Failed Tarts Beget Great Ones: Pineapple Jam Tart with Almond Crumble

My friend Katherine and I have known each other for 25 years, since we were teenagers. We have lived in distant cities since we both headed off to graduate school, but when we have the chance to get together, we often take on a cooking or baking project. I visited Katherine in Northern California for a few days last month and I brought along a copy of Cathy Erway's The Food of Taiwan as a gift -- Katherine and her family spent several years living in Taiwan and I thought she would get a kick out of the recreating some of the foods she enjoyed there. We asked Katherine's almost-five-year-old daughter Emma to select a recipe from the book for us to try, and she chose "Pineapple Tarts."

The "tart" name is somewhat misleading because the dessert is really more of a cookie or small cake filled with pineapple jam (see the picture here to get the idea); I have always referred to them as "pineapple cakes." My family is from Taiwan and my grandmother made pineapple cakes often while she lived with us in Nebraska when I was growing up. Fresh pineapple was not available in Nebraska at the time, so my grandmother used Dole canned pineapple to make her filling. Regardless, I have a strong sentimental attachment to pineapple cakes and was thrilled with Emma's selection because I was eager to try making them myself for the first time.

Erway's recipe for pineapple jam is very simple. You cut up a pineapple and cook it with a cup of water and a cup of sugar for three hours, stirring occasionally, until you're left with a relatively dry and stiff mixture that you can pick up in your hands and roll into a ball. Towards the end of the cooking process, Katherine and I took a potato masher to the mixture to help break up the larger bits, but the finished product was not smooth by any measure; one thing I distinctly remember about my grandmother's pineapple jam is that it was stringy.

To make the cookie crust, you are supposed to combine flour, cornstarch, sugar, salt, and baking powder; cut in cold butter; and add enough cold water to get the dough to hold together. I used my hands to work in the butter and the dough came together easily even without adding any water. We chilled the dough before forming the cookies. You're supposed to divide the dough into pieces, shape each one into a flat disc, wrap it around a ball of pineapple filling, seal it shut, square off the sides of the dough, and bake.

I'm just going to shortcut this and say that the pineapple tarts were a total freakin' disaster. The dough didn't keep its shape in the oven and melted into unattractive cookie puddles (although the filling did stay encased inside). The baked cookies were ultra-friable and crumbled at the slightest touch, to the point where you couldn't even remove one from the baking sheet intact. We tried additional chilling time both before and after shaping the cookies, but all our efforts to salvage them were in vain and ended with the same crumbly result (although you could scoop up the cookie remains with a spoon and use them as a tasty ice cream topping). The only saving grace of the cookies was that all of us thought that the pineapple jam was outstanding.

After I returned home from California I was going to try the pineapple tart recipe again (my plan was to make the dough in a food processor with cubed frozen butter to see if that made a difference), but then I realized that I could just re-purpose the pineapple jam for another recipe on my to-bake list: "Raspberry Jam Tart with Almond Crumble" from I made the crust using almond flour instead of of grinding sliced almonds. The crust came together in the food processor without the need to add any egg to the mixture. I baked the empty crust for a little extra time to make sure that it was nice and golden brown. I substituted one batch of pineapple jam for the raspberry jam and otherwise followed the recipe as written.
This pineapple jam tart with almond crumble was as magnificent as Erway's tarts were disappointing. The cookie-like crust was firm and buttery (I'm glad I pre-baked it until it was golden), the pineapple jam was exquisite, and the almond crumble on top just gilded the lily. This tart conveyed exactly the flavors I expect from a Taiwanese pineapple cake but in a different, Westernized form. (Katherine has a pineapple cake recipe from a cooking class she took in Taiwan where the crust component calls for almond flour, so the inclusion of almond in pineapple cakes is not a new idea.)

If you've never tasted a Taiwanese pineapple cake, you might find the flavor of the pineapple jam a bit surprising. Whereas I think that berry jams pretty much taste exactly like fresh sweetened berries in spreadable form, I don't think that pineapple jam tastes like fresh pineapple. The flavor is more complex. It's pineapple intensified, caramelized, and transformed through the hours of cooking -- identifiable as the source fruit, but definitely not the same. It's also much thicker and drier than regular jam. The pineapple jam works so well in this tart that I'm in no rush to make another attempt at Taiwanese pineapple cakes any time soon.

I respect cultural traditions and the memory of my late grandmother's pineapple cakes remains dear to me. But the flavor of this tart -- especially the pineapple jam -- takes me right back to her cooking. I'd like to think that my grandmother wouldn't mind me embracing a newfangled version of one of her hallmark desserts.

Recipes: "Raspberry Jam Tart with Almond Crumble" from and "Pineapple Tarts" from The Food of Taiwan by Cathy Erway.


Louise said…
It's wonderful that food memories are so strong and lasting. And I'm glad this recipe took you back in time.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for sharing such a great story. Pineapple cakes from Taiwan are always a welcomed gift. Now I can re-create this treat in a Western form. My mom is always getting candied pineapple from her friend, who is Thai. It's like pineapple jam too - cooked with sugar and very stringy. It's delicious. I always wondered how it was made. Making pineapple jam sounds like a wonderful weekend project. Raylene
Me too, Louise! Unfortunately, I don't have any of my grandmother's recipes (I'm not even sure if she had written ones), so finding a food that takes me back to her is extra special.
I hope that you try the recipe and enjoy it!