12 Days of Christmas Baking – Day Two: French Pear Tart

almond pear tart

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!”.

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spreading almond cream

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.

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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.

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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.

12 Days of Christmas Baking – Day One: Earl Grey Madeleines

earl grey madeleines

The food blog lives! To celebrate the return of free time in my life I decided I’m going to bake something every other day that I’m home – because I can. When I announced this to my family by brother exclaimed “What is this, the 12 cakes of Christmas?!”. Not quite, since cakes are really not my forte yet and there are so many other things than cake to bake for holidays, but the idea stuck so I’m going to get back into blogging by posting 12 desserts for the holidays!

Earl grey is my sister’s secret weakness. Something about the citrus flavoured black tea makes her go crazy and if anything has a hint of earl grey in it, she will immediately buy/eat/drink it. Compared to her I have only a mild appreciation of earl grey…but really, if anything is tea-flavoured how can you say no? I can only share a small part of my tea obsession on this blog…my close friends know the embarrassing size of my tea collection and my inability to leave the house without a thermos of hot water. I can’t justify buying individual tea bags at local coffee shops with the amount of tea that I own, so I often grab tea bags to take with me just in case the craving for English Breakfast strikes me during class. As a result you’ll often find random tea bags in the pockets of all my coats.

piles of madeleines

My obsession with tea is somewhat genetic – my mother is the only one I know who has a bigger collection of tea than me. She has perfected the art of brewing a perfect pot of tea and no matter how many times I try, I can never strike quite the right balance of sugar and cream the way my mom can. So as much drinking tea is my own satisfying ritual, it has deep roots in memories of my family and home. That’s why these earl grey madeleines were the perfect thing to bake with my sister after four months of being away from home.

earl grey madeleines

Tea imparts very subtle flavours when you try to put it in anything other than hot water. My sister’s chief complaint is that baked goods advertised as “earl grey” are only being extremely optimistic. This recipe calls for steeping earl grey leaves in melted butter to infuse the flavour into the batter; my sister made sure to add an extra tablespoon of leaves. The madeleines were the perfect dainty accompaniment to mid-afternoon tea – fragrant with meyer lemon zest and earl grey, soft and cakey with a crisp edge.

Earl Grey Madeleines (adapted from Dorie Greenspan)

Ingredients
•    5 tablespoons unsalted butter plus additional for molds, room temperature
•    2 tablespoons loose tea or tea from 2 tea bags (preferably Earl Grey)

•    3/4 cup all purpose flour
•    1/2 teaspoon baking powder
•    Pinch of salt
•    2 large eggs
•    1/3 cup sugar
•    2 tablespoons honey
•    2 teaspoons vanilla extract
•    1/2 teaspoon (packed) lemon zest

Preparation
•    Melt 5 tablespoons butter in saucepan over low heat or in the microwave oven. Mix in tea. Let stand 15 minutes, then filter tea-infused butter with a sieve into bowl.
•    Sift flour, baking powder, and salt into medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat eggs and sugar in large bowl until thick, about 4 minutes. Add honey, vanilla, and lemon peel; beat 1 minute longer. Gently fold in dry ingredients, then tea-flavored butter. Press plastic wrap onto surface of batter; chill batter at least 3 hours and up to 1 day.
•    Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 400°F. Brush twelve 3×2-inch madeleine molds with butter. Dust with flour; tap out excess. Place pan on baking sheet. Drop 1 scant tablespoon batter into each mold (batter will spread while baking, filling molds completely).
•    Bake madeleines until golden and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 12-15 minutes. Sharply rap pan on work surface to loosen madeleines, then turn out onto rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.