Saturday, 31 August 2013

For Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821 - 1881),

"It's like this. Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I'll pull you out.’he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I'm to be pulled out, not you. It's my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day."
     -- The Brothers Karamazov

It's like this. Once upon a time, when I was an exchange student at UC Berkeley, I spent long, lazy afternoons reading novels under willow trees, talking over coffee with writers and artists, thinking and dreaming, and living a life of the mind. That's how I remember it, at least. But when I examine the memory in more detail, a few extra details emerge. The willow tree was real, but the book I read under it was singular: The Brothers Karamazov. It was assigned as part of a class on existentialism in literature,* and as a supposed great classic, I had no intention of skipping it like 99% of my classmates. So I laboured. Ye gods, did I labour.

Dostoyevsky isn't known for his brevity. Brothers is an eight hundred page doorstop of a book; and had he not died shortly after writing it, it would have been only part one of something even longer. Length alone doesn't bother me - but in addition to its enormity, Brothers is also incredibly dense. All the characters have about 20 nicknames (disclaimer: my memory might be exaggerating this somewhat), and it's quite a task to keep track of who's who.

As a philosophical novel though, there's much to chew over. The parable of the old woman with the onion is about as close as Dostoyevsky ever gets to simple moral judgements. The woman is wicked, and tries to doom others even as she saves herself; thus she burns. Dostoyevsky doesn't usually go in for simple good/bad characters. His characters are usually more like... well, onions. They have layers, they can make you smile and make you cry, they might smell bad and yet taste good, they go great in soups, and okay, I'm thinking less of Dostoyevsky's characters now than the onions.

They also both sweat.
The main similarity between Dostoyevsky's characters and onions is perhaps how much they both frustrate me. To make this caramelised onion tart, for instance, I had to slice a full kilogram of pungent, sadistic onions. I don't know how anyone did this in the days before mandolines. Even with the right tools, I was still blubbering like an idiot after the first vicious bulb.

But it was worth all the tears, the rubbing of eyes, the realisations that the hands I just used to rub those eyes were oniony, the burning, the regret, the washing of eyes, the belated washing of the goddamned hands, and the rewashing of eyes. Because this tart is the perfect mix of rustic charm and savoury sweetness. It's delightfully crumbly and warming, plus with this much onion, it's pretty much a guarantee against future colds.

And even if you make your own pastry, it's still a lot easier than reading Dostoyevsky.

Dostoyevsky would be marginally easier if you tried to mill the flour from scratch, though.

I should probably have another go at getting through the doorstop. It feels wrong to be a PhD scholar in an English department who can't discuss 'the Russians' with an expression of scholarly reverence. I have a vague intention of one day locking myself in a library with a selection of hardcover Dostoyevsky, Tergenev, Tolstoy, Pushkin, et al, sinking into a deep leather chair, and emerging three months later, serious and well-lettered.

Of course this might be the forward-projection version of my rose-coloured Berkeley glasses. What I'll actually do is lock myself in my bedroom with vodka and some ratty paperbacks, read haphazardly for a couple of hours, and emerge confused, tipsy, and restless for something more contemporary. At which point, I'll reread Zamyatin's We, guiltily, probably while eating more slices of onion tart.

Perhaps if I give away a slice of tart, I can appease the gods of Russian literature. Takers?

*The course, which was one of the best I took at Berkeley, is available online or via iTunes. Search for "Existentialism in Literature & Film" with Hubert Dreyfus. 

Caramelised Onion Tart

Serves 3-4 as a main; 8 as a snack

165g cold butter, in small cubes

Scant 2C flour
1/2 tsp salt
6 tbsp ice water (keep more handy)
1kg onions
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp olive oil
100g feta
Small handful each of fresh thyme and oregano


To make the pastry, pulse the butter, flour and salt in a food processor until the butter is just incorporated. You should have a floury, dry and slightly lumpy mix. Add the ice water, pulsing in between tablespoonfuls, until the mixture comes together. Try six tablespoons first; you may need to add a couple more. Once the dough forms a rough ball, pull it out and knead it a few times on a clean workbench. Press it into a disc and wrap in cling film. Refrigerate for around an hour.

Meanwhile, slice the onions (I'm sorry.) Heat the oil in a large frypan over medium, and cook the onions with the garlic, stirring every couple of minutes, until they turn golden brown and sweet. This should take around 30-40 minutes. Add half of the fresh thyme leaves towards the end of cooking.

Preheat the oven to 180C while you assemble the tart. Roll the pastry out into a rough circle, about 4-5mm thick. Load the onions into the centre and spread out, leaving a 10cm ring of pastry uncovered around the perimeter. Crumble over half of the feta. Bake for 45 minutes or until the pastry browns.

Garnish with the other half of the feta (this gives a nice contrast between cooked, crispy feta and fresh white cheese.) Top with the remaining herbs.

I served this for dinner with a salad of rocket, blackberries and shaved parmesan. It's also great as a picnic food.

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