Thursday, July 5, 2007
A classic tarte aux fraises
You know you've lived in France a long time when strawberry tart with crème pâtissière starts to seem banal. In any pastry shop in Paris you'll find this classic, the scarlet berries perched on an eggy cream and glazed with red jelly. I like it, but it's not something that I've thought of ordering in years (well, would you, when you could have Pierre Hermé's raspberry, rose and lychee tart or Sadaharu Aoki's salted caramel tart with milk chocolate?).
I associate crème pâtissière with the Cordon Bleu, where I worked as an interpreter for nine months when I first moved to France twelve years ago. Every Thursday the pastry chef, a man of blessedly few words, would turn out dozens of cakes and éclairs and tarts with quiet precision in the course of a two-hour demonstration. On these days my diet (if you can call it that) consisted solely of cakes and perhaps I had my fill of crème pâtissière, the obligatory filling for so many French desserts.
In Nice I like to fill strawberry tart with nothing but strawberries, the prettiest ones left whole and the rest boiled with sugar and a little lemon juice to make a vivid red jelly that I drizzle over top. As fate would have it, though, I found myself recently at a little restaurant in the pretty town of La Turbie called Café de la Fontaine. It looks like a regular café but is in fact the annex of the elegant Hostellerie Jérôme, where chef Bruno Cirino turns out some of the best food on the Côte d'Azur - or so I hear, as I haven't yet eaten there.
We arrived very late for lunch, past 2.30pm, but the waiters made room for us in the cacophonous dining room (the terrace is presumably a bit quieter). I went for the steak-frites with béarnaise, which was remarkable for the quality of the meat, while Philippe had the equally meaty pork with blood sausage and Sam devoured a plate of asparagus-stuffed ravioli. It was all lovely, not haute cuisine but clearly good quality ingredients prepared with thought and care.
All the time, though, I had my eye on the strawberry melba on the blackboard menu, hoping against hope that the waiter wouldn't come along and cross it out as he had most of the other desserts.
Finally, the plates were cleared and the moment had come.
"Three strawberry melbas, please."
The waiter looked regretful. "We've just run out. We have strawberry tart, though."
It wasn't much of an endorsement but at least I would have my strawberry fix. And then the big wedges of tart arrived, with delicate pastry, a surprisingly light vanilla-scented cream and sweet ruby berries. A marvel of simplicity, this tart reminded me of why crème pâtissière should never be filed away under "too old-fashioned."
Naturally I wanted to recreate this tart at home, with the same light pastry cream. The classic French recipe is often quite dense, with butter giving it a glossy finish but adding weight in the stomach. I slightly modified a basic pastry recipe from Books for Cooks no. 7, a compilation of recipes from my favorite cookbook shop in London, and tinkered with the pastry cream from O délices to make a strawberry tart that came remarkably close to what I had eaten in La Turbie.
In summer I prefer to make pastry in the food processor, which keeps it as cool as possible. Lately I've taken to sifting the flour, a step I used to ignore, as I've concluded that it really does produce lighter pastry. I didn't bother with red glaze (pastry chefs use melted redcurrant jelly), but you might sprinkle it with icing sugar.
The key is real vanilla bean and the sweetest, juiciest strawberries you can find - but you didn't need me to tell you that.
Classic tarte aux fraises
For the pastry:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (175 g)
5 tbsp icing sugar (45 g)
Pinch of salt
3 oz very cold butter, in pieces (90 g)
1 egg yolk
2 tbsp ice water (30 ml)
For the crème pâtissière:
1 1/3 cups whole milk (350 ml)
1/2 vanilla bean
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar (75 g)
1/4 cup flour (30 g)
1 1/2 lbs strawberries (700 g)
Pastry: Sift the flour and icing sugar and place in the bowl of a food processor with the salt. Pulse once or twice to combine. Add the butter and process until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the egg yolk and water and process until the dough forms a ball. Be careful not to overmix, but do let the dough come together. Turn the dough out onto a board and work it very lightly until smooth, pressing it forward bit by bit with the heel of your hand.
Roll the dough out immediately (going against tradition, which says to let it rest in the refrigerator) and line a 9-inch (24 cm) tart tin with the pastry, cutting the edges off with a rolling pin. If it tears, don't be afraid to press it back together, using stray pieces of dough to reinforce any weak spots. Place in the refrigerator for at least an hour before using.
Preheat the oven to 425 F (200 C), or 400 F (190 C) on the convection setting. Line the pastry with a round of parchment paper and fill with beans or rice. If you don't have beans or rice, you can use a second tart tin of the same size instead (if you have one!).
Bake for 10-15 mins, until the pastry starts to brown around the edges. Remove the paper and weights or tart tin and return to the oven for another 10 minutes or so, until evenly golden. Set aside to cool.
Crème pâtissière: Pour the milk into a medium saucepan. Scrape the seeds of the vanilla bean into the milk and add the bean to the milk. Bring to a boil, being careful not to let it burn.
In a large bowl, combine the egg yolks and sugar until fluffy. Add the flour and whisk well until smooth. Pour the boiling milk slowly into this mixture, whisking constantly. Return the milk mixture to the saucepan and bring to a boil, whisking to prevent lumps from forming. Lower the heat and continue to cook the pastry cream, whisking, for 2-3 mins over very low heat to cook the flour (if you're using an electric burner, switch to another burner so as not to burn the pastry cream). Remove the vanilla bean, pour the cream into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap so that the plastic touches the surface, preventing a skin from forming. Set aside to cool.
When the pastry and pastry cream have cooled, pour the cream into the pastry shell and spread it out with a spatula. Top with the strawberries, cut in half, with the cut side facing upwards to prevent too much juice from soaking into the cream.