Summer is just around the corner!
Hold on! Let's not get too carried away here. It's late April and for the past few years, temperatures have been in the 20s--Celsius, not Fahrenheit obviously, otherwise I would be hiding under a blanket and not writing this in the sun. Everytime this happens, we all start getting excited: picnicking in parks! Spending the day lounging around in the garden or at a café terrace! Not doing anything at all!
And then, all of a sudden, June comes along. Visions of warm summers drinking lemonade and selling it for a dollar disappear, replaced by sweaters. I'm not saying I would still have a lemonade stand, because I'm not sure how well that would go along with people in the street in Paris, or anywhere, really. A six year-old selling lemonade is cute. A 23 year-old selling lemonade is just plain weird. In any case, June in France sometimes doesn't call for lemonade, or any other refreshing drink. You'd be more likely to reach for tea or hot chocolate. Just when you thought all those dresses you bought in April would last throughout the summer, you realize you need to buy another pair of warm pants.
In reaction to this fear of the cold summer, I've decided to pretend like I'm seventy years old and declare that my joint pain can only mean the summer will be really hot. I mean, my wrists hurt every morning, so it can only be that, right? Or the fact that I broke them in January. Right...I forgot about that.
We'll see how Summer turns out--for now, Spring is pretty delightful. Surrounded by flowers and fruit trees in bloom in Saint Dié, where I'm spending a few days, I couldn't ask for more. Lounging in the sun and eating strawberries can't get any better...unless you add a strawberry tart. The tarte aux fraises is a true French classic; simple enough to make pretty quickly, yet with enough elegance to serve for company. The freshness from the strawberries comes together with the silky feel of the vanilla-flecked pastry cream for a great moment. Add a buttery, crunchy tart crust and you've got the perfect springtime dessert.
Every French family has its own recipe for strawberry tart, but most of them include a vanilla crème pâtissière and a pâte sablée. This recipe is pretty much the same, although I strayed away from family tradition and made a pâte sucrée, where confectioner's sugar replaces granulated sugar. I also added one little thing, which may or may not give the strawberries a little extra something: black pepper.
Try it on your next strawberry tart, but don't forget: save some pastry cream on the edges of the bowl. You'll thank me for that when you're sitting out in the sun, vanilla-laden cream all over your fingers. Don't worry, nobody's looking: everyone is too busy doing the same thing.
Tarte aux Fraises
serves 4 to 6
for the tart crust (makes extra dough, enough for one or two tartelettes)
250g (1 cup) all-purpose flour
85g (1/3 cup) confectioner's sugar
1/2 vanilla pod, scraped
125g (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened and cut into chunks
25g (1 3/4 TB) almond powder
4g (1 TS) salt
Beat butter with a mixer or by hand until fluffly. Add confectioner's sugar, almond powder, salt, vanilla "caviar", egg, and flour, one at a time and mixing well after each addition.
Dough should be pretty sticky but you should still be able to handle it. Roll it into a ball, flatten a little with the palm of your hand, and refrigerate for at least a few hours: overnight is fine. You can also freeze the dough.
When ready to use, preheat oven to 180°C/ 350°F.
Flatten the dough using a rolling pin until it is 3mm thick. Place in a buttered 22cm tart pan (that would be 8.66 inches precisely! 8 or 9-inch is fine). Cover the pan with parchment paper and pie weights. Bake crust for 20 minutes or until golden. Remove parchment paper and weights, and bake for another 10 minutes.
Set tart crust on a wire rack to cool.
for the pastry cream
15g (1 TB) cornstarch
40g (3 scant TB) granulated sugar
18cl (3/4 cups) whole milk
2 egg yolks
18g unsalted butter (1 1/4 TB), room temperature
1 vanilla pod, scraped (or use what you have left from the crust recipe)
Bring milk and vanilla to a boil in a medium saucepan, and remove from heat. Add cornstarch and half of the sugar.
In a small bowl, beat yolks and remaining sugar until lightened in color, about 3 minutes. Add a little of the milk beat to combine.
Place egg mixture in saucepan; beat regularly on medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and remove from heat.
Keep beating until pastry cream achieves a thick but silky consistency. When the cream reaches 50°C / 120°F , add butter and keep beating until incorporated.
Let cool and spread onto cooled tart crust.
for the topping
500g (1 lb) strawberries, sliced
1 TB strawberry or currant jam
1 (tiny) pinch black pepper
Place sliced strawberries on top of the pastry cream, following the edges of the tart crust to make a circular design. Top with a pinch of black pepper.
Heat jam until liquid, and brush onto tart.
Refrigerate or keep in a cool place until serving. Tart should be served the day it is made, otherwise it might get soggy and the pastry cream won't be as good.