Fruit Tart (or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Berries)

Berry Tart

It all started innocently enough with pie dough.

One of the dubious joys of working for a major multinational oil company is that I have a large number of early morning teleconferences – starting at 6 AM is sadly not uncommon. During one of these calls Friday, as my precaffeinated mind wandered, it hit me that I hadn’t made pie dough in quite some time. As soon as I got through the string of calls and could get away, I snuck in to the kitchen to get more coffee and put together a batch of pie dough.

I have an old standby pie dough recipe that I’ve used for a few years now, enough that my hands “know” the recipe and I don’t have to pull out the cookbook. But, midway through, I got thinking – I hadn’t tried simple basic pie dough, a 1-2-3 mix by weight of water, butter, and flour. Having had so much success simplifying my cooking by adopting ratios, I made a second batch of pie dough. Since the food processor was already used to make the first batch, I made this one by hand, another chance to practice the technique.

Except, now what was I going to do with this new pie dough?!

Tart Shell 

I don’t own a pie plate. (Sad truth – I’d mistaken some of Christine’s cake pans for pie plates when we got married, and baked really deep quiches for a year until she pointed out my folly.) But, I do own tart pans, so I rolled out the dough, lined a tart pan, and blind baked the tart shell. I was no closer to knowing what I would do with the tart shell, but having one is better than not having one.

Flash forward through an hour or two of working, and I had to run to the grocery store to pick up a few things. Walking through the produce section, it hit me – the fresh berries looked amazing, so why not try a berry tart? A few good reasons:

  1. I’ve never been a fan of berries, any of them, in their raw form.
  2. I’ve never made a fruit tart.
  3. I’ve never made pastry cream.
  4. I’m standing at the store, short on time, and not really knowing what goes in to making any of this.

Of course, there are some great reasons to try this:

  1. I’ve never made a fruit tart.
  2. I’ve never made pastry cream.
  3. I’m obsessive with food. Once an idea hits me, I won’t stop thinking about it, dreaming about it, until I go and make it.

Live a little! So, I snagged some strawberries and blueberries that looked absolutely fantastic, picked up some cream and some more eggs, and headed back home, confident that I could make this work. I’m now fixated on the idea, rewarding myself for getting work tasks done by googling berry tarts and studying the technique involved.

Strawberries Blueberries

Flash forward again through an afternoon of working, and past dinnertime, to me unwinding in the kitchen by making pastry cream (or crème patissiere, if you’re feeling fancy). Dead simple – steep vanilla bean in cream and milk, temper in egg yolks, thicken with cornstarch, chill – and a lot of fun to make. Christine was in the kitchen for almost all of this, and bemused by my obsessions, agreed to go get the camera and take the amazing photographs you see here. (Normally, you’d get my iPhone snapshots of food. This is more appealing. Trust me.)

Pastry Cream 

The result? Wow. I mean, WOW. The berries explode with just the right sweet flavor, not too cloying and just barely tart. The pastry cream is delicious (desserts! where have you been all my life!), and I’m rationing myself on the whole thing to avoid dying young and happy of obesity and clogged arteries. The pie dough was good, and held up well for the tart. It came out a bit tough, which I chalk up to a) needing practice on the technique to not overwork the flour, and b) adding about 1.5x the water needed, because – duh – ice melts into the water you’ve so carefully weighed. Water gives the glutenin and gliadin proteins in the flour better ability to move about and form gluten, which gives breads their strength and shape – but that’s getting deeper into food science.

Placing Berries

Look at it. Yum!

Berry Tart

On that note, I can also say I’ve reached a milestone and have completed a tour of duty with Michael Ruhlman’s book Ratio, which I’ve raved about here and on Twitter. I haven’t cooked every recipe in the book Julie and Julia style, partly because I’m not out to learn a collection of recipes and mainly because the book isn’t geared towards that. However, I’ve picked up basic properties and techniques from each chapter:

  • Doughs – All sorts of useful stuff here; I bake all my own bread and pizza dough now. Biscuits and pate a choux are staples. Cookies and pie dough are the guilty pleasures.
  • Batters – Pound cake and sponge cake blew my mind a few weeks ago (They’re the same ingredients, mixed basically backwards of each other! Whoah!). I’ve got pancakes down pat to where I can do this halfway awake when I get up in the morning.
  • Stocks – I’ve already worked on making my own stocks, but picked up some other techniques and tips here. The cream soups (thickening with roux) is something I kind of knew but really have a grasp on now, and have made a few real winners.
  • Meats – Hah. Meatloaf will never be the same, and I have the friends who will back me up on that.
  • Fat-based sauces – I’m never buying mayonnaise again. Especially if I can sneak in some garlic and make aioli instead.
  • Custards – And here I finally finish, with the pastry cream. The same basic vanilla custard, finished in a few different ways, branches out into all sorts of desserts.

This book really has helped gel all of the techniques, recipes, and pieces of food know-how that rattle around in my head from reading so many cookbooks like novels. I still have my “stretch-yourself” cooking moments, where I pull out the cookbooks and look up at least half a dozen different recipes to get at the essence of a dish, but I’m also now much more able to just walk in to the kitchen and start to cook.

And look, Mom! I like berries!