When I get back to teaching cooking classes, I want to teach tarts.
As in pies, not strumpets. (Which leads me to thoughts of crumpets, also worth teaching.)
But not pies, because too many people tremble just to read a pie recipe, especially with a double crust. Somehow, tarts just feel easier.
After all, aside from the edge (which almost automatically looks pretty because the tart pan guides the baker), tart shells can't be seen. There's no fancy crimping involved, no sealing a top crust to a bottom. Many tart pastries never even need make a rolling pin's acquaintance.
My recent tarts, though, have happily met a rolling pin, as my father made me a new one. For the past decade, I've sworn by the plain, barrel-shaped pin he made me. It doesn't have handles, which I find just get in the way and cause me to put too much pressure on the edges of the dough. It's heavy enough, but certainly not marble-weight, which I also find unwieldy--and I've never found that the vaunted coolness of a marble rolling pin really helped that much.
But now Daddy has made me a tapered rolling pin, ideal for rolling pastry into a more-perfect circle (usually I struggle not to roll a perfect square). A little pressure on the middle of the pin and more on a tapered end, and I had a gorgeous circle taking shape on my first try. The pastry rolled out into an even, thin layer with almost no effort.
And when I transferred it to the pan and accidentally created a small crack, so what? It was easy to patch, and my diners didn't seem to notice.
That's the joy of tarts: The ones you feed get too busy being thrilled by a homemade tart to notice any imperfections, because it's tasty and because they're sure you slaved over it.
Of course, you don't even have to make a crust; fabulous tarts come in phyllo shells or store-bought puff pastry. You can even, in a pinch, use slices of thin white bread, buttered and baked until golden.
But I always come back to basic pastry. Given my sieve of a memory, there aren't very many recipes I keep in my head. Tart crusts, though, are easy--and, if my memory fails, flexible. For a 9-inch tart, use a cup of flour, a pinch of coarse salt, 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, and 2 tablespoons ice water. If you need more moisture, add a little half-and-half, cream or beaten egg yolk. For a 10- to 12-inch tart, just up the ingredients to a cup and a half of flour, 6 tablespoons butter, and a tablespoon or two more liquid.
These quantities work for me because there's not so much butter that I feel guilty making tarts frequently. But flexible recipe that this is, you could up the butter by as much as 4 tablespoons for a 9-inch tart--a cup of flour and a stick of butter may be easier to remember, if you too have mommy brain. (Yeasted tart doughs are also delicious, tender, and need less butter, but they demand advance planning, rarely a part of my life these days.)
Put the flour and salt in a food processor and whiz briefly to blend. Cut the butter into pieces, add, and pulse the processor until butter is in very small pieces. Add the liquid and pulse until the mixture just comes together; I start with the water but usually end up adding a tablespoon or two of half-and-half (if you use all water, you get a tougher crust that's more likely to shrink). Don't use too much liquid; the dough shouldn't be dry and crumbly, but the more liquid, the more your crust will shrink.
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface, roll thin with a lightly floured rolling pin, fold the dough gently in half, and transfer it to the tart pan. Tenderly fit it, without stretching, into the crease of the pan and press gently into the sides. Roll the rolling pin over the top to cut off the excess; use to patch any tears or gaps if needed. Chill for 15 minutes in the freezer, or, covered, for several days in the fridge, or, wrapped in a freezer bag, in the freezer for a month.
If even that seems like too much, you could simply press the dough into the tart pan, though you'll probably get a thicker and somewhat tougher shell that way. Or just cut the rolled dough into small rounds and bake them as flat shells if you lack a tart pan.
Many tarts need shells that are at least partially baked. To do this, put the chilled tart shell (on a baking sheet, if you like, to make handling it easier) in a preheated 400-degree oven for 20 minutes. I vastly prefer to line the shell with foil that hangs over the top and fill the foil with dried beans or pie weights, but you can always just prick the shell thoroughly (to prevent puffing) and bake it straight--just be prepared for the sides to slump a bit (less so if the crust was thoroughly chilled first). If you want a crisp shell, take out the beans, prick the bottom with a fork to let out trapped air, and bake it for 5 to 10 minutes more, until the bottom is dry.
Truly simple--it took you longer to read those directions than it will to make one.
And then, what to fill the shell? There isn't a single minute in the day that a tart can't improve. Breakfast can be sweet or savory. Try browned sausage topped with eggs poached or scrambled with herbs, then piled into baked shells and topped with shaved cheese. Or spoon leftover rice pudding into tartlet shells for a rich breakfast, brunch or dessert.
Lunch and supper tarts can't go wrong with filling ideas borrowed from sandwiches; almost any meat or vegetable and cheese combination tastes better in a tart. Try mushroom and tomato; ham and cheese (brie and prosciutto, or sprinkle a tart shell with crumbs of rye bread, then top with thinly sliced ham and grated Swiss mixed with a little Dijon). With strawberry season coming, try lining a crust with cream cheese whipped with powdered sugar and lemon zest, then folded into unsweetened whipped cream. Top with sliced, sugared strawberries.
Despite my preference for baking sweets, I've had a strong hankering lately for tomato tarts. As soon as the days get over 70 degrees, I dread the looming heat of summer, but I do crave summer's vegetables. A tomato tart can be nothing more than sliced tomatoes laid in a crust, dusted with fresh herbs and sprinkled with Parmesan. But the most recent ones I've made show the value of a bit more effort. First, inspired by a recipe in Art of the Tart by Tamasin Day-Lewis, I made a tart with a prosciutto puree under the tomatoes with a scent nearly as luscious as it tasted. On the down-home end, I made another tomato tart topped with a Cheddar-mayonnaise mixture that puffed slightly and melted to a sweet creaminess.
Tomato tarts ask just one thing of their makers: Please, give them a thoroughly crisp shell. I have tried to trust recipes that call for unbaked or only partially baked shells, and regretted it every time. Good tomatoes are juicy tomatoes, and juicy tomatoes make puff pastry or unbaked tart shells taste like a limp-fish handshake.
Cook's notes: Once you've mastered a basic tart shell, try varying the ingredients a bit, substituting a bit of cornmeal or semolina for the flour to add crunch and flavor, or using cream cheese in place of some of the butter. For a truly crisp shell, remove the beans or pie weights from a partially baked shell, brush with a little beaten egg or egg white, then finish baking. The cheddar tomato tart, adapted from a pie recipe in James Villas' My Mother's Southern Kitchen, makes a delicious light meal with a salad; it also works well as a first course. I like this tart without too many competing flavors, but you may want to sprinkle the tomatoes with 1/2 cup chopped scallions. It's infinitely better with fresh herbs, but in desperation, sprinkle the tomatoes with 1 teaspoon dried oregano.
Cheddar Tomato Tart
Serves 4 as a main course
1 10- or 11-inch tart shell, baked until crisp (see above)
4 ripe tomatoes, sliced thin
3 tablespoons minced herbs, such as oregano, basil, or winter savory, or a mixture of these
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line the tart shell with tomatoes, overlapping them. Sprinkle with herbs, salt and pepper. In a small bowl, stir cheddar and mayonnaise together; gently spread over tomatoes with a spatula. Sprinkle with Parmesan. Bake tart for about 45 minutes, until golden. Let cool slightly before slicing to serve.
8 thin slices prosciutto
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 9-inch tart shell, baked until crisp (see above)
4 tomatoes, or 8 plum tomatoes, sliced thin
2 teaspoons minced rosemary, thyme, or winter savory, or a mixture of these
2 tablespoons freshly ground Parmesan (optional)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Briefly whiz prosciutto, 4 tablespoons olive oil, garlic and pepper in a food processor to make a rough puree. Spread onto bottom of tart shell; top with tomatoes, overlapping slightly. Brush with remaining tablespoon of oil and sprinkle with herbs, then Parmesan. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, until heated through. Serve warm.