Tarte aux pommes: a pastry to unfold time by Margaux

Today I’m baking an apple tart. Four apples are laying on the table in front me, little brown bruises appeared between the shop and finding my kitchen counter. So little has happened on the way home, I thought to be careful as I packed them in my shopping bag and yet they are scarred. Butter, flour and icing sugar are waiting on one side for the pastry; ground almonds and vanilla bean paste, more butter, eggs, brandy and apricot conserve are resting in the cupboards for me to find when the time will come to make the filling. I’m going for a frangipane. I’ve never baked an apple tart before and I find little excitement in them. Apples are made to be chewed – crunchy and unpeeled – their juice leaking down my fingers each time I feel thirsty. This week, however, is one for another lockdown and one for the galette des rois – the king’s cake, made of layers of frangipane and beautifully golden on top – which I ate each one of my childhood’s Januarys. The tradition wants us to eat the cake for the Epiphany but we were never religious in our home, thus our gluttony imposed its schedule as of when we would serve the galette. The ritual is that the youngest person present should go under the table and randomly assign each freshly cut slice of galette to the guest of their choice. A small sculpture, traditionally a broad bean, is hidden inside the cake and whoever finds the gem in their plate, is crowned queen or king for the year to come. I’m the youngest in my family so the galette des rois was my favourite of traditions. 

I pick the royal gala today, little whispers from my mother in my ears. They are her favourites. One secret about me is that I love the green apples, sour and crunchier. I often stroll around my flat with a sharp knife as I cut them in small quarters, my fingers sometimes bleeding, little of their hard heart left once I’m done. My mother never failed to bring the king’s cake home in January. Since I moved to the UK, I’ve explained this French tradition numerous times, each one of them in front of bemused eyes. Nobody I know enjoys the savour of the king’s cake, often reviewed as “écoeurant,” as most kings would be. This year I miss the king’s cake, nevertheless. I’m making an apple frangipane tart today, the beginning of a new tradition for my epiphany, as I lay the ground for a life in the UK, a sea between my mother and me, on the other side of Brexit and through another lockdown. This little act of domestic revolution, cooking something new and memorable, one afternoon spent in my kitchen baking, is what keeps me going. My eyes wave through the ingredients I have at reach; I prepare to feed my people as a remedy against my fear for the wider world.

I roll up my sleeves, clear a wide space on the kitchen counter in front of me and begin with the pastry. This is labour and I love it. I mix 150 grammes of flour together with a tablespoon of icing sugar and a pinch of salt in a bowl, then I start incorporating about 115 grammes of butter, slowly, the butter cut in cubes. My hands massage the mixture, growing stronger, until they form breadcrumbs, until I itch to wash my hands to grab a piece of baguette crust. There shouldn’t be lumps of butter left at this stage. This is when I slowly start pouring ice-cold water to the mixture, even slower this time, and bring the pastry together in a homogeneous mixture. I continue working the dough until it holds but isn’t wet, shape it into a small ball, roll it into cling film and put it away to chill in the fridge.

I’ve witnessed my mother screaming and crying in the kitchen throughout my life. There is something about washing up the dishes that often makes me feel faint. We’ve had numerous fights about the cling film and how to properly unroll it so the next person is not left with an impossible sticky spider web to untangle. One year I want to buy her one of the expensive but sustainable bee wax covering sheets. At least that was the case before I moved out. Until I reentered her kitchen from my home away, I never saw my mother relaxed before the hob, no humming nor flicking through cookbooks before heading out shopping. I remember the summer of 2019 as the one when the first sight my eyes caught, as I stepped into her kitchen in Vendée, was a cookbook to make sweet and savoury yoghurt cakes. My mother is a short woman with the widest eyes I know. She looked at me, their navy blue at their lightest, and suggested we write down ingredients so we can make them for the apéro. It was summer and I was coming home proud, recently promoted at work, happily building a life of my own in London. Her wild eyes were not hunting to keep the fridge up to an acceptable level to feed her kids anymore; my mother was hosting me in her kitchen.

Back in London, where winter brought frosty breaths and shorter days, I leave the pastry to chill in the fridge for thirty minutes only. I sit at the table and I peel, core and slice the apples. The four of them because I know I’ll have eaten half of an apple before I cut the last one. I remember my best friend eating an apple tart a few weeks ago, as we stood up on the edge of the Hammersmith riverside for one of our socially distanced walks, our fingers softly tipping the other at points, pinky promises there will be shared meals again. This is the last time I saw an apple tart in real life. It looked glossy and sweet.

I toss the apples into a bowl, together with the juice of a lemon and a gulp of brandy. I set aside. It’s time to roll out the pastry, delicately this time. I roll it rather thin, so it’ll crunch, and fit it within the tart tin. This is my prime moment: the adrenaline and the delicateness of fitting what was once dust and butter into a tin. I’m rooting and this time I stand before my kitchen table. I return the pastry shell to the fridge for another 30 minutes while the oven pre-heat up to 180C, fan.

The time before last, it’s my mother who I watched eating an apple tart. It was August 2020 at the once-upon-a-time quiet Nantes Atlantique airport, British families and students rushing to the Ryanair desk to meet the government’s deadline. Be home before 4:00 am GMT on the 15th of August or you must quarantine. The truth is not everyone can afford a quarantine, logistically, financially, healthily. I was on the run too and we were early, a good hour to spare before check-in would open. Mother had packed my suitcase in a hurry a few hours before, throwing in tubes of toothpaste, deodorants and jars of Bonne Maman jam in case I found myself needing them once I’d be back in London. She drove me in silence first thing in the morning. We sat in front of a black wooden table, nailed into the floor, moveable plastic chairs keeping us together. I started to disinfect the place. It sucks the blood away from my fingers as I type this, as I acknowledge how many hours I stared at the ceiling repeating in my head the government’s awareness video about the virus spreading. The blue light miming COVID particles flying around as people brush one another in a train station. All night long, on repeat, for months. My mother queued at the counter to order the meal deal. For 7, 95 euros I’d have a tuna sandwich and she’d eat an apple tart, a bottle of water left to share. I disinfected the table again as she arrived; she handed me her antibacterial gel for the plane, nodding at my own bottle’s low levels. My mother has a sweet tooth.

Warmth is coming out from the oven see-through door, so I open the fridge and reach for the settled pastry. Parchment paper crackling under my fingers, I dress the pastry before I pour in the baking weights and slide the tin altogether into the oven. I mutter to myself, in need to be reassured the pastry shell I made is strong enough not to crack under the pressure of heat and weights. Fifteen minutes or so to wait this time and I do not move. I stare so the pastry won’t burn under my watch. The edges are turning golden faster than I first thought. I lower the heat to 160C, remove the weights and return the shell to the oven for another 10 minutes or so. I set it aside to cool.

Everyone who knows me well will agree that I run more than I walk, especially when I’m heading towards the sea. Either the sound of the pebbles or the crusty sand under my feet, it always works its magic between the sensual certainty I’m in movement and the liquid barrier from the water. I return to the sea when I can and when I can’t, I cream butter from the shore of my kitchen. I grab a ball and cream together 50 grammes of butter with 100 grammes of ground almonds. I work the mixture with the help of a wooden spoon first, and then my hands, crunchy noise toning down until the mixture appears lighter. Can you see the foam from the waves returning to the deeper sea? I add one egg, another scar for today, continuing to cream. Once the egg is fully incorporated, I add 1 tablespoon of vanilla paste and I return the frangipane to the fridge to chill.

We said goodbye before we had time to go to the beach, next to the airport’s escalators, misty glasses and surgical face covering masks between us. I hugged my mother tightly for the first time since I had arrived in France, five days prior. I was keeping my distance for the time being in the house. We didn’t bake savoury cakes for the apéro this past summer. À quoi bon, we both thought. We said goodbye for now and as soon as I passed security checks, I rushed to the bathroom. I needed to change my mask for a clean, dryer one.

Now the frangipane has solidified, I scoop it inside the cooled down pastry shell. I continue until I have a generous cushion for the fruits to rest. I grab the ball of marinated apples and begin to arrange the slices on top of the frangipane. The oven’s screen reads 180C again and I bake the tart for about 20 minutes, until the apples are cooked. Meanwhile, I prepare the apricot glaze. That is half a cup of the Bonne Maman apricot conserve my mother slid into my suitcase back in August, together with a tablespoon of brandy. I stir on a low heat until the conserve has liquified. As soon as the apples appear to be cooked, I brush the glaze on top of the tart and return it to the oven for another 10 minutes, or until the tart is golden. I sit back as I prepare for the wait, my hands now reaching for both my cheekbones, slowly massaging the cramped muscles. I started to grind my teeth years ago, as a result of expensive orthodontist care. I stopped. I woke up again to the sound of my teeth grinding shortly after the Easter weekend of the year 2020. I started to realise how often I grind from that morning – as I run, as I stir tomato sauce, as I peel courgettes, as I write and read and think. It escalated through the course of that one year, all the way to waking up with my jaw locked, incapable of opening my mouth. A few hours later, the doctor banned me from eating apples, once again. My dentist had already sung the same chorus to me the day he removed my braces, my front teeth too fragile to crunch and chew, he explained.

Today I’m baking an apple tart for the simple reason I was forbidden to consume Eve’s fruit. My hands execute the practical steps towards this tarte aux pommes, my thoughts restrain to the one room I presently inhabit. That is the kitchen. I remember how many talks there were about escapism at the beginning of the first lockdown and as we began our journey in staying at home: hundreds of lists of movies, books, dishes and games to escape. The truth is I don’t want to escape. I want to retreat from the world news and from the virus and the hydro-alcoholic gels, here in my kitchen. When I bake, there is making and when there is making, there is a future. I sent a photo of my tarte aux pommes to my mother and she replied, “tu m’invites ?” I can see her witty eyes as I read, their blue darker this time, so I sent the same photo to my best friend. She replied that we’ve our menu for when we reunite: she’ll make her veggie lasagne and I’ll make tarte aux pommes. That is for now, a simple recipe until tomorrow comes, the sound of my steps walking into the kitchen welcomed by an apple frangipane tart resting on the counter.

Margaux, January 2021

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