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I never thought I’d ever say this, but just between you and me, I’m all fooded out. It’s not just the indulgences of Christmas, but of my birthday, friends’ birthdays, my grandmother’s birthday. It seems like half the people I know were born around Christmas, and the last couple of weeks have been a non-stop party in my mouth. It’s been a good time–a fabulous time. But really. Sometimes too much is too much.
And it’s not over yet. With New Year’s around the corner, a break from the kitchen is still a way off. I know what some of you are thinking. What!? A break from the kitchen! You don’t need a break from the kitchen. Ever. You adore cooking and do it every chance you get. You cannot survive without creating something ravishing in the kitchen on a daily basis. Sorry to say, but I am not of your ilk.
Don’t get me wrong. I love cooking–except when I don’t. I’m not sure why this is. Sometimes I think it’s my terminal aloneness that is to blame. It gets too easy to eat Cheerios for dinner when no one is waiting for you at home (remember Jerry Seinfeld’s cereal boxes?). Sometimes a part of me agrees with my friend G., who once proclaimed, “Cooking for yourself is lame.”
The great thing about food blogging, though, is that every meal is a photo op, an idea for a post. Although only a small fraction of what I cook and eat makes it into this space, I’ve learned to be creative when putting together quick meals and in this puff pastry has been my greatest ally.
I haven’t worked my way up to making puff pastry myself yet, but I often have a roll of the store-bought stuff in the freezer. It’s perfect for whipping up little appetizers or free-form tarts like this one. The leeks, fresh cheese, and dash of herbs give it a touch of elegance. Serve it at a party and your guests will never believe how easy it is to make. I often eat this tart with a salad for a weekend lunch, but it could be cut into bite-sized squares for your next soiree.
Happy New Year!
Quick Leek & Fresh Cheese Tarts
Makes 4 tarts
2 sheets puff pastry
3 large leeks, sliced, white parts only
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons water
herbs de Provence
salt & pepper to taste
1/2 package Boursin cheese *
1) Preheat oven to 400F. Cook leeks in butter and water, covered, until the leeks are soft and have abosrbed the liquid, about 20 minutes.
2) Roll out puff pastry. Cut each piece in half. Make borders for the tarts by cutting thin slices of the pastry from the sides of the squares and placing them on top. Brush with egg.
3) Spread pastry squares with leeks. Crumble cheese over top. Sprinkle with herbs and a bit of salt and pepper if necessary.
4) Bake until pastry is golden brown on the edges and cheese is melted, about 20-25 minutes.
* Boursin is a fresh herb cheese with a soft and crumbly texture that is available at most grocery stores and cheese shops. It may be substituted with goat cheese; a herbed cheese tastes best with this tart.
With summer drawing to a close, I find myself scrambling for fresh fruit, heaping extra blueberries on my cereal and making desserts with plums or raspberries taking center stage. One of my favorite fruit desserts is a tart or tartlet loaded with whatever fruit is in season and a simple filling of cream cheese or custard. Especially, I love a strawberry tart, made with the choicest of bright red berries, their color highlighted by a glaze of melted red current jelly.
True, strawberry season is over. It is in late spring and early summer when these luscious berries are at their best. Modern farming methods have made this fruit available all year round, but I’m not a fan of buying it in the dead of winter. Yet, as the first nip of autumn fills the air, reminding me of some of the dreary and rainy days to come, I hanker for strawberries.
I make my tartlet shells using Martha Stewart’s recipe for pate brisee, which seems to be the go-to recipe for pie-dough. Pate brisee is the French version of a classic pie or tart pastry. You press the dough into a disc rather than a ball before chilling it in the refrigerator, which helps it chill faster. The recipe makes 1 double-crust or 2 single-crust 9 to 10-inch pies, so I halve the recipe to make 4 4-inch tartlets. Of course, if you want to make 6 or 8 tartlets, use the whole recipe. You can find it here.
Strawberry Tartlets with Lemon Cream Cheese
Makes 4 4-inch tartlets
For the filling:
9 ounces (250g) cream cheese, at room temperature
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon good quality vanilla extract
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Cream all of the ingredients together in a small mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Spread into cooled tartlet shells.
Cut strawberries lengthwise into quarters and arrange on top of the cheese in a pyramid shape.
To give the tartlets a glaze, melt 3 tablespoons of red currant (or other red jelly) with one tablespoon of water and brush over strawberries with a pastry brush.
I have many memories of my trip to Paris. Taking a boat ride along the Seine river, touring the cobblestone streets of the Marais, sitting in the pew of the Sacre Coeur on Easter. I’m not much of a diarist but during my trip to Paris I recorded every detail so as not to forget all those moments that seemed so significant at the time but are already fading like the edges of an old piece of vellum. You can’t choose what you want to remember; as my first glimpse at the Mona Lisa slowly recedes from my mind, the memories of what I ate in Paris will remain. To my mind, food and memory are inextricably linked. Strange to some people, perhaps, but I think it makes perfect sense. If you are to truly experience a culture, you must experience its food. A nation’s cuisine is a confluence of centuries–sometimes even millennia–of tradition and history. It bears witness to whether a nation lives in wealth or poverty, whether it has been well endowed by nature. Culinary traditions teach us about a nation’s cultural level, about how people cultivated their fields and grazed their livestock, and about whether the land was crossed by main trade routes bringing in other nationalities, customs, foods, and spices. In other words, to eat a country’s food is to glimpse into its past.
Although food historians surmise that the precursor to modern pastry was the Mediterranean paper-thin phyllo brought to medieval Europe by way of the crusaders, it was the Renaissance chefs who are crediting for developing puff and choux pastries. For me, the tart is the crown jewel of pastries, and none as quintessentially French as the tarte aux pommes.
You only have to be in Paris for a very short time to realize that there is a pâtisserie on every streetcorner, the windows displaying a variety of tarts and tartelets, each crafted with tradition and the utmost care. I spent many a day in Paris with my nose pressed up to the glass of a pastry shop, trying to figure out which one beckoned the most. They all seemed too pretty to eat.
Although I have never been much of a baker, when I returned home I was determined to master the tart. No more Tenderflake crusts with all their bad fats for me. I wanted the real thing, and I wanted to be able to make it myself. Your first attempts at pastry hardly ever turn out the way you want them to, but it doesn’t take long to master a good sweet short paste. And what can be easier than filling it with some sliced apples, sugar, and a coating of apricot jam?
Which brings me to Julia Child’s tarte aux pommes. This week I continue to cook with Julia from Mastering the Art of French Cooking in anticipation of Julie & Julia, written and directed by Nora Ephron of Sleepless in Seattle fame and highly awaited by foodies everywhere. This classic French apple tart is, well–forgive the pun–easy as pie.
Tarte aux Pommes
from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child
10-inch partially cooked pastry shell
4 pounds cooking apples (Golden Delicious)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/3 cup apricot jam/preserves
1/3 cup Calvados, rum or cognac (or 1 tablespoon vanilla)
2/3 cup granualted sugar for topping
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1) Preheat oven to 375F. Quarter, core, and peel the apples. Cut enough to make 3 cups into 1/8-inch lengthwise slices and toss them in a bowl with the lemon juice and sugar. Reserve them for the top of the tart.
2) Cut the rest of the apples into rough slices. You should have about 8 cups. Place in a pan and cook over low heat for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tender.
3) Beat in apricot jam, Calvados, sugar, butter, and cinnamon. Raise heat and boil, stirring, until applesauce is thick enough to hold in a mass in the spoon.
4) Spread the applesauce in the pastry shell. Cover with a neat, closely overlapping layer of sliced apples arranged in concentric circles, as illustrated below:
5) Bake in upper third of preheated oven for about 30 minutes, or until the apples have browned lightly and are tender. Slide the tart onto a serving dish and paint over it with a light coating of apricot glaze. Serve warm or cold with whipping cream or a scoop of ice cream.
1/2 cup apricot preserves, forced through a sieve
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Stir the strained apricot preserves and sugar over moderately high heat until thick enough to coat the spoon with a light film, and the last drops are sticky as they fall from the spoon (225-228 degrees on a candy thermometer). Do not boil past this point or the glaze will become brittle as it cools.
Apply the glaze while it is still warm. Unused glaze will keep indefinitely in a screw-top jar.
I have had my fair share of disasters with pastry dough, beginning in adolescence, when my early attempts resulted in rock hard pie crusts and exploding Pyrex dishes. Almost losing an eye while you’re making a quiche certainly can put you off baking, as it did for me–at least for a good couple of decades. That is, until I started this blog.
I had many motivations leading me to the blogosphere, but most notably, it was a way for me to teach myself to cook and bake. I considered myself a pretty good cook, I just wanted to be a better one. I realized I didn’t have a very wide repertoire. Whatever I knew to cook I made often, and although I had shelves full of cookbooks, I never followed their recipes; I simply used them as a springboard for ideas. But I was tired of inconsistent results in the kitchen, and decided to go back to square one. Find a new recipe, try it, post it. Try it again.
And it’s been working. With Ina, Julia, and Martha at my side, I’ve figured out how to make my own hollandaise, the most scrumptious scones, even how to bake my own bread. I’ve even got the pastry dough down.
Now this is not to say that I haven’t had my struggles, particularly when it comes to shrinkage. Oh, that dreaded shrinkage! But with a box of newly acquired pie weights and a good oven thermometer, I’m finally on my way.
I can honestly say that when I made these tarts that they were absolutely dreamy. The crust was light and flaky, not the least bit soggy, and the perfect envelope for all this silky chocolate. Topped with honey balsamic figs and a dollop of cream, they were nothing short of spectacular.
I have been using Donna Hay’s recipe for shortcut pastry for my pies and tarts, but you can use any recipe you prefer, such as Martha Stewart’s pate brisee. Line the tart pans with the dough and bake according to the recipe directions.
The chocolate filling is adapted from Epicurious, from Bon Appetit’s December 1998 issue. The filling is enough to fill 6 tarts or one nine-inch pie shell. Be sure to use really good quality chocolate for the filling–it’s the key to a truly delicious tart.
Chocolate Tart with Honey Balsamic Figs
6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/4 cups powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
6 pre-baked tart crusts
1) Combine the chocolates and cream in a heavy medium saucepan. Stir over medium-low heat until melted and smooth. Cool to just lukewarm.
2) Beat next 3 ingredients in a large bowl until well blended. Beat in chocolate mixture. Spoon filling into baked tart crusts. Smooth top with a spoon.
3) Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours and up to 2 days. Serve chilled with honey balsamic figs and a dollop of whip cream.
Honey Balsamic Figs
Honey balsamic figs are delicious not only in baked goods but also with cheese and crackers, in salad, even with pork or chicken. Try them with some pistachio crisps and a good lemon or pear Stilton.
8 figs, quartered
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon white sugar (optional)
1) Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and allow to marinate for at least an hour. Add white sugar if you find the figs are not sweet enough for your liking.
I did something incredibly stupid on the weekend. It was Saturday and I was trying to shoot a photo to go with an article I had written for a local magazine. Although I have a beautiful bay window, the light in my place is not always conducive to taking food pictures. I decided to take my things outside to the courtyard of my building. My mind was on gathering everything that I needed as I headed out. The second I shut the door I realized I’d left my keys inside. I had locked myself out. In my slippers.
I knocked on the doors of three neighbors, hoping one of them would lend me their phone so I could call a locksmith. Of course, no one was home. With trepidation, I finally knocked on Carol’s door. I hadn’t seen her since Easter, when I had taken her some of my tiramisu.
I felt bad about bothering Carol. Her husband died suddenly at Christmastime, leaving her with two small children to take care of. Carol is from the Philippines. She’s a homemaker and doesn’t drive. A couple of weeks earlier she had fallen at the supermarket and broken her leg. Feeling foolish, I explained what had happened. Carol sympathized with my plight. She let me use her phone and offered me tea. We chatted until the locksmith came.
I wanted to thank Carol for her kindness so I made this Strawberry Mascarpone Tart from the April 2009 issue of Gourmet magazine. I had been wanting to make this tart since I’d seen it on the cover but hadn’t been presented with the opportunity. Piled high with fresh strawberries drizzled with port glaze, this easy tart was truly impressive. Tomorrow I will go get my tart pan from Carol and see how she liked it.
I don’t know about you, but this economic downturn and financial instability have left me with a persistent sense of unease. But now when I feel sorry for myself, I think of Carol.
Strawberry Mascarpone Tart with Port Glaze
Adapted from Gourmet, April 2009
for tart shell:
1 1/4 cups flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons butter, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 large egg yolk
1 1/2 lb strawberries, trimmed and quartered lengthwise
1/3 cups sugar
3/4 cup ruby Port
1 lb mascarpone cheese (about 2 cups)
1/4 cup icing sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1) To make tart shell blend together flour, sugar, salt, and butter in a bowl with a pastry blender, or in a food processor, until the mixture resembles a coarse meal.
2) Beat together yolk, vanilla, lemon juice, and water with a fork. Drizzle over the flour mixture and blend until the ingredients come together. Knead gently with floured hands on a floured surface until dough forms.
3) Press into a 5-inch disk and place in the center of a tart pan. Cover with plastic wrap. Using your fingers and the bottom of a measuring cup, press out dough to evenly cover the bottom and sides of the pan. Prick bottom of tart shell several times with a fork and freeze for about fifteen minutes.
4) Preheat oven to 375F. Line tart shell with foil and fill with dried beans or pie weights. Bake for about 20 minutes, until set and lightly golden in color. Remove foil and continue to bake until the shell is deeply golden all over, about another 20 minutes. Cool in pan for 45 minutes.
5) While the tart shell cools, make the filling. Stir together strawberries and sugar in a bowl and let stand for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Strain over a sieve set over a small saucepan, reserving berries. Add Port to liquid in saucepan and boil until reduced to about 1/4 cup, about 10-15 minutes. Cool slightly.
6) Whisk together mascarpone, sugar, lemon juice, zest, vanilla, and a pinch of salt until stiff. Spread mixture evenly in cooled tart shell, then top with strawberries. Drizzle Port glaze all over tart.
*Be sure to add the strawberries to the pie just before serving, otherwise the tart will end up looking messy if it sits around.
*Make sure the liquid is strained adequately from the strawberries. Too much liquid on top of the tart will make it look soupy and messy.
*For a lighter version, use half mascarpone, half ricotta cheese.
*The tart shell can be baked a day ahead and kept at room temperature.
When I was a child I eagerly waited for the fair to come to town. You know the kind–a travelling carnival that sets up every summer in the parking lots of suburban strip malls across North America. I liked going on the roller coaster and the Ferris wheel, and a ride called the Yo-Yo, which reminded me of the airplane rides adults gave you when you were little. Most of all, though, I loved the treats that are so ubiquitous to carnivals everywhere. Fluffy mounds of cotton candy, swirly lollipops the size of your head, and especially, caramel apples. I waited all year in anticipation of my first bite of the sweet, buttery flavor of the sticky and chewy caramel followed by a burst of tart and juicy apple goodness.
Until last Christmas, I hadn’t had a caramel apple in probably thirty years. One of my students brought me one as a little going away present. A sort of spin on the proverbial apple for the teacher. As much as I loved the uniqueness of this gift, it sat in my fridge for days. I couldn’t quite figure out what to do with it. Eating it somehow seemed childish, like going to the corner store and bypassing the Lindt chocolate bars for the Fun Dip. But every time I opened the fridge door the caramel apple beckoned me. Before I knew it, I was chewing my way through the caramel bit by bit, into the sour Granny Smith apple underneath. I have to admit, the caramel apple was as good as I remembered.
As much as I love the combination, I’m not about to start buying myself caramel apples as a weekend treat. Instead, I came up with this simple tart that I can put together when the craving for caramel apples becomes too much.
You will need good baking apples for this one. Golden Delicious are a good choice. I used Gala’s the first time I made it and they were too juicy, creating a soggy mess. I use a mandoline to get really thin slices because puff pastry is more delicate than other tart crusts; I find thinly sliced apples a better combination texture-wise, but its not mandatory. The caramel will not cover the apples completely, but mixed with the juices of the apples while it bakes, it will create a nice sauce that’s not too sweet.
Caramel Apple Tart
1 10-inch sheet puff pastry
4 baking apples, peeled and cored, cut into thin slices
1/2 cup + 3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 stick butter (1/4 cup)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1) Roll out puff pastry on a lightly floured surface until its large enough to fit a 9-inch tart pan with some overhang. Fit into tart pan and cut off the overhang with a knife.
2) Place apples slices side by side around the pan, all facing the same direction, as pictured above.
3) Melt 1/2 cup sugar with the butter in a saucepan over medium heat until smooth. Add lemon juice, then salt.
4) Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly, until caramel is thick and deep brown in color.
5) Drizzle caramel over the apples. Finish by sprinkling the apples with 3 tablespoons of sugar.
6) Bake about 25 minutes, or until puff pastry and apples are golden brown. Cool and serve with ice cream or a dollop of whip cream.
It’s great served plain, too.
I remember my first attempt at making pie crust so well because it was the day I almost lost an eye.
I was fourteen years old and had recently begun my foray into baking. I loved baking. It was extraordinary to me that you could mix together a few everyday ingredients, put them into the oven, and watch them puff up into something golden and glorious. It didn’t matter to me that my concoctions rarely turned out the way they were supposed to. My cookies burned. My muffins were so hard my brother could have used them as pucks in street hockey. It was not uncommon to bite into one of my brownies and find yourself crunching on bits of eggshell that I’d failed to fish out of the batter. But to me it was the journey, not the destination, and I blithely pressed on, convinced that one day soon I would make the perfect melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cupcake.
Although I wasted cartons of eggs and mounds of butter, no one in my family objected to my adventures in the kitchen. My parents encouraged me and ate everything I made, even though most of my attmepts were better off used as paperweights than served for dessert.
I did, however, successfully learn to make crepes, and soon after set out to make my first pie. For a change, I followed the directions closely, carefully combining the butter with the flour until it resembled small peas, and put the dough in the refrigerator to chill. I may very well have succeeded in my first pate brisee. I have no way of knowing because on that day I made a terrible, terrible mistake.
I had not yet learned the first rule of the kitchen; clean up as you go along. Every surface, including the kitchen table, was strewn with dirty utensils and mixing bowls. There was so much flour everywhere that it looked like it had snowed. As I waited for the oven to preheat, I put the Pyrex pie plate on the stove, not realizing that I’d left the burner on after making the lemon filling. One moment it looked like a bomb had hit the kitchen, the next–it sounded like one had. Pyrex can withstand high temperatures inside the oven but can’t take direct heat. The heat caused the pie plate to explode with the force of a small bomb, sending a shower of glass through the air.
Someone was watching over me that day. I wasn’t near the plate when it exploded. By some stroke of unbelievable luck, not a single piece of glass landed on me, though the whole kitchen was covered with shards of glass.
I wasn’t the only one who was lucky. Because the hot glass damaged the kitchen carpet (yes, carpet … it was the Eighties!) our insurance picked up the bill for replacing the flooring my mother had wanted to change for years.
Pastry Dough (10-inch pie plate)
Adapted from Classics – Book 1 by Donna Hay
2 cups flour
5 ounces (145g) cold butter
3 or more tablespoons ice water
Blend the flour and butter together in a food processor until the mixture has the texture of breadcrumbs. With the motor running, add ice water tablespoon by tablespoon until it comes together. Make sure you use enough water, otherwise the dough will fall apart once you handle it. You can always add more flour if it’s too sticky once you roll it out.
Knead the dough briefly to form a ball. Put it in the fridge to chill for at least an hour.
Flour your work surface. Roll out the dough until it’s two inches larger than your pie plate or tart pan, taking care not to overwork it. Place the dough over the pan and shape it with your hands to fit the contours. Any excess dough may be removed with a knife.
If your recipe requires that you pre-bake the pastry, make sure to weigh it down with pie weights before you put it in the oven. This will keep it from shrinking or puffing up in bubbles. If you don’t have pie weights, cut a piece of parchment paper large enough to cover the pan and fill it with dry beans or rice–you can re-use them for this purpose. Pre-bake for 10-15 minutes, or until lightly golden.
Bacon, Mushroom & Caramelized Onion Tarts
Preheat oven to 375 F
1 9-inch pie or tart crust, or 12 small tart shells
1 cup milk
1/2 pound mushrooms, chopped
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
6 slices cooked bacon, crumbled
1/2 cup parmesan, grated
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
Heat the butter and oil in a skillet. Add onions and mushrooms and cook over medium heat until the onions are caramelized and mushrooms are cooked, about 20 minutes. Make sure any liquid is reduced or poured off. Add parsley and cook until wilted, about 1 minute. Add crumbled bacon, and then the salt and pepper. Combine well.
Spoon mixture into tart shells or pie plate, filling 3/4 of the way. In a large measuring cup, whisk the eggs together. Heat the milk until scalded and add to eggs in a slow steady stream so they do not scramble. Pour the eggs and milk over the filling (using the measuring cup to do this makes it easy). Top with parmesan.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Cool before serving.