I first made frangipane tart on the day before Valentine’s Day. I was 19 years old and had fled the nest a mere month before, to live in a shabbily charming Victorian house. To celebrate my new life, I had been collating some new recipes in an exercise book with a red spine. And this was the first one: frangipane tart with apricots. It was a sunny day and the kitchen was filled with golden afternoon light. In a rare moment of calm, I was ready to make pastry. My hands stayed cool while rolling it out. To add some extra almond flavour, I added some of the syrup from a jar of maraschino cherries to the fluffy frangipane. You can’t get those cherries any more, the marzipan taste has fallen out of favour. Then in a 1950s twist of kitsch, I used tinned apricots because I couldn’t find any fresh ones. It turned out beautifully – a perfect balance between the creamy almonds, the rich pastry and tart apricots. And now, over 20 years later, it’s still my favourite of all my favourites.
There is just something so magical about almonds. Long considered an aphrodisiac, you can trace their romantic roots all the way back to Ancient Rome and right up to the present day, where it is still a tradition to serve sugared almonds at weddings. At nuptials in Italy, five almonds are grouped together to signify five wishes for the bride and groom: health, wealth, happiness, fertility, and longevity. And don’t even get me started on frangipane. What an invention! Like so many delightful inventions, it is Italian and ever since Tudor times (when it was known as marchpane) it has delighted and beguiled the palates of the fortunate.
Now whenever I eat frangipane tart I think about my coming of age. I had inherited a Speech and Drama studio from my mentor but I needed another job to pay the rent of the Victorian house. So I applied for a part time job at a university library. In my rather misguided attempt at appearing professional, I wore an iridescent silvery blue satin shirt with metal buttons and carried a rattan Thai briefcase with nothing in it. Inexperienced, yet sure of myself, I was relieved to discover that I knew the library director quite well. Her son and I had played together as children. She summed me up in one look and said: “The worst thing about this job are the academics, you have to pander to them a bit because they think very highly of themselves.” The next thing I knew I was being introduced to everybody and I got the job!
It was great fun, I checked books in and out and remembered call numbers by ear as a crowd of students, eager to cram for their next assignment, rushed to the counter to take books out by the hour. The best part was that every Monday morning, just before the library opened, we packed out the week’s newest acquisitions. This made me so greedy and that I would be the first to reserve the crisp, new books so I could take armloads home with me. One day I was so avaricious that I couldn’t carry my load further than a couple of blocks, so I nipped into a nearby supermarket and stole a trolley. Like a crazy bag lady I pushed that trolley, crammed full of books, all the way home.
Some of these are indelibly imprinted in my mind: a giant book on the artist Paula Rego, Daphnis and Chloë illustrated by Chagall, a monthly journal dedicated to Outsider Art called Raw Vision, the poems of Selima Hill, Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve, a book about mad feminists including Diamanda Galás and Riot Grrrl that someone later nabbed. But the most magnificent of all was a complete set of 1001 Arabian Nights from 1885. Translated by Richard Burton, the mysterious Prussian blue covers with ornate gilded lettering revealed copious detailed footnotes and explanations of the customs of the East and the hierarchy of djinns, afreets and demons. It was like reading an early version of the Bible. It took by breath away when I first found it in the general stacks and when I went downstairs to have it checked out, it hadn’t been taken out since the 1920s. So I was the first to have it catalogued on the (digital) system, which made me feel as proud as if I had dug up an ancient artefact.
I guess that what I’m trying to say is, especially during this Month of Love, romance comes in many forms. It could mean falling in love with a beautiful illustration, or words that capture your heart. So why not take a moment for yourself. Think about how your life has brought you to where you are.
And bake something with almonds in it!
APRICOT AND FRANGIPANE TART
For the poached apricots:
6-8 fresh apricots, ripe but still firm
1 T castor or vanilla sugar
A dash of water
225g plain flour
150 g butter, chilled and cut into cubes
1 free range egg, well beaten
2 T ice cold water
1 tsp orange blossom water
125g unsalted butter, softened
125g caster sugar
25g plain flour
125g ground almonds
1 large free-range egg, beaten
Begin by making the poached apricots so they can be thoroughly cool before using. Cut each fruit in half at the crease and remove the stones. In a large pan, add a dash of water and the castor sugar or vanilla sugar. Arrange cut side down and gently poach on medium heat for 10 minutes. Allow to cool. You can reduce the syrup to use in another dish or serve it with the tart.
Make a batch of sweet shortcrust pastry as follows. Measure the flour into a bowl and, using your fingertips, rub the chilled butter into it until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the icing sugar and the egg. Add 2 tablespoons cold water, mixing to form soft dough.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured work surface to the thickness of around 1cm. Line a 23cm fluted flan tin and transfer to the fridge to chill for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celcius or 180 C fan.
Meanwhile make the frangipane by creaming the butter, sugar, flour and almonds together, then slowly add the egg, mixing until fully incorporated. Stir in the orange blossom water and set aside.
Take the pastry out of the fridge and roll out on a surface sprinkled with flour. Turn over onto a large greased pie dish, preferable with a fluted edge. The best option here is a spring form tin but I usually only have a French porcelain pie dish which looks pretty but means that the tart will probably stay in its dish. Using your fingers, press the pastry into the edge of the dish. Cut off any excess with a butter knife. Line with non-stick baking paper and add dried beans or weights. and bake blind for 10 minutes, then remove the beans and paper and cook for a further 5 minutes to dry out the base. Set aside to cool.
And now for the best part… Using a palette knife, smooth the frangipane into the tart shell. Arrange the apricots so that they fill the tart but there is still a little space between each half. Bake at 180 degrees Celcius for 25 minutes until rich and golden.
Serve warm or at room temperature with whipped cream.