The summer I worked in the pastry kitchen, I made tarts.
Large mixed fruit tarts for the lunch buffet: solid shells of pâte brisée, brushed with chocolate to keep them from softening, filled with crème patissière, plus a slice of sponge cake for added integrity, decorated with a precise geometric pattern of strawberry halves, kiwifruit slices, and diced peaches, glossy with arrowroot-thickened apricot jam.
Bite-size jewel tarts for high tea and special functions: tiny pâte sucrée shells painted in couverture, a dab of crème patissière, thin wedges of kiwifruit or mango, and the faintest sheen of raspberry glaze.
Single-serving tarts for the cake shop: thin, tuile-like shells, mounded with crème patissière and topped with berries. Mountains of blueberries, lacquered in apricot glaze. Raspberries in concentric rings under a dusting of icing sugar. Strawberries cut and arranged to form five-petalled flowers.
Elegant tarts. Dainty tarts. Beautiful tarts that left me cold.
Don't get me wrong. I loved making those tarts in all their gorgeous, white-bone-china, heavy-silver, linen-napkin perfection. I turned out over a thousand of the jewel tarts, single-handedly, for one particularly enormous gala event. I loved them as the finished product of hours of hard work, but not as something I would prepare for myself. Not as something I'd look forward to eating.
When left to my own devices, I like a tart that isn't polite, something a little lopsided and uneven that bleeds juice and drips butter and has those slightly-burnt caramelly edges. The kind of tart that follows a lazy weekend lunch, or a weekday dinner on a day that calls for some kind of dessert. The kind of tart you could eat with your fingers if you felt like dispensing with good table manners.
The Italians call it crostata, and it's really the simplest fruit-and-pastry dessert you could possibly make: a wheel of pastry topped with fruit, edges folded over, and baked until bubbling and golden.
The kind of fruit is up to you. Apples, for a rustic take on apple pie. Pears, for a soft, velvety texture. Dried apricots, plumped in water with a little brandy, for a sticky, toothsome effect.
I like sweet, overripe plums, macerated with a little liqueur, cinnamon, and just enough sugar to draw out their juices. Baked, they split and ooze and fill the kitchen with a winey, tangy fragrance. Once the crostata is out of the oven, it takes discipline to not cut into it until it's cool enough to handle.
It's really too messy to be eaten with your fingers. Of course, I like it best that way.
If you suffer from Pastry Anxiety, this is an excellent dessert to practice on, because it doesn't require much handling, and there's no elaborate crimping or fluting to screw up. Even if the pastry is a complete disaster, you can just scoop out the fruit and top it with ice-cream. Of course, you can use storebought pastry, but it won't be quite the same.
(Serves one, for a very long time.)
Get out a big mixing bowl. Dump in one cup of flour, a few tablespoons of sugar, and a big pinch of salt. Cut in half a stick of butter until the largest lumps are no bigger than a pea. Add just enough very cold water - about a few tablespoons - to make the pastry dough come together. Form the pastry into a ball, wrap in wax paper, and put it in the fridge to chill.
Take a pound of ripe prune plums (the ones with bluish-purple skins and yellow flesh), rinse them, and pat them dry. Use your fingers to pull them apart; remove the pits and discard.
Put the plums in a bowl, and sprinkle over one teaspoon of sugar and a little cinnamon. You can also add a small splash of liqueur if you like - I'm fond of Frangelico. Give the plums a stir and let them sit for half an hour or so. You'll have slightly more plums than you'll really need for the tart, so feel free to steal a few to snack on.
Preheat the oven to 375F.
Remove the ball of pastry from the fridge, and put it on a baking tray atop a sheet of parchment paper. You can either use a rolling pin to roll out the pastry, or just press on it with the heel of your hand until it flattens out into a rough circle. (I still haven't gotten around to buying a rolling pin. I press it out.)
Take the plums and arrange them in rings on the pastry. Fold the edges over to create a rough border. Don't fret if it looks imperfect - the lopsidedness is all part of its charm.
Move the tray to the oven. Bake for forty-five to fifty minutes, or until the juices are bubbling, the butter in the pastry has started to caramelize, and the baking tray is a mess, despite the parchment paper. Remove the tray from the oven. Let the tart cool somewhat.
Serve warm in generous wedges. If you're not dispensing with table manners and cutlery, thick cream or ice-cream is a nice extra.