Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Who Stole the Tarts?

The King and Queen of Hearts were seated on their throne .... In the very middle of the court was a table, with a large dish of tarts upon it: they looked so good, that it made Alice quite hungry to look them - "I wish they'd get the trial done," she thought, "and hand round the refreshments!" (Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll)

A few weeks ago I popped along to the British Library to see their foyer exhibition of Alice in Wonderland which is on until 17th April - http://www.bl.uk/events/alice-in-wonderland-exhibition. The exhibition - which is well worth a visit - opened in November 2015, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll's novel.  Featuring the original manuscript and hand-drawn illustrations, the exhibition goes on to look at later editions - and illustrations - of the children's book, and to consider the way the novel has been reimagined and reappropriated in different societies and cultures.

Visiting the exhibition - and then rereading the book afterwards - reminded me of the important role played by food in Alice in Wonderland.  Falling down the rabbit hole in pursuit of the White Rabbit who is running late, Alice enters a fantasy world populated by speaking animals where the normal rules of logic and human behaviour do not apply.  And in this fantasy world, food takes on a magical and often transformative role.  Consuming a drink that tastes of 'cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffy, and hot buttered toast' Alice shrinks  to only ten inches high, whereas eating a cake bearing the words 'EAT ME' in currants leads her in the opposite direction.

And so to the tarts.  Alice has already encountered the Queen of Hearts - brought to life from a pack of playing cards - and her aggressive catchphrase "Off with their heads!"  Now, in chapter 11, she is taken by the mythological Gryphon to the trial of the Knave of Hearts who is accused of stealing the Queen of Heart's tarts.  This episode of petty theft comes from the traditional nursery rhyme - which predates Alice in Wonderland by at least eighty years - and which is reproduced by Carroll:

The Queen of Hearts, she made some tarts,
All on a summer day:
The Knave of Hearts, he stole those tarts
And took them quite away!

As might be expected in this upside-down tale, the trial does not go ahead in an orderly fashion: witnesses fail to answer questions and evidence is unclear.  And then, much to Alice's great surprise, she is called to give evidence.  Unable to answer any questions, and threatened with ejection from the court for being too tall, Alice finally loses her temper when the Queen of Hearts shouts, "Off with her head!"  Alice retaliates: "Who cares for you?" said Alice ...."You're nothing but a pack of cards!" at which point the cards fly up in the air and attack her.  Alice, attempting to beat them off, wakes up and finds herself "lying on the bank", exactly where she had been at the beginning of the story when she first saw the tardy White Rabbit.

Not only is no verdict reached on the theft of the tarts, Alice also wakes up before she has time to consume them.  But here is a recipe for them: avoid any hungry thieves and eat them quickly.


INGREDIENTS (makes 16-20): 
(for the sweet shortcrust pastry)
250g plain flour (plus a little extra for dusting)
50g icing sugar, sifted
125g cold unsalted butter, cubed
1 large egg, beaten (and 1 tablespoon milk, if needed, to bind)
pinch of salt

1 teaspoon of jam per pastry case

Begin by making the pastry.  Place the flour and pinch of salt in a large bowl.  Add the cubed butter and, using your fingertips, rub the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs.  Then stir in the icing sugar.  Using a knife, stir in the beaten egg - adding up to 1 tablespoon of milk if necessary - until the mixture begins to clump together.  Use one hand to gather together the mixture into a ball, wrap it in clingfilm and place in the fridge for at least one hour.

Take the pastry out of the fridge and leave it for about 10 minutes to come to room temperature: this will make it easier to roll out.  Pre-set the oven to 200C (180C fan) or Gas mark 6.  Grease two cup bun trays.

Roll out the pastry to a thinness of approximately 1/4" or 1/2cm, and cut out rounds using a plain or crinkled cutter.  Place the pastry rounds in the trays and fill each one with one teaspoon of jam.  Don't be tempted to put more jam in as the jam will boil up in the oven and, if there is too much in the case, it will go everywhere!  To exploit the 'Queen of Hearts' theme, I cut out pastry hearts - using a template that I downloaded and printed from the internet, though you can buy heart-shaped biscuit cutters - and placed them on top of the jam; see picture above.

Bake for between 20 and 30 minutes until the pastry cases are golden brown and the jam is bubbling away.  Remove the tarts from the oven and leave to cool for a few minutes in the trays, and then on a wire rack.  When the tarts are cold you can, if you wish, dust them with a little sieved icing sugar.

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