Memories

It’s interesting what evokes memories in people — colors, sounds, sometimes a word said in a certain way…even scents — almost anything, really.  Sometimes it brings tears, sometimes a smile.  Sometimes people feel happiness, sometimes fear, sometimes just plain nostalgia.  And then there are some things that, when you look at them, bring back such powerful memories that it’s as if you were looking at them through the very same eyes that beheld them all those years ago.  Nevermind that you’re almost 30 years old now, and making your great-aunt’s walnut tarts on your own, in your own kitchen — because when you look at the first batch that you took out of the oven, it’s as if you were a little girl again, sitting at your great-aunt’s kitchen table, pressing the dough into the sides of mini cupcake pans, much like the way your almost-30-year-old fingers were doing just moments ago.

My great aunt’s name was Amalia, but everyone called her “Mimi.”  Mimi wasn’t particularly great at baking, in fact, I didn’t really know her to bake anything from scratch except for her walnut tarts.  At many family get-togethers, she would often contribute her tarts to the potluck.  They became her signature contribution, in fact.  And these tarts were so good that we were never bored of them and in fact looked forward to eating them every time.  Nobody else tried to make them because, well, she wouldn’t give anyone else the recipe!  I guess she knew she had a little gem of a recipe in her possession…Personally, I think she was smart not to share it.  The mystery of how these tarts were made just added to their appeal.  Of course, the ingredients were no secret — you could tell what was in it the second you bit into it — but you will always be fumbling your way around in the dark without the correct proportions and measurements.

Mimi passed away about 4 years ago, and when her sister and niece (my aunt) were sorting out her belongings, they found the recipe for the walnut tarts.  Among her things were also the mini cupcake pans that she used to bake them in.  There were enough of them for my mom to keep a few, and also for my aunt…

Fast forward to the present, where I am now a grown woman (a term, when applied to me, still makes me giggle because I feel like “woman” is so mature a term that I feel like a little girl clacking around in her aunt’s high heel shoes whenever I am called one), and I have developed my own interest in baking.  I was asked a couple of months ago to participate in the Great American Bake Sale to benefit Share Our Strength, a charity working towards ending childhood hunger, and, tired of making cookies and cupcakes, I decided that I would make these tarts.  I’d been wanting a chance to make them anyway ever since I got my hands on the recipe, and I figured this was the perfect opportunity.

Just looking at them made me think of her.  It brought me back to the family gatherings where people would pile up not one, not two but sometimes four of these on their dessert plates as if there would be none left if they didn’t stock up right then.  I myself was leery of walnuts when I was little, but when I tried the tarts, I decided I would make an exception.  The combination of the crusty “shell” formed by the sugar and eggs in the filling and then the gooeyness of the rest of the filling underneath, contrasted by the crunchiness of the nuts (finely chopped, I have to add, because their being finely chopped made me more willing to try the tarts…and if I never ate these tarts when I was little…well, this post wouldn’t exist.  So here’s to finely chopping ingredients that kids normally wouldn’t eat!) and the subtle, buttery taste taste of the tart shell made it the perfect bite-sized dessert.  In fact, I have a couple sitting in front of me now and it’s taking me all my control not to eat one.  Great, I just made myself hungry.

Anyway, as I was saying, I made these for the Great American Bake Sale this past Saturday at the Brooklyn Flea.  The most labor-intensive part of this recipe is actually the dough for the tart shells.  The filling is just a mixture of eggs, walnuts, sugar and vanilla extract.  You throw those things together, stir them around till blended, and you’re in business.  The dough part took forever because you have to press it into the little cups of the mini cupcake pans.  I would say by the third pan, I had a system and got faster.  When making the dough, I tried to squeeze more out of that memory I had of pressing the dough into the pans, trying to remember if she mixed the dough by hand or if she used some kind of a mixer…I know she definitely didn’t own a KitchenAid like I do, which I used when making the dough.  I wished right then that I could ask her.  It would have been cool to be making these with her again.  I was even using the same pans she used.

After baking over 200 of these, I packaged them into cute little brown boxes, 8 tarts in each.

I think they did well at the bake sale, as well as the other baked goods brought in by the other food bloggers.  Pictures from the sale below…

Bacon-chocolate chip cookies…

Here, read for yourself…

There was another table of baked goods, but I didn’t get around to taking pictures of that table too.  All in all, the bake sale went well and we raised over $1,000 for a good cause, not including the money donated on the online donation page.

When she was around, Mimi was always helping people.  I think it was kind of meant, in fact, that I baked these for a charity bake sale.  I’m glad I got to share her tarts with whoever may have purchased them, and I hope they enjoyed them as much as my family did.  She would be happy to know her tarts contributed to a good cause.

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