Tarts Deconstructed

Today was all about tarts. And tarts kicked our butts from one end of the kitchen to the other. Everyone in class experienced at least one challenge with making the dough, the filling, or baking/oven temp.

We were each given a recipe for a large tart, and then asked to make six or more mini tarts. Our large recipe involved poaching pears in red and white wine.

Chef asked us to make pate sucree. Easy enough, but multiplied x4, and left it up to us to figure it all out. With no instructions, some teams made four individual recipes. We decided to make 2 double recipes since x4 wouldn’t fit into our standing mixer.

Before the dough, we had to make pastry cream for the mini tarts, and get that into the fridge as soon as possible to chill. I had never made pastry cream before and always pictured it to be some terribly long, complicated process. Just the opposite. It was the easiest thing we made all day, and it was so perfect, chef used it for demonstration. I was feeling impressed until Chef explained that we had basically made vanilla pudding. Vanilla pudding doesn’t sound as special as pastry cream, but it still tasted just as delicious. And R entertained us with an amazing impression of Bill Cosby’s Jello Pudding commercials. All. Night. Long. Yeah, we were all feeling kind of punchy tonight.

Next, pate sucree and poached pears. The first challenge we faced was lack of electricity. Chef asked us to use a burner at our station instead of the stove, and we only had one outlet per work station. Instead of being able to poach pears and make our dough at the same time, we had to make a decision on which was going to happen first; both had to be chilled for quite some time. Chef asked us to start poaching first. Hindsight, we should have started the dough first.

After almost two hours in the fridge, our dough still wasn’t cold enough. We tried to roll it out anyhow and, well, now I know what happens when you try to roll out pate sucree if it’s not chilled properly. We reshaped the dough and put it into the freezer, which saved us.

I’m slowly starting to learn the quirks of our school kitchen. I now know where the best spot in the freezer is, and the best spot in the oven for high, even temperatures.

Despite our concerns of possibly overworking the dough, our tarts blind baked perfectly, and the class was invited to decorate our mini tarts with fresh berries and apricot glaze. And the pear tart we made was worthy of an editorial spread in Martha Stewart Magazine (if I hadn’t cut the pears the wrong way).

I was still hung up on the Jello Pudding thing though. I couldn’t get it out of my head. A tart, always seemed out of reach for me – something I might only find in the finest bakeries, just like the ones I would buy from the patisseries when I lived in Belgium. And tonight, I learned it’s simply a big cookie with vanilla pudding or similar custard, and sometimes nuts, glazed or poached fruits.

I think that’s kind of neat. Something so simple can be so elegant.

This was by far our most challenging class. Chef said next week we’re going to take it easy with cookies, and will bake cakes to decorate the following week.