I injured myself within 60 seconds of starting this tart. I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again; it’s because of the way I cut butter for crusts. I always cut cold butter on my littlest cutting board, with a paring knife, and because the paring knife doesn’t have the weight to seamlessly slice through the chilled butter, I press down on the tip of the knife with my left hand. And sometimes my hand slips and I cut myself.
This happens over and over again. My left index finger is criss-crossed with tiny scars, as if my fingerprint weren’t individual enough and I had to give it character. I take it in stride; wrap up the finger in paper towels and move on. It’s surprising how little you need your left index finger when cooking right-handed.
I thought about this while I rolled the crust, chopped the leeks, grated the Parmesan: why do I cut butter this way when I know I’ll hurt myself? Why do I insist on using that cutting board and this paring knife? Why do we do the same things over and over, why do we want things just-so? We cross rooms just to clear the timer on a microwave, follow housemates around the kitchen closing cabinets behind them, straighten pictures in other people’s homes.
When I’m in the kitchen I can make excuses for myself. Mise-en-place! Everything needs to be in its place or the flow of cooking will be disrupted. This only makes sense up to the point where I spend minutes on end searching for the particular wooden spoon or spatula that I want to use when there are others laying at hand. Does this make me obsessive or do I just want things how I want them? What’s the difference?
I’ll be the first to admit that my movements are patterned, habitual, but when it comes to the bigger picture I can’t stand to do the same thing twice in a week. When I’m having trouble deciding what’s for dinner, A says “You know I’d be happy eating rice and lentils every day.” Now, I love rice and lentils as much as the next girl, but I just can’t do it. If you read the list of breads I’ve baked in the last 6 months, you’d think I were making my way through an encyclopedia of bread styles. I’m not even sure why I keep recipe cards when I so rarely make something again in the same year.
It would be nice and tidy to conclude that I do this to rebel against my own need for patterns, but sadly that’s not true. Maybe I’m aiming for some distant point in my life where I will have baked and cooked so many different things that I’ll have a recipe on hand for every occasion. Vegan gluten-free Thanksgiving? No problem. Local foods barbecue in Alaska? I’ve just the thing.
But who wants to live a life off recipe cards? Who wants to follow directions every single time? Sometimes I stare out the window of my office, mentally indexing the contents of our fridge and putting foods together in my imagination to figure out what we might have for dinner. I read cookbooks like novels that you can act out in your own home. Cooking—and thinking about cooking—is my main form of entertainment. A recipe I’ve just made is like a movie I’ve just seen, a book I just finished reading.
Perhaps it’s safer, then, to always turn to the same mixing bowl when I’m constantly mixing things unfamiliar and untasted. Perhaps keeping everything in order in the kitchen, keeping cabinets closed, is a way of keeping myself grounded in the midst of my culinary whirlwind. Or perhaps I should just start cutting butter with a bigger knife.
I used a 9” fluted tart pan and ended up with a ball of extra dough; I decided to whip up a two-serving blackberry rhubarb galette. I’ve always wanted to be the sort of person who whips up galettes.
I made this filling with 2 eggs sans the extra yolk, but I think a little more richness and protein would help so I’ve included an extra yolk in the recipe here.
Leek Kale Tart
Crust (from the redoubtable David Lebovitz):
1 ½ C flour
½ t salt
4.5 oz. butter, chilled and cubed
2-3 T cold water
Combine the flour and salt in a bowl. Cut in the butter with a pastry cutter until crumbly. Whisk the egg with 2 tablespoons of cold water. Make a well in the flour mixture and pour in the egg. Mix well with a fork. If needed, add 1 more tablespoon of water. (At this point my dough was still very crumbly but I resisted adding more water, and was rewarded with a supremely delicate, flaky crust.)
Roll the dough out on a lightly-floured surface to the size of your tart pan. Carefully lift the dough into the pan and press down in the corners. Cut off any overhanging pieces and press down with your fingers in a couple spots on the bottom. Chill, covered, until ready to fill.
3 large leeks, about 4 C chopped
1 large handful kale leaves, chopped
2 sprigs fresh thyme, chopped
1 C milk
2 eggs plus 1 yolk
1/3 C Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 425°.
Heat a couple tablespoons butter in a large pan and begin sautéing the leeks and thyme. When the leeks begin to soften, add the kale. Saute until the leeks are soft but not browned. Add salt and pepper to taste and let cool.
When cool, transfer the vegetables to a large bowl. Beat the eggs with the milk and then stir in the Parmesan cheese. Pour into the vegetable mixture and mix well. Pour the filling into the prepared crust.
Bake at 425° for 15 minutes, reduce heat to 350°, and bake for 20-30 minutes more, until filling is set and lightly browned. Cool 10 minutes before serving.