There's nothing like making a recipe over and over (and over and over) until you get it down. Grandmothers who bake biscuits every Sunday or challah every Friday don't have to think about recipes — they have the technique in their fingers. They sprinkle in extra flour if it's damp, or less if the eggs were large, knowing without even thinking how things should feel. I once read a story about culinary school in a sweet little now-defunct food zine, where the author mentioned her terror at the beginning of egg-poaching day. "I don't really know how to do that well," she admitted. "Just think," her instructor enthused, rolling out a rack with dozens upon dozens upon dozens of eggs, "after today, you're never going to be able to say that again."
This mastery can sometimes be out of reach, for those of us who didn't go to culinary school, or are enthusiastic generalists rather than single-minded specialists. But, if I do say so myself, after a rather deep-diving month, I must say that I feel I know the fresh fruit tart backwards and forwards.
The inspiration for this obsession was a friends' wedding. The couple asked if I'd be willing to make up six fruit tarts, to round out a dessert table that ended up including 3 delicious half-sheet cakes, and a small vegan and gluten-free layer cake (adorably iced with the words "vegan and gluten-free"). These are good people, with an appreciation for good food (and good stories — the bride and I co-produced this piece last year), and a love that deserves a beautiful fruit tart. Or six of them. But in order to make desserts worthy of the occasion, I needed to call in some advice.
My friend Olga coached me through my initially slumping crusts, and Adrian provided additional advice (and even offered to let me break into her home while she was on vacation to borrow some tart pans). The former pastry chef who teaches my Women on Weights class fielded far, far too many questions in the 60-second bursts allotted each station, and shared a pastry cream recipe using some whole eggs (meaning I was only left with two- rather than three-dozen leftover yolks at the end). Multiple friends (bride included) loaned tart pans, and tasted versions along the way. And then, the night before, when I realized holycrap I've been focusing on recipes and don't even know how these things should look, Leela and Rebecca graciously responded to my last-minute freak-out ("Abundance is key to a beautiful tart. Some pics to describe my philosophy are attached. Almost no pattern is needed, just go MORE xoxo"). Mastering the fruit tart clearly takes a village.
With this mountain of input, and tart after tart, I just got good at things. These were lessons that came from other people's hard work and wisdom, a few failures, and, more than anything else, a mountain of butter and milk and eggs that let me just go at it until it was in my bones. And, while it's still tart season, I wanted to share some of the overall delicious lessons I've learned:
- Freeze your rolled-out tart dough. I used to make tarts in a ceramic pan, which works well enough (especially for tarts that are filled prior to baking). But if you want wedding-worthy perfection, you need a metal pan that you can freeze. Not refrigerate. Not freeze "until firm." Freeze for an hour, at least.
- Weigh down your tart dough. Yes, some of the magic recipes don't need to be baked with pie weights. But again, we're going for wedding perfection, sans slumping. Butter up some foil, line the dough (pushing down into the edges), and weigh it down. And use pennies! They're heavy, and they conduct (thanks, Olga!).
- Do not use a nonstick pan. Aside from the perflourinated chemicals that just might kill you, these also shrink/slump much, much more than your standard metal pan.
- Keep your dough from getting soggy. This takes two forms: don't actually assemble the tarts that far in advance, and brush the crust with some sort of barrier — you can use white chocolate (props to Gillian for that professional trick), or an egg wash brushed on the last few minutes of baking.
- Fully cook your pastry cream. In the fear of curdling (which, if you're careful in integrating your ingredients, shouldn't be a problem), many bakers snatch their pastry cream off the stove before it's fully cooked through. You need things to bubble (while furiously whisking) for a good solid minute or two, allowing the cream to thicken and the starch to cook off any remaining raw taste.
- Abundance! Leela is so right on this one. Summer (and weddings) are about love and bounty bursting forth, and you want your tarts to show the same. You really can't go too far. Fan out cut fruit to show its beauty, but this isn't the time for perfect spirals. You should have fans of fruit bumping up against each other, going beautifully in multiple directions, covered over or propped up by other fruits, because the days are not full enough and the nights are not full enough and we are gathering the rosebuds while we may and all that. I took the Tartine trick of glazing the cut fruit (in this case, an assortment of peaches, nectarines and plums), but then tumbling the berries just as they are, which gave a nice mix of messy and polished.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat. These tips, a distillation of all the good advice I received, will put you in a fine starting place. But there really is no substitute for getting it down, and the sixth tart will undoubtedly be a different animal than the first. The wedding definitely gave me a crash course, and I'm happy that I could add some additional sweetness to a truly beautiful night. But I'm going to keep at it. This may be some lifelong learning here. Which is fine with me.
Fresh Fruit Tart
crust adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours, pastry cream from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook (I ended up using a different one for the tarts, which used weights, which was better for my mass quantities and irregularly-sized farmer's market eggs, but this one is also delicious and great for the single tart), and a hundred other assists from the lovely folks listed above.
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick plus 1 tablespoon (9 tablespoons; 4 1/2 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into pats
1 large egg yolk (since my eggs were on the smaller side, I used 1 yolk and 1 full egg per double batch, which worked well)
1 egg, beaten with a pinch of salt and splash of milk/water, for glazing
To make the crust: Put the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse a few times to combine. Scatter the pieces of butter over the dry ingredients, and pulse until the butter is coarsely cut in (you want pieces between the size of oatmeal and peas). Add the yolk, and pulse in long pulses until it forms clumps and curds (just before this happens, the sound of the machine will change — head's up!).
When the dough clumps, turn it out onto a clean work surface or bowl, and, very lightly and sparingly, knead the dough just to incorporate any dry ingredients that might have escaped mixing. Wrap the dough ball in plastic or parchment, and refrigerate for about two hours (and up to two days).
When the dough is chilled, butter a 9-inch tart metal tart pan with a removable bottom. Roll out the dough to about an inch larger than your pan — it's easiest to do this between two sheets of plastic wrap or parchment, peeling them back frequently so they don't get rolled into the dough. Press the rolled-out dough into your pan, folding over the sides to a double thickness and making sure everything is smooth and even. Freeze the crust for at least an hour.
When the crust is frozen, preheat the oven to 375° Fahrenheit.
Butter the shiny side of a piece of aluminum foil, and place it, buttered side down, tightly against the crust. Fill it with pie weights (pennies!). Place on a baking sheet (because the butter, it will drip out a bit), and bake for ~20-25 minutes, until lightly golden. Carefully remove the foil and weights. If the crust has puffed, press it down gently with the back of a spoon (or prick it with the tip of a small knife — not all the tines of a fork, or you may end up with a bigger hole). Bake the crust for another 5 minutes, then brush with an egg wash. Bake another few minutes, until firm and golden brown (color = flavor). Transfer the pan to a rack and cool the crust to room temperature. If making a day in advance, wrap the crust in plastic wrap or slip into a bag once fully (and I mean fully) cool.
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar, divided in half
1/2 vanilla bean (if you prefer, you can use 1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla extract instead, stirred in with the butter, or a combination of the two)
1/4 cup cornstarch
4 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
In a medium saucepan, combine the milk, 1/4 cup of the sugar, and the salt. Split the vanilla bean in half, scrape out the seeds, and place both the bean and seeds in the saucepan. Cook over a medium heat, until the mixture just begins to steam.
While the milk is heating, in a large bowl whisk together the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and cornstarch, then the yolks, mixing until smooth.
When the milk mixture is steaming, take about 1/2 cup of it, and, whisking constantly, slowly pour it into the egg yolk mixture, whisk-whisk-whisking until incorporated. Tempering! Repeat with remaining milk mixture, then transfer everything back into the saucepan. Raise the heat to medium-high, and, whisking constantly (notice a theme?), bring it just to a simmer. The mixture will thicken, but continue to cook 1-2 minutes when it's at the bubbling point. Remove from heat, stir in the butter, and fish out the vanilla bean. Transfer immediately to a bowl, and cover with plastic wrap or parchment, pressed directly on the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until chilled, at least 2 hours, and up to 2 days.
lots and lots of fruit!
a relatively neutral jam or jelly (I used quince)
a few sprigs of mint or other fresh herbs
To finish the tart, take your chilled pastry cream, and whisk it until it becomes smooth again. Spread it evenly in your prepared tart shell. If you're using fruit that you're going to slice (stone fruits, pomes, supremed citrus segments, etc.), heat up 1/4 cup jam or jelly in a saucepan over a low heat, until it gets runny. Jam needs to be strained, but jelly is fine as it is.
Slice any fruits you're going to slice, and fan them on top of the tart in any patterns to your liking. Dip a pastry brush in the heated jelly/jam, and gently brush the cut fruit to keep it beautiful. Take any remaining fruit that doesn't need glazing (berries, cherries, currants, pomegranate arils, etc.), and scatter them generously in overflowing clusters. Tuck a few fresh herb sprigs here and there, and return everything to the refrigerator for an hour or so to set. Serve.