Thursday, May 31, 2012

Strawberry Crème Tart

I'm sitting in my non-air conditioned third floor room, sweating, and thinking about last weekend. It's not that the weekend wasn't hot too--our air conditioner has been broken since Friday night. But in a way, the heat made those non-work days all the more summer-glorious. As the first (unofficial) weekend of summer, I hope it will prove to be a harbinger of many perfect summer weekends to come.

On Saturday morning (after a going away party with this chocolate & strawberry pocky pie), I got up and went to the Mt. Pleasant Farmers' Market, where I picked up a quart of strawberries, a bunch of asparagus, and a hot Asian bun; ran into friends at the coffee shop; went home; wrote; and read in the hammock for a few hours. Not too shabby. Sunday, though, was the quintessential summer day, with a trip to the doughnut shop (Woodmoor Pastry Shop) en route to a private swimming hole outside of Columbia, Maryland. I had been given scant directions (which added to the fun), so I wasn't sure we'd even find it and even when we did finally come upon the little quarry in the woods, we were initially reluctant to jump in, due to snake sightings and pond murk. But we trekked around to where the water was clearer, colder, and sunlit, and dove (or shimmied, rather) in. On the way home we stopped at both the nearby roadside biker bar and ice cream stand and filled ourselves with beer-by-the-bucket and chocolate-vanilla twist cones, respectively.

But that was just the warm-up for Tex Critter and the Snake Motel Six (the group name that emerged, as group names often do, when snakes and woods walks are involved), 'cause there was a a full-fledged stoop-side cook-out in the works. The menu included but was not limited to: dogs and brats, homemade potato salad, grilled asparagus, baked beans, watermelon salad, and a whole lotta Budweiser. The whole shebang went late into the night, capped off with a few rounds of Mad Libs and a game of 1990s-era Trivial Pursuit.

It could really have only been more perfect if I was able to tell you that I made this strawberry crème tart for said cookout. But there was not enough time in our jam-packed day for that, and we ate choco tacos for dessert. In actuality, I made this strawberry crème tart the day before, for (another) going- away-party-that-wasn't.

For the recipe, I went back to my copy of Michel Roux's Pastry, which I haven't used as much as I should (the two recipes I've tried from it--a chocolate raspberry tart and apple tart-- were both stellar) and found a simple French-style strawberry tart, which uses both chantilly cream and crème pâtissière and plain, unadulterated strawberries. It's essentially the French version of strawberry shortcake, replacing the biscuit with pâte sucrée, whipped cream for a more refined "crème", but sticking with the heaping with fresh berries. Here's the recipe, adapted from Michel Roux.

Strawberry Crème Tart
Adapted from Michel Roux's Pastry

For pâte sucrée:
1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. butter, cubed and slightly softened
1 c. confectioner's sugar, sifted
pinch of salt
2 large eggs, room temperature

For chantilly cream:
1 c. whipping cream, chilled
1/4 c. confectioner's sugar
pinch of vanilla bean seeds, scraped from the fresh bean
For crème pâtissière:
3 large egg yolks
1/4 c. + 1 Tblsp. sugar
1/8 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. whole milk
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise (if you don't want to spring for vanilla bean, try using the zest of 1 orange instead)

For strawberries & garnish:
4-5 c. fresh strawberries, hulled
mint sprigs (for garnish, optional)
additional confectioner's sugar (for dusting, optional) 

For pâte sucrée:
1. Put flour in a mound on the counter or rolling mat and make a well. Add cubed butter, confectioner's sugar, and salt, and mix together with your fingertips until dough becomes slightly grainy.
2. Make another well and add the eggs, working them into the flour mixture with your fingertips until the dough begins to come together. When well combined, knead the dough a few times with the palm of your hand until smooth. Roll the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and let chill in the fridge for 1-2 hours.
3. While dough is chilling, you may want to prepare your the chantilly cream and crème pâtissière (see below). Once the dough is chilled, unwrap and roll out onto a floured surface until it forms a circle and is about 1/8-inch thick. Transfer it to a greased and floured 9- or 10-inch tart ring, and let chill in the fridge for 20 more minutes before baking.

For chantilly cream & crème pâtissière:
1. While dough is chilling, prepare the creams. For the chantilly cream, put chilled whipping cream, confectioner's sugar, and vanilla bean seeds into the bowl of a standing mixer and beat at medium speed for 1-2 minutes. Increase the speed to high and beat for an additional 3-4 minutes until the cream begins to thicken to form medium peaks. Do not overbeat. If you're not ready to use the chantilly cream right away, you can keep it in the fridge for p to 24 hours.

2. For crème pâtissière, whisk egg yolks and one-third of the sugar together in a bowl until mixture forms a light ribbon consistency. Whisk in the flour until well combined. In a medium saucepan, heat the milk with the remaining sugar and the vanilla bean. When it comes to a boil, immediately pour it onto the egg yolk mixture, stirring continuously. Mix until well combined, then return entire mixture to the saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly. Let bubble for 2 minutes, then pour into a bowl. To prevent a skin from forming, dust the crème with confectioner's sugar. Let cool to room temperature, then chill in the fridge until cold. It can be kept in the fridge up to 3 days. Make sure to remove the vanilla bean before you pour it into the pie crust!

For baking and assembly:
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Prick the base of the chilled pastry shell and line with parchment paper and pie weights. Bake for about 25 minutes, then remove parchment and pie weights and bake for an additional 15 minutes until crust is fully baked. Take from oven and let cool.

2. Meanwhile, halve the strawberries if they are large or leave them whole if they are large. In a medium bowl, gently fold the chantilly cream into crème pâtissière and fill the tart crust with the cream mixture. Arrange the strawberries on top of the cream, heaping them up in the middle. Return to the fridge to let everything set, at least 20 minutes, or eat right away (but maybe not if your kitchen is hot like mine!). Before eating, dust strawberries with confectioner's sugar and garnish with a few mint sprigs, if desired. Enjoy!

Considering the lack of air conditioning in my house at the time, this tart proved a little more challenging than it should have been, particularly because, as you'll notice in the recipe, I tried the pâte sucrée-making technique where you essentially make a pile of flour, then work in the butter and egg with your hands. Not so easy when it's 90 degrees in the kitchen! I got quite the hot buttery mess all over my fingers, but did eventually get the crust to form together.

And though I did chill both creams/(crèmes) for several hours, they started getting a little runny as soon as they hit the hot house temps. As you might be able to tell from the photos, I also got a little overly ambitious with the amount of crème/cream (I'm struggling with the appropriate spelling here, clearly) I scooped into the crust.

HOWEVER. Despite all these hardships, this tart is a delight, perfect for your Memorial Day cookout imaginary dessert, going away party that wasn't, or some party in the future that will actually happen.

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