Monday, January 25, 2010

Of Reading, and Tarts

I'm in Montreal at the moment, and will be for the next 6 weeks, and the freedom from exams and studying is almost overwhelming. I find myself making lists of things to do each day, and trying to be...productive. It's a little silly, and I'm trying to stop, I swear. So - today's 'goals', find a gym, a grocery store, and get through as many books as possible, with loads of tea.

With that in mind, I've just finished some fantastic green tea and 'The Reader', by Bernhard Schlink. I haven't seen the film yet, but Kate Winslet seems like such a perfect choice for Hanna. I've heard some wonderful reviews of the book (and film), but also some scathing critique of the subject matter. To be honest - I didn't fall in love with the book, but I did find it beautiful in it's clarity and honest, first-person narrative. Many took issue with the pseudo-erotic content, and while any book concerning the Holocaust tends to set off an emotional response, I found myself more interested in the story between Michael and Hanna.

At 15 Michael is seduced by Hanna, and their relationship consumes his teenage years. Then, one day, Hanna leaves him without a trace. This act creates an emptiness in Michael that stays with him through to his adult life. Hanna re-enters his life later on, in regrettable circumstances; as a young law student Michael sits in on a trial of female Nazi guards, of which she is one. What stayed with me in this section of the book was not the moral and ethical crises surrounding the Holocaust and the Nazi guards, but the character of Hanna, and Michael's numb processing of his emotions. This is the essence of the book.

I love that Michael is honest enough to say he doesn't understand the true meanings of good and evil, and that he struggles with the moral issues of Hanna's situation with such innocence. He understands what is 'bad', but refuses to believe that a 'good' person could deliberately be involved with such things. The scene where Michael visits his somewhat estranged father for a different perspective is beautiful; we see Michael yearning for a way to fix the situation, and his father gently stressing that some situations cannot, and should not, be fixed by someone on the outside.

My favourite passage from the novel -

"I reread the Odyssey at that time, which I had first the story of a homecoming. But it is not the story of a homecoming. How could the Greeks, who knew that one never enters the same river twice, believe in homecoming? Odysseus does not return home to stay, but to set off again. The odyssey is the story of motion both purposeful and purposeless, successful and futile."

I think this is the central dilemma that Michael, and many of us, grapple with - in a world that tries to understand the purpose and meaning of life, how can we make sense of the purposeless, the futile? I don't know, and I'm not sure if I ever Will know - but Bernhard Schlink elegantly portrays a young man trying to come to terms with this.

It's difficult to segue into a recipe after a somewhat serious book, but here goes - I made this tart a few months ago for Thanksgiving, and forgot to write about it. It's really, really good. As a warning, a thin slice of it is enough to slip into a food coma. This was my first time making anything with caramel, and that turned out to be the most difficult step - afterwards it's simply a matter of assembly and baking. Enjoy!

Caramelized Nut Tart
adapted from Epicurious

Crust Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup chilled unsalted butter, cubed
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 tablespoons ice water

The Filling:
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
2/3 of a cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup pecans, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup hazelnuts, coarsely chopped

9 inch tart pan with removable bottom

1. Mix flour, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt in a large bowl. Add butter. Use your fingers to rub the butter into the mixture, until it resembles wet sand. Mix in the vanilla and ice water. Gather the dough into a ball, and flatten into a disc. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 2 hours, until firm.

2. Preheat the oven to 375F. Roll the dough out on a floured surface to a 12 inch round. Transfer carefully to the tart pan, and fold in the overhang. Pierce dough all over with a fork. Freeze 15 minutes.

3. Bake the crust until set, but still slightly pale, about 10 minutes. Let cool. Increase the oven temperature to 400F.

4. Combine the sugar and water in a heavy medium saucepan. Stir on medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat, and boil for 10 minutes without stirring, until the caramel is a deep amber. Reduce heat to medium again. Gradually whisk in the cream until the mixture is smooth, then add the honey, butter, and vanilla. Mix in all the nuts.

5. Pour caramel mixture into the crust. Bake until the filling bubbles, about 20 minutes. (Mine bubbled over quite a bit, so put the tart pan atop a baking sheet with wax paper).

The originally recipe says to cool completely, but I preferred to eat it warm.

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