Tiny Things

This is Ruby, our new puppy. She’s tiny.

Tiny Ruby.

This is Floof, my sister’s dog (my nephew), when he was a puppy. He was also tiny. He’s still tiny.

Tiny Floof.

This is Benji, my mom’s dog, a few months ago. Tiny. 

Tiny Benji.

I bet everyone reading this went ‘aaaawwwww’. That’s because (a) my dogs are objectively the cutest dogs in the world, and (b) everything tiny is cute. ‘Small’ and ‘cute’ have almost become synonymous, and the conflation has even resulted in a new word: ‘smol’ – it’s ‘small’, but smaller and cuter.

Humans have long been drawn to small things. Japanese bonsai dates back over a thousand years, and is based on an even older form of miniaturising trees practised in China called Penjing. Some people in the 1600s decided that they wanted bonsai horses, so invented the miniature horse. Miniature horses were kept as pets in the upper echelons of society, not serving any purpose other than just to look cute. Around the same time, you might’ve been gifted a tiny portrait of your dinner party host as a kind of weird little useless memento. Miniature artists gained a lot of recognition in the 18th century, after getting the idea for miniature portraits from the small images in medieval illuminated manuscripts. In fact, the word miniature came to English from the Italian miniature, which in turn comes from Latin miniare (to illuminate), from minium (the red pigment used in the manuscripts). Even dollhouses – now seen as toys for children – were originally built for display purposes, for fully grown adults to flaunt all the tiny expensive things they had accumulated, or just for the sake of owning a miniscule version of one’s own house. Everyone from Queen Mary, to 1930s silent movie star Colleen Moore, to Britney Spears has dabbled in the world of “miniacs” (miniature fanatics). More recently, tiny houses have become a bit of A Thing in the USA. Sure, there’s the obvious advantages like being able to travel easily, not having to pay a mortgage, and being more easily off-grid. But I mean. Just look at them. They’re just so damn cute.

As children, my grandparents would take me and my cousins to what is (in retrospect) a pretty bizarre place: Santarama Miniland, in the south of Johannesburg. For some reason, we loved looking at lilliputian versions of the airport and the Hillbrow Tower and a cattle farm. Other non-tiny highlights included a large scary gorilla sculpture and a massive statue of Jan van Riebeeck. So there’s that. Anyway! Scientists have put forth many reasons for why humans like tiny things: we like things that look like baby mammals; we like to be in control and small things are more controllable than real-size things (creepy); we’re drawn to things that provide a lot of sensory stimulation in a little concentrated package; we like the idea of living in or out a fantasy, which is much more easily achieved on a smaller scale.

Like trees, horses, paintings, houses, and Johannesburg’s landmarks, food has not been overlooked in our quest to miniaturise everything. Mini Oreos, mini Marie biscuits, mini pizzas, mini bottles of alcohol, mini scones, mini croissants, mini doughnuts. Nothing is safe from being shrunk. Which, I mean, is totally fine because – I repeat – they’re just so damn cute. Online food content empire Tastemade has a whole series – Tiny Kitchen – of videos of regular-sized human hands painstakingly making miniature versions of various dishes so small they’re inedible. Everything from sushi to chocolate eclairs have received the tiny treatment. Tiny Kitchen’s YouTube channel have over 170 000 subscribers and the videos all receive almost as many views, despite not actually providing actual recipes nor showing the production of realistically consumable food. It’s just tiny for the sake of being tiny.

It would seem the last thing the world needs is yet another small-scale version of something. But the number of tiny things floating around in the world seems to be increasing, while the objects become ever more microscopic, people’s appetites for these lilliputian creations is doing anything but shrinking. It’s therefore my duty as a human being and tiny thing enthusiast (I can’t get enough of little dogs on Instagram) to add to the gargantuan canon of weensy wares. I’ve made three tiny versions of things: tiny chocolate pies/tarts, tiny spiced apple and honey pies, and tiny citrus Bundt cakes. They aren’t small enough that they fit snugly alongside other things of their ilk, but are not too microscopic that you can’t comfortably eat them. If you don’t have small tart tins or Bundt pans, you can make them in a cupcake tin or in a regular-sized tin.

To make the pastry for the chocolate and apple pies:

This is the best and most versatile pastry dough recipe: it can be freezed, it takes minutes, it can be used in savoury things (omit the sugar), and it’s extremely easy to work with. It’s based on Molly Yeh’s pastry dough recipe.

2 ½ cups flour

1 Tbsp granulated sugar

½ tsp salt

225g unsalted butter, cubed and cold

90ml cold water

1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar

Put the water and vinegar into a bowl or jug and stick in the freezer for a few minutes while you do the rest. Put the flour, sugar, salt, and butter into a food processor and pulse until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Drizzle in the cold water and vinegar while pulsing until a dough forms. You can also do this by hand. Tip the dough out onto a sheet of cling wrap, wrap up tightly, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. 

To make the apple pies:

4 granny smith apples, peeled, cored and chopped into 1cm pieces

2 ½ Tbsp honey

1 Tbsp sugar

Juice of half a lemon

½ tsp cinnamon

½ tsp ground cardamom

¼ tsp ground ginger

Half of the above pastry dough recipe

15g unsalted butter, cut into tiny cubes

Egg wash: 1 egg beaten with a tablespoon of water

Preheat the oven to 200C. Put the apple pieces, honey, sugar, lemon juice, and spices into a bowl and mix well to combine. The apples should all be coated in the lovely spicy liquid. Set aside while you prep the pastry. Grease your pie tin(s). Roll out a thin (about 3mm thick) round of pastry a bit bigger than the circumference of the tin. Gently press it into the tin so it fits in nicely and comes up and over the sides. Pop into the freezer for 3 minutes. Spoon in a generous portion of the apple mixture, and drizzle over a couple of tablespoons of the juices. Dot some of the butter over the top, then pop on the lid (you can do a lattice or just put over a solid circle and cut a little air slit in the top). Put the pie(s) in the freezer for 10 minutes, then brush with egg wash and bake for about 20 minutes (the pies should have an internal temperature of about 90C).

To make the chocolate tarts/pies:

I can’t decide whether these are tarts or pies. My colonial South African sensibilities are urging me to politely call them tarts. But they really are thick, puddingy, sweet and ‘Murican enough to be called pies. Either way, they’re super good and super easy.

Half of the above pastry dough recipe 

½ cup castor sugar

¼ cup cornflour 

Pinch of salt

1 ½ cups full cream milk

2 egg yolks

95g dark chocolate, finely chopped

½ tsp vanilla extract

15g unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 200C. To make the pie crust, roll out rounds of dough slightly bigger than the circumference of the pie tin, then gently press in and trim to fit. Prick the base with a fork several times, line with baking paper and fill with baking beans, rice or dried beans and blind bake for 15-20 minutes until slightly golden. Remove the paper and the beans and bake for a further 5-10 minutes until golden and crisp. Set aside until cooled completely.

To make the filling, put the sugar, cornflour, salt, milk, and egg yolks into a medium sized pot. Stir until combined, then heat over a medium heat – stirring continuously – until thick like custard. This will take a while – 8 minutes or so. Once it’s thick and bubbling, remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate, vanilla, and butter. Pour into the crust(s) and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.

To make the citrus Bundt cakes:

This is based on a Jamie Oliver recipe. It’s unbelievably easy and yields a cake that’s light and floral. This also bakes up really nicely in cupcake form. Double the recipe for a regular Bundt cake.

185g unsalted butter, softened

185g castor sugar

185g self-raising flour

75g plain yoghurt

1 Tbsp tahini

3 eggs

Juice of 1 lemon

Juice of ½ orange

For the glaze:

1 pomegranate – save 2 Tbsp juice and the seeds

2 Tbsp lime juice

150g icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 180C. To make the cake, put all the ingredients in a bowl and mix until a batter forms. Scrape into the Bundt tin(s)/cupcake pan and tap a few times on the counter. Bake for about 20 minutes until a skewer comes out clean. Cool for just a few minutes before turning out of the tins onto a wire rack.

To make the glaze, whisk all the ingredients together until a thick but pourable glaze forms. Drizzle over the cooled Bundt cakes, then top with the pomegranate seeds.