Saturday, January 24, 2009

Not Kueh Tart

Nostalgia is the most powerful seasoning of all.

Memory is a funny thing, sometimes capable of embroidering fact beyond truth. This is possibly the reason why so very often eating something that one has cherished memories of is a rather anti-climactic experience. To put it simply, it is just not as good as you remember.

To stack the odds against poor said thing, you are probably recalling the best possible specimen you'd ever tasted, lost in a reverie of misty-eyed sentiment - it's a tide of emotion against which poor said thing, frankly speaking, never stood a chance to begin with.

The object of my unreal expectations? Kueh tart, or pineapple tarts, that very Singaporean treat that's ubiquitous come Lunar New Year. I daresay I will never eat another kueh tart in this lifetime and be able to proclaim it to be as good as my granny's. Close, perhaps, but not as good as, such is the power of my cinnamon-scented childhood memory of her stirring vast vats of hand-grated pineapple and crimping the edges of hundreds of dainty pastry cases. And I daresay you probably feel the same way about your mother's or grandmother's or favourite aunt's signature dish, whatever it may be.

While my octogenarian granny, a formidable cook and as far as I'm concerned, the best cook I know, is still very much the queen bee in her kitchen, she had, a long time ago, baked her last batch of kueh tart. A woman who's made of sterner stuff, unflinching in her approach to food and innately suspicious of any shortcuts or modern gadgetry, she'd decided if she couldn't do it her way, the proper way, she wouldn't do it at all. I will not go into detail as to what exactly the proper way entails, but suffice to say painstakingly laborious does not begin to descibe it. Well into the winter of life, she'd finally - and reluctantly, I might add - retired that article from her repertoire.

As a consequence, kueh tart has always been - and I suspect, will always be - the elusive Everest I cannot and will not surmount. And I am happy to let it be. Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination, and I am happy to have a memory that is impossible to live up to, or the memory would not quite be the same, no?

Here, a pineapple tart that is a tribute to yet makes no pretensions to being the inimitable kueh tart of my granny's kitchen, a sepia-tinted memory I would like to preserve that way. Nonetheless, this, served this time of the year, makes a suitably festive dessert.

A layer of pineapple jam, infused with the perfume of vanilla bean and dark rum, nestles at the bottom of a buttery shortcrust pastry case. In turn, this is blanketed by a sticky gooey chewy butterscotch custard studded with toasted macadamia nuts. Topped with a scoop of dark chocolate cream, accompanied by wedges of roast pineapple bathed in spiced caramel syrup, and finished with a wafer-thin slice of oven-dried pineapple, it's, to me, a nod to tradition without trying to surmount the insurmountable.

To everyone who's celebrating and looking forward to reunion dinner tomorrow, Happy Lunar New Year!