As you might suspect, Japanese kitchens are tiny, so making the most of available space is essential. Home supply stores sell a variety of devices designed to make storage more efficient, such as over-the-sink countertop extenders and organizers for holding plastic wrap, tin foil, and waxed paper (my favorite). Not only is storage limited, but the appliances are considerably smaller, too. When renting an apartment, it is almost always the tenant’s responsibility to provide kitchen appliances. This means no mammoth Sub-Zero refrigerators or six-burner Viking ranges. Instead, most people use a two-burner gas stove or simply a butane burner. Refrigerators are diminutive as well, so one has to stock up on fresh produce much more often, which is quite a good thing in my opinion. Large American-style ovens simply don’t exist; I do all my baking in a countertop microwave-cum-convection oven.
All of this may seem like a burden, but it really forces you to be efficient when shopping and to use cooking techniques that extract maximum flavor with a minimum input of ingredients and equipment. Japanese food is well-suited to this kind of cooking, thanks to its emphasis on fresh ingredients and subtle flavors. However, I’ve also found that certain Western foods – even baked goods – can benefit from the minimalist kitchen approach.
This apple tart recipe, tucked away in the last pages of the January/February Saveur 100 issue, is a classic example. There were no glamour shots accompanying the recipe, which is in fact what drew me to it. Instead, you’ll find Jacques Pépin, practically beaming with kindness and proffering the tart. Something about the photo – the slightly uneven edges of the tart’s crust, Pépin’s quirky charm, the casually arranged apples, the general unpretentiousness of it all – made me want to make the tart immediately.
I did, and even with several modifications, it was a great success. It is a quiet, unassuming tart, the sort that goes best with afternoon coffee or tea, but a delicious one nonetheless. The crust was delightfully crisp and buttery, with just a hint of sweetness, while the wedges of glazed apples remained moist and toothsome. Best of all, it was a cinch to make, even in a Japanese kitchen.
Maman’s Apple Tart
Adapted from Saveur
The great advantage of this recipe is that it requires no special equipment. For the step of cutting the fat into the flour, the recipe directs using one’s fingers, rather than a pastry blender or food processor. Believe it or not, this is one of the most effective ways to create a tender, flaky crust. Rubbing the butter into the flour manually means you’ll be less likely to cut it up too finely, which would prevent the formation of the large pockets of steam that make for an ideal crust. Your crust will also benefit greatly if you have poor circulation in your hands, as I do, since cold fingers will ensure the butter remains chilled. The ingredients were also all ones I usually have on hand, although in lieu of the apricot jam I used some lovely mikan preserves procured at the local produce stand. I made this in a tiny 5-inch tart pan that I picked up at the 100-yen store, so I’ve adjusted the recipe to reflect that change. The original recipe, which calls for a 9-inch pie plate, can be found here.
1 1⁄4 cups flour
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons salted butter, cut into 1⁄2″ cubes and chilled
2 tablespoons milk
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 large sweet-tart apple, peeled, cored, and cut into 12 wedges, each wedge halved
1 tablespoon mild-flavored jam or preserves of your choice
Heat oven to 375°F. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, 1 tablespoon sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add 6 tablespoons butter and, using your fingers, rub into flour mixture to form pea-size chunks. Add milk and egg and stir lightly until just combined. Bring dough together with your hands. Transfer two-thirds of the dough to a 5-inch tart pan and, using lightly floured fingers, press dough into bottom and sides. Wrap the rest of the dough in plastic wrap and reserve for another use.
Arrange as many apple pieces as will fit side by side on bottom of pie plate, pushing gently into the dough. Place a few apple pieces in the center of the tart. Sprinkle apples with remaining sugar and dot with the remaining chilled butter. Bake until the crust is golden, about 25 minutes. Spoon/spread preserves over the tart and bake for 5-10 minutes more, being careful to not let crust brown to much. Let cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.