The Art of the Tart

Primer

Put on a pedestal by discerning pastry chefs, the tart is a satisfying challenge for the perfectionist baker.


By STACY ADIMANDO
Photos by RYAN LIEBE

“The view of the tart as too uphill or too technique-oriented to make at home has always been the greatest obstacle to home bakers,” says Maury Rubin, owner of Manhattan’s City Bakery and author of the slender yet canonical Book of Tarts. Rubin is one of a passionate tribe of bakers that puts the tart, above all other pastry, on a pedestal.

He’s not wrong about the tart’s daunting reputation; defined by their delicate, crumbly shells, open-faced designs, and a precise ratio of dough to filling, tarts demand close attention and reward practice.

If cookie baking is like dropping coins into a jukebox—pleasure found easy and cheap—constructing tarts is like conducting a symphony. They require the unity of many elements: crust, baking, filling, and decoration. Therefore, tarts encourage a perfectionist approach; a good one is an artistic and culinary triumph, a mediocre one defeats the purpose.

Still, Rubin assures, you likely already know some fundamentals of tart baking.

“What might be seen as making ‘fancy French pastry’ is actually, from a technical perspective, identical to making cookie dough.” You cream butter and sugar, add eggs, and slowly blend in flour. The real work starts once the drone of the mixer blade fades: coaxing dough into a pan before it overwarms; forming fluted columns of buttery crust; stirring curd into a glossy surface, placid as lake waters; shingling frangipane with roasted fruit or fresh berries; mixing a silky, seasalted ganache. The trick is practice, which eventually results in perfection. These basic tenets of tart wisdom will get you there:

Obsess about ingredients.

From a tangle of taut red currants to voluptuous poached pears, a tart’s topping is its first impression. Source fruits at their peak that are similar in size for even baking. Choose the highest quality cream, chocolate, eggs, and butter for the most dramatic flavors.

Play with dough.

There are two classic mother doughs in tart baking: pâte sucrée, which is lightly sweet, buttery, and crumbly (like a shortbread cookie) and its savory sibling, the flaky pâte brisée. (Some bakers designate a third category, pâte sablé, which is shorter and crumblier than brisée or sucrée.) Learn these first, then improvise by adding finely ground nuts, dried or fresh herbs, citrus zests, cocoa powder, minced candied ginger, or interesting flours like rye, buckwheat, or corn.

Premeditate.

Work in advance by making and refrigeratin gdough overnight, or lining and freezing tart pans a few hours before baking. Set out equipment and ingredients before getting started. When a few seconds can mean the difference between a lumpy filling and a smooth one, organization is key.

Style freely.

Forget the jam-shellacked fruit decoration and high-piped toppings of tarts past. Slice plums thinly or make a whole poached pear the central adornment. Experiment with subtle dustings of cocoa powder or confectioners’sugar, whipped cream, free-form meringue, coarsely ground salts, and edible flowers (not all on the same tart, of course).

Pare down.

Tarts are about restraint. Overhandling dough can result in a tough crust. Overfilling the pan will make for a cakey crust rather than a buttery, crisp one. And too many fillings or garnishes will muddle flavors. Resist the urge to keep adding more.

Chocolate Ganache Tart with Sea Salt and Espresso Beans

SERVES 8–10

Active: 45 min. Total: 1 hr. 30 min. (plus cooling time)

A touch of egg is the simple, secret ingredient in this luscious tart’s filling. Just a little gives the combination of chocolate and cream a sliceable, fudgy consistency. The crumbly cocoa-laced crust can be pressed right into a fluted pan, no rolling pin required. Swap out espresso beans for toasted nuts, chopped brittle, granola, or crushed peppermint candy. Just don’t eliminate the sea salt; it adds a bright, irreplaceable contrast to the decadent filling.


FOR THE CRUST:

  • 1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter,softened
  • ¼ cup plus 2 Tbsp. sugar
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 1¼ cups unbleached all-purposeflour
  • 2 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
  • ¼ tsp. kosher salt

FOR THE FILLING:

  • 1 large egg plus 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 10 oz. semisweet or bittersweet chocolate (use a bar, not chips),chopped
  • ¾ tsp. orange-flavored liqueur, suchas Cointreau
  • ¾ tsp. pure vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp. kosher salt

FOR THE TOPPING:

  • Flaky sea salt
  • 2 Tbsp. dark-roasted espresso or coffee beans, finely chopped orcrushed
  • Unsweetened whipped cream, for serving (optional)

  • MAKE THE CRUST: In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl using a handheld electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed, scraping down the bowl as needed with a spatula. Beat in the egg yolks, scraping down side of bowl as needed to incorporate.
  • In a separate medium bowl, sift the flour, cocoa powder, and salt. Beat the flour mixture into the egg mixture on low speed in three batches, stopping as soon as it’s incorporated. Form the dough into a ball with your hands, then flatten it slightly into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill until slightly more firm, 30 minutes or up to 1 day (if dough is very firm when you remove it, let sit at room temperature for 10 minutes).
  • Remove the dough and reserve a golf ball–size piece. Place the remainder in the center of a 13x4-inch fluted rectangular tart pan or 9-inch round tart pan with a removable bottom. Press the dough across the bottom and up the sides of the pan to form a very thin (⅛-inch) layer, making sure the dough is not too thick in the corners. Dock the bottom of the dough about every 2 inches with the tines of a fork, and place the tart pan on a baking sheet. Freeze until firm, about 10 minutes.
  • Set a rack in the top third of the oven and preheat to 375°. Bake about 8 minutes; check to see if dough has puffed up, and if so press it back down using a spatula or by poking with a fork (if holes form, you can patch them later with the reserved dough). Bake until set, about 15 minutes more. Remove. While the crust is still hot, gently patch any holes with pieces of the reserved raw dough (the residual heat will fuse them together). Let cool completely in the tart pan. Crust can be made up to 1 day ahead. Once cooled, wrap in plastic wrap.
  • MAKE THE FILLING: Preheat the oven to 350°. In a small bowl, whisk the egg and egg yolk.
  • In a medium pot over medium heat, bring 1 inch of water to a simmer. Set a medium heatproof bowl inside the pot (be sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water); add the cream and chocolate to the bowl and cook, stirring frequently with a rubber spatula, just until the chocolate is melted and glossy. Quickly remove the bowl and set aside. To temper the egg so it does not scramble in the chocolate, whisk 1 tablespoon of the chocolate mixture into the egg mixture. Repeat. Then, using a rubber spatula, fold the egg mixture into chocolate mixture until combined. Stir in the orange liqueur, vanilla, and kosher salt.
  • Quickly pour the chocolate filling into the prepared tart shell set on a baking sheet, tilting the tart pan as needed to help evenly distribute and fill the corners. Bake until the filling is just set but slightly jiggly in the center when the pan is shaken, about 20 minutes.
  • Remove and let cool 5 minutes. Sprinkle the tart generously with sea salt and lightly with chopped espresso beans if using. Transfer the tart pan to a cooling rack. Let cool completely. Carefully remove the fluted rim, then slice the tart and serve with whipped cream if desired. Tart can be made ahead. Once fully cooled, wrap in plastic wrap. After 1 day, store in the refrigerator.

Lemon Meringue Tarts

MAKES SIX 4¾-INCH TARTS

Active: 1 hr. 30 min. Total: 2 hr. 30 min. (plus cooling time)

“The single best gauge of a bakery’s quality is its lemon tart,” says Maury Rubin. “There’s a dance to balancing the sweet and tart flavors appropriately, and in a good bakery the filling will never taste buttery or eggy—it will taste like lemon.” This recipe, adapted from Rubin’s book and infused with lemon zest for extra citrusy flavor, is the ideal. Alternatively, lemon juice and zest can be swapped out for equal parts lime.


FOR THE CRUST:

  • 13 Tbsp. (6½ oz.) unsalted butter,cut into 13 pieces, softened slightly but still cool
  • ⅓ cup confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1½ cups unbleached all-purpose
  • flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 Tbsp. heavy cream

FOR THE FILLING:

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
  • ½ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 4 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk
  • 1½ sticks (6 oz.) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces

FOR THE MERINGUE:

  • 6 large egg whites
  • 1 tsp. cream of tartar
  • 1 cup granulated sugar

  • MAKE THE CRUST: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl using an electric mixer, beat the butter and confectioners’ sugar at medium speed to combine. Scrape down the bowl, add the egg yolk, and beat until well blended. Scrape down the bowl and add half of the flour; beat on low speed until crumbly. Stop the machine, add the remaining flour and the cream, and beat on low speed just until a dough forms.
  • Turn out the dough and shape it into a ball, then flatten the ball slightly into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours or up to 1 day.
  • Dust a work surface with flour. Cut the chilled dough into 1-inch pieces; using the heel of your hand, knead the pieces back together into a smooth disk. Keeping the surface well floured, shape the disk into a 12-inch-long log. Cut into 6 equal pieces. Refrigerate 10 minutes.
  • Remove one of the dough pieces and transfer back to the well-floured work surface. Using your fist, squish the dough into a disk, then roll using a rolling pin to form a very thin (⅛-inch) round. Center the round over a 4¾-inch fluted tart pan, preferably with a removable bottom, or a tart ring. Run your fingers around the inside of the pan or ring several times, easing the dough into the edges to avoid tearing. Be sure the dough fits against all the sides and nooks of the pan. Trim excess dough from the top edges. Dock the bottom of the dough sparingly with the tines of a fork. Transfer to a baking sheet and freeze for at least 10 minutes or until firm. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough, refrigerating the scraps as you work in case they are needed to patch any holes.
  • Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375°. Transfer the baking sheet to the oven and bake until the pastry is light golden brown and the interior is dry, 12–15 minutes. If the bottoms of the shells puff up as they bake, tap them down lightly with your fingers or the back of a fork as often as needed. Remove and let cool in the tart pans completely.
  • MAKE THE FILLING: In a medium bowl, rub together the sugar and lemon zest with the palms of your hands until fragrant. Set aside.
  • Using a fine-mesh strainer, strain the lemon juice into a medium nonreactive saucepan. Set the strainer in a medium heatproof bowl next to the stove.
  • In the saucepan, add the eggs, egg yolk, and sugar mixture, and whisk to combine. Add the butter, and set the pan over medium heat. Cook, whisking constantly all over the bottom of the pan and into the edges, until the butter is melted and the mixture is thickened slightly, 3–5 minutes. At the very first sign of a boil, quickly remove the pot from the heat and strain the lemon mixture into the prepared bowl.
  • Using a large spoon, fill the tart shells with the lemon cream. Refrigerate until set, about 30 minutes.
  • MAKE THE MERINGUE: In a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or in a large bowl with a handheld electric mixer, whisk the egg whites on medium speed for 1 minute. Add the cream of tartar, increase the speed to medium-high, and mix for 1 minute. With the motor running, gradually add the sugar in small (1–2 teaspoon) increments. Once all the sugar has been added, continue beating the egg whites until stiff, glossy peaks have formed.
  • Carefully unmold the tarts. Place a generous dollop of meringue in the center of each. Caramelize the meringue with a kitchen torch if desired. Serve immediately, or refrigerate up to 1 hour. Let sit at room temperature for 10 minutes before serving.

Almond Frangipane Tart with Cranberries and Honeyed Pistachios

SERVES 8

Active: 40 min. Total: 1 hr. 25 min. (plus chilling and cooling time)

Frangipane, an almond-based pastry filling, has a nutty fragrance and a consistency between buttery pound cake and airy sponge cake. In Frenchstyle fruit tarts, this classic filling is often studded with poached or fresh fruits. In summer, you can swap out the cranberries in this tart for halved pitted apricots, fresh pitted cherries, or sliced plums. Syrup-poached apples or pears, halved ripe figs, or quince would be delicious in cooler months.


FOR THE ALMOND FRANGIPANE:

  • ¼ cup plus 2 Tbsp. sugar
  • ¼ cup plus 1 Tbsp. (3.5 oz.)
  • almond paste
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ¾ tsp. pure vanilla extract
  • ⅛ tsp. finely grated orange zest
  • 3 Tbsp. unbleached all-purpose
  • flour
  • ¼ tsp. baking powder
  • ¼ tsp. kosher salt

FOR THE CRUST:

  • 1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter,softened
  • ¼ cup plus 1 Tbsp. granulated
  • sugar
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • ¼ tsp. kosher salt

FOR THE FRUIT AND TOPPING:

  • Scant ¾ cup frozen cranberries, fully thawed in a strainer
  • 3 Tbsp. sugar
  • ¼ cup raw unsalted pistachios, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp. honey
  • Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting (optional)

  • MAKE THE FRANGIPANE: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the sugar, almond paste, and 1 egg on medium speed until blended. Add the butter, vanilla, and zest and beat until smooth. Scrape down the bowl, then beat in the remaining egg.
  • In a separate bowl, briefly whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add to the butter mixture and beat at low speed until just absorbed. Transfer to a storage container, cover, and chill for at least 1 hour or up to 2 days.
  • MAKE THE CRUST: Add the butter and sugar to the clean bowl of a stand mixer and beat until light and fluffy. Scrape down the bowl, then beat in the egg yolk. Combine the flour and salt, then add to the bowl, beating on low speed until just incorporated.
  • Place dough in a 9-inch round fluted tart pan. Using fingertips, press the dough evenly across the bottom and up the sides of the pan to cover in a very thin (⅛-inch) layer; trim and reserve any remaining dough. Dock the dough every 2 inches with a fork. Place the tart pan on a baking sheet; freeze for 10 minutes or until firm.
  • Meanwhile, set a rack in the top third of the oven and preheat to 350°. Mix the thawed cranberries with the sugar; toss well.
  • Retrieve the baking sheet and the frangipane. Add the frangipane to the center of the tart crust, and using an offset spatula, spread to evenly fill all the way to the edges. Individually place the cranberries on the frangipane in a pattern you like, leaving room between the berries. Discard excess sugar or juices from the bowl.
  • Bake until the top is lightly browned, about 40 minutes. (If frangipane looks puffy in patches, don’t worry, it will settle.) Remove the tart and let cool 5 minutes, then carefully transfer the tart pan to a rack to cool completely.
  • In a small bowl, mix the pistachios with the honey using fingers. Top the tart with small clusters of the honeyed nuts. Just before slicing, unmold the tart and dust with confectioners’ sugar if desired.

"To bake a perfect tart shell, use a bottomless tart ring, perforated sheet pan, and silpat [nonstick baking mat]. Together, they eliminate air pockets between the shell and pan, and allow air to circulate on both sides of the shell, ensuring the crust is cooked inside and out."
William Werner, Craftsman and Wolves, San Francisco
"I prefer using fruit with beautiful stems and poachable fruit we can add flavors to— usually liquors like amaretto, kirsch, frangelico, and rum."
Tzurit Or, Tatte Bakery, Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts
"At Chez Panisse, we sprinkled our crusts with ‘moon dust,’ a combination of crushed amaretti cookies, ground almonds, and flour, which kept the pastry from getting soggy with fruit juices. Now, I use a combination of flour, a little sugar, and a ground nut to suit each tart."
Claire Ptak, Violet Cakes, London
"We use wüthrich, a European-style butter from Wisconsin, because it has a higher fat content and less moisture, making the dough creamier tasting and easier to work with. Plugra brand is also a good, widely available option."
Sandra Holl, Floriole Café and Bakery, Chicago