Stop Looking! (Tart shell)

Once you find your perfect wedding dress, stop looking!” says Yes to the Dress’s Randy Fenoli (Don’t judge, it’s a guilty pleasure). The same should be said for the ideal tart crust – once you’ve found it, step away from the cookbooks! Wasn’t I done with this process? All that was left was to bake up a batch of the tarts and bring them to the Steakhouse for tasting. My tart shell quandary was solved until… I stumbled upon this month’s Cooks Illustrated recipe for a French apple tart; assuring a tastier and easier shell. Damn you, Christopher Kimball! In my present tart- obsessed hysteria, I couldn’t close the book (literally) on the promise of a perfect shell. This weekend, I placed my list of errands aside and ran a head-to-head battle between the Cooks Illustrated crust and mine. Both recipes came together in under 15 minutes. Both cut easily, cleanly, and with minimal crumbs. My version was sandier, better textured between my teeth. Theirs was buttery – and, I concede, much easier to make. There’s no heavy lifting of mixer from the cupboard – just a bowl and wooden spoon – and no need for almond flour. With the addition of vanilla and lemon zest (special ingredients in my version), it’s a contender, if not the winner. Before I admit defeat, I still needed to ensure the new crust would hold up to the filling test: filled and baked, does the shell collapse upon pan removal? I’ve had a recipe stashed since 1993 for a pumpkin-pecan pie. I decided to use it for my test filling – moist, heavy, dense, and a perfect flavor profile for the season. Instead of making tarts, I took a shortcut, patting the crust into an 8” square pan and making “bites” and omitting the butter sauce. The crust held up nicely.

Pecan Pumpkin Bites

Pecan Pumpkin Bites

Oh lordy! I’m one of those people who love pumpkin pie. When faced with the Thanksgiving pie array, my ranking would be pecan pie first, followed very closely by pumpkin with apple pie in the finish. (Who am I kidding? I like me some pie! Both pumpkin and pecan would make it on the plate, with apple being eaten in secret so I don’t seem a glutton). However, it needs to be the “right” pumpkin pie. I think some pumpkin pies are too firm and sturdy, more like a quiche or Jell-O. If you poke your finger on the surface, it shouldn’t resist or bounce back. It should easily plunge toward the middle with just a bit of surface resistance. On the flip side, it needs to be stable enough to hold up to a knife, not too fluffy or watery. I like my pumpkin pie on the custardy side – somewhere between flan and crème brulee. This recipe captures that texture perfectly.

Pecan Pumpkin Bites Crust

  •  1 1/3 c. APF flour
  •  5 T. Sugar
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 1/2 – 1 t. finely shredded lemon zest
  • 1 t. vanilla
  • 10 T. Unsalted butter

Melt butter.  Whisk together flour, sugar, salt and zest.  Add butter and vanilla.  Stir until dough forms.

Pumpkin Filling

  • 1 cup cooked pumpkin purée
  • 1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 large egg, beaten until frothy
  • 1 tablespoon heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Pinch of ground allspice
  • Pinch of ground nutmeg

Pecan Syrup

  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup dark corn syrup
  • 2 small eggs
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 pinch ground cinnamon
  • 3/4 cup pecan pieces

Preheat oven to 350. Cover an 8” square pan with aluminum foil, leaving an overhang to help remove crust once baked. Butter foil.   Mix crust ingredients in a bowl and press into pan and up sides. Bake crust for 15 minutes or until just beginning to turn golden. While the crust bakes, combine the pumpkin filling and set aside. Combine the pecan syrup and set aside. Cool crust for 10 minutes. Spread pumpkin filling over crust. Drizzle pecan syrup over pumpkin. Return bites to the oven and bake approximately 60-70 minutes until pecans are brown and filling no longer jiggles. A knife inserted should come out clean. Completely cool bites. Carefully remove bites from pan using foil. Remove foil from sides of bites (you may need a knife to help the sides release). Cut into squares and refrigerate until ready to serve.

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Two Bit Tarts

Tarts

Red plum, Almond and peach tarts

No, I haven’t hung up my tart pans and chef’s knife, but my bill-paying career has lately taken up all of my time – traveling, traveling, traveling from Miami to Chicago with a stop in Denver, island hopping from Nassau to Aruba to Grand Cayman and most recently, Napa, Phoenix and San Diego. It’s no wonder when the last trip wrapped on Thursday, my immune system plummeted on Friday, allowing a cold (or is it flu?) to lay me low.

I haven’t been completely negligent in my baking, just my baking blogging. This weekend, with a fever and stuffed nose, it’s the perfect time to catch up. After whipping up an utterly unhealthy banana bread studded with peanut butter baking chips and smothered with cream cheese frosting*, I returned to my tart troubles.

After a few more imperfect iterations, I settled on my Culinary School pate sucree with a portion of the flour substituted with almond flour to give it some crumble. The resulting crust is sturdier than Hesser’s yet not as rock hard as the original sucree. It works for cream and custard fillings (lemon, key lime, coconut and almond), but becomes soggy overnight when filled with stone fruit. We’ll call that a ½ win.

The Crust
7.5 oz. softened butter
3 oz. sugar
1/2 t. salt
3/4 t. lemon zest
1/2 t. vanilla
3 oz. egg, beaten
8 oz. All Purpose flour**
2 oz. almond flour

Preheat oven to 375.  Cream butter and sugar. Add salt, zest, vanilla and egg and beat until fully incorporated. Combine flours and mix until incorporated. Weigh out 2.75 oz. for each tartlet and press into sides and bottom of tartlet pans***. Blind bake as needed.

*Future trial – substitute pastry flour
**Future trial especially for my personal trainer – banana bread with Reese’s minis and crispy bacon covered in cream cheese frosting. God bless a girl with 12% body fat that still understands food porn.
***I’ve found a tortilla press works wonders for mass production. I pressed a 2.75 oz. ball of dough flat between two pieces of plastic wrap in the press, then fit the dough into the pans, pushing the overhang back in the sides as reinforcement.

Hesser vs. Sucrée

I better figure out this tart crust dilemma quickly. I’ve volunteered to bake 24 tarts for our neighborhood bake sale next Saturday. Last night, regrettably, the Hesser and Sucrée battle ended, as I was afraid it would, without a clear victor.

The Hesser tart crumbled next to the very durable pate sucrée, but the sweet-savory taste and distinctive texture were far superior. The sucrée was overly sweet, yet bland and insipid – it could be any crust from any tart, but I’m convinced it could weather a 5” drop unscathed. Am I overreaching? I’ve scraped and eaten too many fillings, leaving the lackluster crust behind – and I don’t want my tarts to endure the same fate. I’m vainly searching for a formidable shell that can withstand the rigors of restaurant plating (and neighborhood bake sales) with a flavor worth devouring to the very last crumb.

Almond Tart Comparison

Almond Tart Comparison

Late last night, after the failed attempts above, I made another batch of Hesser’s with an added egg and pate sucrée with 1 oz of oil substituted for some of the butter, combining a little of each in the other. Both were better, but a winner is still eluding me. Maybe my best route is to make one of each and mash ‘em together.

I must find the ideal crust. Not yet defeated, but feeling the results of my quandary in the tightening waistband of my shorts, I recall my Culinary School sucrée recipe, substituting sugar for powdered sugar. That recipe – along with another ideation of Hesser’s – is my homework for tonight. Wish me luck – or a mash-up, it may have to be.

Where is my pastry fairy godmother to save me?