Sometimes a certain smell or sound can bring back a memory. That happens for me every time I sprinkle flour on the counter and start rolling out the dough for Sunday morning brunch. With every roll of my pin, I remember our Saturday morning tradition. The sun would come up over the horizon and barely peek into the lace-rimmed curtains when my Nan would be up, puttering around in her spacious farmhouse kitchen. I would usually wake up about the time that the coffee started filtering down into the pot, and find my way down the stairs into the room lit with musky morning light. Soft tinkering noises and cabinets creaking open and closed were the only sounds heard for the first few minutes. Nan had to set out her ingredients, and I had to wash the sleepies away with a glass of milk before any substantial conversation could take place. Soon enough though, all would be ready, and I would say “Good morning, Nan” as I walked from my chair to her side, grabbing the recipe card off the refrigerator.
I began cubing the butter and she would measure out the flour and salt and ask me about my girlfriends first and my boyfriend last, always saying “Remember Marge, the boys will come and go, but your girlfriends are gonna be the ones for heart-keeping, remember that.” Then we would cut in the butter and add the milk that had been chilled over ice and grab and push with our hands until the dough was smooth and firm. The dough would go into the fridge and the preserves would come out as Nan would ask me what I was planning on doing with my life. The answer changed on a regular basis, the longest streak I had being when I wanted to be a ballerina. We talked about ballet for eight Saturdays straight. Pop would come downstairs at this point, looking for a cup of black coffee and the morning paper. He’d always be ready to talk, right off. First he would read the weather, then we would solve the word puzzle. He would call out the letters and blanks and pretend to come up with answers as Nan and I laughed and called out the real answers. Then he would fall silent for a while as he read the headlines, and his brow would pucker and furrow as he continued reading and I mixed together the preserves and sugar with the big wooden spoon.
Then things would start getting loud for real. Pop snapped his paper shut and laid it on the hutch for Nan to read after breakfast, Nan grabbed the chilled dough out of the refrigerator and plopped it onto the floured surface, and I would push at the dough with the pin, loudly banging it on the counter as I misjudged my reach. Bruno would appear with a stretch and a yawn when Pop clanked the watering can into the sink to fill it. Nan was convinced that the metal from the can contributed to the consistent growth of her prize-winning geraniums, so Pop faithfully filled the can every morning. Then Pop would call Bruno to follow him out into the yard, and I would begin to cut circles in the dough with my glass. One Saturday Nan surprised me with a thin glass with roses and ivy hand-painted around the bottom edge that she had picked up from a estate sale the week before. This was the same Saturday I was going to be an artist, so naturally that was a sign, and I firmly declared it to be the only glass I would use from then on out. My opinion changed two Saturdays later, but the glass remained my favorite. Nan kept it for me on a shelf I could reach, and no one else was allowed to use it. “Sometimes the joy is in the little things, yes?” she would smile at me with a crinkle around her clear blue eyes.
Nan would turn to preheat the oven and wash the dishes as I filled a circle with a dollop of preserves and placed another circle on top, pinching the edges together. One by one, they’d make their way onto the pan, my fingers turning sweet and sticky in the process. Then the pan would go in the oven and I would set the timer ticking before we wiped the counter tops and set the table. Some mornings Nan and I would head out on the porch and cut a few sprigs of fern and a climbing rose for the table. Regardless, she insisted we use the nice dishes and set out the silverware the correct way. Once Pop protested that so much use was a sure way for the china to be broken, and that it should be saved for a special occasion. Nan quickly put that reasoning to rest. “We are alive today and we are happy. Life is occasion enough.” Pop would come back in about the time the tarts came out of the oven and wash his hands. My favorite glass would be clean again and filled to the rim with vanilla-milk, Nan’s special treat. We would all sit down to eat, and Bruno would crawl under the table and lay down on my feet.
These days, when I pull tarts out of the oven in my modest apartment kitchen, my mind goes over snippets of conversation I still remember after all these years. I remember the years worth of Saturday conversations punctured with happy laughs every other sentence. I remember the quieter Saturdays, where our voices became softer and our words became heavier without Pop around to lighten the mood. Then somewhere along the way Saturdays turned into Sundays and I started making the tarts by myself, and loading a plate of them into my car for the hour trip to Meadowside Assisted Living, because only the best was good enough for my Nan. Tears gather in my eyes as I remember the Sundays towards the end, when Nan couldn’t have the tarts I had brought, or even leave her bed. I sigh quietly as the timer dings and pull the fresh tarts from the oven. Picking up the recipe card with brown-stained edges off the counter, I return it to its place on the refrigerator.
Until next week, Nan.
Jam Tarts // Prep time: 30 minutes // Bake time: 20 minutes // Serves 4
- 1 1/4 cup all-purpose Gold Medal Flour + extra for rolling
- 1 stick COLD unsalted butter (1/2 cup)
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 3-5 Tb. ice cold milk
- 3/4 cups preserves (strawberry, blueberry, cherry, etc)
- 1/4 cup white sugar
- For the Crust: Cut the butter into small cubes and place in the freezer to make sure it’s very cold. Add the flour and salt to the food processor and pulse. Pour a couple ounces of milk over ice to chill. Then add the cold butter to the flour mixture and pulse until it’s finely chopped and mixed into the flour. It should resemble oatmeal or little pellets. One tablespoon at a time, pulse in the milk (not the ice cubes) until it clumps together. It should be firm, not sticky. Dump the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap and form into a disk. Wrap and refrigerate for at least thirty minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Once chilled, roll the dough out on a well floured work surface, and using a glass, cut into small circles. Set half onto greased baking sheet and set aside.
- For the Filling: Mix together preserves and sugar in a small bowl. Once thoroughly combined, spoon a tablespoon of mixture onto each pie crust circle. Top each filled circle with another circle, and brush tops with butter. If desired, sprinkle top with powdered sugar.
- Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown. Remove and allow to cool for 5 minutes. Enjoy with a glass of vanilla milk.
pie crust recipe loosely adapted from A Spicy Perspective.