There's a part in one of my favorite films, Agnès Varda's The Gleaners and I, when she becomes obsessed with the idea of filming her own hands. In a documentary about people who harvest leftover crops from fields, dumpsters, and markets, this could seem tangential, but through Varda's eyes it becomes strikingly relevant, personal. She says, "I can with one hand, film the other one. I like the idea that one hand would always be gleaning, the other one always filming. I like very much the idea of the hands. The hands are the tools of the gleaners, you know. Hands are the tool of the painter, the artist."
I've had a complicated relationship with my own hands. Growing up, I was proud that I could reach an octave + 2 on the piano, but as I got older, I felt these double-jointed extremeties to be a little too large and unfeminine, oddly shaped and overly wrinkled, not to mention constantly cold. A few inconsiderate comments about them from a guy friend in college left me longing for the hands of a Victorian lady--small and smooth and delicate, or at least her gloves so I could hide my own big paws.
A palm reading by my friend Margaret helped me to come around. She pointed out my spatulate fingers, indicating wit and intellect, saw the intersecting lines and size as shape of my hands as those of a maker, an artist, a baker. She helped me to realize that they suit me and are important tools and carriers of memory.
Like Agnès Varda, I too am drawn to "the idea of the hands." They are storied entities, holding so much in their lines and wrinkles. You can tell so much about a person from their hands-- for a quite literal example, I think of the scene in Little Women when Professor Baier runs into Jo on the street. He says, "You know, when I first saw you I thought, 'ah, she is a writer."" When Jo asks how he knew, he points to the ink marks on her hands. My hands are the body part which bears most of my scars-- tissued memories of cleaning mortar off bricks at our old house, the unexplainable white line that helped me to remember my right from my left, the countless burns from baking and callused guitar string fingers. They're also the part of ourselves that we probably see the most, not through the lens of a photograph or mirror, but as they exist in the real world. Our hands are a constant presence in our field of vision. I could pick mine out of a line-up anywhere, but I could I do the same with my ankle? The back of my neck? I'm not so sure. They are such familiar agents and symbols of the self.
One of the most compelling things about baking for me is its tactile nature, of being able to bring something into existence, to shape it in my very hands in all of its stages. I'd been putting off making my own puff pastry for awhile. It seemed too daunting, too time consuming, too much butter (joke)! But some experiments in a wood-fired oven got me thinking about it again, and yesterday I found myself with the air conditioning back on in our house, a full day with nothing planned, and enough butter for the task, so the time was nigh.
For my first experimentation, I used Ashley Rodriguez of Not Without Salt's recipe for a puff pastry shortcut on Food52. It's not the full-on deal in which you work a butter packet into a flour packet, but it takes less time and effort has given me the confidence to go all the way next time. It also makes a BEAUTIFUL, puffed and buttery dough with thin flaky layer upon flaky layer. Maybe not quite as many as you'd get with the more time consuming method, but enough to make me give a little yelp of joy when I opened up the oven... and every time I've taken a bite.
I adapted a Martha Stewart recipe for an Apricot-Pistachio Tart into a White Nectarine-Frangipane (almond) Tart. This was largely because there were no apricots to be found at the farmers' market, and I happened to have a surplus of almonds at home, but you could really make this with any stone fruit (or apple or pear!) and any variety of nut. The beauty of this recipe's simplicity is that it opens up so much opportunity for variation. Put your hands and your imagination to work.
White Nectarine Frangipane Tart with Homemade Puff Pastry
Adapted from Martha Stewart's New Pies and Tarts
Makes one 17x9-inch tart
1 recipe homemade puff pastry (you can also use store-bought)
1 cup + 1 Tablespoon unsalted, raw almonds, toasted
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 large whole egg, plus 1 large egg yolk for egg wash
1 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of salt
All-purpose flour, for dusting
4-5 white nectarines (1 1/4 pounds), pitted and cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
1 Tablespoon heavy cream, for egg wash
2 Tablespoons turbinado sugar, for dusting
1/4 cup nectarine, apricot, peach, or plum jam
1 1/2 Tablespoon water
1. Prepare homemade puff pastry as per the directions. On a lightly floured surface, roll out and trim dough to a 17 X 9-inch rectangle. Transfer to a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet and chill in the fridge while you prepare the filling.
2. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse to combine 1 cup almonds and the granulated sugar. Add butter and process until a paste forms. Add the whole egg, vanilla, and salt and pulse to combine.
3. Remove pastry from the fridge and using an offset spatula, spread almond paste evenly over the dough, leaving a 3/4-inch border. Arrange nectarines in 3-4 vertical rows over the almond mixture, alternating direction in which the slices face. Fold in the edges of the dough and use your index finger to create a scalloped border. Refrigerate or freeze the tart until firm, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
4. Whisk together egg yolk and cream and brush over the edges of the chilled tart shell. Chop remaining tablespoon of almonds and sprinkle them and turbinado sugar over the tart. Bake until the crust is deep golden brown and puffed, and fruit is juicy, about 35 minutes. Let cool.
5. Meanwhile, place jam and water in a small saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring, about 2 minutes. Pass through a fine sieve into a bowl and brush the glaze over the nectarines. Serve tart warm or at room temperature.
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