Tarts with a heart

Simon Hopkinson makes the case for pastries
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When Miss Vanessa Bentley worked as a pastry chef at Bibendum some eight years ago, I would often find her struggling to open up the restaurant in the early morning (most pastry cooks like to get to work before anyone else, to put their brioche to rise, to pot up the cremes brulees, etc). And, although she regularly seemed to have trouble with her locks and bolts, Vanessa never failed - once she had got in - to turn out a good tart. Made with custard, that is. And with currants soaked in Armagnac, too.

She is an Australian lass, with whom I recently managed to catch up while I was in Sydney.The first demand I made of her, when she swept into the bar of the Observatory Hotel, was: "I want the currant tart recipe, please!", shortly followed by "How lovely to see you, darling, after all this time, and would you now join me in a very dry Martini?"

I have always liked having jolly people around me in a kitchen, because, if you really enjoy cooking for a living (I should mention that it is important that you can actually cook, as well as be fun) it makes all that hard work much easier. You need to laugh and joke (discreetly) with your fellow chefs, and you should also try to smile when the all-important kitchen porter nudges you on purpose, just as you are pulling a trembling tart out of the oven - only because he wishes to test your weirdest level of humour. Naturally, it is important to smile at Chef and to guffaw hugely at his jokes. It is not compulsory always to smile at waiters...

But, seriously, it was a pleasure to work with someone such as Vanessa. And I couldn't resist a jest over her insistence to continue with "noy" - in that peculiar Neighbours vernacular - rather than "no". It's nice when nothing has changed - particularly, once more, when cooking her wonderful currant tart. Here it is.

Vanessa Bentley's Currant Tart, serves 6

100g currants

75g Armagnac (or Cognac)

for the pastry:

100g plain flour

50g butter, cut into cubes

1 egg yolk

1-2 tbsp iced water

pinch salt

a little beaten egg

for the custard filling:

275ml milk

275ml whipping cream

12 vanilla pod, split lengthways

4 egg yolks

2 eggs

50g caster sugar

pinch salt

freshly grated nutmeg

First soak the currants in the Armagnac. It is best to weigh them in a small plastic bowl then simply to pour in the given weight of booze. Leave to soak for at least four hours, overnight or for simply ages in a preserving jar. In fact, make a lot and then they are always to hand for a quick pud.

In a food processor, electric mixer, or manually, blend the butter, flour and salt until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Now tip into a large, roomy bowl and gently mix in the water and egg yolk until all is well amalgamated. Put into a plastic bag and chill in the fridge for at least one hour before rolling.

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/gas mark 4. Roll out the pastry as thinly as possible, line a 20cm-diameter, 4cm-deep tart tin and blind bake. This is achieved by lining the uncooked pastry case with a sheet of tin foil and filling with, for instance, some dried beans, before cooking for about 15-20 minutes. (The foil and beans can afterwards be transferred to a bowl or tin for future use.)

Brush the inside of the case with the beaten egg, which will form a seal and prevent any leaks. Return to the oven for a further 10 minutes or so, until it is pale golden, crisp and well cooked through, particularly the base.

Reduce the oven temperature to 325F/170C/gas mark 3. Heat together the milk and cream with the vanilla pod, whisk briefly and cover. Leave to infuse for 30 minutes.

Beat together the egg yolks, eggs and sugar, then strain over the flavoured milk. Add the salt, mix, and leave to stand for five minutes. Lift off any froth with some kitchen paper, then carefully ladle almost all of the mixture into the cooked pastry case. Slightly draw out the middle shelf of the oven, place the tart upon it, then add the rest of the custard (this is simply a good way of avoiding spillage). Bake for 30 minutes.

Remove - it should still be a bit wobbly - and dust the surface with plenty of freshly grated nutmeg. Return to the oven and finish cooking for a further 10 minutes until well set.

Cool completely before generously covering the surface with the soaked currants. Once the currants have been added, eat within an hour or so. Note: if the currants seem particularly wet, drain briefly in a sieve before using.

I have only ever liked real tarts. The recent trend on some especially complex restaurant menus is to

fashion a dainty individual "tartelette" - invariably spelt wrong. I can't abide these things. For a start, there is often far too much pastry in relation to the amount of filling. And then - particularly when the tart is used as a savoury "garnish" to a principal dish - it is simply utilised as a pointless vessel for carrying an equally irrelevant "medley of buttered spring vegetables" (usually served in the depths of winter), which, perhaps, will be "scented with dill". I like a big tart, and I like a wedge from it, all on its own.

The ubiquitous lemon tart has become the pastry dessert of the past 15 years or so. In essence - when it is good - it is similar to a lemon cheese mixture, but without the butter. It is then cooked in a crisp, pre-baked tart case until it gently sets. And deep is definitely de rigueur when it comes to making the very finest tarte au citron. I believe it was the Roux brothers who first unleashed the definitive version on to the appreciative palates of a select clientele, at their legendary restaurant, Le Gavroche. But it would, most definitely, have been brother Michel Flour and Butter who originally squeezed the lemons and rolled the sandy paste thin.

Lemon tart, serves 6

The following lemon tart-filling recipe is from the Roux Brothers' New Classic Cuisine (Macdonald & Co, 1983). The tart shown in the photograph was cooked by Paul Merrony in Sydney, who learnt to make it in the kitchens of Le Gavroche. Use the pastry recipe from the previous custard tart, blind-baked and ready to be filled.

9 large eggs

375g caster sugar

grated zest and juice of 4 large lemons

300ml double cream

icing sugar, to serve

Pre-heat the oven to 325C/170C/gas mark 3. Beat together the eggs and sugar until well blended but not light and fluffy. Stir in the cream and mix lightly, then add the lemon juice and zests. Pour into the pre-baked pastry case and bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 40 minutes. If the top of the tart becomes too brown before it has set, cover loosely with a circle of foil. Leave to cool in the tin.

Dredge the surface with sifted icing sugar before serving. I like my lemon tart really cold, straight from the fridge.

Now here's a strange tart, but a very delicious one. It is called Tarte Vaudoise a la creme, and originates from the legendary restaurant Girardet, near Lausanne, Switzerland. Fredy Girardet's book, La Cuisine Spontanee, along with Michel Guerard's Cuisine Gourmande, were my two most loved continental cookery bibles in the early 1980s. They were heady days for us lucky curious cooks, who soaked up the genius of chefs such as these two innovative magicians. Will we ever see their like again? Ironically, however, this tarte Vaudoise of Girardet's is as indigenous as a smear of raclette on potato.

Fredy Girardet's Tarte Vaudoise a la creme, serves 8

for the pastry:

140g strong white flour

1 sachet dried yeast (usually 5-6g)

small pinch salt

large pinch caster sugar

60g softened unsalted butter

50ml milk

for the filling:

100g caster sugar

a large pinch flour

250ml double cream

a sprinkling of powdered cinnamon

a few flecks of unsalted butter

To make the pastry, mix together the flour, yeast, salt, sugar and butter in a bowl, using your fingertips, or a food-processor if you prefer. Once the texture resembles fine breadcrumbs, add the milk to bring everything together to form a ball of paste (add a little more milk if it fails to cohere).

Roll out the pastry to a thickness of about 3mm, and press it into a lightly buttered and floured, 25cm, loose-bottomed tart tin. Make sure that you have enough pastry overhang to form a ridge over and above the edge of the tart ring, as this pastry tends to shrink and puff a little as it cooks. Prick the base of the tart with a fork and leave it to relax for 15 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 425F/220C/gas mark 7. (It is also a good idea to slide in a flat baking sheet to get hot, too, as this helps the bottom of the tart to cook through.)

For the filling, mix together the sugar and pinch of flour, then tip into the pastry case. Distribute evenly over the base of the tart, then gradually pour in the cream, and, with the fingertips of your free hand, blend it loosely but not too diligently. Sprinkle the surface with a little cinnamon and a few flecks of butter, and slide into the oven.

Bake for 30 minutes until the pastry is golden and puffed, and the filling is starting to blister a little. Serve at room temperature

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