Are certain foods nostalgic for you? Is there a dish whose very scent can transplant you to another time and place entirely? The first bite of these little onion tarts took me straight back to the quiet, lush, damp, moss-dripping, tree covered town I lived in during college.
I spent two years at The Evergreen State College, where some students lived in tents in the on-campus forest, the graffiti suggested you call your mother, our mascot was a clam that looks like an unmentionable body part, potlucks were usually vegan & gluten-free, our motto was Omnia Extares (let it all hang out), and the student-run student-organized locally-sourced on campus takeout spot sold little caramelized onion tarts that I would munch on while walking through the red brick square surrounded by evergreen trees, in the misting rain, under the low grey sky on my way to class in the morning.
I set out to recreate the delightful little apple cider vinegar laced, sweet onion-y hand pies that made 9am debates surrounding philosophy and the concept of the sublime so much easier to handle. When constructive conversation inevitably dissolved into semantics (When does an idea become a concept? What is a concept, anyway?) I would take a bite of my pastry, a sip of my kombucha, and be glad for the simple things. A studio in which to make art, a forest full of treehouses, a tiny pie shell full of caramelized onions.
Of course, I had to add a twist to the rather basic onion filled pie of my college days. I added actual shredded apple in addition to the apple cider vinegar, and then I mixed in blue cheese crumbles, because I had some. And because I love love love blue cheese.
The tart at Evergreen used a whole wheat crust, and I am sure these would be lovely with one as well, but I didn't have whole grain flour so I stuck to my usual favorite Martha Stewart recipe, which uses a food processor. I've read about why not to use a food processor for pie dough, but mine always turns out so lovely and flaky when I do. The trick, I think, is to chill the butter a lot, and only use the food processor to combine the dry ingredients and the butter, then put it all in a bowl and add the water there, then use your hands to mix. I always get flaky dough this way.
I tried blind baking the crust halfway for the first batch, but found I preferred the results when I baked it all together in one go, the onions were softer and tastier from the longer cooking time, and the crust was just as nice either way.
The additions of apple and blue cheese are both lovely, and add a bit of complexity. The caramelized onions are simultaneously sweet and savory, so they mix well with the sweet green apple and savory-funky blue cheese. The flavor on whole though is still heaviest on the lightly vinegary caramelized onions. Which is exactly what I was hoping for.
If I close my eyes while eating one of these I can almost smell the wet earth and christmas-y pine tree scent of the air in Olympia, tinged with a streak of rainy ozone. The flaky dough and sweet onions are everything I wanted them to be, and are equally delicious warm and fresh from the oven, or room temperature a day after baking.
Caramelized Onion and Apple Tartlets with Blue Cheese
1 3/4 lb sweet onions (about 3)
1 tbsp olive oil
1/3 C + 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar, separated
3 tbsp brown sugar
2 green apples
4 oz blue cheese crumbles (about 1/2 cup)
1 recipe pie crust (I like this one), chilled
45-50 minute bake no blind bake 350 degrees
Cut each onion in half and then slice into thin half rounds, the thinner you slice the faster they will caramelize, aim for about 1/6-1/4" thickness.
Pour olive oil into a skillet large enough to fit all the onions, heat over medium low heat until oil is warm, then add onions. Stir onions until coated in olive oil, once they begin to turn transparent, add 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar and the brown sugar. Stir well. Cook over medium low heat, stirring every minute or so, until onions caramelized golden brown and thoroughly softened. This took me about 20 minutes. If it's taking too long you can turn the temperature up a bit, but if the onions begin to stick turn it back down.
While the onions caramelize remove the pie dough from fridge, and line a muffin tin with parchment paper, or grease well with butter. Break off a small piece of pie dough and press it into the parchment paper lined muffin cup, forming the dough to the sides to make a thin crust, about 1/3" thick. Make sure to press it into the corners for optimal filling space.
When onions are done, remove from heat. Preheat oven to 375 Degrees. Then, grate the green apple (peel it if you like, but I don't). I used the larger, cheddar sized holes on my cheese grater to do this. You could also use a mandoline to finely julienne the apple. Add the apple, blue cheese crumbles, and remaining 2 tbsp of apple cider vinegar to the onions and mix well.
Spoon a filling into each dough lined muffin cup, filling them to the top. You can make them a bit heaping, as they'll shrink a bit while baking. Bake for 40-50 Minutes, or until edges are beginning to turn golden brown, the crust is crisp, and the onions are beginning to brown on top.
Enjoy warm, or allow to cool and eat at room temperature. Mine only lasted about two days before they'd all been devoured, but they were fine unrefrigerated for that time.