Pineapple tarts, also known as Malaysian pineapple rolls, are one of the most basic and treasured treats of the Chinese New Year celebration. With such a long history and tradition, the variations on this pastry are nearly as numerous as the kitchens in which they are prepared. Regardless of the recipe used, the bite-sized pineapple tart consists of a buttery, crumbly pastry crust paired with a sweet and chewy pineapple filling. While time-consuming to make, many people feel the Chinese New Year wouldn't be complete without the pineapple tart.
There are three basic shapes used when making pineapple tarts. The easiest is the flat shape, which is then topped with a ball of filling and sometimes a criss-cross lattice pattern. Another common, but more challenging shape is the open roll, or Nastar shape. Experienced bakers often make pineapple tarts in the shape of tiny pineapples, oranges, and even roses.
The traditional filling for the pineapple tart is made from fresh pineapples, which are hand-grated to keep the fibers intact. Modern times often call for shortcuts, so canned pineapple is often substituted for fresh. The grating can be done in a food processor if desired, which will give the filling a smoother texture than the traditional method. The pineapple filling gets its distinct flavor from being cooked slowly for several hours with sugar, cinnamon, cloves and star anise. Because of the time involved in making the filling, some modern bakers opt for store-bought pineapple jam, which has a different texture and taste than home-made, but still makes an excellent pastry.
The hallmark of the pineapple tart is its delicate, buttery crust. While there are many different recipes available, they all share a heavy proportion of butter and egg to flour, which gives the pastry its unique crumbly texture. The butter is normally cut into the flour using a pastry cutter, fork tines, or fingers until it resembles fine crumbs. After the addition of the remaining ingredients, the dough is worked just until mixed; over-kneading will cause the pastry to lose its light and delicate texture. The dough is then chilled for at least an hour, and can be returned to the refrigerator for additional chilling if it becomes too soft to work with.
Assembling the tarts is often a social task that pulls friends and family members into the kitchen for an afternoon of baking and conversation. The pineapple filling is first rolled by hand into small balls; this requires a quick, light touch because the filling can be sticky and difficult to handle. Once the filling is ready, the pastry is prepared using one or more of the basic three shapes. Flat tarts can be made using standard round cookie cutters, but traditional pineapple tart molds produce lovely patterned edges with the indention already pressed into the center. After placing the filling in the center, it can then be covered with a lattice pattern made from additional pastry dough, or left bare.
A Nastar mold is sometimes used to make the pineapple roll shape. This mold can be a special tip placed on the end of a pastry bag or cookie press, but the simplest design consists of a plastic cone through which the dough is pressed with the thumb. After pressing out a long strip of pastry, the filling ball is placed on one end and the pastry strip wrapped around it, leaving the ends of the roll open.
Pineapple tarts are generally baked in an oven ranging from 300-350 degrees F (148.9-177.8 degrees C) for anywhere from 10 to 18 minutes. The variations in temperature and time are due to differences in individual preferences; shorter baking times result in a lighter-colored pastry with a more tender pineapple center. Some bakers add an egg wash before, during, or immediately after baking to give the pastry a more golden-brown finish and glossy top. The wide variety of options for making the pineapple tart give each baker an opportunity to experiment and make this festive treat uniquely their own.