For me, the strangest thing about being older but not yet old is how deeply I've come to feel the patterns of the year. I do not mean this in some celestially or chthonically transcendant way, with seasons and rituals and vegetables rising up and fading away in satisfying, preordained succession. I am talking about "I Got You, Babe" Groundhog Day style repetition--what, this again? Magazine covers are bad enough; I die a little inside every year when the food magazines all do their "grill" issue at the same time. What's worse is when the newsstand of the soul fails to delight or at least pique interest. (May heaven forgive me for typing "newsstand of the soul;" there it stands.) If it's February, I must be thinking about giving up sugar and getting into goddess shape before my April birthday. The year is young enough that I may still assign myself some absurd reading project. But most importantly, even if I don't give up sugar altogether, I must curb by baking habit. Right after I bake something special for Valentine's Day.
Or maybe it's against Valentine's Day, or in the face of Valentine's Day, not for Valentine's Day. After a lifetime of sensibly relating to Valentine's Day as a very happy excuse to enjoy cards and sweets and girlfriends and family, I have gotten a little bitter about being married to a non-celebrant. I don't believe in the candies and the flowers and the dinners and the pretty nightgowns, no, none of that is my speed, but why don't I have it anyway? I get greedy and worked up and passive aggressive in the runup to Valentine's Day--largely unnoticed by Andrew, whose first thought after a 30-hour shift is not, for some reason, buying me a bunch of tulips on the way home, but rather falling into bed. Alone, I mean.
The funny thing is that on February 14 I snap out of it and wear something pink and enjoy the day. This is in no small part thanks to my mother, who always sends cards and presents, and of course this year Bee is just old enough for fun with a glue stick, construction paper hearts, and stickers. There's also the excuse, always welcome, to break out the tart pan. This year it turned out Saveur's chocolate caramel tart, which I've had my eye on for a couple of years. Here are the facts:
1. Boy howdy, is it good. It is like a super-fancy Twix bar, and Twix is my favorite. It is very rich, perfectly (but not too) chewy, just wonderful to sink your teeth into. The caramel is slightly more dominant than the chocolate (the proper order of things, as far as I'm concerned).
2. There's actually no trick to it, if you aren't scared of caramel, which you shouldn't be. You make a pat-in crust and let it cool all the way; you make caramel, pour it in, and let it cool all the way; you make ganache, pour it over, and let it cool all the way. And then you keep it in the refrigerator until and after slicing.
3. Changes I made: skipped the crème fraîche (1 tablespoon!); cooked the caramel about 20 degrees too far (an accident, I was making breakfast at the same time), which I think only improved it--usually I'm too skittish to get it really dark; I used a 10-inch tart pan. Oh, and I did not dust with more salt since it already seemed rather decadently salty.
4. The whole works beautifully, but my crust did not turn out sublimely, probably because I overworked it. If you already have a foolproof chocolate cookie crust, I would use that; if I make this again, I might make it with a reliable shortbread pat-in crust instead, since I don't need extra chocolate flavor.
5. If/when I make this again, I would love to use a rectangular tart pan and slice it into bars instead of wedges.
6. This caramel was perfect, really, and trapping it between cookie crust and ganache means you don't have to fiddle with wrapping or otherwise storing it. I've not made these perfect caramels a second time mainly because I don't want to bother with wrapping them (and, yes, because I'm scared I'll eat them all now that I am a seasoned, shameless woman). There is a "lively" (read: hostile) discussion in the Saveur comments about what temperature the caramel should be cooked to; all I know is that my thermometer was racing past 340 when I turned the heat off, and I was perfectly happy with the result.
7. In my endless re-googling of the recipe, I found this extremely amusing post about two sisters and their different ways with this one recipe.
This, friends, is what happens when you try to photograph a piece of food that your whole being is yearning to gobble up right away: just point and shoot, hands, we're getting impatient! My final note on this tart, which I definitely do prefer to last year's chocolate custard tart, is that it is the rare dessert that pleases both Andrew, who loves chocolate, and me, with my preference for caramel (or fruit). Unless he was just telling me he loved it because he could see how smitten I was; that's the kind of funny Valentine I've come to expect from him.
And now, a new leaf. It is February, after all.