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Maya’s Notebook

by Isabel Allende

Review and recipe by Donna Scocozza

Before reading prolific author Isabelle Allende’s most recent novel, the tale of a West Coast-raised American teenager’s growing-up journey, set largely in a remote area of Chile, the only thoughts I had ever conjured up about Chile were while opening a bottle of Chilean Cabernet. After reading this heartrending and heartwarming novel, I found myself in the library poring over travel books for a glimpse of the intriguing Chiloé, an island off the southern coast of Chile.

Maya Vidal, is a mess of a girl! At the tender age of 19, she has already been through it all: worked for a drug dealer, been on drugs, lived on the streets of Las Vegas with bouts of hooking and shoplifting, been raped, beaten, barely escaped with her life from after being kidnapped by drug dealers, and all this after her escape from a school for troubled teens in Oregon, where she had been sent by her airline pilot and most absent father, far away from eclectic, eccentric Berkley, California, where she was raised.

Maya lived with, and was raised almost from birth, by her Nini (paternal grandmother) and her beloved step-grandfather, her Poppo. They’re devoted to her, and to each other, so her early childhood seems ideal, if a bit unconventional. Her Nini tends to the dramatic. She escaped from Chile in 1974 (shortly after the military overthrow of Salvador Allende’s socialist government), while her Poppo tends to the pragmatic (as much as is possible, given that he is an astronomer).

When her Poppo dies, Maya begins a downward spiral that eventually leads her Nini to exile her to the care of an old comrade in Chile, Manuel Arias. It is here that we get the backstory, and it is here that Maya begins her journey to adulthood. There are lots of twists and turns, and more than a few surprises are revealed as she records her journey. There is also a sense of longing that pervades the story: For what is lost, for what should have been, for what might be, and most of all for the love that each of us needs to survive.

On the lighter side, there are fascinating descriptions throughout the book of Chiloé, its inhabitants, mysticism, culture, customs and celebrations. One of the most elaborate celebrations is curanto, an outdoor barbecue that is similar to our clambake. The food references sprinkled through the story, make the characters and the island seem more real and relatable.

One of the first references to food comes immediately after Maya’s description of landing on the island, and being met by Manuel Arias. When she told him she was ravenous from her journey, he immediately guides her to a small house, where she is served “a fragrant pyramid of bread just out of the oven,” along with butter and honey, and cups of tea.

Post Script: Shortly after finishing the book, and doing some daydreaming about visiting such a rustic and remote area, I came across a short travel piece in Departures magazine telling of the first luxury hotel on Chiloé, Hotel Refugia, as well as the island’s first regular airline service. That’s my kind of wilderness!

Maya’s Pear Tart

Serves 10 to 12

There is a passage in the book where Maya bakes a pear tart, but it falls. That intrigued me, because she doesn’t elaborate on how it failed or why. I can only speak for this pear tart and say it is simply delicious!

Ingredients

Pastry
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
¾ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¾ teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 to 3 tablespoons ice water

Filling
1 package (3 ounces) cream cheese, softened
½ cup bottled or canned dulce de leche
1 egg
¼ teaspoon pure vanilla
4 ripe medium Bosc pears
2 tablespoons lemon juice stirred
with 2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons sugar

Directions

1. For the pastry, in the workbowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade, whirl flour, sugar, nutmeg, and salt for a couple of seconds to aerate. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add water 1 tablespoon at a time and process until mixture just begins to come together.

2. Remove mixture from processor and lightly knead into a smooth ball. On a large piece of floured wax paper, roll out dough to an 11-inch circle. Fit into bottom and up the side of a 10-inch removable bottom tart pan. Lightly cover and chill 30 minutes.

3. Preheat oven to 375° F. With a fork, prick crust all over. Fit a piece of foil into crust. Add pie weights or dried beans to fill foil. Bake 10 minutes. Remove foil with beans. Continue to bake crust 8 to10 minutes until golden. Cool in pan on a wire rack. Reduce oven temperature to 350° F.

4. For filling, in a large bowl, with electric hand mixer on medium, beat cream cheese, dulce de leche, egg, and vanilla until smooth. Pare the pears; cut each in half and core the halves. Slice each half into thin slices; brush pear slices with lemon water.

5. Spoon cream cheese mixture into the pastry crust. Arrange overlapping pear slices in a circular pattern over cream cheese mixture. Sprinkle sugar over the pears. Bake 20 to 25 minutes until pears are fork tender. Remove to wire rack to cool completely.

6. Just before serving, remove tart ring, and place tart on a serving plate.

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