Every birthday she would gift me strawberries. Sometimes they came chocolate covered in a gold-foil box; sometimes a handful would rest, like Cleopatras, upon a cream custard. Once they appeared as wafer slices making up the layers of a tartlet. Perhaps it was because she was French? Or perhaps it was because one day as we walked arm-in-arm down the Boulevard du Temple we were stopped by a magnum opus. From behind the patisserie window glazed strawberry halves, as hefty as our fists, glinted atop a scalloped crust. In between their coiled ruby hearts froth layers of spun sugar rose in resplendent mounds. Sprigs of mint kissed the fairytale concoction. It was both magnificent and intimidating, something between a pie and a wedding cake. We stood awestruck before it. Mortals were not fit to devour such ornate craftsmanship. This decadence belonged underneath a museum jewel case or in the bedecked hands of Marie Antoinette as she slumbered in the louche Versailles gardens.
“It will taste even better than it looks,” the man advised us as he passed by. We were not sure we could afford to find out if he spoke the truth. So we continued gazing until our bellies rumbled. We went to the market and purchased a container of strawberries, miniature blushing versions of the one’s in the shop. We imagined they were plump and scarlet as we ate them. We dreamed that we had bought the unobtainable chef d’oeuvre, salivated over how it would come wrapped in its tissue paper cream-colored box. We fantasized about the silken texture of the egg cream, the shell crumbling in our mouths, the granular berry like sour candy bursting against our tongues. We vowed someday we would march into the store and order their largest piece.
Ever since I have regarded pastries and strawberries in a new light. Can a tart be art? There is theater within that custard layer, complexity reigns in the flaking umber crust, every berry poised to perform. I look into each bakery I come across, search those birthday boxes for that long ago symphony in fruit form. I have not found it yet. In the meantime I offer my humble attempt at a masterpiece.
BT’s STRAWBERRY TART RECIPE
Serves 8-10 Total Time: 3 hours and 10 minutes [Preparation=2 hours, 30 minutes; Cook=40 minutes]
WHAT YOU NEED
For an 11-inch (27.9 centimeter) round crust —
2 ½ cups (350 grams) all-purpose flour
10 tablespoons (140 grams) unsalted butter
¾ teaspoon (4 grams) salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
¼ cup (60 millilitres) cold water
1 teaspoon (5 millilitres) almond extract (or essence)
For the custard —
2 ½ tablespoons (31 grams) sugar
2 tablespoons (24 grams) cornstarch
½ teaspoon (2.5 millilitres) vanilla extract (essence)
⅔ cup (158 millilitres) milk
Pinch (¼ gram) of salt
6 tablespoons (84 grams) butter
For topping —
4 cups (800 grams) strawberries, hulled and rinsed
1 cup (325 grams) strawberry jelly
WHAT TO DO
For pastry —
- Whisk flour, sugar, and salt in a bowl. Knead butter into mixture until you have small chunks. Add the egg, water, and almond extract, stirring until completely incorporated. Form your dough into a ball, wrap in plastic, and store in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or until it has set.
- Butter your tart pan. Preheat oven to 375 ºF (190.5 ºC).
- Roll out dough and press evenly against bottom and sides of your pan. Trim excess pastry from edges. Line shell with tin foil and freeze for 30 minutes. Take pastry out and fill the lining with dried beans or uncooked rice to ensure that the crust retains its shape while pre-baking.
- Bake in oven for 25 minutes or until crust is golden-brown. Remove lining and beans. Cool shell to room temperature.
For custard —
- In a medium saucepan, heat milk and salt over medium-high heat. Take off heat once small bubbles appear along pot edge.
- In a medium bowl whisk eggs, cornstarch, sugar, and vanilla until mixture is smooth and thick.
- Drizzle ⅓ cup of the heated milk into the egg mix and continue whisking until milk is well incorporated. Pour this sauce back into milk saucepan and return pan to medium-heat. Whisk constantly for 5 minutes or until sauce thickens. Do not allow to boil.
- Remove from heat. Pour sauce into a bowl and let cool 10 minutes while stirring occasionally. Add butter 1 tablespoon at a time and beat until butter is completely melted before adding next tablespoon.
- Cover bowl with plastic wrap, making sure wrap is touching the cream so that no film forms upon the surface. Refrigerate for 1 hour or until well chilled.
For finished tart —
- Spread custard evenly over tart crust. Arrange strawberries*, either halved or whole, in concentric circles from outer edge of shell. Place them as closely as possible to cover cream as completely as possible.
- In a small saucepan, heat jelly over low heat and stir until jelly liquefies. Brush strawberries gently with jelly. Let set 20 minutes before serving.
* BT Tip: To create a variation on this theme add other seasonal berries to tart such as raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries.