Strawberry Hazelnut Cream Tart

July 15, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’m sitting on the balcony of my hotel room in Paris, eight floors above the street, below, just steps away from the Saint Michel fountain, where crowds of tourists are still applauding two men performing some sort of bizarre sequence of body movements, which, in my opinion, hardly qualify as art or as acrobatic contortions. Horns are blaring, and I’m sure in some parts of the city — perhaps even a couple blocks away — parties are well under way for Bastille Day. I walked around about a four-block radius of my hotel and then retreated to my sanctuary of a hotel room.

Lately, I’ve been longing to be home, or at least somewhere I can call home for a couple of weeks, dreaming about having a kitchen again and starting each morning with a bowl of oatmeal with maple syrup and a cup of fresh coffee. Craving strange and random things that I certainly never thought would be at the top of my list — non-fat milk, whole grains, avocado, and curry. Homey, healthy, and flavors with a kick. Believe it or not, one cannot eat croissants forever, though I have certainly put it to the test.

Thankfully, it will be exactly one day until I have a kitchen again — though it still could not be farther from home —, as I have a growing list of desserts, and surprisingly savory dinner items, to make. In honor of this occasion, I thought I’d share something I made in the days leading up to this trip (read, almost two months ago). Fresh California strawberries sit atop a thick layer of vanilla pastry cream. The crust is crunchy, and just slightly overbaked to the point that it’s crystallized and caramelizing. Before filling the tart, I dipped a knife and a couple of spoons in a jar of hazelnut jam that my mom picked up at a local bakery, and spread the crust with nutty goodness. This tart disappeared in a flash, I think because it became of a favorite breakfast item of my dad’s.

Dried-plum walnut frangipane tart

June 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

I think the rain follows me. It catches me at the most inopportune moments. Like now when I went out to a café to write in a sundress and then the downpour started. The café is connected to one of the English speaking bookstores for all the expats who still want a taste of home; I don’t mind, I like real espresso instead of instant coffee and the red velvet lounge chairs are comfy enough to wait out the storm. Yesterday the dark clouds came in as fireworks spontaneously rose up over the river. There was never really any explanation of what we were celebrating, which I am learning seems to be the norm here. But we ran to the living room window anyway, which overlooks the town to the west, and watched the lights rise and fall in the distance. I could get used to that.

What is harder to get used to is the food here — displays of dense, heavy dumplings and strange animal body parts (have you ever eaten a pig’s knee before?). The closest I have gotten to eating well here is getting an Italian guy to offer to make dinner for me. Which I don’t think really counts as eating well in the Czech Republic. I am also not going to get used to the produce selection in the supermarket nearest me — vegetable choices range from tomatoes to lettuce to bell peppers…and, that’s about it. In order to survive, I am making huge batches of cashew-berry-papaya granola and eating it with yogurt at all times of the day. The yogurt here is rich and creamy enough to never even think of added sugar. And there is just enough space in my new kitchen to want to spend some time in it.

The church bells are usually ringing as I come back from my run. The butter cuts easily into the flour for savory piecrust. The water boils on the counter. The tea is creamy, because I still haven’t found skim milk. The light streams in through the window, the trees in the backyard garden below are damp with last night’s rain. As I step out the door and onto the metro, I remember to smile and nod when people talk to me. Act like you understand what they’re saying, and no one will ever know the difference. The best part is running down the street and not knowing what the guys are saying to you. It’s like living in a bubble, where you can make up the reality around you.

In the center of town, other languages fly in every direction. The Charles Bridge teems with visitors and reminds me of the Rialto Bridge in Venice. I get frustrated winding through the crowd with the cameras flashing, before realizing, wait, I actually know where I am going! I haven’t taken out a map since my second day here, it seems impossible to get lost. Meanwhile, the winding side streets, with old wooden doors and graffiti decorations, are captivating. The cobblestones are rough on the feet but I know the streets would look barren without them. Small groups of musicians wait around the corner, laze by the river, strumming guitars and blowing into long horns. A climb in a park means looking out at the rowers and sailors on the river as they disappear off into the horizon.

If other cities I have been to have been detailed and ornate, here, walls looks like they were made by hand. The rusticity makes the streets all the more beautiful. That might be one of the main reasons why I love my kitchen here. I feel perfectly in place rolling out a rustic dough on the wooden table, filling it with ground nuts and butter and plopping a few dried plums right in the middle.

The recipe for this tart, fittingly, comes from the book Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli.

Very lemon tart

August 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

Once upon a time, there was a lemon tree in my backyard. It was short and planted along the walkway to the stairs leading to the basement. I am not sure why, but I don’t remember it ever growing any lemons. Maybe it did, but I do know it had difficulty with the lack of sunlight in our backyard, due to the overshadowing of the huge cedar tree.

The failures of other plants in the garden I remember more vividly. I was disappointed for weeks when my potted vegetables — lettuce, carrots and tomatoes — all failed to become edible, with only the carrots looking remotely like they should, and even then they were about a quarter of the size of my pinkie. The only plant in our backyard that produced was our white peach tree, which produced ripe, fuzzy peaches late in the summer. And then our kitchen and friends were flooded with peaches for a few weeks until our garden went back to being its usual unproductive self.

Both the lemon and peach trees are gone now; I’ll have to remember to ask my parents what happened to them. But lemons and peaches are still two of my favorite fruits to eat. I remember cutting up lemons into wedges and eating them dipped in white sugar. Lemons also bake exceedingly well in cakes and tarts; lemon loaf cake is a huge favorite in our house, as are simple lemon tarts (without the meringue).

Today, I finally managed to get David Lebovitz’ lemon curd into a tart shell. Creamy while still undisputedly tart, this curd was perfect for a delicate almond shortbread crust. I baked it in my new rectangular fluted tart pan, reminding me on the lemon tarts my brother and I used to buy by the slice at La Boulangerie Bay Bread in San Francisco.

Tart Shell
From COOK, a oui chef journal by Connie

8 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup flour
pinch salt
3 tablespoons ground almonds

Preheat the oven to 375˚F with the rack in the center.

Combine the flour, salt and ground almonds in a medium mixing bowl.
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter. Add the sugar and vanilla and mix to combine.
Add the butter mixture into the dry ingredients and combine until a dough is formed. If the dough is too hot to handle, allow it to cool slightly.
With your hands, press the dough into a 9-in tart pan. When it comes to working up the sides, a measuring cup can help.
Bake the shell for 15-18 minutes, or until golden brown. Set aside to cool.

Fill with Lemon Curd
You can find the original recipe here, or see my post on it here.

Nectarine-custard tart

July 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

Houses stacked on top of each other, walls touching, vines wrapped around balconies as if to protect the inhabitants from the streets, which are invariably delicately smudged with dirt and garbage and fallen fruits from the trees above. Buses are packed full of businessmen and women, middle-school children who giggle obnoxiously loudly and 30something men who casually sit in the back and make you distinctly uncomfortable with just one look. This, in my eyes, is a city. Here, I see people at three times of the day, 8:50 a.m., lunchtime, and 5 p.m. During those times, the pristine metro is packed, the streets bustle with people in a rush to get to their destination — which alternates between the office, the restaurants, and home — and for a brief moment, I am reminded of home. During the other times, I am shocked by the empty streets, surrounded by 6 story buildings with glass walls, housing cubicles, and, if you’re lucky, large personal offices. Washington D.C. seems to me a city made to be a city but not much else. Maybe I am just shocked by a city government that actually keeps the sidewalks clean and the streets drivable, but there is so much vapid, empty space here and it makes me uncomfortable.

Yesterday, I took the metro up to Friendship Heights after work. I wanted new baking pans from Williams Sonoma so that I could finally bake in shapes other than a 9-inch circle and a brownie pan. I picked up a long, rectangular tart pan, a couple mini tartlet molds and a set of four 5-inch spring-form cake pans, which are super adorable. Then I decided that since I was on Wisconsin Ave. anyway, I might as well walk home. I had no idea how far it was until I was halfway home (I checked on the metro maps at all the bus stops, yet somehow did not get on a bus) and I had already been walking for 40 minutes. When I finally got home, I decided a run was unnecessary and went right to breaking in one of the new pans.

I was really excited to use my new rectangular tart pan. At home, the Boulangerie Bay Bread makes all their tarts as rectangles and sells them by the slice. I used to love their thick slices of flan after school. Nothing other than a traditional tart would do to christen my new pan. I made a traditional flaky crust with just a smidgen of sugar, layered a bit of almond flour at the bottom, then topped it with a creamy vanilla custard. As soon as the custard was mostly set in the oven, I topped the tart with a layer of fresh nectarines, gently dusted with cinnamon sugar and turned the broiler on. The sweet custard, juicy, tart nectarines, and crackled, golden, sugar topping made this tart a true winner.

I wish I could post better pictures of the tart. Unfortunately, blogging from this house is becoming incredibly difficult. Often, I get home around 8 p.m., spend about an hour deliberating over what to make and crossing out recipes for which I don’t have half of the ingredients. When I finally get something out of the oven, it is too dark to get a reasonable picture. The biggest hurdle is getting through the night; there has been many a time when I wake up the next morning, intending to get a good picture in the daylight, only to find that whatever it was I left out on the counter has been devoured by my housemates. When there is a tiny sliver left to photograph, I run into camera problems. My own camera is still chilling somewhere next to the IRAs race course in Camden, NJ or (equally likely) being enjoyed by the clever person who managed to steal it at the regatta.

Flaky Tart Dough
Adapted from Tartine

1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup very cold water
3 cups + 2 tablespoons flour
1 cup + 5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter

In a small bowl, add the salt to the water and keep in fridge until ready to use.
Add the flour to the work bowl. Cut butter into 1″ chunks and scatter across the top of the flour. Pulse briefly until you have large crumbs. (I don’t use a food processor and instead do this with my hands) Add the cold water/salt mixture and pulse until the dough begins to come together in a ball but is not completely smooth. You should still see chunks of butter (about pea size).
On a floured surface, divide the dough into two balls, shape into disks 1″ thick (work the dough as little as possible). Wrap well in plastic wrap and chill for at least 2 hours or overnight.

To make the custard:
3 eggs
3/4 cup white sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups milk

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs, vanilla, sugar and salt until smooth and frothy. In a saucepan, warm the milk until just before boiling. Add the milk to the bowl and whisk until combined. Pour the custard mixture into the tart pan.

Assembling the tart:
Take the tart shell out of the refrigerator. Sprinkle a generous layer of almond meal over the inside bottom of the shell; this will help absorb the moisture from the custard and prevent a soggy crust. Pour the custard mixture into the shell and brush the side of the tart with an egg white. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the middle of the tart is set. Remove the tart from the oven, layer with thin slices of nectarine and sprinkle (sparingly) with cinnamon sugar. Put the tart back into the oven under the broiler on HI for a couple minutes or until the top is just starting to brown.

De-tartified lemon curd (except amazingly tart)

June 4, 2010 § 3 Comments

Hello from New York City. I am surrounded by highrises and about to give you a little piece of sunshine. Just look at this picture and try to pretend it doesn’t make you happy. I accidentally got one of my feet in the first picture I took of this series and decided to take the rest with both feet in.

It helps that this is positively my favorite thing to eat. I have made this recipe quite a few times, each time with the intention of making a lemon tart. Somehow, the process never really gets that far along and I end up eating this lemon curd by the spoonful. Sometimes, I manage to save some to have on top of my toast for breakfast. But that’s as far as it ever gets. Maybe next time, I should think about making the tart shell first. But you and I both know that is never going to happen.

Lemon Curd
Recipe from David Lebovitz
Makes 1 cup (240 g)

1/2 cup (125 ml) freshly-squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
2 large egg yolks
2 large eggs
pinch of salt
6 tablespoons (85 g) unsalted butter, cubed

Place a mesh strainer over a bowl, and set aside.
In a medium saucepan, whisk together the lemon juice, sugar, egg yolks, eggs, and salt.
Add the butter cubes and set the pan over low heat, whisking constantly until the butter is melted.
Increase the heat and cook over moderate heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens and just begins to become jelly-like. It’s done when you lift the whisk and the mixture holds its shape when it falls back into the saucepan from the whisk.
Immediately press the curd through the strainer. Once strained, store the lemon curd in the refrigerator. It will keep for up to one week.

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