If you like to cook and do very much of it, you’re going to need a “company dessert” in your repertoire. Sooner or later, you’ll have folks coming over for dinner and you’ll want to impress them a little. Come on, admit it. You want to show off, and a Duncan Hines cake with frosting from a can just isn’t going to cut it.
You could show off with a complicated menu of fussy items and delicate sauces but resist that urge. You’ll spend the whole night in the kitchen and probably fail miserably at getting everything done at the right time. It’s not easy for trained professionals. Don’t do that.
But a fancy dessert that’s finished before your guests set foot in the house, that’s the ticket. You’ll want something that’s visually stunning and looks intimidating and complicated but hopefully, isn’t as hard as it looks.
French pastry fits the bill perfectly. It is literally eye candy, perfected over centuries by legions of French chefs. It is considered to be incredibly difficult, and by and large, that is true. So, if you can serve your guests French pastry that you made in your own home with your own little hands, that’s certainly impressive by any standard. After all, French people don’t even do it at home. Probably because they have a patisserie on every corner so they can just go out and buy it. It’s not so easy for us. But with average kitchen skills, you can make it happen.
French pastry doesn’t even have to be that difficult, if you choose wisely. A mixed fruit and berry tart is an excellent choice. Depending mainly on an abundance of fresh fruits and berries for its eye appeal, it’s a jaw-dropper with no kitchen pyrotechnics or special skills needed.
The sweet pastry crust is really easy, although time-consuming. There’s a lot of start and stop involved. It’s not solid work, more like work a little, chill a little, that sort of thing. The good news is that it can be made up to two days ahead and tightly wrapped. The filling, pastry cream or crème pâtissière, is that basic filling you’ll find in everything from cream puffs and Napoleons to Boston cream pie. This recipe, supposedly originating with the Cordon Blu, verges on foolproof. It too, can be made a day or so in advance and refrigerated until needed.
The only thing you need to do on the day you plan to serve the tart is assemble it. That can be as easy or as complex as you want it to be. You could just throw all the fruit on top of the pastry cream-filled crust and call it a day but that would be a shame. You’ve come so far, it would be a shame not to artfully arrange your fruits and berries into an eye-pleasing design guaranteed to wow your guests.
That’s really the secret to “oohs and ahhs.” That, and the glaze on the fruit that makes them all shiny and perfect. Don’t skip that step. It gives a lot of bang for the buck. Speaking of the glaze, use it to seal your pastry crust. Brush a thin coat of it onto the pastry when it comes out of the oven. As it cools, it will form a tasty barrier which will keep the filling from soaking through and making the pastry soggy. This is a master trick than can be used on other crusts as well. If you don’t want to add flavor with the glaze, as in a savory pie or tart, glaze with raw egg white. You can pop the pastry back into the oven for a few seconds to bring the egg white up to temperature so that it is safe.
Yes, you’re going to dirty up a bunch of bowls and spoons and pans and unlike that chic Parisian patisserie whose results you are emulating, you probably don’t have a dishwasher on staff. But, go with it. The results are worth it. If it were painless, everybody would do it.
You will need a tart pan with a removable bottom to get the full tart experience. You could use a pie pan but you’ll lose some wow factor. Also a pastry brush, to brush on the glaze. Get one with rubber bristles. They don’t melt and last longer. Most of the ingredients you’ll need are pantry staples, except for the fresh fruit. For the tarts pictured, half pints of raspberries and blackberries were purchased along with a pint of strawberries and two kiwis. There was enough for a second tart with a different arrangement.
The up side to that is once your guests have gobbled up the first tart and gone home, you can have the second one all to yourself while you bask in the glory of your accomplishment.
Sweet Pastry Crust
Pâte sucrée, as it’s called in French, if you want to be fancy. A sweet crust that’s almost a cookie, doesn’t need to be rolled out. Just press it into place, and if it tears, patch it. No harm, no foul.
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
In a separate bowl, whisk the flour with the salt. Place the butter in the bowl of your electric mixer, or with a hand mixer, and beat until softened. Add sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Gradually add the beaten egg, beating just until incorporated. Add the flour mixture all at once and mix just until it forms a ball. Flatten the pastry into a disk, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 15-30 minutes or just until firm (can place in freezer for about 10-15 minutes.)
Lightly butter and flour, or spray with a non-stick vegetable/flour cooking spray, an 8, 9 or 10 inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Evenly pat the chilled pastry onto the bottom and up the sides of the pan. if it tears, push it back together. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the freezer for about 15 minutes. This should eliminate the need for pie weights but you can use them if you have them.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 400°F and place rack in center of oven. Lightly prick bottom of pastry crust with the tines of a fork (this will prevent the dough from puffing up as it bakes). Place tart pan on a larger baking pan and bake crust for 5 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350°F and prick the pastry if it has puffed up. Continue to bake the crust for about 15 minutes or until dry and lightly golden brown. Remove from oven. While still warm, brush apricot glaze over pastry to seal it. Place on a wire rack to cool completely before filling. Can be covered and stored for a few days.
Crème pâtissière is one of the primary glories of French pastry and a good thing to have in your repertoire. It’s basically a custard, and like a lot of things, the more often you make it, the easier it gets. You can also mix it with softly whipped cream for a lighter filling. If you prefer using vanilla beans, use a half of one. Simmer the beans and pod with the milk and remove the pod before mixing the hot milk in with the egg mixture.
1 1/4 cups milk (whole or 2%)
3 large egg yolks
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
2 tbsp. cornstarch
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tbsp. liqueur (Grand Marnier, Brandy, Kirsch) (optional)
In a medium-sized heatproof bowl, mix the sugar and egg yolks together. (Don’t let the mixture sit too long or you will get pieces of egg forming.) Sift the flour and cornstarch together and then add to the egg mixture, mixing until you get a smooth paste.
Meanwhile, in a saucepan bring the milk just to boiling (just until milk starts to foam up.) Remove from heat and add slowly to egg mixture, whisking constantly to prevent curdling. (If you get a few pieces of egg (curdling) in the mixture, pour through a strainer.) Then pour the egg mixture into your saucepan and cook over medium heat until boiling, whisking constantly. When it boils, whisk mixture constantly for another 30 – 60 seconds until it becomes thick. Remove from heat and immediately whisk in the liqueur (if using) and vanilla extract. Pour into a clean bowl and immediately cover the surface with plastic wrap to prevent a crust from forming. (Put the plastic wrap right down on top of the custard leaving no airspace.) Cool to room temperature. If not using right away refrigerate until needed, up to 3 days. Beat or whisk before using to get rid of any lumps that may have formed.
This is the secret weapon of the whole enterprise. Use to seal the pastry crust and to glaze fruits for a nice shine. Will also keep cut edges from turning brown.
1/2 cup apricot jam or preserves
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier or other liqueur
Heat the apricot jam or preserves and water in a small saucepan over medium heat or in the microwave until liquid (melted). Remove from heat and strain the jam through a fine strainer to remove any fruit lumps. Whisk in liqueur. (You may use water, if you prefer.)
Topping and Assembly
3 cups fruit (raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, kiwifruit, bananas, plums, pineapple, melon, etc.) Use one or a combination that you like.
To remove the tart from the fluted sides of the pan, place your hand under the pan, touching only the removable bottom not the sides. Gently push the tart straight up, away from the sides. The fluted tart ring will fall away and slide down your arm. If you want to remove the bottom of the pan, run a knife or thin metal spatula between the crust and metal bottom, then slide the tart onto your platter.
Spread a thin layer of apricot glaze over the bottom and sides of the baked tart shell to prevent the crust from getting soggy. Let the glaze dry (about 20 minutes). Then spread the pastry cream onto the bottom of the tart shell. Place fruit randomly on top of cream or in concentric overlapping circles, starting at the outside edge. After arranging the fruit, rewarm the glaze, if using, and gently brush a light coat on the fruit. If not serving immediately, refrigerate but bring to room temperature before serving. This fruit tart is best eaten the same day as it is assembled. Cover and refrigerate any leftovers.
Serves about 6-8 people.
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Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699, on Twitter @BillColvard.