Making pineapple tarts

Making pineapple tarts

The first time I made pineapple tarts, I was about four.

Back then, I was allowed to do only two things: stick my finger in the fluffy butter and sugar that had been creamed and eat it; and stir pineapple jam that had already been cooked and cooled.

My mum let me pretend I was helping, but I was probably more of a nuisance. We never made pineapple tarts again, although I do bake the odd cake and crumble.

Then last Wednesday, I found myself heading to Pine Garden's Cake in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10 to make pineapple tarts - from scratch and by hand, no less.

The bakery has been making these perennial favourites, a tedious process, for the last 30 years.

The jam is usually done days before the making of the tarts and the pastry is made in the morning. But on that afternoon, the bakery gave me a taste of all the processes, from start to finish.

Step 1: Cut the thorns, better known as eyes, out of each pineapple, by hand.

At least the skin had been peeled, I mumbled to myself, as I put on a glove and picked up a paring knife.

Two second-generation owners, cousins Yun Chan and Low Li Keow, both in their 40s, and two Straits Times photojournalists were watching quietly.

There were 10 pineapples to peel, less than a tenth of what is usually done in a day at the bakery. In fact, the kitchen usually makes jam in two batches of 60 pineapples each a day.

I proceeded to cut out the eyes in a diagonal fashion. I was slow, but I blamed the blunt knife.

Mr Kerry Chia, 37, who has been working at the bakery for 21 years and was there to oversee my work, glanced over at me as I was making the final incisions into my pineapple. He nodded and remarked in Mandarin: "Not bad. You have some skill."

But in the time I took to peel three pineapples, Mr Chia had already finished the other seven.

Step 2: Grate the pineapple

The bakery still uses an old-fashioned brass grater with a wooden base.

My hand is a lot smaller than Mr Chia's and I was having trouble holding and grating a whole pineapple. After two pineapples, my right arm began throbbing. For the rest of the fruit, I ended up alternating between each hand, sometimes using both hands, to distribute the load.

I clocked a personal best of one minute, 25 seconds to grate a whole pineapple. Mr Chia's best time? The 15 or so seconds that it took for me to take a deep breath, wipe the perspiration off my brow and scratch my head in disbelief.

Step 3: Stirring the pineapple

Mr Chia drained the pineapple, poured the pulp into a pot and said: "This part will be easy, it is such a small batch."

Easy? Err, I had been stirring the pineapple continuously, on high heat, for the last 15 minutes and it felt as if I had been standing at the hot stove for an hour.

But watching the excess juice evaporate and smelling the sweet aroma of pineapple as it began to caramelise helped to take my mind off my spasming arm muscles.

The whole process of cooking the jam was monotonous. It usually takes about 11/2 to two hours, but Mr Chia was kind enough to let me move on to the pastry section after about 30 minutes.

Steps 4 and 5: Roll out the dough with a rolling pin, then cut the pastry with a mould. Make spherical pineapple jam balls. After the fiddly and muscle-aching work in the hot kitchen, rolling out the pastry and cutting it seemed a breeze. It also helped that this part was done in the air-conditioned part of the central kitchen. The pastry had been made in the morning. I weighed and rolled the dough into sheets.

The cousins have a technique for unmoulding the tiny tart shells and it is one that they have perfected over the years. I developed my own method and the cousins did not seem too fussed.

Next, it was time to get sticky, rolling the jam into balls that weighed 8g each. A digital scale was placed next to me.

My first two balls were spot on at 8g each and I was elated. I started to get complacent and the balls began hovering between 7 and 9g. I kept at it.

Steps 6 and 7: Shaping the pineapple and baking the tarts

I sat next to Pine Garden's Cake's co-founder, Madam Lee Ah Moy, 74, who demonstrated how to shape the pineapple jam balls into appealing mounds that had to be pressed to the edge of the tart shells. She set up the bakery with her sister-in-law, Mrs Annie Chan, now 70, in 1984.

Madam Lee spoke to me in Teochew. I barely understood her, but got the gist of it. Her daughter, Li Keow, 48, said the idea is to make the tart look like a sunflower.

Madam Lee issued gentle instructions as she demonstrated each step. Again, I was slow at this, but she smiled and complimented me, saying that my tarts looked pretty. I was later told a compliment from her is very rare.

I placed the trays in the oven and 20 minutes later, they were done. I popped one into my mouth. Nothing could beat a handmade pineapple tart made, mostly, by me. Ah, the fruits of my labour.

Lots of time and effort, not to mention muscle spasms, go into making these little morsels of pineapple pleasure. I am still in awe.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.

This website is best viewed using the latest versions of web browsers.