Getting Tarty

Tart_smallsize 

It’s funny how weekend plans can change on a dime when it comes to unrequited food cravings. I was all set to become all zen-like with my wok when my dinner out last Friday night did not quite have the sweet ending expected and all thoughts of stir-frying dissipated like a drop of water on a hot pan.

Let me explain. “Hungry” Hubby and I went to dine at what could be the most popular restaurant in Richmond, and rightly so. Ambience is unparalleled; food has always been consistently good and more than a couple of times – excellent. But like all other dining establishments in the Richmond Metro Area, the dessert menu fails to tantalize.

Now, as I have a pastry business myself I tend to stir clear of offering any kind of opinion regarding a restaurant’s last course because I believe everyone’s taste buds are different. But I think it is long overdue for someone to say quite simply: “Let’s raise the bar on dessert, people!”

I am not a difficult person to please. I realize this is not New York City or San Francisco, but is it too much wishful thinking to have sweet goods such as the tartlets of Balthazar (yes, T.W. they still haunt me) and the delectable baked goods of Tartine  be within easy reach? Even I, on my limited budget, make it a priority to visit these food Meccas to enrich my palate and not lose touch as to what is a quality pastry instead of staying in my own comfort zone and fester in mediocrity. What I am trying to say is restaurants should invest in their culinary team and send their staff to New York, Chicago or San Francisco at least once a year to scope out the dining (and pastry) scene.

         Sigh – okay end of rant.

So, last night instead of reading my newly acquired Wok book, I pulled out Tartine in hopes of consoling myself with photographs from this beloved San Francisco Bakery. But images were not enough and I found myself pulling stuff out of the refrigerator to make pastry cream. I already had leftover tart dough in the freezer from the Meyer lemon curd tart I made a couple of weeks ago – there was no stopping me now.  That night, I dreamt of a very berry tart, and I knew exactly how I wanted it.

Tartcloseup_lores 

Sweet Tart Dough (K. Zuckerman Sweet Life)– check out recipe here. Instead of blind-baking, I baked the tart all the way through. Remember, the color has to be golden brown to release the buttery taste otherwise the flavor will be “floury”.

Pastry Cream (Tartine)

Whole milk                 2 cups

Vanilla bean                ½ bean

Salt                           ¼ tsp.

Corn Starch                3 tbs.

Sugar                         ½ cup + 1 tbs.

Large Eggs                 2

Unsalted Butter           4 tbs.

            Pour the milk in a heavy saucepan. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and use the tip of a sharp knife to scrape the seeds from the pods into the milk. Add the salt, place over medium high heat and bring to just under a boil, stirring occasionally and making sure that the milk solids are not sticking to the bottom of the pan. The larger batch, the more careful you should be.

            Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and the sugar. Add the eggs and whisk until smooth.

            When the milk is ready, ladle about 1/3 of the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Pour the egg-milk mixture back into the hot milk and continue whisking over medium heat until the custard is thick as lightly whipped cream, about 2 minutes. In order for the cornstarch to cook and thicken fully, the mixture should come just below boiling point. However if the cream is allowed to boil you will curdle the cream. Remove from heat and immediately pour trough the sieve into the bowl.

            Let cool for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to release the heat and prevent a skin from forming. Cut the butter into 1 tbs. pieces. When pastry cream is ready whisk the butter into the pastry cream 1 tbs. at a time, always whisking until smooth before adding the next tbs.

            To cool the cream, cover the bowl with plastic wrap pressing the wrap directly onto the top of the cream. Be careful whisking the cream when it is cold. Overmixing will break down the starch and thin the cream. Pastry cream will keep, well covered, in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

            Bavarian Cream (Tartine)

            Gelatin                                   ½ tsp.

            water                                     1 tbs.

            Heavy cream, very cold         ¾ cup

            Pastry Cream(above), cold     1 cup

           

            Soften gelatin in the water. Heat ¼ of the cream and dissolve the gelatin. Meanwhile whip the remaining ½ cup of heavy cream until firm peaks form. In a mixing bowl, whisk the pastry cream to smooth it out. Fold in the whipped heavy cream. Whisk about ½ cup of the whipped cream-pastry mixture into the gelatin mixture. Add the gelatin mixture to the rest of the cream combination and whisk to combine.

Filling the tarts

Have the cooled tart shells ready. Spoon the desired filling onto your tart shell. You don’t want to fill the shell to the top as the weight of the fruit can cause the pastry cream/Bavarian cream to overflow the rim. Fill with fruit.

            (I arranged the raspberries first into the cream and then scattered the blueberries letting them fall where they wanted. Then I filled in the empty spaces with the appropriate berries.)

Kitchen Notes:

Nothing beats a vanilla bean for flavor infusion. A good vanilla bean is moist and flexible. I prefer Nielsen Massey Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans. They are the best quality and quite expensive but they are so totally worth the price. Flatten the pod with the back of the knife as this will make it easier to slice down the middle and scrape the beans out. Since this bean is boiled in milk, you can wash, dry and grind it to make vanilla bean powder, which you can use to sprinkle on dessert.

The pastry cream was scrumptious and rich with the scent of vanilla- it took all the willpower I had not to just consume the whole bowl right then and there.

The steps for the Bavarian cream were kind of suspect. I had some lumps when I added the cold pastry-whipped cream mixture to the gelatin-mixture; either the gelatin-mixture was too cool or it would have been better to add the gelatin-mixture to the cream as it was being whipped.

I filled some tarts with straight pastry cream and others with Bavarian cream. From what I’ve tasted so far, pastry cream is better for berries. The Bavarian cream would probably work better for fruits that have their own sweetness like mangoes, as it is very light and not too sweet at all.

The sweet-tart recipe is one I love and hate. It can be frustrating to work with because it keeps breaking apart and you’ll have to play patch-up work with the misbehaving dough. I keep swearing to look for a new recipe but each time I taste the buttery crispness of the baked shell, I fall in love with it all over again. I did find that it helps a lot to roll it between waxed parchments rather than a floured surface. Use one side of the parchment when transferring to a tart ring- if you lift it with your fingers – it will break. I also skipped glazing the tarts – as fresh looking as the berries were, it would be a shame to cover them with a shiny glaze.

As Elisabeth Prueitt said in her book, more than just recipes, first-rate ingredients play a vital role in the result of your pastry – if you use the best there is no need to bury your dessert under layers of sugar.

Twotart_lores

Summer’s Last Stand

Lemonbar 

We had been enjoying a very mild August weather; the transition into September had been promising with chilly mornings and humidity-free days. I was already starting my mornings daydreaming of cold weather stews and soups, gently poaching duck legs in duck fat to make duck confit and making flaky crusts for apple pies – so much so that I have mentally transported myself into autumn by evening. My daily reverie was completely obliterated this past weekend when an unusual balmy day escalated into an oppressive heat wave that turned parked cars into frying pans.

This presented a problem as we were having a party of grilled kebobs to celebrate the end of summer – little did we know that summer was not quite ready to leave. We had to move the time of the gathering from lunch to dinner as the noon-time sun would be beating down on the back deck where the grill was. Another dilemma was what dessert would be appropriate to follow the inevitable satiety of a kebab dinner and appealing enough to eat on a hot day: not chocolate, ice cream would be too heavy, maybe fruits? A light pana cotta was an option but since all the time I had was to make it the morning of the get-together, there would not be enough time to chill it. I rummaged through my trusty dessert books like Pure Dessert, The Sweet Life et al. for inspiration but nothing seemed to catch on. I do have some macarons…but that would be too predictable of me.  Finally, I pulled out Tartine.

My thoughts flitted back to my San Francisco visits where I always made it a priority to visit this beloved neighborhood bakery. Each time I visited, there were lines out the door but that never fazed me – everything was worth the wait from their ham and cheese croissants to their chocolate friands and from their fresh fruit tartlets to their yummy lemon bars. Panic always gripped me whenever it was my turn to order … decisions needed to be made quickly lest I hold up a line of equally eager customers and turn them into a menacing mob. So I just point and point and point and realized I had eaten again with my eyes as I left the pastry display case with boxes of goodies that would surely send me into a sugar coma by the end of the day.

My thoughts reluctantly left San Francisco to refocus back on the task at hand but not before pulling back a thread of inspiration.

Cold lemon bars…tart enough to whet a sated appetite and when served cold, perfect for that hot summer day!

I had everything I needed to make this dessert except lemons. I surmised that the newly opened Whole Foods wouldn’t be such a zoo at 9:00 am on a Sunday morning so I bravely set forth and sure enough there were but a few cars in the parking lot. I stilled myself to just go for the lemons when I stepped into its grand entrance, but my good intentions quickly dissipated as I saw the reduced price on the figs. And didn’t the hubby also mention he wanted some balsamic vinegar. I bought three. I walked towards the seafood area and wished I had a good reason to bring home a whole fish – they looked extremely fresh with eyes so clear they surely just made it off the boat.

Incidentally, here’s a picture of the shock and awe our Whole foods did on its second day of opening. I think it was a whole swordfish minus the head.

Fishwholefoods 

Passing the array of yoghurts, milk and eggs, I made a beeline for the meat case. Do I really need more meat? I looked longingly at their dry-aged beef display. There was only one thing to do – hightail my ass out of there.

So back to the lemon bars, an exciting moment came after discovering which brand of my assortment of egg trays had the most orange of yolk. Aren’t they lovely?

Eggyolk

 

Lemon Bars on Brown Butter Shortbread

From: Tartine by Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson

One 9-by13-inch baking pan; twelve 3-by-3 ¼ -inch bars

Crust

  • 2 oz/55g           Confectioner’s sugar
  • 7 ½ oz/215 g     All-purpose flour
  • 6 oz/170g         Unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 2oz/55g            Pine nuts (optional)

Filling

  • 2 ½ oz/70g       All-purpose flour
  • 1 pound/455g    Sugar
  • 9 oz/280 ml       Lemon juice
  • 1 small lemon    Zest

  • 6 Large whole eggs
  • 1 Large egg yolk
  • Pinch                salt

Confectioner’s sugar for topping

 

Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter a 9-by-13 inch baking pan.

To make the crust, sift the confectioner’s sugar into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the flour and stir to mix. Add the butter and pine nuts (if using) and beat on low speed just until a smooth dough forms.

Transfer the dough to the prepared pan and press evenly into the bottom and ½ inch up the sides of the pan. It should be about ¼ inch thick. To help even out the crust, use the flat bottom of any cup, pressing down firmly. Line the crust with parchment paper and fill with pie weights. Bake the crust until it colors evenly to a deep golden brown, 25 to 35 minutes. Rotate the pan 180 degrees if the crust appears to be baking unevenly.

While the crust is baking, make the filling: Sift the flour into a mixing bowl. Add the sugar and whisk until blended. Add the lemon juice and zest and stir to dissolve the sugar. In a separate mixing bowl, whisk the whole eggs and egg yolk with the salt. Add the eggs to the lemon juice mixture and whisk until well mixed.

When the crust is ready, pull out the oven rack holding the crust and pour the filling directly into the hot pan. (It is easiest to pour the custard into the pan if the pan is in the oven.). If the crust has come out of the oven and cooled before you have finished making the filling, put it back in for a few minutes so that it is hot when the custard poured into it. Reduce the oven temperature to 300F and bake just until the center of the custard is no longer wobbly, 30 to 40 minutes.

Let cool completely on a wire rack, then cover and chill well before cutting. Using a sharp knife, cut into 12 squares or as desired. If you like, dust the tops of the squares with confectioner’s sugar. They will keep in an airtight container or well covered in the baking dish in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.

Cooking Notes:

These bars were very easy to make. It needs 1 cup of lemon juice which amounts to about 4 regular sized lemons. Because we were having a party later I tried to reduce the mess I made as much as possible. For example, after weighing my confectioner’s sugar I immediately sifted it into a mixing bowl so I could use the same bowl to weigh the flour. And keep your measuring cup handy as you can use this to tamp down the crust when you are at that step. My crust took around 40 minutes to turn a dark golden brown. I had around 4 cups of egg mixture which I transferred to a large glass measuring cup to facilitate pouring. I had to take out the crust to remove the pie weights because I did not fancy picking them up one by one in the oven just in case I accidentally spilled them into the hot cavity.

These bars were delicious. The buttery crunchy crust complemented the tangy flavor of the lemon-infused custard. This was definitely a perfect sweet ending to the hot days of summer!

I'm also sending this to Susan of Sticky Gooey Creamy Chewy for her Blog Anniversary bash!