Just desserts


“Mmm, this is lovely”, I said, turning away from the view over Amsterdam.

Mmm, buonissima“, said my wife, “what is it?”

Kwarktaart“, replied my aunt. A white cake with a biscuity base, something like cheesecake but much lighter.

Kwarktaart? Strange name. Sounds like it’s made of sub-atomic particles”.

“No, the main ingredient is kwark. Not quarks. Don’t you know what kwark is? It’s something midway between yoghurt and cheese”.

L’abbiamo anche noi“, said my wife, “or at least something similar in Liguria. They call it quagliata, or prescinsèua. But you only find it in the area from Genova to Sestri. They use it for desserts. How do you make this one?”

“I really don’t know”, said my aunt, “my next door neighbour made it. I’ll ask her for the recipe”.

It was only on my next visit to the Netherlands, a month later, that she gave me the recipe. Or rather a box containing the necessary ingredients. My wife wasn’t with me on that occasion, and so I listened attentively while my aunt explained what I had to do. I made copious notes and packed the box into my suitcase.

Ah, ho capito, torta allo yoghurt“, said my wife when I showed her the packet, back in Milan. That’s good, I thought, she knows all about it. I put it away and forgot all about it. Until my aunt decided that she’d visit us in Milan using one of those cheap crack-of-dawn flights to Orio al Serio.

“You can make me the cake”, she said, “I love kwarktaart for breakfast”.

I know nothing about cooking, but I am an expert in procrastination. So, only late in the evening before my aunt’s arrival did I take out the cardboard box. First hitch: I’d lost all the notes I’d made in Amsterdam. No problem, I thought, there’ll be instructions on the box. And, seeing as the Dutch are so good at English, they’ll be printed in both languages. But there was only Dutch.

I suppose that some people, at this stage, would ditch the whole kwark idea in favour of a quick trip to a pasticceria on the way back from the airport. But my problem is that I am half Dutch (see name at bottom), and the fact that I am unable to communicate with my Dutch relatives in what ought to be at least my second language is something that continuously fuels my galloping guilt complex. The kwarktaart was a challenge that I couldn’t fail to meet.

No problem, I thought. Quite a lot of Dutch words are similar to English. Een twee drie vier vijf zes zeven acht negen tien. And I could see from the main titles in the instructions that the two stages of preparation took just 5 minuten each. I had loads of time. Taartbodem bereiden. I found a 24 cm springvorm, and put in the piece of paper that was included in the packet. So far so good. Smelt 50 gram boter in een pannetje, and that was easy too. Then there were a lot of sentences with some very long words, so I ignored them and followed the pictures. Very soon I had a very professional-looking biscuity cake base at the bottom of the tin. Now for the second section. Doe het lauwe water en de taartmix in een kom en klop dit met de mixer met garden op de laagste stand in één minuut tot een glad mengsel. Hmm. A lot of English-looking words there, but most of them must be treacherously false friends. Luckily I could remember one of the things that my aunt had translated, and that was that I had to mix the mixture at normal speed for a bit, then at the fastest speed. I remembered this because I’d said that in our kitchen, fastest speed meant me turning the handle more quickly. Anyway I opened the second sachet and put the white powder into a bowl with some cold water (hoping that it was lauwe enough) and the yoghurt, which, as I’d discovered on another panel on the packet, could be used to substitute the mysterious kwark. I started whisking slowly, and then increased the revs, only to stop immediately, having seen a flurry of white specks deposit themselves all around the kitchen. This cake was going to be bad news. I propped the breadboard against one side of the bowl as a screen and carried on whisking.

After a few minutes, the mixture hadn’t changed at all. Still a creamy white liquid, and loads of it too. Surely it was going to run out the sides of the springvorm? I added some extra caulking, poured the stuff in and hoped for the best. Now I just had to cook the thing. I scrutinized the instructions carefully. Schenk het taartmengsel over de bodem en laat de taart ten minste 2 ½ uur opstijven … ten minutes, or two and a half hours? And at what temperature? But the packet ran out of useful suggestions, except for an optimistic “Bak met plezier!” at the bottom. Huh, I’d definitely bake with pleasure, if only you told me how. I considered waking my wife to ask her, or phoning my aunt. Then I saw the time, and decided that the only chance was to procrastinate. I’d put the whole thing into the fridge for the moment and bake it in the morning after having received some expert advice.

Next morning, I woke late, and saw that I’d have to dash if I was to get to Orio al Serio in time. As that flight is the first of the day on that particular route, I couldn’t even hope for any accumulated delay. I parked, ran into the arrivals, and met my aunt just as she was coming out of the doors. I took her case and we left the terminal. As we passed the bar with its fantastic array of brioches, the memory of the kwarktaart came back with a rush, but I realised that there wasn’t much I could do about it now. We drove back to Milan in the midst of rush-hour traffic and eventually reached the flat. I buzzed my wife at the door, and sent my aunt up with the lift. I took the car down to the garage, where I waited patiently while our next-door-neighbours performed complicated manouevres to get their Mercedes out of a Fiat-sized garage.

When I reached the flat, my wife and aunt were sitting on the terrace with cups of cappuccino and – horror! – my wife was cutting the cake! I watched aghast but couldn’t find the words to avert the disaster. My wife must have seen my expression.

Che c’è?“, she said, cutting another piece.

“Is it… cooked enough?”, I asked, but then, seeing that somehow the liquid had congealed into a solid mass, and that they were eating it with at least a moderate degree of approval, I understood that what I imagined to be a raw inedible stage of the recipe was in fact the finished product.

So all was well that ended well. Except that I still couldn’t imagine why the sub-atomic particle had been named after the cheesy stuff – as you can see I had at least succeeded in working out that the cheese probably preceded the physics. A few days later I found a tub of German “quark” in a delicatessen, so I felt that I was on my way to the solution. But then I found some lines in Finnegans Wake that said, “Three quarks for Muster Mark!, Sure he hasn’t got much of a bark, And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.” The footnotes told me that “to quark” was an English verb meaning to caw or croak, and that the American physicist who had proposed the sub-atomic particles, Murray Gell-Mann, had probably been thinking of James Joyce and not of cheese. Certainly not of kwarktaart.

© Johannes H. Neuteboom, Milan 2005