Anyone can make jam tarts, with just a little bit of know-how, so a great cooking project for any time of year, and possibly for this years’ Mother’s Day? Among my earliest memories of baking is the making of pastry under my mum’s instruction at the kitchen table with my apron on. I have known the quantities for making pastry as long as I can remember, or an approximation of what was needed in order to knock up a good enough batch for baking.
Half fat to flour and enough water to bring it together. I could work out the half fat to flour easy enough, but struggled with the approximate second bit of the recipe ‘enough water to bring it together’. This is like all my mum's recipes to this day. To make bread for example, ‘Just half a bag of flour, a tablespoon of yeast, plus a bit of sugar and enough water to make the right consistency to knead’.
‘But how much water’ I would ask, be it pastry or bread.
‘Oh, just as much as you need’.
My mum has never given me exact recipes which I have found very frustrating over the years. However, mum can knock up bread, tarts, pudding’s and cakes at the drop of a hat with her eyes closed. Yes, sometimes they produce better results than others, but in general this intuitive approach seems to work and certainly saved a lot of rummaging through recipe books or faffing about with weighing scales.
Rub the fat into the flour with your finger-tips my mum would tell me so as to keep the pastry nice and cool. When you add the water use the knife to bring it together. ‘The knife’ was one of the large, flat bone handled ones that every kitchen used to have but now are precious as they are hard to find or have been ruined in our dish-washers, but they are still the best tool to start to bring the pastry together without getting the heat of your hands near the dough.
Now, once it looks like breadcrumbs, quickly bring the pastry together with your hands into a ball. It feels like the crumbs will not meld together, but, it suddenly does! You can always add a drop more water if needed, but really only a drop or two. The greasing of the tins was next, a smudge of butter on a bit of the butter paper to be rubbed sparingly onto the tins (now available in antique shops I think with the leaf motif or ridges like on a shell, lovely and sturdy, no non-stick here, just years of use giving them a coating that helped to prevent rust and sticking).
Then roll. I know you are meant to leave pastry to rest, but I did not know that then and if mum did she was more intent on getting the jam tarts made with three young daughters just a few years apart to keep occupied. The pastry never seemed to cooperate the way I wanted it to, starting to split at the edges, or sticking as I turned and rolled, though eventually, I would have a flat oval of sorts.
The cutting out of the rounds was always a pinnacle point in the production of the jam tarts, sinking the red plastic cutter into the now pristine looking dough and seeing how many you could cut out before having to re-roll. All this while standing on a stool at the kitchen table which was covered with a grease-proof table cloth, or kneeling as I got older.
Spoon the jam into the tarts, preferably strawberry or raspberry. There would always be one bit of pastry left at the end after I had squeezed as many rounds out if it as possible, not big enough for a final tart but definitely not to be thrown away. A separate little tin for this and a smidgen of jam smeared on, a dab of water around the edge then fold and seal with some pinches. Paste with water or milk and a sprinkle of granulated sugar. This had my name on it as the maker of the tarts, no arguments here, it was a given.
Finally, pop them into the preheated oven. This was in London before our country living Aga days, where everything either burnt or took hours to cook. Only 15 minutes and they were done. Though we did then have to wait for the scalding hot jam to cool and then we were only allowed one or two, no over-eating in those days and we needed to save some for Dad who had been hard at work all day.
Jam tarts are still the best way to use up the end of a bit of left over pastry or to make a whole batch if you want to use up last season’s jam which is still in the larder or a jar which needs using at the back of the fridge. 'But it's mouldy' I would say to my mum. 'Just scrape off the top, it will be fine underneath' she would say. I now do as instructed in earlier years without thinking, and scrape off any mould or fermenting top layer. This would of course have been ‘yuck’ when I was in my teens, and nearly enough to put me off, except that I knew how good those tarts would taste once cooked.
Now it is just part of what I do, following in my mum's thrifty housekeeping foot step’s with a waste not want not approach. The satisfaction of using something up rather than throwing it away and making space for a fresh jar of jam or a new batch of homemade preserves is immense and built into my very DNA
This way of doing things was not just born of war time austerity, but from a general attitude and belief that all resources were NOT bottomless. Certainly, nothing ever went to waste in our house in my teenage years when we had the pigs and hens to feed, though mum would always try and feed us with anything even vaguely edible first. I think that is why I have such a hardy constitution.
My mum is still making jam tarts today only these are not the edible kind. She has just had her 80th birthday and is a practising artist in recent years. She made a piece called ‘Domestic Bliss’ consisting of ceramic jam tarts with a knife in the middle, a reference to domestic abuse. She took this piece to an exhibition at The House of Commons not long ago as well as displaying it elsewhere. I admire my mum for many things, and becoming a practising artist in her later years is just one of them, along with her references to contemporary issues of significance, especially to women.
Mum’s latest piece is under the banner of ‘Intrepid Women’ and is on a tea towel she designed to celebrate the life of a New Zealand born Maori women called Makereti Papakura 1873 – 1930. These are currently for sale at The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. My mum is called Gill White if you want to look her up.
In celebration of my mum and mothers everywhere, here is her jam tart recipe:
1 lb of plain flour
8 oz fat (marg or butter or mix of the two)
Some cold water – Ice cold is best and about a tablespoon or two
Jam or jams of choice
Rub the fat in to the flour until resembles fine bread crumbs, using the tips of your fingers.
Add the liquid while cutting through the flour with the blunt flat knife
When the mixture coagulates into larger breadcrumbs go in with your hands as quickly and lightly as you can to bring the mixture into a ball.
Pat down into a flat round or oval.
Leave to rest in the fridge for half an hour if you have time.
Roll out on a cool floured surface, turning as you roll.
Grease a tart tin
Cut out the rounds making sure they are big enough
Half fill the tarts with jam or jams of choice - do not overfill as they may bubble over the side of the pastry and are then hard to remove from the tin
Bake at 180 c for 15 minutes or until cooked.
leave on a cooling rack until they are the right temperature to eat.