Okay, fine, I'll admit it. My new kitchen scares me. I'm intimidated, by the old stove that spits fire and smells of gas, by the unlined cabinets, filled with my familiar things, yet still dark and different and cavernous, by the linoleum floor and Formica countertops that hide crumbs and dirt and make me feel a little obsessive-compulsive when I find myself running my hands over them again and again (I guess I'm a little paranoid), by the intense pressure in the faucets that sprays water over the backsplash and make me feel like the sink controls me and not the other way around.
The rest of the apartment still looks like someone just moved in, but the kitchen's been done since day one. Last weekend, after the movers left, and before Ben arrived, it was so satisfying to unpack all the plates and glasses and baking dishes and pots, arrange them just so in their new hiding places, hang pot-holders on this hook, a linen cloth from that one. My requisite bottle of olive oil stood sentry next to the stove, the cereal found its place above the fridge, my forks and knives were laid quietly in their nest, awaiting deployment.
With the kitchen done, it doesn't matter that all of our books are still clustered in boxes and nothing's hung yet on the walls. I can make us meals and we can share them and that's what a home is. Of course.
Except, how do I explain a kitchen that, despite being filled with my things - the cloths and cutting boards from Berlin, the familiar packages of rice and pasta, the pots that follow me from apartment to apartment - feels so totally foreign? I walk into the kitchen, stand at the counter for a bit, fiddle with the lone onion sitting in a little brown dish, open the cabinets and close them, then walk out again. Gemma, upstairs, asks me to come watch the baby for a few minutes and I flee, relieved that I don't have to think about cooking or the kitchen anymore. Later that night, when Ben's home and there's nothing prepared, we eat cereal with cold milk and Ben falls upon some cheese and olives, ravenous. I feel silently guilty.
The next day, I decide to buck up, to gather myself and make this kitchen mine. We're having dinner with our friends and I've promised to bring dessert. I scan through the few recipes that aren't being held hostage in boxes and settle on an apricot tart. Seasonally appropriate, not too challenging, just right. The crust comes together nicely, easily, and is especially pleasing because I don't need to use the food processor. When acquainting yourself with a new kitchen, I find low-tech is the way to start.
Then I turn on the oven, brand-new and digital and placed at eye-level so I don't need to stoop to retrieve things from the hot interior and the broiler no longer resides so perilously close to the kitchen bogeymen. A few seconds after the oven is lit, there's a frightening, low boom and the cabinet blows open. A smell of gas fills the air. I turn off the oven, grab my keys and head downstairs to find the super. I realize my heart is racing and my ears are ringing. I think that buying ice cream and cookies for dessert will be just fine. And I'm relieved. That's the worst part.
But as it turns out, nothing's wrong with the oven. The super turns the oven on and off, gets down on his knees to inspect the gas line hidden in the cupboard, fiddles with a few knobs, then shrugs. He can't explain what happened and leaves with a kind smile and a pat on my shoulder. As I stand alone in my kitchen again, I think I know what's going on. I'm being tested. By my kitchen.
With gritted teeth, I turn the oven on again, roll out the nubbly dough, parbake it, fill it with apricot halves and a vanilla custard. Diced butter goes on top (though I'd skip this next time) and then sugar is sprinkled over everything. An hour or so passes while all of this is happening and though I'm keeping a wary eye on the oven and the cabinets and the Formica and the floor, everything seems to go according to plan. The custard sets gently in the oven, the apricots swell and then wrinkle, the crust toasts and darkens, the apartment fills with the scent of baking. I wash dishes and wipe countertops, pull the tart out and slide it into the broiler drawer, feel myself moving seamlessly from one task to the next.
Under the broiler, the thin sugar layer on the tart blisters and caramelizes. I take the tart out to cool and survey my kitchen. It's clean and quiet. My hands are warm from the oven, there's a bit of dough stuck on my index finger and my watch is dusted with a thin film of flour. The house smells good, the sun is setting, Ben's on his way home with a bottle of champagne and toilet paper (oh, to share these tasks, it's glorious), my neighbor's playing piano and I stand still in the middle of the kitchen, calm.
Can it be? That I've gained control of my kitchen with this tart? I don't know if it goes that quickly, but it's a step in the right direction. Suddenly, a weekend full of meals to prepare doesn't seem so bad. We've got two lunches, two dinners, a guest or two, and I can't wait to get started.
(That tart? A huge, huge success. I'm not sure I should admit this, but between the four of us, we finished the whole thing. The apricots, tangy and juicy, are a perfect foil for the subtle vanilla custard and the nutty, crunchy, buttery crust. Bookmark this one, people. It's a keeper.)
Apricot Tart Brulee
1¼ cups flour
1/2 cup toasted blanched almonds, ground fine
9 tablespoons sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (1¼ sticks total) cold butter, divided
1 egg yolk
1½ teaspoons vanilla, divided
1 cup plus 2 to 3 tablespoons whipping cream, divided
7 to 8 apricots, cut in half and pits removed
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. To make the crust, combine the flour, ground almonds, 3 tablespoons sugar and the salt in a bowl. Cut one-half cup cold butter into small pieces and work it into the dough with your fingers or a pastry cutter until the dough is crumbly and evenly combined but not pasty.
2. Combine the egg yolk, one-half teaspoon vanilla and 2 to 3 tablespoons whipping cream. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour the egg yolk mixture in. Use a fork to quickly stir until the mixture can be formed into a ball. Gather the dough into a ball and knead several times to blend the ingredients. Form into a ball again; wrap it in plastic wrap and chill 30 minutes.
3. Roll the dough out on a well-floured surface to about a three-eighths-inch thickness. Lift the dough into a 9-inch tart pan and gently press it into the bottom and up against the sides to the top edge of the pan; remove any excess dough. Chill for 30 minutes.
4. Line the pan with foil, then fill halfway with pie weights. Bake the tart shell for 15 minutes. Remove it from the oven and lift off the foil and pie weights. Prick the bottom of the tart shell with a fork and return the crust to the oven. Bake until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Remove the tart shell from the oven and cool on a wire rack. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees.
5. Arrange the apricot halves pitted-side-up in the tart shell. Combine the remaining whipping cream, the remaining vanilla, the eggs and one-fourth cup of the sugar. Gently pour this custard over and around the apricots. Dot the tops of the apricots with the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar.
6. Bake until the custard tests done in the center, about 35 to 40 minutes. Place the tart under the broiler until the top is browned, about 30 seconds or less. Remove the tart from the oven and cool. Serve warm or chilled.