Tim Brown was dead right. It was time for tough love, right at the beginning of class: Most of us entertain, most of us can get our act together with some hors d'oeuvres, an appetizer and an entree with
appropriate side dishes. But where we fall apart is dessert: Quick, send a spouse to Publix to scoop up whatever cake or tart looks best. And everyone likes Ben & Jerry's, right?
Brown, at the behest of Bill Brown (no relation, but a longtime friend), founder and chief chocolate engineer at William Dean Chocolates in Belleair Bluffs, had flown in to teach a run of more than a dozen cooking classes, quick boot camps on topics like jams, classic confections and puff pastry, complete with light finger foods and beverages, samples to take home, recipe booklets and, it turns out, the right amount of kick-in-the-pants, you-can-do-it spirit.
I was there to learn about tarts, about tart doughs and easy fillings, about ways to make them pretty on the speedy. But first, I supposed, we needed to ask Tim Brown, a South Africa native and associate instructor at the college of culinary arts at Johnson & Wales in Providence, R.I., what a tart was.
A tart, he said, is a baked dish consisting of a filling over a shallow- and straight-sided pastry base with an open top, not covered with pastry. It is not a pie. He doesn't like pie. Doesn't like the flaky crust, doesn't like how much darn crust there is. He said tart pastry is usually a shortcrust pastry (also called a pate sablee), the most versatile in his mind. But it could also be puff pastry, phyllo or a classic pate brisee (a standard all-butter, unsweetened pastry dough) or its sweeter, usually yolk-enriched cousin, pate sucree.
A tart's filling may be sweet or savory. Early medieval tarts generally had meat fillings, though modern tarts are usually fruit-based, sometimes with custard. Tartlets are little guys. There are galettes, which are round, free-form, rustic tarts often enfolding a fruit filling and baked on a baking sheet; a crostata is the same thing, only with an Italian accent. There are jam tarts and curd tarts and Bakewell tarts. (He didn't specify what this last one was, so I had to look it up: layers of jam and frangipane, with a topping of flaked almonds, doesn't sound half bad.)
A flan is a tart that has lost its crust; a quiche is an eggy tart, often savory, that "real men" briefly eschewed in the 1980s. Tarts can also be upside-down, the filling baked underneath, the pastry on top, the whole thing flipped before service. (See: tarte Tatin and its gleaming stained-glass lobes of caramelized apples.)
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Brown had a dessert plan: Make your dough one day and freeze it. (You can do this weeks, even months in advance — maybe make a double batch and keep one in the freezer for tartmaking emergencies?) Roll out your dough the next day, fit it into its tart pan and freeze that. The next day, make your filling — pastry cream, frangipane, caramel and lemon curd can all be refrigerated for several days and brought back to room temperature to fill a tart shell. On the day you want to serve the tart, it's just a matter of baking off and filling the shell.
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In three hours, Brown demonstrated a pate sablee (really a shortbread recipe, which he says will keep fine in the freezer for up to three months). He used commercially available puff pastry for a rustic poached plum tart drizzled with brown butter, and did some variation on the sablee for several others: a pastry cream topped with a pretty array of fresh fruit; tangy lemon curd topped with a quick Swiss meringue (which classmates got to brown with a blowtorch — drama!); a salted caramel topped with a luscious chocolate ganache; and long, rectangular tarts with a bed of frangipane (an almond-based pastry cream) and a pretty shingling of Granny Smith apple slices.
And as he worked, there was advice:
• So many batters ask you to add the flour in three batches. This overworks the glutens, especially in that first third of the flour. Add the flour all at once, but pulse your standing mixer so there's not an airborne cloud of flour.
• In a similar vein, for custards many recipes suggest adding different-temperature liquids back and forth to avoid curdling eggs. Brown suggests starting by incorporating all ingredients cold and then whisking constantly until it hits the desired temperature.
• Any filling or sauce that contains cornstarch must be cooked to 203 degrees before thickening begins. At that point, it usually thickens fairly quickly and the sauce turns from opaque to transparent.
• If using fresh fruit as a tart topper, cut the fruit as little as possible. Cutting opens the cells and things start to bleed and dry out. A quick gloss of neutral or apricot glaze will also preserve fruit a bit longer. Fruits like banana and pear will oxidize and turn brown, so you're better off using berries and stone fruit.
• For poaching fruit, put the seeds and pits in with your poaching liquid (they add flavor) and feel free to use the poaching liquid repeatedly for intensified flavor (but keep your hands out of it so you don't introduce bacteria).
• Brown's chief problem with pies is that the bottom crust is often pasty and undercooked. Solution: Preheat the oven with a pizza stone inside, then bake the pie on the hot stone so that the bottom crust gets a blast of heat.
• "Don't be afraid of caramel, but be aware of caramel," Brown said. Send the dog outside and take your landline off the hook when working with this "confectionery lava."
• And finally: Americans spend a lot of time trying to invent shortcuts. Brown quoted the head of Valrhona Chocolates and advised, "Respect the process."
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.