Tart Flambé (Alsatian or Nordic)

by Bonnie Sparrman

The recent perusal of two distinct collections of books leaves me with similar thoughts in regards to each. The first is my assortment of cookbooks and the second are the 66 books we call the Bible.

My much loved cookbooks, jammed tight as sardines, fill a couple of shelves that my husband cleverly recessed into a wall at the back of our pantry. I like to sit beneath them on a small wooden stool and consider what to cook.

The other day I gazed up at the double row of books which are arranged in various categories and mused, “We call them cookbooks, but in a sense they are history books.” Their spines give way to favorite recipes revealing stains and dog-eared pages that speak of erstwhile cherished meals.

First come the old friends…the books that offered inspiration and ideas about food when I was in third grade. I checked out The Fannie Farmer Junior Cookbook from my school library so many times my mother finally bought me my own copy. A few years later I became acquainted with The Joy of Cooking, with its text-book style and line drawings. Also on my radar was the Antoinette Pope School Cookbook, from the cooking-school-for-brides in Chicago where my mother attended. Mom frequently expounded on Mrs. Pope’s unalterable instructions for everything from a simple roux to the proper technique for mixing choux pastry. These were general cookbooks that taught me the basics for all kinds of dishes and meals.

Another category with a wider and more dubious range of credibility, but replete with emotional connections and plenty of cream-of-something soup, are the cherished church cookbooks. How many do you own? I’ll admit I retain some more for relational qualities than for culinary goodness. Recipes by Request, a.k.a. The Green Cookbook, from the women of Trinity Covenant Church in Oaklawn, Illinois, remains a treasure tying me to several generations of cooks whose names and dishes still make me smile. On its pages I find cakes and casseroles of my mother’s and grandmothers’ and their dear old friends. Many of the recipes are antiquated (marshmallows in salad?), but the words of these generous cooks still ooze loving hospitality.

One more genre of cookbooks are the gorgeous chef-driven books bursting with mouth-watering photos that make my heart beat a little faster. Thomas Keller’s Bouchon makes me wish for an entire kitchen staff. Rose Beranbaum’s Rose’s Heavenly Cakes promises success if recipes are followed to the nth degree. She is the queen of detail. And of course, Julia Child’s epic Mastering the Art of French Cooking offers so many challenges it was grist for an entire movie.

But what gets my goat about all these lovely cookbooks is how few recipes I’ve cooked from each one! To my embarrassment, they are treasure troves yet to be discovered. I may have read every page of Alice Water’s Chez Panisse Vegetables, but I’m positive it has brought fewer than ten dishes to our table. Maria Helm Sinskey’s Vineyard Kitchen, is another gem, but I tend to open it only when I wish to bake shortbread, braise pork, or remember the proportion of buttermilk to cream when making crème fraîche. Why don’t I utilize the hundreds of recipes that lie in wait on clean pages between the few worn and splattered ones?

Honestly, it’s my fear of messing up. I’m comfortable with what I know works. And once I get good and comfy with a recipe, I’m free to venture forth from what is written, improvising to use herbs presently abundant in our garden, or the specific veggies that are plentiful at the market. Also, I don’t want to make Guinea pigs out of guests, and when cooking family meals I tend to circle back to the old standbys we know as comfort food.

I experience a similar conundrum with that other bevy of books, the one beginning with Genesis and ending with Revelation. While this collection doesn’t take up as much room on the bookshelf, its use (or disuse) parallels my cookbooks. Once again, the spine is unevenly worn. It too falls open to favored passages, leading me time and again to spiritual comfort food. I know where to go when I need to find encouragement, forgiveness, hope, and reassurance. Certain pages are extra wrinkled, stained with coffee and marked with notes and prayers. As with some recipes, certain parts are memorized for moments when the Good Book is not in my hands. But, much to my chagrin, similar to my cookbooks, some pages of the Bible have received little more than a cursory skimming. It’s easy for me to pay attention to favorite Psalms (8, 51, 63, 145), but what deeper meanings might be gleaned if I dive bravely into a chapter that has been relegated to nothing more than fly-over territory?

This year, with the quarantine’s gift of more time to cook and read, I am determined to stretch and try some new dishes and study places in the Bible that are unfamiliar to me. I’m excited to experience something fresh. God didn’t inspire just those parts of the Bible that are well known or easy to read. He gave us the whole Gospel, the parts that offer solace and the parts that are more challenging, even convicting.

The same goes for cooking. Sure, the ancient reliable soups, salads, braises, and brownies will find their way to the table…but so will something different that will cause the family to ask “What inspired this?” Even our “old faithfuls” were once new, and who’s to say the experimental supper of today won’t become a favored classic of the future? I am convinced that loads of unearthed gems await discovery on spotless untouched pages of Bibles and cookbooks alike. What sounds novel and fresh to you? Let’s take delight in new and worthwhile foods and in mind-stretching parts of God’s Word. May we be nourished in both body and soul.

PHOTO: Bonnie Sparrman

Alsatian Tart Flambé

Adapted from a previously unused recipe in The Vineyard Kitchen by Maria Helm Sinskey

Makes 4 thin crispy 8-inch tarts

Yeasted Tart Dough

1 ½ tsp. active dry yeast
½ cup lukewarm water
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt (scant)
2 T. unsalted butter, room temperature

Tart Topping

½ good sized red onion or one small one
8 oz. applewood smoked ham or German speck
1 large egg
1 cup crème fraîche (instructions below)
salt and pepper
small amount of cornmeal for baking sheets
3 T. chives, chopped

Crème Fraîche

1 cup heavy cream, slightly warmed
2 T. cultured buttermilk

In a clean glass jar, stir together cream and buttermilk. Cover with a piece of plastic wrap that has been pricked 25 times with a toothpick. Allow mixture to sit at room temperature for 24 to 48 hours. The longer the incubation time, the tangier the crème fraîche, but do not exceed 48 hours. Place a lid on the jar and chill. This will keep in the refrigerator for 3 weeks.

For the tart dough, whisk together water and yeast in a small bowl. Combine flour and salt in a large bowl. Pour the yeast mixture into the flour mixture, and stir to combine. The dough will be dry. Add the butter and knead to a smooth elastic dough on the countertop. Place in a buttered bowl covered with plastic wrap. Allow to double in size, about one hour.

As the dough rises, slice the onion lengthwise (from top to bottom) into very thin slices. Julienne ham into ¼-inch strips. Reserve both ingredients.

In a small bowl whisk egg until foamy and fold in crème fraîche. Season with salt and pepper. After the dough has risen, preheat oven to 500 degrees F. Set a pizza stone in the oven, or plan to bake tarts on baking sheets. Divide the dough into 4 equal balls and let them rest for 10 minutes. Roll each round to about 8 ½ inches and place on baking parchment that is lightly sprinkled with corn meal. Cover with a cloth and allow to rise for 10 minutes. Prick dough all over with a fork.

Spread a generous ¼ cup Crème Fraîche on each circle, leaving a ¼ inch border. Sprinkle each tart liberally with onions and ham, dividing the ingredients equally; season with salt and pepper.

Slide the tarts on their parchment either onto a hot baking stone or bake tarts on baking sheets until the edges are golden and the crème fraîche is set. About 10 minutes. Upon removing from the oven, sprinkle with fresh chives.

Cook’s Notes:

These ingredients could form two larger tarts instead of four small ones. Wedges cut from either size make nice appetizers or a main dish when accompanied with a green salad dressed in a lemony vinaigrette.

For a delightful Nordic Version, replace the ham with 6-8 oz. thinly sliced lox, and 3 T. rinsed and chopped capers. Include the red onion.

After baking, sprinkle tarts with ¼ cup chopped fresh dill and serve with a wedge of lemon.