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by Linda Dannenberg
Some cookbooks regale their readers with interesting, personal anecdotes relating to the recipes they contain. Some cookbooks are intellectual treatises, opening to the reader the historical provenance for their recipes.
French Tarts: 50 Savory and Sweet Recipes by Linda Dannenberg is neither of these. This is a recipe book, pure and simple. Well, maybe not so simple.
Through the 50 recipes, 41 tarts and other supporting recipes, Dannenberg provides a fascinating tour of the tarts of the different regions of France. She describes where she found each recipe and whose recipe it is, but there is no dawdling here. In each case, the point is the recipe and the reader is quickly led to it.
The book begins with a primer on baking tarts which includes a general discussion of crusts, fillings, glazes, and tools. Again, each of these discussions is brief, providing just enough information to help the would-be baker begin a tart journey.
The primer is followed by an assortment of seven crust recipes. The crust recipes range from the simple, such as the Pâte Brisée ( Flaky Short-Crust Pastry), to the complex, such as the Pâte Feuilletée Rapide (Quick Puff Pastry). The crust recipes are each used in multiple instances throughout the book, where some of the tart recipes provide a choice of the most fitting among the seven.
In reviewing this book, I made three of the seven tart shells: Pâte Feuilletée Rapide (Quick Puff Pastry), Pâte Sucrée (Flaky Sweet Pastry), and Pâte Sablée (Rich Sugar Pastry Crust). I found the end results to be excellent, but as I worked with the pastry doughs, I found that things did not work exactly as one might have expected from the text. For example, the Pâte Sucrée fell apart as I tried to move it from the work surface to the tart pan. Any experienced pastry cook understands that this is not a crisis for a short dough such as this, but a beginner might not know that this type of dough can be pressed into a pan with no ill effect.
No guidance is provided for a true pastry beginner. The book makes an assumption of experience.
Don't let the name of the Quick Puff Pastry fool you. While the recipe takes some shortcuts from a traditional Pâte Feuilletée, it still requires at least 3 hours to prepare.
A small quibble I have with the crust recipes is that the proportions for each recipe result in shells of sizes different than some of the fillings for which they are used. Some alternate proportions or help in adjusting the shell or the filling would be useful.
Besides the seven crusts whose recipes appear in the introductory material, some of the tart recipes, such as the delicious Tarte Provençale à la Courge (Provençal Squash Tart), include crust recipes whose uses are more limited and are intended for only one of the tart recipes found in the book.
The introductory material finishes with a discussion of pastry creams, glazes, and some basic fruit tart recipes. These sections combine to allow the readers to create fruit tarts of their own invention.
The tart recipes themselves are divided into Savory Tarts and Sweet Tarts. There are 18 savory recipes and 23 sweet tart recipes. I made 2 savory recipes and 2 sweet recipes. The people with whom I work were my tasters.
The recipes I chose were Tarte Provençale à la Courge (Provençal Squash Tart), Tourte Vosgienne (Alsatian Meat Tart), Tarte Normande à la Crème (Normandy Apple and Cream Tart), and Tarte au Chocolat Infusé au Basilic (Chocolate-Basil Tart With Grapefruit-Rosemary-Honey Sauce).
The Provençal Squash Tart filling is basically a mixture of winter squash, Gruyère cheese, and rice. The tart is seasoned with onions, bay leaves, and thyme, and topped with bread crumbs. The crust for this tart is made with olive oil rather than butter. I've never before eaten an oil-based crust that I thought had good texture and good flavor. I doubted this recipe's ability to deliver, but my fears were unfounded. The olive oil crust was quite tender and it was the perfect foil for the squash filling.
The Alsatian Meat Tart is a wonderful combination of julienned pork marinated in parsley, onion, shallot, oil, and white wine, with a top and bottom crust made from the Quick Puff Pastry recipe. It is first baked without the addition of the cream and eggs that the final product contains. After the initial baking, the tart is removed from the oven, and the cream and eggs are added through a vent in the top crust. The tart is then returned to the oven for a second baking. During the first baking period, the strips of pork compressed, making the addition of about 1-1/2 cups of liquid very difficult. Again, a beginner would have difficulty working through the dilemma posed by this puzzle.
My tasters were divided on the two savory tarts. Although there were individual preferences, there was no clear group preference and both tarts were eaten with gusto.
I tried the two savory tarts with the recommended wines: a Provençal rosé with the Provençal Squash Tart, and an Alsatian Sylvaner with the Alsation Meat Tart. Neither of these wine selections are ones I would have considered without Dannenberg's recommendations. I thought the rosé did not provide the proper complement for the Provençal Squash Tart. The contrast between the wine and the tart was sharp and not one I would recommend.
The Sylvaner with the Alsation Meat Tart, on the other hand, is a match made in heaven.
Based on this small sample, I would look at the suggested wines but I would not count on the workability of the pairings.
The Normandy Apple and Cream Tart is a simple tart of apples cut into cubes and baked with sugar, butter, eggs, and crème fraîche in a Pâte Sablée shell. The true essence of the apple flavor shines in this recipe as there are no spices to modify it. My tasters devoured this tart.
The Chocolate-Basil Tart, baked in a Pâte Sucrée crust was a culinary adventure. The tart is made by steeping the basil in the cream, discarding the basil, and then using the cream to make the chocolate cream mixture that is poured into the shell for baking. The filling has a silky texture, but the flavor is unusual for the American palate. The Grapefruit-Rosemary-Honey Sauce is a simple combination of the ingredients in its name. This sauce does not keep, as the flavor of the rosemary dissipates in a couple of days.
While my tasters are an international group, none of them is European-born. Some of my tasters were startled by the flavor. Others accepted it readily. Some preferred it with the sauce and some without, but there was not a lot of enthusiasm for this tart. I doubt any of them would purposefully seek another slice given an option for something else.
It's not that the Chocolate-Basil Tart is a failure. It's that it is unusual.
The book's recipes are followed by a conversion chart and an appendix. The appendix lists the hotels and restaurants from which the recipes are taken and it provides mail order sources for equipment and ingredients.
French Tarts is a fun recipe book whose recipes work. The color photographs by Guy Bouchet are enticing and draw the reader into the text.
If you like tarts or if you would like to like tarts and you are
an experienced baker, take a look at this book. It has a lot to offer.
You will enjoy it.
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