Saturday, July 3, 2010

dessert before doom

The beginning of July marks the halfway point for summer bar exam candidates. Four more weeks of cramming and outlining and cleaning out the stock of index cards at the local Staples, and far too many pronouncements of doom. Heaven help us, should we do anything less than breathe, eat, and sleep bar exam law for the remaining weeks.

I'm not quite there yet. I've been distracted. You see, for me, the beginning of July is a marker of something else: the tail end of strawberry season.

When it comes to berry fruits, raspberries are my first love, but strawberries are a close second. I'll take a pass on supermarket strawberries, with their freakish size and waterlogged, cardboardy texture, but the strawberries at the farmer's market are a whole different game - small, sweet, and vibrantly flavorful.

I eat most of my strawberries plain. Sometimes they don't even make it out of their little cardboard containers, particularly when they've been sitting in the sun and have that lovely warm strawberry fragrance. If I plan ahead, they end up sliced in a salad with lettuce, goat's cheese, almonds and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Should there be any extras, they become breakfast, topped with Greek yogurt and a swirl of honey.

Come dessert time, there usually aren't any left. But sometimes, I'll buy two pints quarts, and dedicate one to dessert.

I know shortcake is the quintessential American strawberry dessert, but it came late into my life, long after I'd already fixed my allegiance to another.

My strawberry dessert is tarte aux fraises, the classic French strawberry tart: buttery pâte sucrée, thick pastry cream, and lots and lots of fresh, ripe strawberries.

A tarte aux fraises
is a pleasure to assemble, and it's an attractive sight when complete - a golden shell of pastry, filled with concentric rings of fat red berries nestled in pale yellow pastry cream. In a tarte aux fraises, I find a little sweetness to look forward to at the end of marathon cramming session.

Or something to ease into the beginning. After all, if I'm doomed, I may as well eat dessert first.

Tarte Aux Fraises (Strawberry Tart)

You'll often see this tart in bakeries with a glossy apricot glaze on the berries. It looks pretty, but I think it distracts from the flavor of really fresh, ripe strawberries, so I don't bother.

(Makes one eight-inch tart. It doesn't keep terribly well - the pastry softens as it sits - so it's better to round up company to help you eat it.)

For the tart shell: Cream together one stick of softened butter with a quarter-cup of sugar and a generous pinch of salt. Beat in one egg yolk. Work in one cup of flour, a quarter-cup at a time, until you have a soft dough. Wrap in plastic and chill in the fridge for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 325F.

Roll out the dough between floured sheets of wax paper to a one-eighth inch thickness, and press it into an eight-inch false-bottomed tart pan. Trim the excess. (You can re-roll it, and stamp out small cookies, which go well with berries and cream.)

Press a sheet of parchment paper into the pastry case, and line it with rice or dried beans. (Or pie weights, if you have them.) Bake for twenty to twenty-five minutes, or until just browned at the edges. Remove the weights. Allow to fully cool before removing from pan.

For the pastry cream: In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together two egg yolks, a scant quarter-cup of sugar, and one tablespoon of flour.

Bring half a cup of milk and a quarter-cup of heavy cream to a simmer in a small saucepan.

Whisk the cream mixture into the egg mixture, then pour the entire mixture back into the saucepan. Cook over low heat, whisking steadily, until the mixture comes to a low boil.

Let the mixture boil for one minute, then transfer to a small bowl and stir in a half-teaspoon of vanilla. Cover with plastic wrap - press it right up against the cream to prevent a skin from forming - and chill until cold.

To assemble the tart: Take a pint and a half of strawberries, wash them, dry them, and cut off their hulls so that they sit flat on their tops.

Beat the pastry cream with a tablespoon or two of cream - enough to get it to a spreadable consistency. (More cream will make it custardy, but it'll get messy when you slice it.)

Spoon the pastry cream into the tart shell, and smooth it out with a knife. Arrange the strawberries atop the pastry cream in concentric rings. Serve within an hour.

Note: If you'd like to store the finished tart for more than an hour or two, paint the shell with melted chocolate (put it in the freezer to set) before filling it with pastry cream. It keeps the tart from softening.

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