DECEMBER 28 — Over the Christmas holiday, I found myself at the receiving end of various Yuletide spreads often featuring the English classic mince pies and brandy butter for dessert.
Now, having grown up in a Hindu household in Singapore, mince pies were not something I ever had growing up. Biting into my second — perhaps third — helping of these festival centrepieces I found myself suddenly craving another more familiar treat: the Singapore festival favourite — the pineapple tart.
This got me thinking about growing up Hindu in a Singaporean household and celebrating all the major holidays — Deepavali, Hari Raya, Chinese New Year and even on occasion Christmas by sitting in living rooms around carefully arranged trays of kueh-kuehs.
Every Singaporean child has their favourite festive cookie. For me, it’s the melt-in-your-mouth sensation of those buttery crumbly sugee biscuit balls.
Another friend consumes entire biscuit tins of those peanut packed treats, Kueh Mamuts, in a single sitting at Hari Raya and what about all those delicate, flavourful Kueh Lapis you can pick up at Bengawan Solo?
But all of these pale in comparison to the king of festive food: the humble pineapple tart.
Nothing captures this city’s history or its complex tapestry of ethnicities better than this delicious tangy tart — a central dollop of sharp pineapple jam perfectly complemented by the soft, sweet and subtly savoury texture of the shortbread base.
There’s something distinctly European, British, Portuguese or maybe Dutch about the buttery base while the star anise, cloves, cinnamon and pineapple that constitute the central jam are redolent of our part of the world — the spice islands.
Unsurprisingly perhaps these treats trace their origins to the original fusion culture — the Nyonyas — and today they are, more than any other food or custom ubiquitously Singaporean.
Chicken rice is nice but it’s Chinese, roti prata is unquestionably Indian and nasi padang well that’s Malay but pineapple tarts belong to everyone and we all agree they are special.
They are trotted out by every community for their major festivals and after these festivals they linger, not for long, in those red topped plastic jars that I think every home in this country must possess, separated by doilies to be devoured by children, grandchildren, husbands or whatever else your household consists of.
In a nation that defines itself by food, this is our definitive national dish. Every family that’s been on the island for more than a couple of generations must have their own version and each of these families surely has their own tart champion.
You know, the one aunt — who cleans, cooks and bakes better than every other member of the family.
My family’s pineapple tart prodigy is a loving former policewoman who makes mind-blowingly delicious baked goods and while Singapore’s multiculturalism is fraught with many challenges, the shared act of munching, chewing swallowing brings us together like nothing else.
So here is my aunt’s unbeatable recipe for pineapple tarts.
Note: There are two parts here, the biscuit base and the jam.
1 kati (600 grams) plain flour
4 egg yolks + 1 egg beaten
1 additional egg for glazing
Cold butter (300 grams cut into small cubes)
Granulated sugar (600 grams)
Pinch of fine salt
1 cinnamon stick
2 star anise
1. Skin the pineapples and remove the flesh from the eye/hard centre.
2. Blend the pieces then strain out any excess moisture using a sieve.
3. Transfer the pulp to a deep saucepan and cook over a low heat for 20-30 minutes, until most of the excess liquid has evaporated.
4. Add the sugar and spices, then turn up the heat and stir occasionally for another 20-30 minutes. You’ll know it’s done when the mixture thickens and turns a golden colour.
5. When you reach your desired colour and consistency remove the pan from the heat, remove the spices and transfer the mixture to glass jars.
1. Mix a pinch of salt into the flour.
2. As quickly as possible, and using only the tips of your fingers rub the cold butter into flour.
3. Beat the eggs and add to flour mixture gradually, knead the mixture into a dough that’s moist but able to hold its shape when pinched — add a little flour if it’s too wet, butter if it’s too dry. The dough should form a single smooth, unsticky ball.
4. Roll out the dough until its about 0.5 cm thick, cut into shapes — little circles 4 cms in diameter are easiest but flower shapes, fish shapes, ovals are all valid.
1. Using your thumb make a light depression in the centre of each dough disc.
2. Place a dollop (approx 1 tsp) of jam into this depression, fill all your discs.
3. Beat an egg with a dash of water to make a glaze, brush this glaze over the surface of each tart.
4. Bake the pastries at 160 Celsius for 7-10 minutes, take them out when they are just beginning to turn golden brown.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.