The COVID-19 Booster Ate My Story
A valid excuse to bake a feel-better tart
This will be a down-and-dirty story, so I can make today’s deadline. I went and got the second booster shot yesterday and am having the same side effects I had with the previous three shots—mainly, my dominant typing arm is sore and a little numb, coupled with a case of thick brain fog. This situation is the fault of my husband, who has a new book out this month—How Free Speech Saved Democracy: The Untold History of How the First Amendment Became an Essential Tool for Securing Liberty and Social Justice. Just typing that impossibly long, but timely, title increases the chances of me heading back to bed. In any case, because the book is so timely, his dance card is filling up with appearances at events in other states, and God knows what bugs he’ll bring home. (I’m not just being a dutiful wife here. The book is really, really good and, as pointed out, extremely timely for both sides of our divided country to read.)
In truth, I could probably forge ahead on one of the five drafts crowding the desk, the recent stop at the Bulow Sugar Plantation, for instance—so much social/economic history to unpack with that one. Also, the road trip with my friend, one of the few who have stuck by me over the last 40 years or so. There’s the almost complete dive bars as well as one on a neighborhood market that caters to at least five immigrant groups in the community. And nymphomania. I’d like to finish that because it is spring, when even an old woman’s fancy turns to one of life’s finer activities. But these all require thinking and that’s not remotely possible at the moment.
Naturally, this situation leads to pie, specifically a tart. And because there’s nothing much in the kitchen beyond a half gallon of milk and eggs, and I can’t begin to think of trudging to the market two blocks away, this leads to a milk tart. Not a custard pie. Not a chess pie. A milk pie, in other words, Melktert. The differences come down to the short crust dough pushed into the pan, and the somewhat heavy presence of cinnamon. It also usually requires an additional egg or two.
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I’m losing it here….so a quick history: The Dutch East India Company rolled into the Cape of Good Hope around 1652. Over the long haul, they predominately settled in as dairy farmers. This accounts for the tart’s milk base. The presence of vanilla and cinnamon may have come from the influence of Muslim slaves the company brought over from their Southeast Asia holdings. Melktert is akin to our apple pie—the ubiquitous national dessert whose basic recipe is individualized by every cook who bakes it. The recipe below is the standard, but in keeping with South African tradition, feel free to add a bit of your own flavor. I note a small adjustment in the crust recipe I made myself.
The following recipe comes from Ester Kocht, a wonderful cooking site. The author, Ester, was born in Namibia and now lives with her family in Germany. This accounts for the site’s blend of German and African cuisine. Her recipes have often rescued me from the cooking doldrums, so be prepared to spend time there noodling around.
For the short crust pastry
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/3 cup sugar
1 medium egg
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
a pinch of salt
4 or 5 tablespoons cold milk or just enough that the dough comes together (my addition—I found that the given dough recipe was too dry to form a disk. But be judicious with the amount and use only enough to form the dough. Also, I used almond milk. It gave a nice undertone to the filling.)
For the custard filling
1 vanilla bean
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 1/2 cups milk
1 cinnamon stick
1 medium egg
¼ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup cornstarch
2 tablespoons butter
Make the short crust
Place all the ingredients for the dough into a medium-size bowl and quickly mix them together with you hands into a firm dough. Wrap it in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
Make the filling
Using the tip of the knife, split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the vanilla seeds. Mix the seeds with the sugar.
Reserve 5 tablespoons of the milk in a bowl and pour the rest into a medium pot. Stir in the vanilla-sugar mixture and add the cinnamon stick and empty vanilla bean pod. Bring to a boil, then remove from the heat and let the infused milk sit for at least 2 hours to allow the flavors seep together.
Putting the tart together
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Butter an 8-inch tart pan. Take the dough out of the refrigerator and crumble it into the prepared pan. Quickly press the dough into the bottom and sides of the pan.
Prick the bottom and sides of the dough with a fork. Line the dough with parchment paper and scatter across it either pie weights or, if you don’t have them, beans or rice. Place the tart pan in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Check to see if it’s a nice golden brown. Bake for 5 more minutes if you’d like the crust to be a little darker. Take the tart pan from the oven and remove the parchment and weights. Cool the tart crust completely on a wire rack.
After the crust has cooled, finish making the filling. Remove the vanilla pod and cinnamon stick from the milk and, over a low flame, bring the milk to a gentle boil. In a medium-size bowl, whisk the egg with the flour, cornstarch, and the reserved 5 tablespoons of milk. Blend well, then add the mixture to the pot. Keep stirring until the filling thickens enough that it covers the back of a spoon.
Stir in the butter until it melts, then immediately pour the filling into the cooled tart crust. Let cool to room temperature for an hour. Then place it in the refrigerator until the filling has completely set.
Go take a nap.
When you finally wake up, place a good-size wedge on a plate. Dust the slice with cinnamon.
Curl up in a chair and enjoy.
Feel much better afterward.
Can you hear me laughing?!!🤣
Hoping you are feeling a bit better.