This is not only one of my favorite recipes, it’s at the top of my husband’s all-time-favorites list — and it’s been there for a very long time. (As I wrote that, as if on cue, Michael came in, cut himself another sliver of tart and munched it on his way out the door.) The tart is a classic of French pastry and a staple in patisseries all over France. I learned to make it about 30 years ago in a baking class given by a chef who’d come from Alsace, and I can remember the first time I made it myself at home: I pulled the tart out of the oven, let it cool only just-enough, cut it and almost jumped up and down with excitement, because not only did it look like every pear tart I’d seen in French pastry-shop windows, it tasted just like the tarts we’d had in Paris! It was a triumph that bordered on the culinarily miraculous.
The crust for this tart is sweet and essentially a cookie dough — it’s the base of French sables or shortbread. I make the dough in a food processor and either press it into a fluted tart pan or roll it out between sheets of plastic wrap. Either way, I always chill the crust before baking it. And I always like to pre-bake tart crusts — it’s the best way I know to avoid the soggy bottom-crust problem.
The almond cream is a little treasure. It’s very easy to make and it can be used as the base for myriad fruit tarts — it’s great with apples, peaches, plums, cherries, apricots and pineapple, for starters. It’s also a good filling for croissants or brioche snails.
And the pears are sweet, delicious and beautiful. As I said in the introduction to the recipe, this tart is often made with canned pears, a fact I first took as a sacrilege and then found pretty nifty. For this week’s tart, I used fresh pears and poached them in the sugar-lemon syrup. The picture at the top of the post is of the tart as it was going into the oven.
The pears I used this time were very large and, although I poached three, I had room on the tart for just two — no hardship, since the poached pear was great on its own. It would have been terrific as part of an ice cream sundae, but I thought of that only after I’d finished eating it. And I made good use of the poaching liquid — I put a few spoonfuls of it in the bottom of champagne flutes, poured in some sparkling wine and served Bellinis.
Here’s what the tart looked like just-baked
While it was still hot, I brushed the pears with some warm apricot jam and then, right before serving, when it was cool, I dusted it with confectioners’ sugar. I should have taken a picture, but instead I just brought the pretty thing to the table.
Here’s what it looked like when it came back to the messy kitchen
Since we were eight for dinner, the plate should have returned empty, but Michael was in charge of cutting and, while he wasn’t stingy, he was careful — careful to leave enough to snack on today!
I hope you enjoyed making the tart and I really hope you enjoyed eating it. Again, my thanks for giving me the honor of choosing this week’s recipe.
All my best wishes for a happy, healthy, delicious New Year. It’s certainly gotten off to a sweet start!
FRENCH PEAR TART
Adapted from BAKING FROM MY HOME TO YOURS (but taken from my manuscript, so the wording may be a little different from the way it appears in the book)
Makes 6 servings
For the pears:
6 canned pear halves OR 3 medium pears, firm but ripe
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 slice each pear half crosswise, 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, but taken from my manuscript, so the wording may be a little different from the way it appears in the book)
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.