A couple of weeks ago, Michael and I took a road trip to Alsace (Eastern France). It was our first time there and, like so many people before us, we fell in love with the region. The landscape is magnificent at every turn. Mountains and vineyards rising up along slopes that start at the main streets of postcard-perfect towns. Wines with fragrances so luscious you want to use them as perfume. People who are warm and generous and smiling – I can’t wait to introduce you to the "The Jam Fairy," Christine Ferber (I spent a remarkable day with her). And tarte flambee. And more tarte flambee. Tarte flambee every day and sometimes twice a day.
The odd thing was that we mostly (and not incongruously) ate very contemporary meals while we were traveling through medieval villages – more about them later – but no matter what we were eating, or even when, we couldn’t resist the siren call of the tartes flambees. And we found them everywhere. Some were modern and some traditional and we loved them all almost indiscriminately. There, it’s out.
The tarte flambee, also called a flamenkuche, is an Alsatian classic and while I’m sure no right-minded Alsatian would concur with me in calling it a type of pizza, I think it’s the easiest way to explain it. The tarte has a bread-dough base – in some cases (to my mind the very best cases), a paper-thin base – and, at its most traditional, a topping of fromage blanc (also called quark and very much like sour cream) blended with crème fraiche, onions and small pieces (batonnets) of smoked bacon. After that, it’s up for grabs. You can have it gratineed with a sprinkling of Gruyere, covered with salad or topped with anything your imagination can dream up, including chocolate and bananas or strawberries and cream. In other words, like a pizza or a ‘normal’ tart, the crust is the vehicle for whatever you want it to carry.
Unlike a ‘normal’ tart and more like a pizza, the tarte flambee’s crust is freeform. Round seems like the usual shape, but the two tarte flambee’s I liked most were rectangular. Oh, and mine, the one in the top picture, was kind of oval-shaped – I’m working on rectangularity.
Here’s the tarte flambee I had in Strasbourg at l’Atelier du Gout, a restaurant I would send you to in a flash – I loved it. From the bottom up, the tarte had a good crust, a layer of hummus, slices of fresh tuna, piperade (the Basque pepper mix), arugula and a drizzle of syrupy balsamic vinegar. It was like the Yves Camdeborde tuna pizza in Around My French Table, but not, if you get what I mean …
And this was the tarte flambee that sent me into my kitchen to make my own. We had it at Flamme & Co a hip-looking all-tarte-flambee-all-the-time mini-chain begun by Olivier Nasti, who’s an MOF (Meilleur Ouvrier de France), which means he passed the toughest competition imaginable for chefs. (If you haven’t seen the film about the MOF competition for pastry, Kings of Pastry, see it instantly.) This tarte flambee had the creamy layer, then lots of herbs and salad and a few shards of Parmesan and came on a big wooden plank with a pizza wheel and the instructions that we should cut up the tarte and either fold the pieces in half of make little sandwiches from them. Michael sandwiched, I ate with a knife and fork and we both loved the tarte.
I left Flamme & Co wishing there were one on my corner and, knowing there wouldn’t be, I bought Olivier Nasti’s book, Trop Bon! Les Flamenkuche, 50 recettes d’un chef, and went home and made the dough immediately.
I thought mine was a little thick, but after Michael and I polished off a few of them and decided to just heat the dough with a drizzle of olive oil, fleur de sel and some grated Gruyere, we reconsidered and decided it was perfectly delicious.
Because I won’t be back in the States for a few weeks, I can’t give you a perfect recipe – meaning, I’m using mostly American and some French flours and I’m not sure how things will change when I go all-American – but I didn’t want to wait to tell you about the tarte flambee, because I think you can play with the recipe and have some fun with it now.
Here it is in its fledgling state.
TARTE FLAMBEE, A RECIPE IN PROGRESS
Inspired by Olivier Nasti, Trop Bon! Les Flamenkuche
Makes 4 tartes
For the dough:
1/4 ounce fresh yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
3/4 cup warm water (divided)
4 teaspoons olive oil (the right oil for this is roasted colza or roasted canola oil, but that’s difficult to find)
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I used American all-purpose flour. I made the first batch with 1 cup flour, then I made it with 1 1/4 cups, and both times I had to add more flour, so I think 1 1/2 cups should get you the right consistency)
1/3 cup whole wheat flour (in France I used type 80, which is not completely whole wheat)
1/3 cup rye flour
Put the yeast and sugar in a small bowl, stir in 1/4 cup of the warm water and set aside until the yeast is completely dissolved and blended into the water. It may or may not bubble, but it should be smooth and creamy.
Stir the oil and salt into the remaining 1/2 cup warm water.
I worked in my stand mixer with the dough hook, but you can make this dough by hand – the instructions are the same. Put the all-purpose, wheat and rye flours into the bowl of the mixer fitted with the dough hook and mix just to combine. With the mixer on low speed, pour in the yeast mixture followed by the oil and water mixture. Increase the speed a little and mix to get everything blended, then turn the speed to medium (or a tad higher) and knead for about 5 minutes, or until the dough cleans the sides of the bowl and balls up on the hook. If the dough is too soft, add more flour, a spoonful at a time, until you get a coherent, but still moist dough.
Cover the bowl, set it in a warm place, and allow the dough to rest until it doubles in volume, about 60 to 90 minutes, depending on the warmth of your room.
When the dough is almost risen, position a rack in the lower third of your oven and preheat the oven to 600 degrees F, or crank it up as high as it will go. If you’ve got a baking stone, slide it onto the rack and preheat it with the oven. If you don’t have a stone, a couple of minutes before you’re ready to bake, turn a very sturdy baking sheet upside down and put it on the rack.
Flour a work surface, turn the dough out onto it and fold the dough over on itself a few times. Cut the dough into four pieces and, working with one piece at a time and keeping both surfaces of the dough floured as needed, roll the dough into whatever shape you choose. The shape and size aren’t as important as the thinness – you want to get the dough as thin as possible. If the dough starts pulling back after it’s been rolled, let it rest on the counter for a little while and then give it another roll.
Prick the pieces all over and very well with the tines of a fork and then, one by one – it’s easier this way, I think – bake each piece for 20 seconds. (I used a peel to get the bread into the oven, but a cutting board does the trick as well.)
When the crusts are cool, a matter of minutes, you’re ready to top them.
The topping for 4 tartes:
1/3 cup fromage blanc (I think sour cream might work for this)
2 1/2 tablespoons crème fraiche
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons olive oil (again, the preferred oil is roasted colza)
Freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground pepper
About 1/2 pound cooked (but not crispy) smoked bacon cut into short, thin strips (lardons or batonnets) – more or less to taste
1 white onion or 3 to 4 white spring onions, thinly sliced, rinsed and dried
Whisk together the fromage blanc, crème fraiche, yolk, flour, oil, nutmeg and salt and pepper.
Spread a thin layer of filling over each crust. Scatter the bacon and onions over the crusts.
Bake at 600 degrees F for 3 minutes, at which point the cheese will be bubbling and brown and any exposed edges of the crust will be very dark, which is just as they should be.