New Oven Lessons

Learning how to use my fancy new Koblenz oven in my brand-new apartment here in San Miguel de Allende has been a lesson in adaptation and stubborn perseverance – a lot like adapting to expat life in general.

My first two attempts at baking tarts for friends’ recent visits to my new place were embarrassing disasters – pastry like charred cardboard with fillings like molten rubber.

Had I lost my mojo? Become irretrievably rusty in these many months of living like an oven-less Bedouin? After all, tart baking had been my specialty of sorts for many years. I even wrote a book about it (Sweet Tarts for My Sweethearts, Nighthawk Press, 2020). Clearly, baking is not like riding a bicycle, but could I have lost the knack altogether?

Ever since childhood, after watching my mother deftly making pastry for her famous pies, I’ve loved working with pastry dough: pinching the butter bits into the flour with cool fingertips, adding the ice water and forming the rough dough, then rolling it smooth on a floured kitchen table. The silky-fabric feel of it. The alchemy of it – that so few and disparate ingredients could create such light and golden crusts capable of supporting whatever filling you choose.

I couldn’t let these recent failures discourage or dishearten me for long. Yes, it would be quicker and easier just to go to one of the many excellent bakeries here in San Miguel and buy a tart to serve my visiting friends with tea. Panio, for one, makes Parisian-patisserie-quality sweet tarts that are far more beautiful than anything I could do.

But it’s the doing that gives me joy – the idea that I made this little creation (whatever type of tart it is) with these two workman-like hands as a labor of love to serve to those I care enough about to have invited into my new home. It’s my idea of hospitality.

So I tried again this week. I invited my old friend Suzanne (we’re from the same hometown in northern New Jersey and went all through school together) and her friend Palma for Tart-and-Tea on Tuesday at three – something I hope to make a tradition.

My friend Suzanne Bacon at my new table on Tuesday

But this time I paid more attention than before to the differences between Celsius and Fahrenheit and cups and grams. I had a lot to learn, a lot of adapting to do. I couldn’t just rely on my years of experience and what I liked to think of as well earned self-confidence. This new oven (in this new apartment in this, my adopted country) and its Celsius temperature gauge were new to me; I had to humble myself to learn how to use them, just like a beginner.

Similarly, a stick of butter here is 90 grams, which is less than the “stick of butter” called for in U.S. pastry recipes. So I had to come up with a new and revised recipe for my pastry dough this week (see below).

I followed the basic recipe in my Sweet Tarts book for Plum Galette, a free-form tart (p. 53); but this time I combined black plums with nectarines. Why? Because Mexico, too, teaches flexibility. When you can’t find enough decent plums, reach for the nearby nectarines.

My plum and nectarine galette, cooling on the counter

Happily – no, JOYFULLY! – I can say the result was a success this time. Suzanne and Palma called the galette “perfection.” I’m back in business again as a labor-of-love tart baker. I can now see more Tart-and-Tea-on-Tuesday-at-Three tea parties in my future.

Proud me, about to serve the galette

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

For those intrepid bakers who enjoy making their own pastry dough, here is my newly revised version for galettes:

1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted into a medium-size bowl

1 stick (90 g.) cold, unsalted butter, grated into the same bowl

1 egg yolk, whisked together in a small bowl with 2-3 tablespoons ice water, a pinch of salt, and 1 tablespoon sugar

With your fingertips, pinch the bits of butter into the flour until the mixture looks like course cornmeal. Make a well in the center and pour in the liquid ingredients. Form dough quickly and roll out onto a generously floured board, with a floured rolling pin, turning frequently to prevent sticking. Proceed with galette recipe as given.


Sweet Tarts for My Sweethearts is available from or from the publisher, Nighthawk Press — .