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We just returned from the Bahamas, which, despite their favorable tropical location, import over eighty percent of their food. The deep Caribbean waters surrounding the archipelago are stocked with grouper, snapper, crayfish, conch, and lobster, but nearly all the catch is frozen immediately and shipped elsewhere – principally to the United States – with only a small amount of the frozen product and an even smaller amount of the fesh catch reserved for consumption across the islands. A number of fruits are widely available – tangerines, coconut, guava – but the arid, sandy environment and perennial water shortages mean that most vegetables besides bell peppers are grown elsewhere. Local beer, however, is plentiful. On the way to the supermarket, when we stopped at Smithy’s Liquor Store for a mixed case of Kalik and Sands bottles, the proprietor mixed in a few cold ones and offered to crack open a couple “for the road.” No thanks, we demurred, apologizing that we had to drive another twenty miles on an unfamiliar road toward Wemyss. “It’s not like America, you know,” she chuckled. “Around here a lot of people like to drink a beer when they drive.”
Beer-drinking Bahamian drivers notwithstanding, we made it to our rented vacation home in one piece. It’s a really beautiful country, the Bahamas, and our remote island location – Long Island – is renowned for spectacular scenery. My husband had warned me, however, that our Bahamian destination was long on beachy natural beauty but short on fresh food. This did not come as a surprise – years ago, in a couple of essays about Caribbean foodways, Calvin Trillin described the disappointing and ironic absence of fresh meat and fish on that side of the Commonwealth. Having prepared myself to visit the Land of the Frozen Fish Filet, I wasn’t all that disturbed when our trip to the island’s largest supermarket presented mostly canned vegetables, Spam, and a freezer case of something called “aged mutton” that appeared to have been cut into squarish chunks with a circular saw and was as maroon-dark as venison. We took a pass on the frozen mutton but stocked up on frozen pork chops, local guava and pineapple jams, and citrus fruit, most of it imported from Florida.
By the last night, we had eaten everything we brought or bought, except for the dregs of a couple jars of jam and a stick of butter. I hate wasting food, even on holiday. A few years ago, after a week in Guadeloupe, I was determined not to waste a pound of good French butter and brought it back to the States, frozen and wrapped it in several layers of foil and ziploc bags. OK, not exactly. It was frozen when we left the hotel. After an hour-long flight to San Juan and an extended mechanical delay – during which our bags sat on the tarmac in the August heat and we sat in the airport bar drinking Carib – the demi-sel from Bretagne took on the consistency of mayonnaise. Lesson learned: butter doesn’t travel and it is foolish to try.
This time, faced with the choice between a ruptured ziploc bag of melted butter and a forsaken stick of butter, I selected a third way – the way of the jam tart. In addition to the leftover butter, we also had a half-jar each of the guava jam and pineapple jam. I found whole wheat flour and sugar in the pantry at our rented house; after making a quick pâte brisée and pressing it into muffin tins (you have to improvise on holiday), I blind baked the shells and filled them with jam. Lesson learned: it pays to know how to make pastry.
Bahamian jam tart
The inspiration for these tarts was the distinctively non-Bahamian linzertorte, a classic Austrian jam-filled pastry. Of course, linzertorte normally is filled with raspberry jam and I used tropical fruit jams. And I didn’t lattice the pastry because I didn’t feel like it. And I used whole wheat flour, because that’s what was in the pantry. OK, so it’s nothing like linzertorte, but the wheat flour added the same kind of nuttiness that hazelnuts usually contribute.
Feel free to substitute unbleached white flour or pastry flour for the whole wheat, although the wheaty flavor provides a savory, nutty counterpoint to the sweet jam. And use whatever jam you’re trying to use up.
1 c whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
4 oz (1 stick or 1/2 c) cold unsalted butter
1 c guava jam, pineapple jam, or any other tropical fruit jam
Sift together the dry ingredients. Cut in the cold butter using a pastry cutter or knives. When the mixture resembles large peas in flour, turn it out onto a clean surface and sprinkle a little ice water over all (start with about 1 tbsp, depending on humidity). Gather the dough together and incorporate the butter and water by pushing out onto the surface with the heel of your hand, gathering the dough, and repeating until it holds together (fraisage). If you don’t feel like doing this by hand, pulse the dry ingredients, butter, and a small amount of water in a food processor. Wrap in plastic and rest, refrigerated, for half an hour.
Divide dough into about a dozen equal pieces, roll out, and press into muffin tins. In lieu of rolling out, if you feel lazy, press each piece into a muffin tin cup. Prick the bottom of each tart shell with a fork and blind bake for about 12 minutes, until light golden.
Remove from the oven and add a heaping tablespoon of jam to each shell. Take care to keep the jam in the center of the shells and not at the edges so the tarts don’t stick to the pan. Return to the oven and bake until the crust is golden brown. Cool on a rack.