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.

Two kinds of Crepe Cake (Vanilla and Blueberry) and Epic Baking

This cake is one of my life achievements – you may think that’s sad, but it’s hard not to be proud once you spend three days on one dessert. During those three days there are many moments where you start questioning yourself (Am I crazy for doing this?), the recipe (Did I really just use a dozen eggs?), and cake itself (Will this be worth it??). The answer is yes! Especially to the last question. Yes this cake is definitely worth it! I found the recipe procrastinating for midterms and day dreamed about it all the way till after finals. The concept of crepe cake is genius. Fresh crepes = good. Rich vanilla pastry cream = always good. Multiple layers of each in one bite = heaven. Why three days? There’s a lot of overnight chilling that needs to happen. The first day you make the crepe batter and pastry cream, stick it in the fridge and dream about cake. The next day you enlist the help of your little sister and learn the art of crepe making. Unless you’re an expert the first few crepes will invariably look a bit disfigured, but you can hide them underneath lots of pastry cream (or use them to taste test your crepe batter). The batter is quite thin so I found instead of making “20 perfect crepes” I ended up with about 40! Which definitely isn’t a problem. The crepes were just the right thickness and were very easy to layer – you just have to make sure they are all uniform in size and shape otherwise you’ll end up with a mound of crepes instead of a cake. Since I had enough crepes to make two cakes I decided to replace the Kirsch in one cake with creme de cassis and put fresh blueberries in between the layers. You only need to chill the cake for at least two hours before serving, so technically it would only take two days to make this cake, but other plans forced me to chill the cake overnight. Talk about an exercise in patience. The next day was the fastest I’ve biked home from work. We took out the cakes, put some finishing touches (I got to use a mini blowtorch for the first time! Caramelizing sugar on top creates a nice crunchy contrast), and finally cut a slice.

Both cakes were amazing. With so much pastry cream you would think it would be quite rich, but the cake tasted almost light and airy. The addition of creme de cassis and blueberries really elevated the cake and gave an interesting twist. I think it would be interesting to experiment with different liqueurs for different flavours. Grand Marnier for an orange crepe cake? What about Frangelico for hazelnut-cream cake? So many possibilities…

The Real Crepe Cake
 (from Cream Puffs in Venice)

The day before serving the cake, make the crepe batter and the pastry cream.

Crepe Batter Recipe

6 tablespoons butter
3 cups milk
6 eggs
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
7 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of salt
Vegetable oil

Instructions
1. Cook the butter in a small pan on medium heat until brown like hazelnuts. Set aside.
2. In another small pan, heat the milk until steaming; allow to cool for 10 minutes.
3. In a mixer on medium-low speed, beat together the eggs, flour, sugar and salt. Slowly add the hot milk and browned butter. Pour into a container with a spout, cover and refrigerate overnight.

Vanilla Pastry Cream Recipe
2 cups milk
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
6 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch, sifted
3 1/2 tablespoons butter

Instructions
1. Bring the milk to a boil. Turn off the heat and stir in the vanilla extract then set aside for 10 minutes. Fill a large bowl with ice and set aside a small bowl that can hold the finished pastry cream and be placed in this ice bath.
2. In a medium heavy-bottomed pan, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch. Gradually whisk in the hot milk, then place pan over high heat and bring to a boil, whisking vigorously for 1 to 2 minutes.
3. Press the pastry cream through a fine-meshed sieve into the small bowl. Set the bowl in the ice bath and stir until the temperature reaches 140 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Stir in the butter. When completely cool, cover and refrigerate.

Cake Assembly

2 cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons Kirsch (or creme de cassis or any other liqueur)
icing sugar (optional)
fruit (optional)

Instructions
1. To make the crepes, bring the batter to room temperature. Place a nonstick or seasoned 9-inch crepe pan over medium heat.
2. Swab the surface with the oil, then add about 3 tablespoons batter and swirl to cover the surface. Cook until the bottom just begins to brown, about 1 minute, then carefully lift an edge and flip the crepe with your fingers. Cook on the other side for no longer than 5 seconds. Flip the crepe onto a baking sheet lined with parchment. Repeat until you have 20 perfect crepes.
3. Whip the heavy cream with the tablespoon sugar and the Kirsch. It won’t hold stiff peaks but that’s okay. Fold it into the pastry cream.

4. Lay one crepe on a cake plate. Using an icing spatula, completely cover with a thin layer of pastry cream (about 1/4 cup). Cover with a crepe and repeat. If using fruit, sprinkle fruit between layers. The amount of fruit you add is to your preference (try to maintain the levelness of the cake). Make a stack of 20 crepes, with the best-looking crepe on top. Chill for at least 2 hours. Set out for 30 minutes before serving.
5. If you have a blowtorch for creme brulee, sprinkle the top crepe with 2 tablespoons sugar and caramelize with the torch; otherwise, dust with confectioners’ sugar. Slice like a cake.

Batter adapted from ”Joy of Cooking.” Pastry cream adapted from ”Desserts,” by Pierre Herme and Dorie Greenspan. Serves 10.

Apple honey-bourbon caramel pie for Uncle W.

You know those uncles that you only see once a year, bringing you the coolest gifts and telling the corniest jokes? That’s my Uncle W. He has lived everywhere, from the busy commute of England to the pyramids of Egypt to…Kazakhstan (memorably described as “the armpit of the world”). His international lifestyle means I only get to see him during his annual visit to Canada, which happened to be right after I came back from school. I was beyond excited to start baking in my mom’s kitchen. It’s utterly luxurious compared to my student housing kitchen (ample counter space that’s clean? A huge pantry of well-organized ingredients? And most importantly – a brand new KitchenAid stand mixer?!). So when I called Uncle W. to ask him what dessert he wanted for the family dinner that night, I was hoping he’d go for something exotic or challenging, something that I’d been holding myself back from making during the school year. I was thinking “maybe a mango panna cotta, or salted caramel banana cream pie, or fruit flan made with frangipane…” and then he says “Oh I know! Apple pie!”

…apple pie?

“Umm…you just want regular old fashioned apple pie?”
“Yeah that sounds great! See you tonight!”
Click.

Well then. I offered the entire dessert world on a platter but the man still chose the ubiquitous apple pie. Who was I to say no? If I had to make apple pie he definitely wasn’t getting it the regular old fashioned way.

I used the Perfect Apple Pie recipe from seriouseats.com which I’ve been dying to try since it was posted. Kenji, the recipe developer, goes into the science of apple pie – the apples which give the best structure, enzymatic activity of apple juice, the secret to perfect pie crust. It all culminates in one of the best pies I’ve ever made.

But it wasn’t enough – this couldn’t be a normal apple pie, I wanted flair! I decided to introduce honey-bourbon caramel to the apples. Caramel and apples go way back, they’re like the people who have been friends since the fourth grade. Except now caramel has gone off to college in Kentucky and come back boozed up and ready to party. The bourbon cut the sweetness of the caramel and added complexity; I only added 2 tbsp and could barely taste it so next time I’d probably put in a bit more to bring out the flavour.

The golden pie crust was super buttery and flakey, shattering under my fork to reveal the spicy tender apples mixed with smoky sweet caramel. Needless to say, Uncle W. loved it and we all fought over the last piece. Nothing like family lovin’ to make your desserts taste better.

We ate the pie so fast I couldn’t get a picture of a slice

Easy Pie Dough (from Serious Eats)

Ingredients
•    12.5 ounces (1.56 cups) all-purpose flour
•    2 tablespoons sugar
•    1 teaspoon kosher salt
•    1 1/4 cups unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pats
•    6 tablespoons cold water

Procedures

  1. Combine 2/3rds of flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse twice to incorporate. Spread butter chunks evenly over surface. Pulse until no dry flour remains and dough just begins to collect in clumps, about 25 short pulses. Use a rubber spatula to spread the dough evenly around the bowl of the food processor. Sprinkle with remaining flour and pulse until dough is just barely broken up, about 5 short pulses. Transfer dough to a large bowl.
  2. Sprinkle with water then using a rubber spatula, fold and press dough until it comes together into a ball. Divide ball in half. Form each half into a 4-inch disk. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before rolling and baking.

Apple Honey-Bourbon Caramel Pie (adapted from Serious Eats and Sassy Radish)

Ingredients
•    3 pounds Golden Delicious, Braeburn, or other baking apples, peeled cored, and sliced into 1/4-inch slices
•    3 quarts boiling water
•    1/2 cup granulated sugar, plus 1 tablespoon for sprinkling over crust
•    1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
•    1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
•    1/4 teaspoon allspice
•    1/4 teaspoon salt
•    1 tablespoon cornstarch
•    1 recipe Easy Pie Dough
•    1 egg white, lightly beaten

Honey Bourbon Caramel Ingredients:
•    1/2 cup brown sugar
•    1/4 cup mild honey
•    2 tbsp bourbon
•    2 tablespoons water
•    3 tablespoons unsalted butter

Procedures

  1. Adjust oven rack to lower middle position and place a heavy rimmed baking sheet on it. Preheat the oven to 425°F. Place apple slices in a large bowl or pot. Pour boiling water directly over top. Cover and set aside at room temperature for ten minutes. Drain apples well and transfer to a large bowl. Allow to cool for 10 minutes, tossing occasionally. Add sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, salt, and cornstarch and toss until apples are evenly coated. Set mixture aside.
  2. Bring 1/2 cup sugar, honey, bourbon and water to a boil in a 1 1/2- to 2-qt heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar has dissolved, then wash down any sugar crystals from side of pan with a pastry brush dipped in cold water. Boil without stirring, swirling pan occasionally so caramel colors evenly, until dark amber, about 5 minutes.
  3. Remove from heat and add butter, swirling pan until butter is melted. Be careful here as the caramel will hiss and spatter. Pour over apples and toss (caramel may harden but will melt in oven – promise!).
  4. Roll one disk of pie dough into a circle roughly 12-inches in diameter. Transfer to a 9-inch pie plate. Add filling. Roll remaining disk of pie dough into a circle roughly 12-inches in diameter. Transfer to top of pie. Using a pair of kitchen shears, trim the edges of both pie crusts until they slightly overhang the edge of the pie plate. Use the thumb and forefinger on your right hand to crimp the edges of the two pie doughs together. Cut 5 slits in the top with a sharp knife for ventilation.
  5. Use a pastry brush to brush an even coat of lightly beaten egg white all over the top surface of the pie. Transfer pie to sheet tray in the oven and bake until light golden brown, about 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 375°F and continue baking until deep golden brown, about 25 minutes longer. Remove from oven and allow to cool at room temperature for at least 2 hours before serving.