March’s chapter was, hands down, my favorite chapter so far.  Tarts!  I’d never made a tart, feeling pie was the vastly superior option.  Never have I been so happy to cast aside prejudice and admit I have been short-sighted and wrong.  Tarts are definitely joining my repertoire.

Freshly scarred from the accidental multi-day Danishes, I decided that there would be more planning involved in the tarts.  So I picked out recipes that all used the same short-dough crust, and made a big batch of short dough ahead of time.  The short dough was so easy I forgot to take pictures until I was done.

I left that in the fridge to get nice and solid, then broke it up and put it in a bag to wait for its future tarttasticness.  This was another place where measuring by weight came in very handy.  I just kept putting more dough on the scale until I had the right weight, and I didn’t have to worry about rolling out the short dough only to find I didn’t have enough out.

Short dough is functionally equivalent to pie crust dough, with a lot of the same touchiness.  It is better about being handled, though, and needed to be worked a bit before rolling it out was even an option.  The ball on the right had been kneaded a bit, the pile on the left was fresh from the fridge.  They’re the same weight, and from the same batch.  The only difference is that I’d worked the one on the right until it warmed up enough to be pliable.

I really like working with short dough.  It’s like an easier, friendlier pie dough, which made it a lot of fun.  Also, after rolling it out on the counter as described in the Professional Pastry Chef book, and having the dough stick horribly to the counter, I switched to my magic wax-paper technique (described in loving detail in the post about strawberry rhubarb pie).  It worked beautifully, and I got to be smug about having a technique trick to pull over on the fancy pants book that sometimes leaves out important instructions because it thinks I ought to know better.  Look who made a gorgeous tart crust with ease.

I will happily admit that I have never made a pie crust that flawless.  This was the moment I fell in love with making tarts.

That part of the process is the same for every tart, except that I got faster and prettier with each iteration.  The rest of the fun came from the variations in the filling.  The first set of tarts were Apple with Calvados Custard.  I didn’t know what Calvados was, but Sylvie was happy to clue me in.  The guy in the liquor section of Woodman’s didn’t know what it was, either, which slightly complicated acquisition, but did not thwart me.  (It’s an apple brandy liquor thing.  The bottle is pretty)

There wasn’t anything too exciting or strange about the custard.  Make a custard with apple booze in it.

Pour custard into tart pan, put apples on top of custard, sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.  Bake, and then TADA!  Yummy tarty goodness.

There was leftover custard that didn’t fit into the tart pans.  I later turned it into ice cream.  That was brilliant, but next time I need to add more Calvados first – the alcohol got cooked out during the custard tempering, so it didn’t do its freezing-point tempering magic and it was a very hard icecream.  Tasty, but hard.

My apple tart triumph was followed up with a pecan tart tasty.  

This was really, really easy.  I should have chopped the pecans a bit smaller, but otherwise it was just a matter of throwing a bunch of ingredients in a bowl and then stirring.  The filling recipe was extremely well balanced – nutty and sweet without the classic pecan pie hyper-cloying-OMG-diabetes-now problem.  The filling dripped out like a fiend during baking, so watch out for that.  There was also once again way too much of it.  I wound up cooking it on the stove a bit and turning it into a topping for the Calvados custard ice cream.

The final tart was the biggest revelation for me.  It was a kiwi and strawberry tart, which involved making pastry cream as a filling upon which slices of kiwi and strawberry get stacked.  The pastry cream was the discovery.  I’d never made it, and while I’ve certainly consumed it before, I didn’t have any real awareness of it.  It’s easy to make, though, and extremely tasty.  Magically so.

Scald some milk with half a vanilla bean in it.  You can also just add vanilla extract later, but we were out of vanilla extract and had a bag of vanilla beans.  Yes, my kitchen is a bit eclectic.  Don’t judge; we’re hungry and scatter-brained.

Beat eggs and things together, then do the tricky part, which is to slowly pour the hot milk mixture into the eggs.  This is the step the cookbook warns you to avoid screwing up because it’ll make your pastry cream grainy and lumpy.  You need to simultaneously beat the eggs while slowly pouring hot liquid into them, a feat requiring a little more coordination than the standard, “Put things in bowl, let kitchenaide be awesome,” technique.  That said, I managed just fine.  My pastry cream could have been smoother, but I wouldn’t have complained if I got it from any but the fanciest of restaurants.  If I can pull it off first time, most people can.

That right there is the basic, basic tart.  It’s a pre-baked crust with some apricot jam spread on it, then filled with pastry cream.  This is your pallet, upon which you can toss any number of fruit combinations and go on your merry way, fruity and sweet and wonderful.  That tart had a destiny, though, and that destiny was strawberries.  And kiwi.

That might well be the prettiest thing I have every confected.  It was among the tastiest.  In fact, that tart made this whole project worth it, because I have now uncovered a whole new way to look super-fancy when I cook for parties without having to work all that hard.  Seriously, the crust dough and pastry cream can be made way ahead of time and just hang out in my fridge, waiting to make me look good.

See me looking good?  (There was leftover pastry cream.  I did not transform it, unless eating it out of the bowl with a spoon counts.)

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