Perfection in a Fruit Tart
Wednesday, June 29, 2005
Last summer, Fourth of July. We're invited to a party at the lavish, new home of some friends. I offer to bring drinks, my donation of choice at potlucks lately, but then my husband pipes up and says he wants to make potato salad. I understand; as someone about to attend a mid-summer fiesta fearing vinegar and loathing mayo, the salad will at least enable him to eat.
So while it's not exactly our finest moment, we feel respectable showing up with our relatively clean kids, our beverages and herb-marinated potato salad -- that is, until She walks in carrying That Cake.
I'd seen it in on the cover of a magazine, too, only it hadn't occurred to me to make it: a sheet cake-cum-American flag. A perfect rectangle of buttermilk cake covered in a cream cheese frosting, with the stars and stripes neatly laid out in berries. Naturally, the baker was beautiful, her blond hair flawless, and her khaki shorts crisp. Oh, and her kids, polite; her husband, tall and handsome. I wanted to hate her but she seemed so nice.
Instead, I hoped a bite of her cake might imbue me with her aura.
One taste of that soft, billowy cake, understated sweetness perfectly offset by the slightly tangy frosting, and I was both crestfallen and inspired. Crestfallen because I realized that I'll never be like Her. I imagined her house, her life, her entire world was as orderly as that edible flag. I bet her toothpaste never has a hole in the middle from a ham-handed nine-year-old squeeze; I doubt she "soaks" greasy pans in the sink for a week.
Yet I was also inspired because I have the means to fake a more perfect life. My secret summer weapon: fruit tarts. They are gorgeous and taste even better; they have the "wow" factor I want in an escapist dessert fantasy. And best of all, they're deceptively easy.
Downcast eyes, a Mona Lisa smile and a slight blush are the proper responses to the flattery I receive when people see my homemade tarts. I'm a different woman (at least until the heat starts melting my custard).
Properly chilled and brought out a la minute, though, fruit tarts lift me to a world where my hair stays in place, my children are too distracted to comment on my "crinkly" eyes, I even stand up straighter.
Fruit tarts may offer an ephemeral pleasure, but then again, so does life. Fleeting or not, I'll take it.
Betsy's Practically Perfect Fruit Tarts
Instead of a labor-intensive creme patissiere, this recipe uses a rich, delicious and absurdly easy mascarpone cream. The only time-consuming part of this recipe is making a crust from scratch; it's usually worth it to me, but if you want to make this even easier, buy a pre-made pie crust.
I adapted this recipe from the Berry Tart with Mascarpone Cream recipe in The Gourmet Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin; 2004). All changes were made for expedience, and solely because this mother of two barely has time to make scrambled eggs, much less homemade tarts. But this one, I can do. So can you.
Baked Tart Shell
9-inch fluted tart pan with removable bottom (or four tartlet pans, also with removable bottoms)
1 and 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 stick (8 tablespoons) cold, unsalted butter, cut into inch cubes
1 large egg yolk
1 and tablespoons ice water, plus more if necessary
8 oz. mascarpone (Italian cream cheese, available in most grocery stores)
1/3 cup very cold heavy cream
2 tablespoons sweet orange marmalade (though I used apricot jam, since it was what I had)
2 tablespoons dark berry liqueur, such as blueberry, blackberry or creme de cassis (though I used water, since it was what I had)
3-4 cups of washed, dried berries
Step One - Make the tart shell: Pulse flour, sugar and salt in a food processor (or whisk together in a bowl). Pulse in butter (or blend in with your fingertips) until mixture resembles coarse meal with some small (roughly pea-sized) lumps of butter. Beat together egg yolk and water and pulse (or stir) until incorporated.
The goal is to get the dough to stay together with as little liquid and as little pulsing as possible, but I always add more and beat more than recommended. The recipe says that if the dough isn't holding together, add tablespoon of water at a time until it does, but unless you're having a Gourmet editor over for dinner, I say you can go crazy and add 1-2 tablespoons and then reassess. You don't want a tough crust, but on the other hand it's a drag to work with dough that's falling apart.
Once it's holding together, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and quickly knead or smear it with the palm of your hand to help distribute the fat. Gather dough into a ball, flatten it into a disc, then wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least one hour, or until firm.
Roll the dough out into a 13-inch round (or four smaller ones if you're making tartlets). Do this any way that works: between sheets of waxed paper, as Gourmet suggests, or else just work fast and use a bit of flour, as I did. Gently press dough into tart pan (or tartlet pans), then roll the rolling pin over the top of the pan to trim the edges of dough flush with the rim. Refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes (unless you don't have time, which I didn't). Preheat oven to 375 degrees. (I did this at the start because I knew I was short on time.)
Lightly prick shell in several places with a fork. Line the shell with foil and fill with pie weights, raw rice or dried beans. Bake for 20 minutes. Carefully remove foil and weights and bake shell until golden, about 10 minutes more. Cool completely on a rack.
Step Two - Make cream filling: Beat together mascarpone, cream and sugar with an electric mixer at high speed until mixture holds stiff peaks, about one minute. Spoon filling into baked crust.
Step Three - Make glaze: Combine jam and liqueur in a small saucepan; then simmer and stir for about two minutes.
Step Four - Assemble the tart: Either gently toss the glaze with the berries and then mound them on the mascarpone cream as the recipe suggests, or else place the berries decoratively on the cream and, using a pastry brush, gently coat the berries with the glaze, as I did.
Notes: The tart shell can be made up to one day ahead and kept, loosely covered, at room temperature.
The recipe says the tarts can be assembled and refrigerated up to two hours in advance. I made mine 24 hours in advance (and kept them in the fridge), since I need to bake when the opportunity arises. No one complained.
Bring to room temperature before serving.