With the Lunar New Year just around the corner, James Chia reflects on his family’s yearly tradition of making Nyonya pineapple tarts and shares his Peranakan great-grandma’s recipe for them.
1 February 2021 / By Pamelia Chia
Making these tarts are far from complex. You just get caught up in the feel of it. I only make these with my family once a year, but the sensations are all too familiar to me. The firm give of the dough as both thumbs dive in the middle while leaning forward on the table; the almost yeasty smell of salt and butter amidst the fog of late morning humidity; the glistening shine of oil as the tart shell stretches to house the mass of golden caramel coloured pineapple; the irregular exchange of words back and forth interrupts the rhythmic squeaking of plastic mat conversing with dough… These were the right vibes to feel, growing up and joining in this family effort as a 6 year old.
You begin to reflect while feeling your sore hands and shoulders that you’re probably going to do it again next year, just not again any time soon. It’s a whole day’s work, as a team: my dad sets the pace for everyone at the dining table, and my mum watches the oven and slides baked cookies off the tray to cool in the living room.
But it is so worth it, as baked pineapple tarts smell better than figs and honey combined.
This melt-in-mouth buttery sensation would not compare to Scottish shortbread, or even to the silky smooth butter cookies from Hong Kong, as the crumbly crunchy texture of biting into buttery pastry – seemingly hard yet brittle at the slightest pressure, like biting into an aged cheddar with salt crystals – can be an unparalleled experience.
This is my great grandma’s pineapple tarts, slightly amended by me. She was Peranakan and my family inherited her old pineapple tart molds. Nothing comes close to using old school molds and the pinchers.
My Great Grandma’s Pineapple Tarts
(Makes about 200 tarts)
- 10 semi-ripe pineapples
- 4 cinnamon sticks
- 500-750g white sugar
- 2 blocks (500g) salted butter, softened
- 900g plain flour
- 2 eggs
- 3 egg yolks
- Begin by preparing the pineapple filling: Chop pineapples finely with a knife. We usually don’t dice it too much but give a bit more length to the fibre which helps to keep the juice in. This allows the fibres to soften nicely in the long and slow cooking process.
- Squeeze out excess juice from the chopped pineapples using a sieve. In a huge pot, heat the pineapple, cinnamon sticks and sugar over low heat, stirring constantly until mixture dries up and turns caramel brown (about 4 hours). Cool completely. It helps when you refrigerate the jam prior to making it because it firms up nicely, so you can roll it into a ball and expand the pastry safely when pressing the ball of jam into the dough.
- Knead the soft butter into the flour until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Beat the eggs and 2 of the yolks together and gradually add it into the flour mixture. Knead well until the dough is well-formed. It should be more dry than sticky, and don’t worry if the dough becomes oily after reaching room temperature. There should be an oily sheen to it.
- Using minimal amounts of flour to prevent dough from sticking to surface, roll the dough out. The thickness to aim for depends on your mould; mine was slightly more than 0.5cm. You should see a little light shine through the bottom when the dough is lifted up against the light. Cut out tart shells, then pinch the side diagonally (using a pincher).
- Add just enough pineapple to fill up the tart shell, pressing down lightly to fill the sides of the well so you can squeeze more in. To take things up a notch, you can do a criss-cross pattern, though this is entirely optional.
- Beat the remaining yolk to form an egg wash. With a small brush, eggwash lightly over the pastry (not the pineapple jam as it will burn).
- In a preheated 180 degree oven, bake 2 trays at the middle and bottom level for about 10-20 min until the cookies’ bottoms on lowest tray are just starting to brown. Switch trays and bake another 10-20 min.
About Pamelia Chia
Pamelia Chia is a Singaporean chef and author of ‘Wet Market to Table’. Trading a food scientist’s lab coat in for chef whites, she began taking a keen interest in rediscovering her roots and identity through food. To preserve and celebrate Singaporean food heritage and culture, she founded Singapore Noodles, a platform which comprises recipes, video tutorials and podcasts with local food artisans, market vendors and chefs.