I first traveled to France with my family for a month-long exploration of the beautiful country. We started in Paris, rented a car and wandered around almost every small town in Provence, walked by the seaside in Marseilles, dashed through the rain in Dijon, and toured many art galleries in Paris. Looking back, I realize this trip was where my appreciation for food began. France isn’t subtle about their food, for good reason – they know it’s the best. This was where I realized what real fresh bread was supposed to taste like, that there was more to cheese than brie and havarti, that it was perfectly acceptable to eat bread, cheese, and fresh fruit for all three meals because it was France. When we were in Provence my father and I would both wake up at the crack of dawn (still jetlagged) and drive our huge minivan through the tiny streets to find a boulangerie to buy fresh baguettes and croissants for breakfast. Throughout the whole trip I was hopeless at learning French, but my proudest moment was when I was able to ask for “Une baguette s’il vous plaît. C’est tout, merci!”.
The first time I walked into a pâtisserie I was blown away by the stunning variety of pastries – rows and rows of buttery croissants, pan au chocolat, meringues the size of a loaf of bread, marzipan in all shapes and sizes, and most importantly – the tarts. French tarts were a revelation for me. The crust wasn’t so much buttery and flaky but a sweet shortbread, filled with the most lovely things, from sweet pastry cream with summer fruit to bright lemon curd with a crisp brûlée. One of my favourite discoveries was the pear-almond tart. The almond filling ranged from custard-like to a nutty paste, but no matter what the texture it always complimented the sweet juicy pears.
I was lucky enough to return to France on a school trip a few years later. We started our trip in a small northern town called Bayeux. Our first day in France we were able to walk around and explore the rainy streets for a few hours. I remember frantically searching for a patisserie right before we were due to meet back at the bus – I ran into the first one I could find, haphazardly pointed to a few tarts, and rushed out the door. In the back of the bus I surreptitiously unwrapped my sticky tarts while my friends chattered about how everything was so French!.
The first bite was a pear-almond tart. It was perfect.
Finally making this tart was definitely on my bucket list. It turned out spectacularly – the crust was the perfect cookie-like texture, the almond cream was toasted and chewy on the top, sweet and creamy on the inside. Using canned pears is apparently how the French usually make this tart, who am I to break from tradition? The recipe does give you the option of poaching fresh pears if you wish. Bottom line: make this tart. It is très délicieux.
FRENCH PEAR TART
Adapted from BAKING FROM MY HOME TO YOURS
Makes 6 servings
For the pears:
- 6 canned pear halves OR 3 medium pears, firm but ripe
- 1 lemon
- 4 cups water, optional
- 1 1/4 cups sugar, optional
For the almond cream:
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 3/4 cup ground blanched almonds
- 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 1 large egg
- 2 teaspoons dark rum or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 partially-baked 9-inch tart shell, made with Sweet Tart Dough (see below), at room temperature
- Confectioners’ sugar for dusting, or apple jelly for glazing
Getting ready: If you are using canned pears, you have nothing to do now. If you are using fresh pears but do not wish to poach them, you have nothing to do now. If you are using fresh pears and want to poach them, peel them and leave them whole. Bring the 4 cups water, the 1 1/4 cups sugar and the juice of the lemon to a boil in a saucepan just large enough to hold the pears. Add the pears to the boiling syrup, lower the heat so the syrup simmers and gently poach the pears until they are tender when pierced with a knife, about 15 minutes. Cool the pears to room temperature in the syrup.
To make the almond cream: Put the butter and sugar in the workbowl of a food processor and process until the mixture is smooth and satiny. Add the ground almonds and continue to process until well blended. Add the flour and cornstarch, process, and then add the egg. Process for about 15 seconds more, or until the almond cream is homogeneous. Add the rum or vanilla and process just to blend. If you prefer, you can make the cream in a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or in a bowl with a rubber spatula. In either case, the ingredients are added in the same order. Scrape the almond cream into a container and either use it immediately or refrigerate it until firm, about 2 hours.
Getting ready to bake: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Have a lined baking sheet at the ready. If you are using fresh (unpoached) pears, peel them now. If you are using poached or unpoached pears, cut them in half from blossom to stem and core them; rub the unpoached pears with lemon juice. Whatever pears you have, make sure to pat them dry – really dry – so that their liquid won’t keep the almond cream from baking.
Fill the baked crust with the almond cream, spreading it even with an offset metal icing spatula. Thinly cut each pear half horizontally into slices, lift each half on a spatula, press down on the pear to fan it slightly and place it, wide-end toward the edge of the crust, over the almond cream. The halves will form spokes.
Put the crust on the lined baking sheet, slide the sheet into the oven and bake the tart 50 to 60 minutes, or until the almond cream puffs up around the pears and browns. Transfer the tart to a rack to cool to just warm or to room temperature before unmolding.
Right before serving, dust the tart with confectioners’ sugar. If you prefer, prepare a glaze by bringing about 1/4 cup apple jelly and1/2 teaspoon water to the boil. Brush the glaze over the surface of the tart.
Serving: This tart goes very well with aromatic tea.
Storing: If it’s convenient for you, you can make the almond cream up to 2 days ahead and keep it closely covered in the refrigerator, or you can wrap it airtight and freeze it for up to 2 months; defrost before using. You can also poach the pears up to 1 day ahead. However, once you’ve baked the tart, you should be prepared to enjoy it that same day.
Playing around: The almond cream is a great companion for a variety of fruits. It’s as good with summer fruits, like apricots or peaches, as it is with autumn’s apples.
SWEET TART DOUGH (Adapted from BAKING FROM MY HOME TO YOURS)
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 stick plus 1 tablespoon (4 1/2 ounces) very cold (or frozen) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 large egg yolk
To make the dough: Put the flour, confectioners’ sugar and salt in the workbowl of a food processor and pulse a couple of times to combine. Scatter the pieces of butter over the dry ingredients and pulse until the butter is cut in coarsely – you’ll have pieces the size of oatmeal flakes and pea-size pieces and that’s just fine. Stir the egg, just to break it up, and add it a little at a time, pulsing after each addition. When the egg is in, process in long pulses – about 10 seconds each – until the dough, which will look granular soon after the egg is added, forms clumps and curds. Just before your reaches this clumpy stage, the sound of the machine working the dough will change – heads up. Turn the dough out onto a work surface.
Very lightly and sparingly – make that very, very lightly and sparingly – knead the dough just to incorporate any dry ingredients that might have escaped mixing.
If you want to press the dough into a tart pan, now is the time to do it.
If you want to chill the dough and roll it out later (doable, but fussier than pressing), gather the dough into a ball (you might have to use a little more pressure than you used to mix in dry bits, because you do want the ball to be just this side of cohesive), flatten it into a disk, wrap it well and chill it for at least 2 hours or for up to 1 day.
To make a press-in crust: Butter the tart pan and press the dough evenly along the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Don’t be stingy – you want a crust with a little heft because you want to be able to both taste and feel it. Also, don’t be too heavy-handed – you want to press the crust in so that the pieces cling to one another and knit together when baked, but you don’t want to press so hard that the crust loses its crumbly shortbreadish texture. Freeze the crust for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer, before baking.
To make a rolled-out crust: This dough is very soft – a combination of a substantial amount of butter and the use of confectioners’ sugar – so I find it is easier to roll it between wax paper or plastic wrap or, easiest of all, in a roll-out-your-dough slipcover. If you use the slipcover, flour it lightly. Roll the dough out evenly, turning the dough over frequently and lifting the wax paper or plastic wrap often, so that it doesn’t roll into the dough and form creases. If you’ve got time, slide the rolled out dough into the fridge to rest and firm for about 20 minutes before fitting the dough into the buttered tart pan. Trim the excess dough even with the edge of the pan. Freeze the crust for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer, before baking.
To partially bake the crust: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Butter the shiny side of a piece of aluminum foil and fit the foil tightly against the crust. Bake the crust 25 minutes, then carefully remove the foil. If the crust has puffed, press it down gently with the back of a spoon. Bake for another 3 to 5 minutes, then transfer the crust to a cooling rack; keep it in its pan.