I should have been looking at street signs on that summer day in Spitalfields, London, but my attention was diverted by the treasure in my hand: a generous slice of the best Bakewell tart I’d ever tasted. I broke off bits to eat as I strolled.
A triangle of pastry holding frangipane and a thin layer of raspberry jam, the delicacy was delicious, handmade by a lady in the neighborhood. Her baked goods were sold at A. Gold, a tiny shop I’d seen mentioned months before in one of my American food magazines. The owners of the shop – still drawing lunchtime crowds today, five years later – have made a mission of preserving the best of traditional British cooking, and they’ve enlisted local experts (aka good home cooks) to help perpetuate that goal. My English mother occasionally made a Bakewell tart when I was growing up, so I knew and liked the seemingly odd pairing of cake baked in pastry. On that warm day in 2009, A. Gold’s Bakewell tart made an enjoyable repast on the long walk back to my hotel.
My trek required crossing a large plaza crowded with pedestrians and office workers on their lunch breaks. As I walked, a dapper young Englishman in suit and tie fell into stride beside me. After a few paces, he inquired politely if I was happy with my cellphone plan.
Yes, very, I said, not interested in a sales pitch and slightly annoyed at the interruption in my Bakewell tart reverie. “Wouldn’t you like to compare the cost of your plan with what I can offer?” he said. “I assure you, mine can save you money.” I shook my head and continued to walk. The man sped up and stepped in front of me in the center of the plaza, forcing me to stop. He bowed from his waist and held out his hand. “Then would you dance with me?” he said, smiling.
Zoiks, I thought; when did my shopping errand turn into a Hugh Grant movie?
I knew what he did not, that my only dance moves were gleaned from a Jane Fonda exercise videotape, circa 1983. I go to great lengths to avoid a public display of my wretched lack of rhythm. Besides, he could have been a pickpocket, albeit a well-dressed one.
No, thank you, I said, hurrying around him. Maybe the next time I’m in the area, I called over my shoulder. The man faded into the crowd.
My tart was so delicious that I returned to A. Gold the next day, this time accompanied by my youngest daughter. She and I were spending a week in London to introduce her to the vibrant city I loved that was homeland to one of her grandmothers. The jet lag that had so depleted Last born the day before was beginning to ebb. At A. Gold, the last slice of Bakewell tart had just been sold, but the shopkeeper proffered a Chelsea bun as a consolation prize. I didn’t know what a Chelsea bun was, but I happily bought two. Exiting the shop, we headed back toward our hotel. The vast plaza stretched before me like a concrete plain. I couldn’t see my would-be dance partner among the crowds, but I wasn’t taking any chances. I set off at a fast trot.
“Why are we hurrying?” my daughter gasped when she finally caught up. I never slowed as I explained that I’d promised to dance with a strange Englishman the next time I passed through this very spot. I hadn’t counted on being back so soon. “Oh, my god, Mom,” Last born muttered, rolling her eyes, and she raced ahead of me, increasing the distance between us to reduce her chances of being linked to the spectacle that might ensue.
Epilogue: The Chelsea buns tasted like cinnamon rolls. The dancing Englishman never materialized. Last born and I rode a city bus two hours in the wrong direction, which I alone found funny. My daughter was overwhelmed by the big city, repelled by the sticky Chelsea bun glaze on her fingers, and appalled to be sitting on a crowded bus going who-knew-where with a crazy mother who wouldn’t stop laughing. Crowning the off-kilter day was an unkempt fellow a few rows behind us on the bus who spewed a steady stream of epithets to passengers around him.
It wasn’t Arkansas.
But it was London. And I loved it all.
Bakewell Tart – Recipe adapted from one published online by The Guardian, a British national daily newspaper. This being a British recipe, ingredients are measured by weight in grams, not volume in cups. You’ll need a digital scale to make this. Mine is by Escali, and I use it all the time. (Amazon.com has my model priced at $25.22 today, and I’m sure your local kitchen supplier keeps them in stock.) For baking purposes, nothing beats the accuracy of weight measures. My digital scale is an essential part of my cooking kit.
Your favorite basic single-crust pie dough, enough to line a deep tart pan about 10 inches wide with a removable bottom (You could probably also use a deep-dish pie pan, but the presentation won’t be quite as pretty.)
Frangipane (fancy word for almond-flavored filling)
- 110g unsalted butter at room temperature
- 100g granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs at room temperature
- 110g ground almonds
- 25g all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- Pinch of fine-grained salt
- Freshly grated zest of 1/2 a lemon
About 130g plum jam (Raspberry jam is more traditional, but tart plums provide an especially nice foil for the sweet frangipane.)
25g sliced almonds
Line a deep-dish tart pan with the pastry and place in the refrigerator to chill for at least 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 425ºF. Top pastry with parchment paper and pie weights, then bake blind for 15 minutes. Carefully remove paper and pie weights and return pan to oven for another 6 minutes, or until pastry edges begin to turn golden brown and bottom appears dry. Remove pan from oven and set on a cooling rack for several minutes while you make the filling. Reduce oven temperature to 375ºF.
In a medium bowl, cream together the butter and sugar for several minutes with an electric hand mixer, until fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Fold in the dry ingredients and lemon zest with a spatula, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl to ensure even blending. Set aside.
Vigorously stir the plum preserves to liquify them a bit, then spread a thin, even layer inside the bottom of the baked pastry. Top with frangipane, smoothing the top with an offset knife. Bake at 375ºF. for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven briefly to sprinkle sliced almonds over the top, then return to the oven for another 5 minutes of baking. The tart is done when the top is golden brown and springs back when pressed lightly with a fingertip. Let cool, then carefully remove tart from pan before serving.