Saturday, December 13, 2008


That Cookbook Thing II - Tarte aux Figues

The final installment of That Cookbook Thing II, a community review of various recipes in Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck's Mastering The Art of French Cooking, Volume One, brings us to desserts. The French are perhaps the most renowned for their desserts, particularly those involving pastry. Our final group sampling comes from the essential chapter Desserts and Cakes, in which one is introduced to fundamental baking techniques as well as what goes into making quintessentially French tarts.

Central to the art of baking are the various binding requirements of eggs, sugar and cream or milk required for pastries and pastry cream. The latter is more intricate for all it takes is a difference of temperature, quantity or inclusion of one or two different ingredients to go from a creme anglaise to a frangipane pastry cream. While short on theory, Child et al. provide enough information in order for you to succeed in baking heavenly tarts. The idea is to get you into the kitchen, not to weigh you down to the point of inertia.

Dessert tarts typically comprise of three elements: pastry shell, pastry cream and fruit. Of course, there are various pastries and creams from which to choose in order highlight one's chosen fruit(s), and this is where the French truly transcend the expectations of a simple dessert.

The tart that we were supposed to make is a flambeed cherry tart. While the cherry season has just begun in New Zealand, I was not able to find any. So, I decided on dried figs, which were still plump and responded well to reconstituting in red wine. Besides, figs are just as much a part of French life as cherries. The tart, finally, took a detour, ending up with more of southern flavour than a south-western one. Never mind. It is still a fruit tart, and you know I love tarts (Samantha Jones of Sex and the City included).

In making the tart, Child et al. suggest two possible tart shells and pastry creams. There is no discussion on which works best; therefore, the reader is empowered to create an instant repertoire - keep your fruit the same, and just change out the shell and cream. The pastry shell options are sweet short crust and sugar crust. I opted for the sugar crust, as it provides a firmer finish (depending on the amount of sugar used). As for the pastry cream, the options are a custard filling or an almond custart. I have an absolute adoration of almond custard (aka frangipane), so there was no debate. In combination with the figs, I was salivating from the first beating of the whisk - this is fruit tart ne plus ultra.

The tart fits a 25cm/10" tart pan. Overall, I used considerably less sugar than recommended.

Tarte aux Figues
(Largely based on Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck's first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking)

For the sugar crust pastry shell:

1 3/4 cups flour
4 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon baking powder
7 tablespoons butter, diced
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon of water
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1) Mix together flour, sugar and baking powder in a medium bowl.
2) Rub butter into the flour mixture with the tips of your fingertips until sand-like granules are formed. Touch as lightly and deftly as possible. (Believe me, you will get that hang of it if you make pastry tarts enough times.)
3) Mix in the beaten egg and vanilla and bring entire mixture together.
4) On a lightly floured surface, knead the mixture into a ball.
5) To fully blend the mixture, use the heel of your hand to press small sections of pastry in a quick smear of approximately 15cm/6"(this process is known as fraisage).
6) Form into a disc and wrap in clingfilm for approximately 30 mintues.
7) Preheat oven to 190 C/375 F.
8) Roll out disc on a lightly-floured surface.
9) Place pastry into a prepared (lightly filmed with butter and flour) tart mold. Cover with foil and baking beans, then bake for 6 minutes.
10) Remove foil and baking beans, prick base of the tart base, bake for a further 8-10 minutes. Keep an eye on the rim of the shell, for it might blacken (due to sugar content). It is wise to place foil around the rim, as I have done in the past but neglected to do on this occasion.
11) Remove from oven and from mold, and let cool on a rack, during which time it will also harden.

For the figs:

1 cup red wine
2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons sugar
3 cups dried figs, halved if large

1) Boil red wine, lemon juice and sugar.
2) Add the figs.
3) Simmer for 5-6 minutes, then off the heat and let figs steep in liquid for approximately twenty minutes.
4) Drain figs (no need to reserve liquid).

For the frangipane (almond custard):

1 egg and 1 egg yolk
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup boiling milk
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup almond flour (pulverised almonds)
2 tablespoons cognac (or kirsch or brandy)

1) In a bowl, beat egg and egg yolk, gradually adding sugar.
2) When the mixture is pale yellow and forms ribbons, beat in the flour.
3) Add milk in a very thin stream.
4) Over medium heat, pour contents back into pot in which milk heated (to save on dishes, you understand), stir slowly, whipping all the time.
5) When the mixture becomes lumpy, beat vigorously until a paste is formed, all the while over the heat to cook the flour. Be careful not to burn the mixture on the bottom of the pot.
6) Off the heat, add butter, vanilla and almond extracts, almond flour and cognac. If you are not using it immediately, clean the sides and dot top with butter to prevent a film from forming over the frangipane.

To assemble the tart:

1) Fold drained figs into the frangipane.
2) Spread figs into sugar crust tart shell.
3) Preheat broiler/grill in oven.
4) Sprinke 1 tablespoon sugar over surface.
5) Place under broiler for 2-3 minutes to caramelise the sugar.
6) Optional: Throw 1/4 cup cognac, kirsh or brandy over surface of tart, alight and present to table.

This truly is a heady and wonderful combination, a complete success. The tart shell is sturdy and sweet, the figs heady and plump, the almond custard and booze rounding our the flavours of the tart with interest. While there are a few steps to building this tart, not one of them is difficult - and only the last optional step is potentially dangerous. I found that this tasted just as good the next day with a perfectly hot cup of strong black coffee, but I have a love of sweet goods late in the afternoon (I must be Central European at heart).

That Cookbook Thing II has been a wonderful experience for me to get to know a classic cookery text. Whilst I have not proceeded to engage in it to the nth degree as Julie Powell of the famous Julie/Julia Project, I have made a connection to Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck's masterful text. This is a great text for the home cook, for its sole purpose is to really train the reader to produce quality meals at home. The tips are insightful and the organisation of the great selection of recipes is practically unparallelled. This is a user-friendly guide for those of us who love French cooking.

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Shaun that is so gorgeous! Good call on the figs. I can only imagine how wonderful it was.
Sara, darling ~ The tart was incredibly fragrant, and figs are absolutely a good substitute for cherries in this case. I will make this tart again...and again.
LOVELY. I just read the script for the upcoming Julie/Julia project movie and it's almost as darling as the book. In fact, it may be even more so because it will intersperse snippets of Julie's life with Julia's. It's cute. Love your blog!
Failure to agree with them is 'heresy'. Failure to behave properly is a 'sin'.
have lost or abandoned religion in the traditional sense by now, or have retained only a tenuous, formulaic connection, or have veered off into various unsatisfying concoctions of "spirituality"....................................
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