to-effort ratio.

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