In Festive Tarts, writer Sylvia Thompson tells us that long ago—around the eleventh century—pastry shells were used as dinner plates. By the thirteenth century, says Thompson, "Somebody had the bright idea of eating the dinner plate and its contents at the same time. The tart was born."
A thoroughly delightful and entertaining writer, Sylvia Thompson is funny, informative, and passionate in her pursuit of good, interesting, and festive foods. In her newest cookbook with Chronicle Books, Festive Tarts: Splendid Fare for Fun and Fanciful Occasions, Thompson shares a wealth of information on the art and history of making tarts while making the process— even for those who fear it—a snap. Filling the tart shells with her fanciful and innovative sweet or savory ingredients is just as easy.
In Festive Tarts, Thompson provides elegant, delicious, and smart options for anyone who loves to entertain. Tarts are perfect make-ahead dinners for relaxed evenings with friends. From A Shrimp Feast of a Tart, New Orleans Style, to Bourboned Bittersweet Chocolate Walnut Tart, Festive Tarts includes over 30 recipes for flavorful tarts to fit every occasion. Consider the perfect-for-spring Tart of Hard-Cook Eggs with Green Mayonnaise, Watercress, and Tulips— just right for an Easter brunch along with a cool bottle of Gewurztraminer. Vegetarians will love the Nicoise Zucchini and Eggplant Tart or the delightfully light Thymed Tartlets of Carrots. A celebration of mushrooms can be had with A Roman Wild Mushroom Tart (serve with Valpolicella). If your heart belongs in France, then the Seafood Tart Provencial is for you. If you are a Windsor watcher, then celebrate the royal divorce on Boxing Day with a dandy Pub Tart! Who can resist the seasonally beautiful and tangy Rhubarb Tart with Rhubarb Fool, a sensuous Beaujolais Pear Tart, or the deceptively un-rich Black Walnut Meringue Tart? and for the truly inspired, Thompson offers a Praline Mousse Tart with Raspberries and Dark Chocolate Lattice on a Toffee Crust.
Thompson includes a baker's dozen pastry shells to enhance the simplest of meals, from a basic Short Crust Pastry or Short Wheaten Pastry Crust to crusts that incorporate the wonderful ingredients of Parmesan cheese or cornmeal. Sweet crusts include Spiced Crisp Sweet Pasty, Crunch Graham-Pecan Crumb Crust, a delectable European Hazelnut Pastry, and a wonderful crunchy Toffee Crust. Thompson explains the difference between a tart and a pie: for a tart, the pastry must stand on its own, and a tart's sides are shorter than a pie's by just one inch. Tarts, by their nature, are richer and denser than pies. These recipes compress as much flavor and variety as possible—plus lip-smacking enjoyment—into each of these creative dishes.
Thompson has organized each chapter in Festive Tarts seasonally so that cooks can take advantage of the freshest seasonal fruits and vegetables. Her step-by-step instructions on making pastry (including how to handle the dough) are easy to understand and simple in approach, and she also provides a list of necessary equipment that will aid the home cook in making the best possible tarts. Festive Tarts is fail-safe cooking, and colorfully illustrated with Brooke Scudder's vibrant watercolors, it offers all the inspiration needed to make every day a special event.
Sylvia Thompson is the author of The Birthday Cake Book, published by Chronicle Books, the IACP award-winning cookbook Feasts and Friends, and the companion works, The Kitchen Garden and The Kitchen Garden Cookbook. Her articles about food and entertaining have appeared in numerous magazines, including Gourmet, Vogue, and Victoria, among others. She is currently working as a contributor to the newest edition of The Joy of Cooking. A fourth-generation Californian, Sylvia lives with her husband, novelist Gene Thompson, in the San Jacinto Mountains of Southern California. Brook Scudder graduated from the California College of Arts and Crafts with a degree in illustration. In addition to designing a line of greeting cards, she is the illustrator of The Birthday Cake Book and Island Barbecue, both published by Chronicle Books.
In the English countryside, pheasant is available at the local butcher. The autumn I lived in an English village, I roasted a pheasant with white grapes. It was the end of September; around the Feast of St. Michael—Michael-mas. Game meat and grapes together are the essence of autumn, and I've turned them into a tart with braised turnips—they add incomparable earthiness and sweetness. A drizzle of balsamic vinegar at the end pulls everything into focus. These days, I make the tart with Cornish game hens and serve it with a crisp watercress salad dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. I pour a berryish Zinfandel, and enjoy orange ice topped with toasted walnut halves for dessert. About technique: While roasted game hens make a beautiful presentation, the meat is most succulent steamed. It's also the easiest and fastest way of cooking poultry and the best method for preserving juices.
Makes 8 Servings
To prepare the hens, set them tails up on a fairly deep heatproof dish. Place the dish on a rack over about 3 inches of cold water in a deep pot. Bring the water to a simmer, turn the heat to medium, tightly cover the pot, and steam the birds until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thighs registers 180 degrees F, about 30 minutes. Once or twice while steaming, siphon up the juices in the dish into a jar. Lift out the birds to a plate. Add the rest of their juices to the jar; refrigerate it. Leave the water in the steamer.
When the birds have cooled, remove their meat in the largest possible pieces, turning the skin, bones, and trimmings into a big saucepan. Slice the breast pieces in half lengthwise. Wrap and refrigerate the meat until needed. Add the 4 cups water to the trimmings and simmer, uncovered, while you continue.
To prepare the turnips, peel them with a vegetable peeler and cut into 1/2-inch dice. Keep the turnips in cold water while you work so they won't discolor and work with a stainless steel knife. Pour off all but 1/2 inch of the hen-steaming water and lightly salt it. Add the turnips to this water, bring to a simmer, and simmer uncovered, stirring frequently, until tender, about 15 minutes. Add water if needed. If any water remains, pour it off. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter and the sugar and toss the turnips over medium-high heat until they're lightly glazed, a couple of minutes. Cover and set aside.
When the trimmings stock has developed a good flavor, strain it into the juices in the jar in the refrigerator. Melt the remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a skillet over low heat and whisk in the flour. Whisk 9 minutes. Off the heat, slowly whisk in the juices. Return to medium-high heat and whisk until thickened and smooth, about 2 minutes. Simmer over medium heat until reduced to 1-1/4 cups. Taste for salt and pepper.
To serve, heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Place the shell on a pizza pan or baking sheet. Arrange the turnips over the bottom of the shell. Space the 8 breast pieces evenly over them, fanning them out from the center with their slender tips pointing toward the center. Fill in the spaces between them with the remaining meat. Spoon the sauce over the tart, then strew the grapes around the edge. Bake just until bubbly, about 25 minutes. Slide onto a heated platter. Grind over pepper, sprinkle balsamic vinegar over the meat, tuck the parsley or celery tops in the center, and serve at once.
Make-Ahead Note: All elements of the filling can be prepared a day in advance. Bring refrigerated ingredients to room temperature before composing the tart.
Also known as quick puff paste or demi-puff paste, this takes more time to make than short crust, but it's worth every minute. This simplified puff pastry has 72 layers when it's baked. It may not rise as high as classic puff pastry, but you'll find nothing demi about its lightness. The British call this flaky pastry. It's incredible.
Although you can cheat on the 30 minutes' resting between steps, the resting and chilling make a big difference in the delicacy of the finished pastry, so don't.
Although you can make it in a food processor, this dough is best worked by hand, since you don't want the pieces of butter to be blended into the flour. The butter should be colder than for short dough.
In a large bowl, use your hands to blend the flour and salt. Add the butter, then use your fingertips to mix the butter through the flour, separating the pieces and coating them with flour. Keep the lumps intact.
Sprinkle the cream over the mixture, never hitting the same place twice. Mix the dough with a few light strokes of the fork until it barely holds together—it will be infuriatingly crumbly. Let it rest in a cool place 15 minutes.
Now come the turns—the folding that captures air in the pastry and creates the layers. You'll make six turns in three steps. To keep track of the turns completed, press the same number of fingers into the dough, just as bakers do. The dough will be maddening to roll at first, but quickly becomes manageable.
The two turns: On a lightly floured kitchen towel or piece of canvas, roll out the dough 1/2 inch thick in a rectangle—6 by 9 inches is ideal. Whatever the size you make, keep it the same size each time you roll. Square the corners. On the long side, make a mark one-third in from the raggedyest end. Fold this end over the center third of the rectangle, then fold the other end over them both to make three equal layers. Give the dough a half turn so the side seams run perpendicular to the way they just were. Repeat the rolling and folding and turning one more time. Let the dough rest 30 minutes. If the room isn't cool, wrap the dough and put it in the vegetable crisper of the refrigerator.
Make the two turns two more times, allowing a rest of 30 minutes between them. On the final turn, flip the dough over so the bumpy side is up, and so when you make the last folds, the outside will be smooth. Wrap and put in the crisper for 30 minutes at least (or up to 24 hours) before rolling out for the tart pan. If it's cold, bring to cool room temperature before rolling out.
Roll out the dough 1/8 inch thick in the shape of the mold, making sure it extends at least 2 inches wider than the mold's diameter.
Fit the dough into the mold, then trim the edges around the outside of the mold. Set a tart pan on a pizza pan or baking sheet.
When you roll, try not to roll over the edges, which forces air out of the layers. Be sure to roll the dough wide enough so any excess falls over the outside of the rim, or it will shrink in baking and you'll have too shallow a shell for filling. Chill 1 hour before filling and baking or baking blind.
by Sylvia Thompson
Illustrations by Brook Schudder
Publication date: July 1, 1996
Reprinted with permission
This page originally published as a FoodDay article in 1997.
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This page modified January 2007
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