Cook up a storm this CNY #2: Pineapple Tarts
It’s impossible to talk about Chinese New Year without mentioning our number one guilty pleasure: pineapple tarts. Although widely available, we all know how difficult it is to find that perfect tart.
Instead of hunting around the island just to swallow dozens of disappointments, why not make pineapple tarts, or kueh tarts, yourself—like those in Christopher Tan’s The Way of Kueh? It took Chris three years of in-depth research followed by two years of testing the different recipes before including them in The Way of Kueh, so you know this will not let you down. This cookbook also tells stories of the histories, science and people behind our local kuehs.
For instance, according to Chris, Peranakans traditionally decorate these pineapple tarts with "criss-crossed pastry "tali" (or "ropes") in miniature echo of the large lattice fruit tarts still made in the Netherlands today".
"Eurasians top kueh tart with a three-lobed curlicue representing the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Dot and chevron decorations have no attached symbolism," he says. "I have been baking, tweaking, refining and gobbling my family recipe since I was a teen: this is my latest latest iteration."
Makes about 40 medium-sized kueh tarts
What you need
Peeled, cored pineapple, cut into chunks 2 kg
Star anise 1½
Cassia sticks 3
Fried pastry flour 420g
Icing sugar 20g
Fine salt 5g
Very cold unsalted butter, cubed 170g
Egg yolks 2
Egg white 45g
Ice-cold milk or water 25g (plus more if necessary)
Pastry flour and rice flour for shaping
Making the jam
Finely mince pineapple in a food processor or by hand. Pour into a muslin-lined sieve (in batches if necessary) and squeeze out as much juice as you can. You should end up with around 850g pineapple pulp and 1.15kg juice. Set pulp aside.
Pour pineapple juice into a wide non-reactive pan. Simmer over medium heat until reduced to about ¼ of its original volume.
Add pulp, sugar and all the spices, and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until jam forms a thick, amber-gold and shiny blob. If you have a jam thermometer, it should reach no higher than 112℃ to 115℃.
Scrape jam into a lightly oiled dish. Let cool completely, then transfer to a very clean lidded container and chill it for at least 24 hours.
Whisk egg yolks, egg white and milk together, then mix in low speed until dough forms a malleable, homogenous ball, neither sticky nor oily. Add a few more drops of milk if needed to help it bind.
Wrap or cover dough tightly and chill for 24 hours. Divide jam into 12g balls and place on an oiled plate.
Preheat oven to 160℃ in conventional mode (top and bottom heat). Line a baking sheet with baking paper. Let dough warm up at room temperature for 15 minutes.
Unwrap and sandwich dough between 2 sheets of baking paper, and roll it out 4mm to 5mm thick.
Dust a 5cm diameter tart cutter with pastry flour, and cut out tart shells; stamp with the outer sleeve, then press down the inner plunger to indent the tart’s central well and push up its rim.
Lift up the cutter and gently peel the shell off the cutter. Place on the baking sheet, spacing shells 2cm apart.
Gather and re-roll trimmings to cut out more shells. Save about 40g to 50g of dough for decoration, and knead 1 to 2 teaspoons cold water into it to increase its elasticity, so that it can form thin strips without tearing.
With serrated pincers, dipped sporadically in rice flour to prevent sticking, pinch lines in the tart shell rims.
Smooth a jam portion into a gently rounded mound in each tart’s well. Roll out decoration dough about 2mm thick, cut it into strips with a plain or fluted knife, and decorate tarts with a lattice or as you wish.
Bake tarts on the lowest oven shelf for 25 to 30 minutes, until pastry is light golden. If they still look pale after 22 minutes, move tarts to a higher shelf for the last 3 to 8 minutes, but do not over-bake or jam may darken too much.
Place sheet on a cooling rack and let cool for at least 2 hours. Tarts must be cool to the core before being packed in an airtight contained for storage, as residual warmth or steam promotes mould growth. If only touched with clean utensils, tarts will keep at cool room temperature for at least 2 weeks, longer in the fridge.
Notes from Christopher Tan:
1. Use just-ripe pineapples with a tangy, sweet-sour flavour. Sweet cultivars meant more for eating raw make cloying, sticky jam. Nyonya cooks used to squeeze out the juice from the pineapple pulp to speed up the jam-cooking process.
2. Boil the jam in your widest, heaviest pan to cook it down quickly before it can over-caramelise. When done, it will look soft but just hold its shape, and as it cools down it will firm up into a clay-like malleability. If in doubt, it is better to under-cook it - you can briefly re-cook too-soft jam, but over-cooked jam will harden irreversibly. The jam recipe makes enough to fill 3 to 4 batches of pastry. As a half-quantity takes scarcely less effort or time to make, and the jam lasts for months in the fridge, you may as well make a full quantity.
3. As butter was invariably imported and expensive in yesteryear, old recipes often substituted lard, a once ubiquitous pantry staple. I mix both fats for a crisp yet melting texture. If you prefer, substitute 100g butter for the lard, and reduce the milk to 15g.
4. I used to add vanilla extract to the dough, but now I use pandan-fragrant fried flour for a more subtle tropical note. A day’s rest deepens the pastry’s colour and flavour, making it more intensely buttery and encouraging it to brown beautifully.
5. Lay the lattice pastry strips on top of the jam. Their tips should end a smidgen shy of the tart rim: do not press them to the rim to anchor them, or they will tear as the pastry expands or flexes during baking.
6. Some cooks glaze the tart rims and lattices with egg wash before baking, or some minutes before the end of baking. I prefer not to glaze, as egg which strays onto the jam may scorch.
You can make tarts whatever size you wish. Bake larger tarts for a bit longer to ensure their pastry is fully cooked.