Nigel Slater: Tart Nouveau

Occasionally I find that plans actually work, and this summer has seen the carefully positioned fig tree finally extend its branches far enough to shade the garden table with its dinner-plate-sized leaves. This has changed everything. Now anything that has to be served then rushed back to the cool can stay happily on the table: salade niçoise with French beans and nasturtiums; the summer pudding; the mineral water; the butter. Today the dappled shade was there to protect a vast fruit tart, its fragile crust home to an Italian soft-cheese filling and ripe berries, cherries and currants. I can't tell you how tempting it looked in the gentle summer light.

I love making pastry, but not in high summer. From now till the end of August any sweet crusts will be made from buttered biscuit crumbs, or by a thick yet melting shortcake crust that needs no rolling. Peaches, apricots, raspberries and the like will all be carried on a base that can be made in the hottest of kitchens, even mine, where the sun pours through the skylights, making the steel work surfaces too hot to touch with bare hands.

Summer fruits deserve to be accompanied by the tenderest of crusts. A mixture of crushed biscuits and butter is a flattering base for the ripest of fruits and the softest, most seductive of vanilla-scented creams. There is also the small matter that a slice of juicy tart left in the fridge overnight will soften to the point of collapse. Not so anything on a biscuit-crumb base, which will keep crisp and interesting for a day or even two.

That juice, especially the rich yet tart liquor that seeps and oozes from berries and currants, deserves to be put to good use. If you bake a pile of fruits under a tender, buttery shortcake crust, their juices will bubble up and saturate the pastry. A sort-of-but-not-quite summer-fruit tarte tatin to serve warm from the oven with vanilla ice cream.

This week I made an upside-down shortcake with what may be the last of the black and red currants from the garden. The method couldn't be more straightforward - it is one I recommend for anyone who thinks they can't make pastry. No rolling, no delicate handling, just a little mixing and then laying on a patchwork of pastry that knits together by itself. A fruit tart for the pastry-phobic.

I have another idea for the faint-hearted pastry maker. It is easy to make discs of thin shortbread from a classic Scottish recipe and sandwich them together with a summer cream made from fromage frais and lemon or orange curd.

For those who don't fancy a complicated pastry-cream filling, I suggest a lighter, less-cloying one of cream cheese lightened with egg whites and sweetened with the barest minimum of sugar. Fresh-tasting tarts for a summer's day, and preferably in a cool, shady corner.

Summer berry mascarpone tart

You could use any plain biscuits, but crumbly and rich ones make a rougher, more interesting base. The best results come from coarse, buttery biscuits such as Duchy Originals ginger or orange biscuits. This is perhaps the easiest fruit tart in the world. Serves 8-10.

for the base

100g butter
375g lemon, orange or ginger biscuits

for the filling

2 large eggs
2 tbsp golden caster sugar
500g mascarpone
vanilla extract
a little grated orange zest
for the fruit
250g cherries
150g ripe blackcurrants, white or red currants
150g ripe blackberries

You will need a shallow, loose-bottomed tart tin, about 22cm in diameter.

To make the crumb base: melt the butter in a small pan, crush the biscuits to fine crumbs (in a food processor or by putting them in a plastic bag and hitting them with a rolling pin) then stir the crumbs into the butter. Tip the crumbs into the tart tin and push them out over the base and up the sides. Leave to set in the fridge for 20 minutes.

To make the filling: separate the eggs, put the yolks into a food mixer with the sugar and beat till smooth, then mix in the mascarpone, a drop or 2 of vanilla extract and 1 tsp or so of grated orange zest.

Beat the egg whites till stiff, then fold them gently into the cheese mixture with a large metal spoon. Scoop the filling into the tart case, cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for an hour or more.

Stone the cherries and pull the currants from their stalks. Mix the fruits together and place them carefully on the tart. Cover gently with clingfilm and return to the fridge for 30 minutes (longer will not hurt). Serve in small wedges. The tart will last for a day or 2 in the fridge as long as it is covered.

Warm red fruit tart

The epitome of those tarts whose fruit soaks into the pastry. As you take it from the oven, its crust will be partly submerged in deep purple juice. Leave it to settle for 20 minutes before turning it out.

A glorious mess of sticky, fruit-sodden pastry that cries out for cream or vanilla ice cream. Serves 6.

for the pastry

145g cold butter
275g plain flour an egg yolk
2 tbsp golden caster sugar

for the fruit

250g blackcurrants
150g red currants
150g blueberries
2 tbsp golden caster sugar

You will need a shallow, non-stick 20-22cm sponge or cake tin - with a fixed base.

Cut the butter into chunks and rub into the flour with your fingertips. Add the egg yolk and sugar and bring together to form a ball. Put the pastry on a board and knead gently for a minute then roll into a thick cylinder. Wrap in greaseproof paper and chill in the fridge for 20 minutes.

Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Pull the currants from their stems. Mix the fruits together and pile them into the sponge tin. Dust with the sugar.

Remove the pastry from the fridge and cut into slices, about 1cm thick. Lay them on top of the fruit, patching up any holes. Bake for 35 minutes, till the pastry is stained with the juices that have bubbled up. Leave to cool for 25 minutes or so before running a palette knife around the edge and turning out on to a plate. Serve with cream or ice cream.

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