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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.
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.