Monday, March 29, 2010

Queen of Tarts

It's been a dry month-plus around here in my kitchen. I try recipes with the best of intentions, but there hasn't been anything worth reporting back on. This is my go-to excuse, I know. But I'm being truthful. Then it occurred to me that I always wanted to talk about tarts.

I received a tart pan for Christmas. I've used it to make several really delicious tarts, including this one. One thing that I especially like about this recipe is the technique for making the dough. Making the dough is easy; you can make lots of plain pastry dough, and freeze for up to three months. You can always have it on hand to make a wide variety of recipes. Here's a crash course:

Pastry dough, or pate brisee, can be used to make pies, tarts, quiche, or puff pastry. While there may be some variations, the basic formula is all-purpose flour mixed with a little salt, and then an equal amount (to the flour) of very cold butter (I use frozen) is grated in. Then use very cold water, about a tablespoon at a time, to form the ingredients into a ball. Use only enough water to achieve this. Shape into a ball, then flatten. Freeze or chill, for at least an hour. When you're ready to use the dough, thaw (if needed) and shape.

The technique from here varies, but you will have a delicious, buttery, flaky crust to use for just about anything. And it's so easy. A lot of modern cooks recommend that you use a food processor to do the work, which is fine, but you really don't need anything more than a bowl, your hands, a cheese grater (box or flat), and a freezer. A rolling pin is nice, too, but it's not necessary.

For some variations, you could add sugar, vanilla beans, freshly cracked black pepper, finely grated Parmesan cheese, olive oil, or dried herbs. Not all together, of course. Also, as you'll note in the recipe linked above, the addition of an egg and an egg yolk makes the dough a lot easier to work with, as tart dough can be very crumbly. Omitting the egg and folding the dough over, then rolling it out, chilling, and repeating, results in airy, flaky puff pastry.

The easy part is deciding what to use the dough for. As I said, there are countless ways to use pastry dough. Make a chicken stew, cover with the pastry dough, brush with an egg wash,cut to vent, bake, and you have chicken pot pie. I like to use the scraps for little cookies. I dust them with cinnamon and sugar, roll up, and bake in the oven or toaster oven for 15 minutes. The butter in the dough braises your dish as it bakes, so you'll end up with great, rich flavor, no matter what.

The recipe that I used yesterday would make a beautiful and delicious addition to any Easter table: an almond and apricot tart. I got the recipe from the Food and Wine Magazine website. It involves a lot of work, but I think it was worth it. Fortunately, you can always make the pastry dough for the tart in advance, and then also bake the shell the night before.

Apricot, Almond and Brown Butter Tart
Adapted with revised instructions from Food and Wine

Ingredients for Pastry:
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, chilled if using a food processor, frozen if using a grater
5 tablespoons ice water
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Ingredients for Filling:
3/4 cup slivered almonds
2 cups dry white wine
2 cups dried apricots (10 ounces)
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 vanilla bean—halved lengthwise, seeds scraped and reserved (I strongly recommend using vanilla bean, as it makes great flavor, but an extra 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract would work too)
1 3/4 cups confectioners’ sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract or vanilla
Sweetened whipped cream, for serving, or vanilla ice cream, if you're feeling extract decadent

To make the tart shell, mix the flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Remove the butter from the freezer and grate using a flat plane or box cheese grater. Add to the bowl, or grate directly over the bowl. Using your hands, crumble the mixture together until it is coarse in texture, or with lumps the size of peas. Add most of the ice water and vanilla extract. Using hands again, shape into a ball. Keep adding ice water by the tablespoon full until the dough forms a ball. Do not use more that 6 or 7 tablespoons of water, and only if absolutely necessary. The mixture may be very crumbly, but just shape it as best you can. If large chunks fall of, slap them back on. Dump the dough onto plastic wrap, flatten and wrap.

Place in the refrigerator to chill for at least an hour. You can keep the dough in the refrigerator for up to a week, and in the freezer, sealed and wrapped well, for about three months. If you are keeping the dough in the refrigerator for more than a few hours, you will need to allow the dough to thaw.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough to a 15-inch round, 1/4 inch thick. Transfer the round to a 12-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom; gently press it over the bottom and up the side. Trim any excess. Again if the dough is hard to work with, just be patient. It will turn out fine if you do the patching. Refrigerate the tart shell for at least 20 minutes, until firm.

Line the tart shell with foil and fill with dried beans or pie weights. Bake for about 50 minutes, until the shell starts to brown around the edges. Remove the foil and weights and bake for about 25 minutes longer, until the shell is cooked through. Transfer to a rack and let cool. You can make the shell a day in advance. If finishing the tart on the same day, lower the oven temperature to 325°.

To make the filling, spread the slivered almonds on a large rimmed baking sheet. Toast in the oven for about 6 minutes (at 325 degrees), until lightly browned. Let cool.

Meanwhile, in a medium nonreactive saucepan, bring the wine to a boil. Add the apricots, cover and simmer over moderate heat until plumped, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.

In a small skillet, cook the butter with the vanilla bean seeds over moderate heat until browned, about 4 minutes.

In a food processor, pulse the toasted and cooled almonds until it forms a meal. Place them in a medium bowl and add the confectioners' sugar, flour, and salt. Stir to combine. Add the eggs and stir until just combined. Add the browned butter and almond/vanilla extract and stir until smooth. There will still be some bumps from the almonds.

Drain the apricots and pat dry. Pour the almond filling into the tart shell. Nestle the apricots into the filling in concentric circles. Bake the tart for about 50 minutes, until the filling is golden brown and set. Transfer to a rack to cool. Cut into wedges and serve warm or at room temperature, dolloped with sweetened whipped cream.