Alimentary, My Dear
Queen of Tarts — An Unlikely On‑the‑Go Snack
By Tamia Nelson
January 18, 2011
The voyageurs knew a thing or two about keeping going. Whether they were crossing the big northern lakes or hauling their 300‑pound canots du nord over eight‑mile‑long portages, the canoemen took regular breaks. They called these brief respites "pipes," and for good reason: each one lasted just long enough to smoke a pipe of tobacco. That won't have done much for their aerobic capacity, of course, but the voyageurs also took advantage of their hourly pipes to refuel, wolfing down a handful of berries or a hunk of buffalo pemmican, followed by a couple of dipperfuls of water. Then they got back to work.
Such short breaks are as important today as they were in the time of the voyageurs. Modern paddlers may no longer be the driving force behind a continent‑wide transport system, but our engines still need fuel. If we try to run them on empty for very long, we end up burning body fat to keep going. And while even the skinniest canoeist or kayaker has plenty of this stored fat‑fuel to paddle for many miles, it's a little like trying to run a car on wood. It can be done, but it's not terribly efficient. Endurance athletes speak feelingly of "the bonk," a hapless state when muscles turn to jelly and energy drains away. This doesn't sound like much fun, and sure enough, it isn't. So it's worth a little forethought to keep the bonk at bay.
Which means that anything more than a leisurely out‑and‑back from the end of a camp dock pretty much has to be a moveable feast. That sounds great, doesn't it? There's no need to count calories. No worries about stepping on the scale next day. Suddenly, between‑meal snacks are no longer a sin. They're a necessity. But there's a downside. After a while, you simply grow tired of snacking. Or, more accurately, you grow tired of snacking on the same old things, day in and day out. It's happened to me many times. Don't get me wrong, though. I have a long list of eat‑on‑the go favorites, from Hundred‑Mile Bars to chocolate to homemade GORP, and if I ever tire of plain water to drink, I can always swig Newt Nectar. Yet even these have been known to pall, sometimes as soon as the second day of a trip. Which is why I'm always on the lookout for variations on the theme. And I found one just recently, in a most unlikely place: the breakfast aisle at the local HyperMart. Credit nostalgia. Or hunger. Or some subtle marketing ploy that I was too addle‑brained to resist. Whatever the cause, I found myself putting …
… in my shopping cart. Kellogg's didn't invent the "toaster pastry," but the name they gave their brand certainly caught the public's imagination. I ate my first Pop‑Tart when I was in my teens. It made quite an impression. Still, Pop‑Tarts were a rare treat in my parents' house. There were never quite enough to go around, and I savored every one I could get my hands on. I'd eat the edges of the flaky pastry envelope first, before attacking the middle, with its sweet fruit filling. The exact nature of the filling — I think the choices were strawberry, blueberry, and apple — didn't matter much. Sweet was the dominant flavor note in each. I suppose that was the attraction. But my affair with Pop‑Tarts didn't last. I grew up and lost my sweet tooth. Toaster pastries were no longer part of my life.
Fast forward to last month. I was plodding down the HyperMart's endless, ill‑lit aisles, with a long list and a short temper. To make matters worse, I was hungry. Luckily, I was on the home stretch. So I pushed my cart into a quiet corner to eyeball my list for overlooked items before I hit the checkout. It didn't take long. There was nothing more I had to get. But when I looked up from deciphering my hastily scrawled notes, I found myself standing next to … you guessed it … a towering display of Pop‑Tarts. Right on cue, my stomach grumbled. Without thinking, I reached up and pulled a box down, tossing it in the cart. Then I trundled away down the aisle — only to return a minute later to put the Pop‑Tarts back on the shelf. Had I come to my senses? Nope. I'd simply switched into economy mode. Instead of making a quick escape from temptation, I started searching for a less expensive house brand of toaster pastry. It didn't take long. In fact, I soon had two boxes in my cart, one optimistically labeled "strawberry," the other, "blueberry."
It wasn't my finest hour as a canny shopper, I admit, but by this time I didn't care. I was already headed toward the checkout. And when I got home, I was even hungrier than I had been in the HyperMart. Yet my brain was now back online, too. That helps to explain why I rather belatedly decided to take a look at the pastry's "Nutrition Statement." Here's what I saw:
No, I didn't imagine my impulse purchase would turn out to be health food in disguise. That said, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that fat played a comparatively minor role in the calorie count, with carbs — many of them simple sugars — predominating. Fast fuel, in other words. And with just a modest amount of salt, into the bargain. This got my reinvigorated brain turning over. Was it possible that I'd stumbled on a new weapon to add to my armory of bonk‑busters? It seemed so. After all, the size and price were right, and the pastries looked like they'd travel well. Plus, there were sprinkles on top…
Actually, the sprinkles weren't a plus, and neither was the icing, at least in my eyes. But appearances didn't really count for much. Nor was I expecting a gourmet treat. The pastries — let's call them tartlets — only had to be palatable. And there was just one way to find this out. A taste test was in order. It didn't take long. I opened a foil envelope and shook out the contents. One tartlet went into the toaster. I left the other just as it was, by way of comparison. (None of my boats has a galley, after all, let alone an onboard toaster.) In a couple of minutes, the moment of truth had arrived.
And the verdict? Thumbs up. The warmed tartlet actually tasted of blueberry — a pleasant surprise, indeed. Its room‑temperature companion was less flavorful, however. It mostly tasted of sweet. But it wasn't bad. Better than many of the commercial energy bars I've choked down over the years, at least.
Of course, these toaster pastries aren't luxury fare. The filling is scanty, for one thing, but this also means it won't ooze out to drip on your life vest. And — yet another happy surprise — the sprinkles and icing aren't just embellishments to dress up the package photo. The former add a bit of crunch, while the latter lends a measure of what I suppose I have to call structural support. (It helps to keep a warmed tartlet from drooping or cracking.)
So far, so good. It seemed I really had acquired …
A New Weapon in My Battle Against the Bonk
Does this sound too good to be true? Well, let's tick the boxes. Toaster pastries …
- Provide quick energy.
- Are sweet, yet not cloying; chewy, yet not gummy.
- Have a small, but not excessive, amount of salt.
- Come already packed.
- Need no refrigeration.
That sound's all right, doesn't it? I think so, too. And though they're a little on the dry side — especially if you've been fighting a headwind for the last hour and your mouth is parched from panting — that's easily remedied. A few chugs from your water bottle is all it takes to right the balance. You're sure to want a drink anyway. After all, thirst is a dangerous thing.
So my somewhat unscientific trial was a success. But I wasn't satisfied. I wanted more. I wanted a tartlet with a difference. One that bridged the gulf from fuel to food. And that meant I'd have to make it myself. The result?
A Traveler's Tartlet
The only real hurdle is the pastry envelope. I made mine from scratch, but there's no reason why you can't use a store‑bought pie crust of the sort marketed by Pillsbury, among many others. The rest is easy, as this short list of ingredients proves:
- Pie dough, homemade or store‑bought
I told you it was short list, didn't I? Of course, you'll need a baking sheet of some sort, too. Now let's get to work. First, though, set your oven thermostat to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. By the time you've assembled your tartlets, the oven will be ready to go.
A note on quantities: In making my trial batch, I used the same amount of fresh dough I'd use for a single‑crust nine‑inch pie. That's a convenient amount to work with, but if you're thinking of going into mass production, you can store reserve dough in a plastic bag in your fridge. Don't leave it uncovered. Dough dries out quickly, and dry dough is almost impossible to work.
Did you opt to make your dough from scratch? Then you'll need to roll it out. Put the ball of fresh dough between two sheets of waxed paper. (First dust the bottom sheet with flour, and do the same to the top of the dough.) Now grab a rolling pin and work the ball into a roughly rectangular sheet about 1/8 inch thick. You may need to experiment a bit to get it right. If the rolled dough is too thin, your tartlets will crumble; if it's too thick, they'll be tough. Since these are traveler's tartlets, however, tough is better. Are you using store‑bought dough? Then you'll have to open it up first — it's usually folded into quarters — and reshape it into something resembling a rectangle. Don't worry if your rectangle deviates from the golden mean, by the way. Just trim off any wayward fingers of dough, moisten one side of each trimmed piece with a little water, and then press the pieces onto any edge that needs building up. You can also use them to fill holes or patch cracks. A light touch is best whenever you work with dough, by the way. Overworked dough soon toughens up.
Once your dough is rolled out and shaped, peel off the top sheet of waxed paper. (Easy does it. You don't want to tear the dough!) Next, score a line down the long axis of the doughy rectangle with a knife. Here, too, it's important that you use a light touch. You want to score the dough, not cut it. (The scored line will act as a hinge when the time comes to fold your tartlets.) But don't put the knife down yet. You'll also need it to cut out the individual tartlets. With the scored centerline running from side to side, slice the rectangle of dough from top to bottom. You want tartlets just big enough to hold easily in your hand, say 2 or 2½ inches wide.
Do NOT separate the embryo tartlets, however. It's time to add the filling. Use whatever catches your fancy, so long as it isn't excessively runny. I used orange marmalade for this trial, though I ran out before I was finished and had to pinch‑hit with strawberry jam. How much filling is enough? A heaping tablespoon per tartlet is about right. Spread it out, but be sure to leave a quarter‑inch margin filling‑free. This will become the crimped edge of the finished tartlet. The left‑hand photo below shows how things should look at this point:
The next step? Simply use a spatula to lift the portion of each strip above the scored line and fold it back over the filled half. Don't worry if some filling escapes in the process. Just scrape it up and eat it. (This is a baker's prerogative.) Now run a finger around the perimeter of each tartlet, gently pressing the edges together and sealing in the filling. If the dough sticks to your fingertip, simply dip your finger in water before continuing. When you've finished, you should see something like the right‑hand photo above.
Now work the spatula under each tartlet, freeing it from the waxed paper. As the photos below show, I slid alternate tartlets away from their neighbors to give me more room to make the final crimp, pressing the tines of a fork around the edges. Note that I said "pressing," not "pricking." You use the flats of the tines, not their points — and you use the lightest of light touches. You want to crimp the edge, not collapse it. The next step will require that you use the points, however. Prick the cover of each tartlet in three places to allow steam to escape. Why? If you don't, you risk a marmalade explosion in your oven.
And the oven should be up to temperature by now, so it's time to place the tartlets on an ungreased baking sheet or something similar. (Do I have to remind you to leave the waxed paper behind? I didn't thinks so.) I used a well‑seasoned pizza pan. That was a mistake, however, because a bit of filling leaked out, and scrubbing off the baked‑on marmalade removed some of the pan's seasoning. Such leakage isn't uncommon. The remedy? Just give each tartlet a little elbow room. This prevents them from sticking together in the oven. All set? Then slide the baking sheet onto the middle shelf of the preheated oven. After 10 minutes or so you should be smelling the mouth‑watering aroma of baking pie dough, and in 15 minutes your tartlets should be done. How can you be sure? Just look. When the pastry envelope is a light golden‑brown and slightly swollen, it's time to remove the baking sheet from the oven. It's best to err on the side of caution, by the way. Overlong baking makes the crust tough. Here's how my test batch of tartlets looked, both before and after baking:
Sharp‑eyed readers will notice an overlapping pair of tartlets in the "before" shot. I separated them when I put the pan in the oven, however, and all was well.
OK. It's time to ask the Big Question: How do my homemade traveler's tartlets taste? This picture will give you a clue:
Looks good, doesn't it? And so it is. My tartlets are tough enough for the trail, but they're still flaky, tender, and tasty. In short, they're better than anything I've found on the shelves of the HyperMart. Of course, I started with homemade dough. I can't vouch for the store‑bought article's ability to stand up to the hard knocks of life in the pack, but I can see no reason why it shouldn't. (Store‑bought toaster pastries are plenty rugged.) I haven't tried toasting my traveler's tartlets, either, and I don't plan to. They're trail food, after all, and as I've already noted, none of my boats has a toaster on board. Packing for a trip? Just put your tartlets in a ziplock bag and protect them from crushing. Except in the hottest summer temperatures, they should last for a week or more, though I haven't had a chance yet to put them to the test. (My trial batch disappeared in just three days.) So I guess I'll have to bake another batch. It's hard work, but someone has to do it.
Pop‑Tarts and their many imitators aren't exactly haute cuisine, and you certainly wouldn't want to make them the mainstay of your menu. But they're pretty fair off‑the‑shelf, on‑the‑go snacks for paddlers and other active folks. Think of them as budget energy bars, if you like. Not convinced? Then try making your own. I did, and now I find myself looking forward to the next break on the trail with more than my usual enthusiasm. OK. Maybe my Traveler's Tartlets aren't exactly the Queen of Tarts. But they'll do till the real thing comes along.
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