Okay, yes, I disappeared for another week. But I have an excuse. A really damn good excuse. An outrageously decadent, completely indulgent, fussy-fussy fancy-fancy excuse. An I-stayed-up-until-one-in-the-morning-on-a-Thursday-night-up-to-my-elbows-in-butter excuse.
I made you a tart. But I eated it.
I wasn’t kidding when I said I was going decadent for Sam’s birthday. And–‘fession time again–it wasn’t totally altruistic. I’ve recently come to the realization that if I’m going to torture my body with floods of sugar, it’d better be damn well worth it. The way I see it, a mealy, lackluster layer cake and an extravagant custard-filled pastry are going to make me feel about equally miserable in an hour or two. So when I’m faced with creating a dessert for a crowd of sugar-eaters anyway, I use it as an excuse to pull out as many stops as are appropriate.
In addition to being an unabashed tuna fanatic, Sam has very particular–some might even say peculiar–tastes in dessert. In fact, he is one of those elusive, mystifying creatures you always hear about, but never encounter in the wild: a vanilla-lover. (I know, it blew my mind too.) Given the choice between a rich, coffee-dark, infinitely complex dark chocolate brownie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream from a carton, he’ll choose the vanilla every time. I don’t pretend to understand this strange affinity of his, but I’m nothing if not a loving girlfriend, so I do my best to indulge him.
Plus, it’s an excuse to buy vanilla beans. They’re wicked expensive, but the flavor is completely, well, un-“vanilla.” They smell like bourbon and taste like flowers. They make anything they’re in completely decadent. I’m a fan.
When Sam mentioned, offhand, that he wouldn’t mind a less-than-traditional birthday dessert, my mind flashed to an old family favorite, straight from the pastry case at the supermarket: a fresh fruit tart, filled with vanilla custard. I also remembered the multifarious shortcomings of said tarts. They were almost always a whisper past fresh, with a cardboard-like layer of chocolate in between crust and custard. The fruit was generally coated in an odd gelatinous glaze, with no discernible flavor and a sickly, orangey cast. Child me loved those tarts; grown-up me knew I could do better.
A fair amount of internet research confirmed that what I really wanted was a traditional sweet pastry crust with a vanilla pastry cream. So I cobbled together a comfortingly-titled crust recipe and a custard recipe that didn’t call for the massacre of too many eggs. I also picked up a pint of raspberries–a $6 pint of off-season raspberries. (At least they were organic.) The things I do for love.
There were twists–oh, yes, there were twists. I completely forgot, until the custard was tempered and ready to boil, that Sam’s only whisk had rusted irreparably and had to be thrown out. I had to use one of the tiny whisk attachments from his hand mixer, which involved way more elbow grease than is really seemly in the wee hours of a Thursday morning. I also had a cockamamie idea to recreate that slightly-disgusting chocolate crunch on the crust, which involved verrrrrrry carefully melting some white chocolate and then brushing it gently over the cooled tart shell–in the process, gluing back together the fragments I’d knocked off in my haste to get the crust out of the oven.
I put together the components for the tart on that crazed Thursday night, for a Friday night party. Then I woke up at 6:30 the next morning to go to work. By the time party-time rolled around, I was about fifteen different kinds of foggy-brained. It wasn’t until I started assembling the tart that I realized that measly $6 pint of raspberries wouldn’t be nearly enough to cover the surface. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that…well…I’m a bit of a show-off. I’d spent all this time putting together this decadent dessert, and damned if it wasn’t going to look good too. I grabbed the rest of the white chocolate and melted it, hoping for an idea.
That led to this:
Which turned into teeny slices, for an unanticipated sixteen birthday guests:
Which led to sixteen very happy bellehs. Turns out a vanilla pastry cream tart, when made with love and good ingredients, is perfect for keeping indulgence to a tiny-bite minimum. The birthday boy was quite pleased. As was the pastry chef.
I’m still not giving up my dark chocolate, though.
Vanilla Custard Tart (serves 8-16, depending on your serving sizes)
Crust: from Smitten Kitchen
1½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup powdered sugar
¼ tsp salt
1 stick plus 1 tablespoon (9 tablespoons) unsalted butter, frozen and cut into pieces
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 oz. dark or white chocolate, for brushing (optional)
Butter a 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom. In a food processor, pulse flour, sugar, and salt. Scatter butter pieces over the dry ingredients and pulse until the butter is in small chunks (some oatmeal-sized, some pea-sized). Gradually pour in the beaten egg, pulsing after each addition. When the egg is incorporated, give the dough about 10-second pulses until it clumps together, which it will do surprisingly quickly. You want loose clumps, some crumbles, some big chunks.
Butter or cooking-spray a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Turn the crumbled crust out into the pan and press it out into a crust shape–I used a flat-bottomed measuring cup to help shape the dough. Prick the crust all over with a fork. (You could also roll the dough out like a proper baker–the Smitten Kitchen post has great instructions–but I’m far too lazy for that, and besides, I don’t own a rolling pin.)
Freeze crust for at least 30 minutes, but longer is better.
To bake the crust, put a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Butter or cooking-spray the shiny side of a piece of aluminum foil and press it flush against the surface of the crust. Put the tart pan on a baking sheet and bake for 20-25 minutes. Remove the foil–careful, it’s hot!–and press down any puffiness with a wooden spoon. Bake the crust, uncovered, for 10 more minutes, or until it is firm and golden brown. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool to room temp.
Optional: Melt chocolate and spoon into the bottom of the baked pastry shell. Use a pastry brush to spread it all over the inner surface. Refrigerate until the chocolate has hardened, up to 24 hours.
Filling: from Bon Appetit
1½ cups half and half
2 vanilla beans
2 large eggs plus 1 egg yolk
½ cup sugar
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
Using a sharp paring knife, split each vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds, reserving the pods for another use.* Pour half-and-half into a saucepan and stir in vanilla seeds. Bring gently to a simmer.
In a medium nonreactive bowl, whisk together sugar, eggs and yolk, and flour. Verrrrrry slowly, drizzle in the hot half-and-half, whisking furiously. (This tempers the eggs, cooking them very slowly so they don’t scramble.) When the mixture is well-incorporated, return to the saucepan and whisk vigorously over medium heat until it thickens and comes to a boil. Boil for about 1 minute, or until the custard coats the back of a spoon–if you trace a line through the custard with your finger, it should stay. Remove from heat and let cool to room temp.
To make sure there are no scrambled-egg lumps, place a fine-mesh strainer over a medium bowl (I just rinsed out the mixing bowl). Spoon the custard into the strainer, then use a rubber spatula or wooden spoon to push it through the strainer and into the bowl. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the cream. Refrigerate until cold, at least 4 hours and up to a day.
* Whenever I buy vanilla beans, I stretch my investment and save the pods to make vanilla sugar. Once you’re done scraping the seeds out, nestle the pods into 4 cups of granulated sugar and let them sit for a week or two. Voila, vanilla sugar!
To finish the tart
Remove all tart components from the fridge about an hour before serving, to let everything come up to room temp. Fill the chocolate-lined tart shell with the pastry cream, making sure the surface of the cream is flat. Top with whatever fruit you like, plus an extra drizzle of melted chocolate or a dusting of powdered sugar, if you swing that way.
Oh, and by the way, those raspberries were macerated overnight with a light sprinkle of sugar and a drizzle of Framboise. Gilding the lily? You bet. Divine? Absolutely.