You may remember my resolution to celebrate each seasonal fruit this year with a tart? It all started in April with a recipe for Meyer Lemon Curd Tart. The purpose of the tart project is to slow my pace of life a bit, to savor each brief season and the tender fruits that mark the passage of time. This week I celebrate the early days of summer with a fresh strawberry tart. With practice, making pastry dough has become a comforting ritual, rather than a daunting task. However, my first attempt at pastry cream was a failure. Of course I can’t follow one single recipe, so the plan was to make Elisabeth Prueitt’s Pastry Cream from the Tartine cookbook and Martha Stewart’s Cream Cheese Tart Dough from her Baking Handbook.
I chalk the failure up to fear. Elisabeth Prueitt’s instructions for making pastry cream were easy enough to follow, but full of warnings and consequences (get the pastry cream too hot and the eggs will curdle, over whisk and the thick cream will break down into a watery mess, burn the milk at the bottom of the pan and you must start over). The fear made me timid, and baking at altitude is not for the timorous. The method for making pastry cream involves heating milk and sugar on the stovetop, then carefully stirring it into egg yolks with cornstarch. The mixture goes back on the stovetop for just a couple of minutes of constant whisking, until thickened. Lastly, cubes of butter are carefully beaten in (to avoid breaking the mixture) and the pastry cream goes into the fridge to chill. After whisking the eggs and milk on the stovetop for much longer than the recipe instructed, my pastry cream refused to thicken. I threw out the watery mess, took a deep breath, and resolved to begin again. In the big picture all that I lost was a few eggs, some milk, and my time.
So why exactly did my pastry cream fail? My theory has to do with altitude (I live at 5,280 feet). In the Tartine cookbook, Elisabeth writes that the mixture of eggs, sugar, milk, and cornstarch must come to “the boiling point” for the cornstarch to thicken it fully. At high altitude, liquids boil at a lower temperature due to decreased air pressure. I was so afraid to burn the mixture or curdle the eggs that I didn’t get it hot enough. Knowing what went wrong gave me the confidence to try again. This time, I began with a clean slate, and a new recipe: Martha Stewart’s Pastry Cream from the Baking Handbook. I’ve noticed that Martha never uses warnings or consequences in her recipes, she simply lists out instructions, as if nothing could possibly go wrong. The good thing about Martha’s recipe writing style is that it refrains from planting fears in the mind of the home cook. However, if something goes wrong during the recipe, the home cook is left scratching his/her head, wondering where in the process things went off-track. Though I must admit that Martha Stewart’s recipes always seem to work. That’s something for all of us recipe writers to think about.
Following Martha Stewart’s Pastry Cream recipe with confidence, I warmed the milk in a saucepan on my unpredictable electric stove. In went the vanilla bean and sugar. I allowed the milk to come to a simmer, stirring only occasionally (rather than obsessively scraping the bottom of the pot as I did during the first batch). Like a parent teaching their kid to ride a bike, I was present without smothering the pot of milk on the stove. Quickly, I whisked the egg yolks, cornstarch, and other half of the sugar and began spooning in the hot milk, one ladleful at a time. The eggs did as they were told -none dared to curdle. I returned the mixture to the saucepan on the stovetop and turned up the heat, whisking constantly with a strong, even hand. At exactly two minutes, the instant read thermometer crept up to (Martha Stewart’s specified) 160 degrees Fahrenheit and the mixture magically thickened just as it should. Giddily I turned off the heat and dashed to pour the mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer before it cooked any further. I tossed in the cubed butter and turned my KitchenAid on, allowing the beater to run for 5 minutes until the butter was incorporated and the temperature had cooled. While the finished pastry cream chilled in the fridge, I relaxed, content in having conquered my fear of all that could go wrong while making pastry cream.
Once chilled, it was time to gently fold freshly whipped cream into the rich, vanilla-infused pastry cream and pour the mixture into my pre-baked sweet tart shell. I cut a handful of ruby-red strawberries in half and arranged them atop the tart, not even bothering to glaze them. Two slices, one for the husband and one for me, were eaten on a sunny Saturday afternoon in silence broken only by the occasional “mmmmmm” and “so good.” Each bite was a balance of rich cream, delicate, crumbly pastry, and juicy strawberries. We sat together, smiling and eating the heavenly strawberry tart. For a moment time stood still, and we savored every bite until there was no more.
Recipe for Strawberry Tart
Inspired by several fruit tart recipes found in Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook. Makes one 10-inch tart.
Crème Fraîche Tart Dough
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold, cut into small pieces
- 3 ounces crème fraîche, cold
In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt to combine. Put the bowl into the stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the cold butter pieces and turn the stand mixer on at medium speed, allowing it to run for a couple of minutes, until the dough looks like little peas or coarse gravel. Add the crème fraîche and continue beating the mixture a few seconds more, just until the dough holds together.
Turn out the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap, pulling the plastic to form the dough into a disc shape. Wrap and chill the dough in the fridge for a minimum of an hour or up to a day before using.
- All-purpose flour, for dusting
- Crème Fraîche Tart Dough
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 1 1/2 cups Pastry Cream
- about a pint of fresh strawberries, halved
Dust a work surface lightly with flour and roll out the tart dough to a round large enough to fit your tart pan, with a bit of overlap. It should be about 1/4 an inch thick. Press the dough into the tart pan, trimming the edges to be flush. Prick the bottom of the tart shell all over, using a fork. Chill for about 30 minutes, until the tart dough is firm. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line the chilled tart shell with parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake the tart shell until the edges take on a golden color, about 20 minutes. Remove the parchment paper and weights, then return the tart shell to the oven and bake until golden brown all over, about 15 minutes. Cool the tart shell completely on a wire rack.
Pour the heavy cream into the (chilled) bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and whisk until stiff peaks form. Use a rubber spatula to gently fold the whipped cream into the chilled pastry cream until well-combined. Spoon the pastry cream mixture into the tart shell. Arrange the strawberry slices (cut side down) atop the pastry cream. You could glaze the fruit at this time, but I didn’t bother. Serve pronto!
The tart shell can be baked a day ahead and kept in the fridge without suffering, and pastry cream will last a couple of days in the fridge (with plastic wrap pressed onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming. The fully assembled tart will look and taste its best the day it is made, but holds up well stored in the fridge, uncovered, for a couple of days’ snacking.