This week, I made tarts. A lot of tarts. Eight of them, to be exact.
Our culinary class did a total one-eighty on Sunday night and dove straight into the wonderful world of Pastry – also known as the opposite end of the culinary spectrum from what we’d been doing for the past, oh, eight months. I think we all were a bit nervous; with school already more than two-thirds done, how would we fare taking two months off from aggressively cooking three nights a week to spend our nights dusted in flour? More than a few of us were unsure about this change in direction right when our culinary skills just starting to feel steady.
But then we made caramel-vanilla poached pears, and we sort of just gave in. Funny how sugar can do that willpower.
Pastry module is already so different from all of the culinary modules we’ve completed, in so many ways. For one, we’re no longer eating dinner. Months of culinary were partially characterized by hours of coaxing mouth-watering smells from ovens and saute pans and pots, only to be culminated by sampling all those delicious foods in a late evening dinner. Now, we pack quarts of frangipane, pate brisee, and pastry cream into plastic tubs, splay the date and contents across the top, and stack them in the reach-in. Our mouths water, but it’s not every night that they’re satisfied. We resist the succulent smells of vanilla-perfumed pineapple and candied pecans as we pack them away for another night’s class.
Another interesting change is the deviation from plowing through recipes and menus at a breakneck pace. By late in Module Two (a culinary, not pastry Mod), we knew technique well enough to create our assigned dishes with just a little direction. But now, our evenings are spent practicing the will-bending combination of patience and urgency, taking plenty of time to watch chef’s demos unfold, but hastening to complete the tasks ourselves within our allotted time frame.
And then, there’s the end results. Unlike cooking savory dishes, where following a recipe to the tee might give you a mediocre, good, even very good (but rarely outstanding) result, in pastry, diligence and focus in constructing a confection based on definitive instructions will nearly always result in something beautiful and delicious. Your own attention to detail, rather than culinary intuition, will make it perfect.
And when so much of the action of pastry happens behind the closed door of an oven, or inside a refrigerator, it makes the alchemical process of creating pastries that much more magical. Hard, tart pears turned to soft, caramel bliss below the shield of a parchment paper; liquid milk and eggs turn to thick cream while your blinking; crusts become golden brown under the weight of beans in the dark depths of an oven. We learned to make sweet, flaky, crumbly, and savory crusts; we grilled, poached, candied, macerated fruit; we beat eggs and sugar and flour and milk into frangipane and custard and cream.
My favorite? These tarts.
Reminiscent of the tarte aux fruits that filled windows of patisseries I passed in Paris one winter many years ago, these tarts epitomize the beauty that is possible as a pastry chef. They also emphasize the importance of simplicity, comprised of just a basic pate brisee crust, traditional pastry cream filling, and topping of scattered fresh fruits. But in simplicity can come perfection, and when care is paid to each of these components, what emerges is the freshest, most delicious, light, sweet fresh fruit tart you’ve ever tasted. I ate one standing up at a prep table, powdered sugar dusting my chin, a late sugary dessert-for-dinner that took my breath away. That cream! It was smooth, refreshing, and light with just a hint of creamy vanilla. And fruit so fresh, it burst with tartness in my mouth, cutting the sweetness of the custard just right. The crumbly pie crust provided just the right amount of contrasting texture, and I realized, this was worth waiting three days to try.
Tarte Aux Fruits – Makes 8 small tarts
Ingredients for the crust
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 tsp. sugar
- 3/4 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 stick unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
- 1/4 cup lard, cold
- Small (4″ – 5″) tart tins
- 2 1/4 cups whole milk
- 5 large egg yolks
- 1 large egg, whole
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup cornstarch
- 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
- Assorted fresh fruit: blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, bananas, kiwis
- 1 cup of apricot nappage or jam
- 1/2 cup of water
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
Once the dough has chilled in the fridge, roll out the dough on a floured surface to about an eighth of an inch thickness. Using a round cutter or a small bowl as a guide, cut circles that are about three-quarters of an inch bigger than the tart tins. Lift the circles and press gently into the tart tins around the edges. There should be a slight overhang around the perimeter of the tins; press this between your fingers to extend it upwards from the edge of the tin, creating a rim.
Line each mini tart with a small round of tin foil, press it down, and fill with dried beans or pie weights. Place the tart pans on a sheet pan and bake the crusts for 15 to 20 minutes until the edges begin to turn golden. Remove the parchment and beans return the crusts to the oven to continue baking for about 5 more minutes until the bottom appears to be flaky and golden. Remove from oven and set the tart pans on a table or a wire rack to cool. Once cool, remove tart crusts from the tin and set aside.
Method for the pastry cream
In medium bowl, whisk together egg yolks, egg, 1/3 cup sugar, and cornstarch.
Transfer the milk to heavy medium saucepan. Scrape in seeds from vanilla bean; add pod. Sprinkle remaining 1/3 cup sugar over, letting sugar sink undisturbed to bottom. Set pan over moderate heat and bring to simmer without stirring.
Once the milk mixture reaches a simmer, temper it into the egg mixture, and then gradually whisk the egg mixture back into saucepan. Return to saucepan over moderate heat and cook, whisking constantly, until pastry cream simmers and thickens, about 1 minute. Remove from heat, discard vanilla pod, and whisk cream until smooth. Transfer to bowl and press plastic wrap directly onto surface. Chill until cold, about 4 hours. (Pastry cream can be made ahead and refrigerated, wrapped well with plastic wrap on surface, up to 3 days.)
Method for assembling tarts
Prepare apricot glaze for tarts by adding one cup of apricot nappage or jam and half a cup of water to a small sauce pan. Heat, stirring, until the mixture has the thin consistency of a glaze.
To assemble tarts, fill each tart crust with pastry cream to the brim, using a spoon. Arrange the slices of fresh fruit or berries on top of the pastry cream as desired. Using a pastry brush, gently glaze the berries with a minimal amount of apricot glaze, being careful not to over do it (it will look gloopy). Serve immediately, or refrigerate for up to two days. Note that these are best when fresh.