The Perfect Imperfect Dessert
By Alexa Beattie
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 21, 2004; Page F01
I was called a tart once -- by a neighbor's dad who spotted me in the field next to our house with my 12-year-old arm around the neck of his son. "Why 'tart'?" I asked my father, puzzling over my likeness to a pretty fruit-filled pastry.
My guess was it was a good thing. How could it not be?
Pies and tarts are loaded for me and always have been. We have a thorny, complex relationship. And only now, after some rigorous introspection, do I think I know why. First of all, the stakes are higher. There's chemistry to consider -- the ratios of fat to flour, the coldness of butter. And I was never very good at science. Second, unlike a stew or a roast or something puddingy, there's the potential for extreme visual beauty and the potential too for spoiling it.
I witnessed such ruin at a very early age when a row broke out around a family lunch table. The meal came to a sudden end just after my grandmother pitched a perfect slice of lemon meringue at her son's head. It missed. But the pie was toast, and the seeds of lasting trauma were sown.
Years later, when my mother died, I spent a summer making tarts. We lived in the French countryside and, with the fruits of a burgeoning orchard, I made plum tarts and peach tarts and pretty spiraled apple ones. My mother's cookbooks became my cookbooks, and for a while beginner's luck helped me tell myself and the world that we -- my father and I -- could cope.
The memory sours, however, with a deep, quiche-like pie I made for a dinner we hosted just before I returned to college. Summer was on the wane and so was luck. My short crust pastry had a hole in it, and the custard filling ran out onto the floor as fast as I poured it in.
"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," said William Butler Yeats.
That failed pie, I tend to fancy now, was the harbinger of messy times ahead. There was the tart whose center did hold because it had three crusts. For the purpose of impressing my future mother-in-law, I had resorted -- for the sake of the sure thing -- to a ready-made pie shell, only to learn, at serving time, that pie shells tend to be sold in threes.
Eventually pies and tarts became too risky for me to even embark upon. I could look at their perfect cookbook images, but dared not touch.
When I came to the new world, however, I became aware of a different kind of pie, a pie with new rules and much lower stakes.
I was familiar with crumbles -- the English version of the crisp. I grew up on them: Apple and blackberry crumbles with crunchy, oaty tops and juicy summer berry crumbles served with lashings of double cream. But I'd never heard of "slumps" and I'd never heard of "grunts." These words filtered into my consciousness, and I liked the grunty, slumpy sound they made.
In his book, "American Desserts: The Greatest Sweets on Earth" (Clarkson Potter, 2003), Wayne Brachman says that slumps and grunts are really the same thing -- biscuits cooked on a stew of berries -- just termed differently by different New England states. In Maine and Vermont, "slump" is an old word for a wet and boggy place. But "grunt" in Massachusetts is the tag for a dessert that supposedly grunts as it cooks.
In the course of my research, I learned of something else: A baked dessert called a "pandowdy" that Brachman describes as "pie, totally deconstructed." And get this: the recipe requires the cook to distress the crust just before serving, so that it sinks, crumpled and broken, into the filling below.
Such desserts were sounding appealing to me. Cute in a raggedy sort of way -- a take-me-as-you-find-me kind of pie that seemed so much more manageable, more suited to my culinary ways. There was no crust to be nicked and tucked. Just a bit of mixing and grunting and slumping -- to reportedly delicious ends. Here, all of a sudden, was a free pass to imperfection, a license to be rough around the edges.
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