The Taste of Perfection

Treacle Tart 

Perfection is a big word. Particularly in the world of food, where – to use the old cliché – “there’s no accounting for taste”, labeling anything perfect is potentially risky business. And when it comes to foods we know and love – the foods we associate with comfort, family and good times, for example – perfection is even more difficult to pin down as there are so many variables besides taste affecting our perception. Maybe you prefer your mashed potatoes lumpy because that’s how your mother used to make them, or maybe you like your pizza soggy since that’s how the place down the street used to deliver it. I mean really, what kind of foolish, egocentric person would get it in their head to lay claim to the one perfect recipe for anything?  Well, Heston Blumenthal, that’s who – and he just might be the one person with enough credibility to pull it off.

Heston’s new book, just released in the UK as a companion to a recent BBC series, is in fact all about perfection. Well, it’s about the search for perfection, and he’s careful to disambiguate, saying not that the recipes he’s given are perfect per se, but that they represent the culmination of his ongoing search for perfection – in ingredients, in technique, and in taste. The interesting thing is that Heston, head chef at what was rated the best restaurant in the world last year and a man who spends as much time in his purpose-built laboratory as he does fanning the kitchen flames, could have easily taken the easy road on this epic quest – after all, with all the high-tech gadgetry and exotic ingredients at his disposal, he could have written a book of recipes so difficult and expensive to execute that no one would ever have known whether they approached perfection or not. Instead he took on a much bigger challenge: he limited himself not only to dishes just about everyone knows and loves, but also to creating them using equipment readily available to the average home cook. Thus in this book’s pages you won’t find any recipes for Tournedos Rossini or frozen caviar foam, but instead for altogether more pedestrian favorites like roast chicken, pizza napoletana, fish and chips, black forest cake and treacle tart.

It certainly sounds simple enough: take old standbys, break them down to their component parts, and reinvent them to be better than before. No sweat, right? Well…in theory. In reality, though, if you’re expecting that ‘average home cook’ bit to mean that a few simple tips and tricks of Heston’s will transform these dishes into something otherworldly, you may be in for a few surprises. Take the black forest cake, for example. Do you have a vacuum cleaner, pressurized plastic storage bags, a paint sprayer, a wood-effect painting tool and a GourmetWhip® in your closet? If not, you’re going to either have a hefty equipment bill or a hard time making this cake. Add to that the multi-day assembly required, and I doubt that anyone but the truly dedicated will attempt this recipe. The ‘simple’ roast chicken, similarly, needs to be brined, soaked, blanched, dried, roasted, sauteed and injected with butter over a period of 24 hours, and don’t even think of attempting fish and chips unless you have a soda siphon and plenty of CO2. On the other hand, he promises that perfect pizza napoletana is completely within your reach so long as you have a decent cast iron frying pan and a hot broiler, while his version of a treacle tart – recently brought out of English tearoom obscurity by the revelation that it is in fact Harry Potter’s favorite dessert – could practically be assembled in your sleep.

Since the prospect of turning out something perfect in my sleep sounded awfully appealing to me, I decided to take Heston’s treacle tart out for a spin. I must admit, though, I was still a treacle tart virgin despite having lived here for five years already, and yes, the irony of evaluating the perfection of something I’d never previously eaten didn’t escape me. But it sure sounded good, with all that browned butter, golden syrup and lemon, not to mention the hefty (and quite untraditional) measure of salt Heston calls for in the filling. It was a cinch to throw together, and smelled absolutely heavenly while baking – like butterscotch and vanilla and a grandmother’s love – and as soon as it had cooled enough to dish up we cut big slices, covered them in ice cream, and marvelled at how we’d managed to overlook such a fabulous invention for so many years. It was gooey and caramelly and complex, kind of like the filling of a pecan pie freshened with a whiff of citrus, but of course the thing I had to keep pondering with every bite was the real matter at hand: was it really perfect?

Well, I suppose I could have predicted it – of course it wasn’t perfect. Not to me, anyway. The crust was just slightly too heavy and greasy, and Heston’s obvious enthusiasm for salt had been taken just a little bit too far, and I struggled to taste the subtler flavors against its onslaught. But the backbone of a great recipe was there, and so I did what I always do – I tweaked and tasted and adjusted until what I had tasted perfect to me. Although I know I certainly can’t claim Heston’s pedigree for perfecting, at least I can claim the knowledge of what I know and love – and most of the time, that’s as close to perfection as I need to be. I only hope that Heston understands.

Merry Christmas, everyone!


My Perfect Treacle Tart, a la Heston Blumenthal

Yield: one 11in/28cm tart or quiche (use a deep-dish pan, if possible)
Source: Adapted from In Search of Perfection by Heston Blumenthal (crust adapted from Desserts by Pierre Herme)
Notes: I’m sure there are a few improvements still to be coaxed out of this recipe, but I am pretty smitten with it the way it is. Funnily enough, I actually avoided treacle tart for many years because I assumed it contained black treacle, aka molasses, which I really don’t like very much, but actually it gets its sweetness from light treacle, which is better known today as golden syrup. Those of you in the U.S. (and maybe Canada?) might have trouble tracking it down, but it is definitely worth the effort – this thick, caramelly nectar is good enough to eat with a spoon. The tart itself is like a distant cousin of pecan pie, but somehow doesn’t seem nearly as rich (could it be the lemon?), which is a good thing when you find yourself unable to stop your hand from reaching for that third slice.

For vanilla salt:
1 heaping tablespoon flaky sea salt (such as fleur du sel or Maldon salt)
1/2 vanilla bean, split

For crust (makes twice as much as you need – just freeze the rest for next time):
10 ounces (285 g) unsalted butter, softened at room temp.
1 1/2 cups (150g) confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1/2 cup (100 g) finely ground blanched almonds
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

grated zest of one lemon
2 large eggs, at room temp.
3 1/2 cups (490g) all purpose flour

For filling:
7 oz (200g) unsalted butter
3 large eggs
1/3 cup (75ml) double cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 x 454g cans Lyle’s golden syrup (available online in North America, or in shops that sell British specialties)
3 cups (170g) soft, fresh breadcrumbs from Irish brown bread (I should think that white breadcrumbs will do just fine in a pinch)
zest of 3 lemons
1/4 cup (60ml) lemon juice 

Vanilla ice cream, for serving

First, make the vanilla salt by scraping out the seeds from the vanilla pod and mixing them with the salt in a small bowl. Set aside.

Next, make the crust. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat butter on low speed until creamy. Mix in sugar, ground almonds, salt, vanilla and eggs. On low speed, add flour in 3 or 4 additions and mix only until the dough comes together (a few seconds). Gather dough into a ball and divide dough into 2 pieces. Flatten each piece into a disk and wrap in plastic. Allow the dough to rest in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours and up to 2 days before rolling. You can freeze the dough for up to 1 month. Thaw the frozen dough for about 1 hour at room temperature before rolling.

On a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough to about 1/8 inch thick. Carefully transfer the dough to your pan, gently easing it into the bottom and sides and pressing it into place. If the dough tears, patch it with extra scraps of dough. Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350F/175C. Line the chilled crust with a piece of parchment (it will fit better if you scrunch it into a ball and then flatten it out again) or buttered foil and fill with pie weights, dried beans or rice. Bake crust until lightly browned, about 20-25 minutes, removing the parchment for the last few minutes so the bottom can brown too. Set aside to cool.

Reduce oven temperature to 325F/160C. For the filling, begin by browning the butter. Melt the butter in a heavy pan over medium heat and boil, swirling frequently, until the solids have turned a rich brown and the butter smells deeply nutty. Remove it from the heat and measure out 1/2 cup (125ml).

Put the eggs, cream and salt into a bowl and whisk until combined. Pour the golden syrup into a pan and heat until liquid. Pour the 1/2 cup of the browned butter into the syrup and stir to combine. Pour the buttery syrup into the egg and cream mixture. Stir in the breadcrumbs and lemon juice. Transfer the mixture to a pitcher. Pour two-thirds of it into the parbaked crust, then slide the tart into the oven and pour the remainder of the filling (if you have any left over you can bake it in little ramekins). Bake for 40-50 minutes or until the tart is a deep brown on top and doesn’t shimmy in the middle when shaken. Remove from the oven and let cool before removing from the tart pan. Slice and serve warm with a sprinkle of the vanilla salt and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

The Doctor is In

I apologize in advance that not only will this probably be the shortest post I have ever written, but the first one to not explicitly concern food. This blog, however, just happens to be the fastest way to get news to my friends, family and anyone else who might be interested so I’ll hijack it just this once. The important piece of news I have just happens to be that today I successfully defended my PhD thesis and – get ready for the good part – I AM NOW A DOCTOR!! Can you believe it? I can’t quite myself yet, so I’ll forgive you if you can’t. Probably tomorrow it will seem a lot less magical since I don’t know what exactly this title will be good for in this long, twisted path of my life, but at the moment it seems like a minor miracle that the thing I have slaved over, cursed about and nearly thrown myself out of windows for during the last five years is now finished. And call me crazy, but I’m even a little bit sad (though I’ve had the better part of two bottles of wine in celebration tonight so that may have something to do with it.) At any rate, please accept my apologies for any unanswered emails and general neglect I have been responsible for over the last few weeks/months – hopefully things will soon be back to normal. Whatever that may be… it’s been a long time since I had the chance to find out.

As long as I have your attention, though, I might as well mention that the 2006 Food Blog Awards are now accepting nominations over at Well Fed. You have only until midnight EST tomorrow (Dec 15) to get yourself over there and put in a shout in for your favorite sites. Of course I wouldn’t even presume to know what those are, but, well… one can always hope, can’t one? 🙂

p.s. Have you seen how much we have raised already? $15,000 and it’s only been four days!!! 

Menu for Hope III



Dear Friends, it’s that time of year again – the time when between bites of cookies and sips of champagne, we should all stop for a moment and think of those less fortunate than ourselves, of the hundreds of millions around the world who do not have holiday sweets coming out their ears and a huge feast to look forward to later this month but instead barely enough to keep their families alive. Yes, it’s time for the third annual Menu For Hope, an event founded and organized by Pim and collectively run by food bloggers around the globe in order to raise money for those desperately in need. Last year was a smashing success, with over $17,000 raised for UNICEF and the earthquake relief effort in Pakistan. This year our funds are going to the UN’s World Food Program, an organization dedicated to providing emergency food aid and carrying out rehabilitation and development programs for populations around the world. Did you know that ten million people die of hunger every year? Or that 30 percent of the population is hungry in more than 70 developing countries? Or that annual food-related emergencies around the world have doubled over the last decade? I don’t want to sour anyone’s holiday mood, but it’s all too easy to become blind to long-lasting crises like this, particularly when they’re not attached to a high-profile disaster. But – and here’s the good news – it so easy to make a difference! All it takes is a small donation, even $10, and not only will you be helping to fund the WFP’s many activities, but you’ll also be entering yourself in a raffle to win one of dozens and dozens of absolutely incredible prizes. If you ask me, we should have no trouble topping last year’s total!


(prize code EU24, can be shipped anywhere in the world) 



My own contribution to this year’s campaign is a two-part prize which should appeal to all you traveling foodies! Part one is a 12-month subscription to the magazine that should be familiar to all readers of this site by now, Food and Travel. Not only is F&T a fabulous magazine, full of gorgeous photography and articles on exotic corners of the globe, but they have a special connection to this site by virtue of the fact that Manuel and I had an article published in last month’s issue! This subscription has been generously donated by the magazine itself, and is valid no matter where in the world you live. Depending on your location, that represents a value of up to £69/$135. And since it might take a couple of months for your first issue to arrive, I will be sending you a special bonus 13th issue – the November issue that contained our article on Jamaica!


Hover your mouse over the image above to view
the never-before-seen back side of the lunchbox! (may take
a few moments to load depending on the speed of your connection) 

But that’s not all. On the assumption that you might just feel like setting off down roads less traveled after reading this magazine, I will also be sending you your very own traveler’s lunchbox to take with you! Yes, the second part of the prize is your own hand-made, one-of-a-kind (so far), sticker-covered green aluminum lunchbox made to match the logo of this website! I just want to stress that this lunchbox never existed until now – the image in the banner is a photoshop composite of pictures I found on the internet. Nevertheless, I searched high and low to locate all the components needed to construct a real one, and in all modesty I must say I am more than pleased with the result. Not only is it durable and stylish, it is just the perfect size to hold a few snacks to sustain you as you traipse through the Malaysian jungle or amble down country roads in Provence. And to get you started I’ll be sending it to you filled with a surprise selection of some of my favorite edibles, several of which you’ll recognize from this site. I think it goes without saying that you’ll be the envy of all your traveling companions!


Here’s what you should do…
1. Decide what you want to buy tickets for by perusing the prizes on offer at all the regional hosts:
US West Coast: Becks and Posh
US East Coast: The Amateur Gourmet
US (the rest): Kalyn’s Kitchen
Canada: Cardamom Addict
Asia Pacific: Grab Your Fork
Special wine bloggers’ host: Vinography
and/or Pim’s global list.
2. Once you know what prize(s) you want, go to the donation page at
3. Make a donation! Each $10 will give you one raffle ticket toward a prize of your choice.  Please specify which prize or prizes you’d like in the ‘Personal Message’ section in the donation form when confirming your donation.  Tell us how many tickets per prize, and please use the prize code. The code for my prize is EU24.
4. If your company matches your charity donation, please remember to check the box and fill in the information so we could claim the corporate match.
5. Please also check the box to allow us to see your email address so that we can contact you in case you win.
6. Come back to Chez Pim on January 15 when we announce the results of the raffle. I will also post an announcement here with the the winner of my prize.

Thank you so much for your support a
nd for helping to make this event even more successful than last year!!