Now that I’m an empty nester, I don’t feel like cooking. When my husband and I sit down at the table, that empty chair is like a burr under my emotional saddle. I’ve tried sitting in my daughter’s former place so that I’m not forced to stare at the space where she used to be, but I don’t like that either. No matter what I do, dinnertime feels off-kilter. When evening falls and I’d usually be in the kitchen making a tasty and relatively nutritious meal, something shrinks inside me the same way a snail’s ommatophores — those cute face-tentacles — pull back instantly when touched.
However, I hate to think that we’ll go back to eating on the couch, as we did quite happily until Annika was about 4 and we finally lived in a house large enough for a dining room table. Before then, I’d grab a plate and curl up on the sofa with a book. I wanted to temporarily remove myself from the cares of the day, a small, burrowing creature disappearing into the earth. All I needed was sustenance and a good story.
The compulsion to retreat to the sheltered warren of my mind is strong these days, at least during mealtimes. I’ve only cooked a proper dinner twice since mid-September, when we dropped our daughter off at college and came home with COVID-19. Most of the time, I’m not even hungry. I reckon I’ll feel better in a few weeks (or years?) and that two people at the table will eventually seem normal, but I can’t quite figure out how to get there.
I know what my father would say without even asking him: “Face your fears!” And I know what my late mother would say: “If a horse bucks you off, get right back on and ride.” (I mean, assuming you haven’t fractured a femur.)
Those are just two different ways of saying the same thing. However it’s phrased, it’s a principle I return to again and again: When you’re scared or sad, keep going. That’s one rule to live by. Another is, “Never send a text when you’re mad.” The final, and perhaps most important, rule of adulthood is, “Not everyone appreciates sarcasm.”
So, if I’ve lost the motivation to cook, the only way to recover my joy in the kitchen is to get back in there and cook like the wind. I’m sure I’ll get the hang of tailoring meals for two people or baking a dozen cookies instead of three dozen. A few friends have recommended making full casseroles and then freezing the leftovers for nights when I don’t feel like cooking. That’s an excellent tip but I’m not up to that yet.
This week, I’m going to do something simple with two of my favorite ingredients: fresh pears and store-bought puff pastry. Last year I used puff pastry to make apple strudel, but it’s a bit complicated and involves rolling out the dough to a paper-thin consistency. The results are stuff-of-dreams delicious but it does require some elbow grease.
These pear tartlets allow me to keep my elbows grease-free. Here’s how to make them.
First, thaw a single sheet of frozen puff pastry. (You can easily double the recipe by using both pastry sheets if you’re “baking for a crowd” — and I put that in quotes because sometimes that’s code for “baking for yourself to eat later.”) While the pastry is thawing, core and thinly slice two ripe but not mushy pears. A ripe pear, as the label might suggest, should yield to gentle pressure, unlike the IRS. You can peel them if that’s your preference, but I think the peels add a nice touch of color to the tarts.
Set the pear slices aside and test your pastry to see if it’s thawed. If you can unfold it without breaking it, it’s ready. If you try to unfold it and it breaks, that’s it, you’re done. No, of course not! Get back on that pastry horse and ride! Wait for it to thaw a little more and then carefully press the broken edges together. It will be fine and taste just as delicious and no one will be the wiser except you and me, and I promise not to tell. Anyhow, cut the pastry into six even rectangles. (This can be done by folding the pastry in half across the short side and cutting with a knife along the lines.) Place the pastry on an ungreased cookie sheet.
Next, arrange the pear slices attractively — or unattractively, you decide — on top of each pastry piece, leaving a small ¼- or 1/8 -inch border around the outside. This is a teensy bit challenging because the pear slices are unequal lengths but I believe you are up to the task. You will end up with extra pear slices, but that’s not bad because you can just eat them. Then mix ¼ cup of apricot or peach jam or orange marmalade with 1 tablespoon butter and ¼ teaspoon cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice. Microwave it for 20-30 seconds. It doesn’t need to be scalding hot, just warm and gooey enough to be easily spreadable.
A note on the jam: It doesn’t have to be apricot, peach or orange. You might want to experiment with another kind of marmalade, lemon curd, apple butter or fig spread. I used orange-fig marmalade because it happened to be in my fridge. I think ginger preserves would also be an excellent choice if you really, really like ginger, and I do.
Brush or spoon the jam mixture over the pear slices. Put the cookie sheet into a preheated 400-degree oven and bake for 20 minutes. The pastry should have puffed up around the edges and be slightly golden in color. Cool the tartlets for 10 or 15 minutes, then pick up a tartlet straight from the cookie sheet and eat it while standing over the stove. Be sure to get crumbs absolutely everywhere. The best rule of adulthood? You can eat dessert anytime you want.
1 sheet thawed puff pastry
2 ripe pears, cored and thinly sliced
¼ cup peach or apricot jam or orange marmalade
1 tablespoon butter
¼ teaspoon cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice
Cut pastry sheet into six equal pieces and place on ungreased baking sheet. Arrange pears atop each pastry section, leaving a ¼- to ⅛-inch border. Microwave jam or marmalade, butter and spice for 20-30 seconds, until gooey and spreadable. Brush or spoon jam over pears. Put tartlets in oven and bake for 20-23 minutes or until pastry puffs up around the edges and is a light golden color. Cool for 10-15 minutes and serve with ice cream if desired.