Perfection is a big word. Particularly in the world of food, where - to use the old cliché - "there's no accounting for taste", labeling anything perfect is potentially risky business. And when it comes to foods we know and love - the foods we associate with comfort, family and good times, for example - perfection is even more difficult to pin down as there are so many variables besides taste affecting our perception. Maybe you prefer your mashed potatoes lumpy because that's how your mother used to make them, or maybe you like your pizza soggy since that's how the place down the street used to deliver it. I mean really, what kind of foolish, egocentric person would get it in their head to lay claim to the one perfect recipe for anything? Well, Heston Blumenthal, that's who - and he just might be the one person with enough credibility to pull it off.
Heston's new book, just released in the UK as a companion to a recent BBC series, is in fact all about perfection. Well, it's about the search for perfection, and he's careful to disambiguate, saying not that the recipes he's given are perfect per se, but that they represent the culmination of his ongoing search for perfection - in ingredients, in technique, and in taste. The interesting thing is that Heston, head chef at what was rated the best restaurant in the world last year and a man who spends as much time in his purpose-built laboratory as he does fanning the kitchen flames, could have easily taken the easy road on this epic quest - after all, with all the high-tech gadgetry and exotic ingredients at his disposal, he could have written a book of recipes so difficult and expensive to execute that no one would ever have known whether they approached perfection or not. Instead he took on a much bigger challenge: he limited himself not only to dishes just about everyone knows and loves, but also to creating them using equipment readily available to the average home cook. Thus in this book's pages you won't find any recipes for Tournedos Rossini or frozen caviar foam, but instead for altogether more pedestrian favorites like roast chicken, pizza napoletana, fish and chips, black forest cake and treacle tart.
It certainly sounds simple enough: take old standbys, break them down to their component parts, and reinvent them to be better than before. No sweat, right? Well...in theory. In reality, though, if you're expecting that 'average home cook' bit to mean that a few simple tips and tricks of Heston's will transform these dishes into something otherworldly, you may be in for a few surprises. Take the black forest cake, for example. Do you have a vacuum cleaner, pressurized plastic storage bags, a paint sprayer, a wood-effect painting tool and a GourmetWhip® in your closet? If not, you're going to either have a hefty equipment bill or a hard time making this cake. Add to that the multi-day assembly required, and I doubt that anyone but the truly dedicated will attempt this recipe. The 'simple' roast chicken, similarly, needs to be brined, soaked, blanched, dried, roasted, sauteed and injected with butter over a period of 24 hours, and don't even think of attempting fish and chips unless you have a soda siphon and plenty of CO2. On the other hand, he promises that perfect pizza napoletana is completely within your reach so long as you have a decent cast iron frying pan and a hot broiler, while his version of a treacle tart - recently brought out of English tearoom obscurity by the revelation that it is in fact Harry Potter's favorite dessert - could practically be assembled in your sleep.
Since the prospect of turning out something perfect in my sleep sounded awfully appealing to me, I decided to take Heston's treacle tart out for a spin. I must admit, though, I was still a treacle tart virgin despite having lived here for five years already, and yes, the irony of evaluating the perfection of something I'd never previously eaten didn't escape me. But it sure sounded good, with all that browned butter, golden syrup and lemon, not to mention the hefty (and quite untraditional) measure of salt Heston calls for in the filling. It was a cinch to throw together, and smelled absolutely heavenly while baking - like butterscotch and vanilla and a grandmother's love - and as soon as it had cooled enough to dish up we cut big slices, covered them in ice cream, and marvelled at how we'd managed to overlook such a fabulous invention for so many years. It was gooey and caramelly and complex, kind of like the filling of a pecan pie freshened with a whiff of citrus, but of course the thing I had to keep pondering with every bite was the real matter at hand: was it really perfect?
Well, I suppose I could have predicted it - of course it wasn't perfect. Not to me, anyway. The crust was just slightly too heavy and greasy, and Heston's obvious enthusiasm for salt had been taken just a little bit too far, and I struggled to taste the subtler flavors against its onslaught. But the backbone of a great recipe was there, and so I did what I always do - I tweaked and tasted and adjusted until what I had tasted perfect to me. Although I know I certainly can't claim Heston's pedigree for perfecting, at least I can claim the knowledge of what I know and love - and most of the time, that's as close to perfection as I need to be. I only hope that Heston understands.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
My Perfect Treacle Tart, a la Heston Blumenthal
Yield: one 11in/28cm tart or quiche pan (deep-dish, preferably)
Source: Adapted from In Search of Perfection by Heston Blumenthal (crust adapted from Desserts by Pierre Herme)
Notes: I'm sure there are a few improvements still to be coaxed out of this recipe, but I am pretty smitten with it the way it is. Funnily enough, I actually avoided treacle tart for many years because I assumed it contained black treacle, aka molasses, which I really don't like very much, but actually it gets its sweetness from light treacle, which is better known today as golden syrup. Those of you in the U.S. (and maybe Canada?) might have trouble tracking it down, but it is definitely worth the effort - this thick, caramelly nectar is good enough to eat with a spoon. The tart itself is like a distant cousin of pecan pie, but somehow doesn't seem nearly as rich (could it be the lemon?) - a good thing when you find yourself unable to stop your hand from reaching for that third slice.
For vanilla salt:
1 heaping tablespoon flaky sea salt (such as fleur du sel or Maldon salt)
1/2 vanilla bean, split
For crust (makes twice as much as you need - just freeze the rest for next time):
10 ounces (285 g) unsalted butter, softened at room temp.
1 1/2 cups (150g) confectioners' sugar, sifted
1/2 cup (100 g) finely ground blanched almonds
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
grated zest of one lemon
2 large eggs, at room temp.
3 1/2 cups (490g) all purpose flour
7 oz (200g) unsalted butter
3 large eggs
1/3 cup (75ml) double cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 x 454g cans Lyle's golden syrup (available online in North America, or in shops that sell British specialties)
3 cups (170g) soft, fresh breadcrumbs from Irish brown bread (I should think that white breadcrumbs will do just fine in a pinch)
zest of 3 lemons
1/4 cup (60ml) lemon juice
Vanilla ice cream, for serving
First, make the vanilla salt by scraping out the seeds from the vanilla pod and mixing them with the salt in a small bowl. Set aside.
Next, make the crust. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat butter on low speed until creamy. Mix in sugar, ground almonds, salt, vanilla and eggs. On low speed, add flour in 3 or 4 additions and mix only until the dough comes together (a few seconds). Gather dough into a ball and divide dough into 2 pieces. Flatten each piece into a disk and wrap in plastic. Allow the dough to rest in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours and up to 2 days before rolling. You can freeze the dough for up to 1 month. Thaw the frozen dough for about 1 hour at room temperature before rolling.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough to about 1/8 inch thick. Carefully transfer the dough to your pan, gently easing it into the bottom and sides and pressing it into place. If the dough tears, patch it with extra scraps of dough. Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350F/175C. Line the chilled crust with a piece of parchment (it will fit better if you scrunch it into a ball and then flatten it out again) or buttered foil and fill with pie weights, dried beans or rice. Bake crust until lightly browned, about 20-25 minutes, removing the parchment for the last few minutes so the bottom can brown too. Set aside to cool.
Reduce oven temperature to 325F/160C. For the filling, begin by browning the butter. Melt the butter in a heavy pan over medium heat and boil, swirling frequently, until the solids have turned a rich brown and the butter smells deeply nutty. Remove it from the heat and measure out 1/2 cup (125ml).
Put the eggs, cream and salt into a bowl and whisk until combined. Pour the golden syrup into a pan and heat until liquid. Pour the 1/2 cup of the browned butter into the syrup and stir to combine. Pour the buttery syrup into the egg and cream mixture. Stir in the breadcrumbs and lemon juice. Transfer the mixture to a pitcher. Pour two-thirds of it into the parbaked crust, then slide the tart into the oven and pour the remainder of the filling (if you have any left over you can bake it in little ramekins). Bake for 40-50 minutes or until the tart is a deep brown on top and doesn't shimmy in the middle when shaken. Remove from the oven and let cool before removing from the tart pan. Slice and serve warm with a sprinkle of the vanilla salt and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.