Friday, February 25, 2011

Caramel-Nut Tart, the next day

those two little holes at 1 o'clock, that's where the caramel bubble through
the slice is more attractive than the tart as a whole, especially on my friend's pretty plate
As promised, here are the photos of the Caramel-Nut Tart. It's not as pretty as some of the others I've made this month but it was a success at dinner last night. It's a sweet caramel - I'm glad I omitted the tablespoon of corn

syrup (an ingredient that's difficult to find in Italy). The taste conjured memories of pecan pie, however the texture was smoother. Chunky walnuts, just roughly broken rather than chopped, were suspended in the creamy caramel, which was neither runny nor hard. In the other tarts I've made, the almond cream has been under the fruit whereas here, being on top, baking created a thin, crispy layer over the soft almond cream.

I would make it again, maybe with that missing French meringue so it would be more presentable! We had a good laugh around the table about that.

For this evening's dessert, a Nut Tart that does incorporate French meringue.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Tarte aux Noix Caramel (Caramel-Nut Tart)

I’ve been looking forward to this since I began the tart chapter because I love caramel, and here there are walnuts and almond cream — what more could you want, okay, maybe a little chocolate, I’ll have to experiment.
The recipe begins as do the others with the list of ingredients and equipment needed. It includes the tart ingredients then two separate headings, one for the optional nappage (that apricot glaze that is often brushed over the top of pastries) and French meringue. The lists are followed by detailed instructions which I read through rather quickly as they are often the similar and this is the 14th tart I’ve made in the last five weeks. There’s no mention of the French meringue. I read through the instructions closely. Nope, no French meringue. Yet another mistake in this book (I’ll get to that another day).
I was distracted this afternoon and didn’t properly prepare my mise en place (putting all the ingredients out, already measured and ready to go). I had a dough ball ready in the refrigerator and rolled that out. While it was chilling, I started on the caramel. It takes about 15 minutes for the sugar syrup to cook so I figured I had time to shell walnuts while it cooked but then I started picking out CDs to listen to and, oops, it was time to add the milk, cream and walnuts, and I had only begun shelling. I took the caramelized sugar syrup off the heat to check the temperature - 165! yikes, it should be 160 but it didn’t smell burnt so maybe it would be okay. I poured in the milk and cream, and the caramel rose up and froze like a wave in some disaster film about sudden glacial freezing. “Don’t despair” I told myself although I was already calculating whether or not I had enough cream leftover to make another batch of caramel. I started stirring and put the caramel back on the heat - whew- it smoothed out nicely. It was to simmer for five minutes, giving me just enough time to finish shelling those walnuts. I broke up the walnuts by hand, tossing them in the creamy caramel mix as they were ready. It probably cooked more than five minutes since three songs from the Beatles’ Let It Be played while I was doing this, but they’re short songs. I transferred the mix to a bowl sitting in ice water and wondered how I was going to spread it once it had cooled, at the same time knowing that if it was too warm on the cold dough the butter would soften. I’d deal with that later.
While the caramel was cooling, I prepared the almond cream. I’m crazy about this almond cream. I have yet to perfect pastry cream but this almond cream is a snap. There’s no cooking involved - almond powder, sugar, butter, an egg and corn starch mixed up and spread around in a tart under a fruit topping and now, over a caramel filling. I want to try it with walnut or chestnut or pecan flours.
Almond cream ready, pastry chilled, caramel cool, oven preheated. Time to assemble. The caramel wasn’t hard but it wasn’t liquid either, a consistency similar to taffy, not the easiest thing to spread. With some effort and an offset spatula (one of my favorite pastry tools), I managed to spread the caramel around the entire surface of the tart bottom. It would have been easier had the walnuts been smaller, had I prepared my mise en place and properly chopped them. Time will tell how this affects the eating experience. Only once did I almost tear the bottom of the pastry shell, it moved a little bit but I pushed it back in place. Tasting a smidgen of leftover caramel confirmed that despite the slightly longer cooking time it was sweet and caramel-y, not burnt.
Now to spread the almond cream, a task I was concerned about. I considered refrigerating the shell with the caramel before spreading the almond cream so it would be a harder surface but decided to follow the recipe. It spread easily, and I uselessly spent extra time making a pretty swirling pattern on top - it smoothed out within the first three minutes in the oven.
The “evaluating your success” section of the recipe states that the caramel shouldn’t have bubbled up through the almond cream, which should be a rich brown color and have risen slightly. Mine has one little hole but I’ll be dusting it with powdered sugar so it won’t show. I don’t want to attempt brushing nappage over the almond cream as it’s a bit sticky and I think brushing it will make a big mess. I don’t think it would add to the flavor either. I can’t help but wonder if the French meringue was intended to be decoratively piped over the surface. hmm...
The real success evaluation comes after dinner, along with a photo of the inside. I’m curious how the caramel held up during baking. This pie lends itself to variations - melted chocolate spread under the caramel, making the cream with walnuts or the caramel with almonds, putting the caramel over the almond cream although it would probably sink in.
Until next time, remember “you’re in the kitchen alone.”

Variation on a theme...

I don’t like copying. Some do, I don’t or didn’t. I want, or wanted, to be original, different. From elementary school, we’re taught not to copy from our classmates and heaven forbid we commit plagiary. I’m against plagiary, but lately I’ve been re-evaluating my capacity to be original and whether or not I really desire to be different, and whew, a lot of pressure has been lifted.  With that in mind, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are few new ideas but there are many new experiences.
I wanted a new experience in 2011, I awoke in the early days of January with a desire to create, to express, to exit the Internet vortex and household drudgery. But what to do?
The answer came before the question really. My niece gave me a beautiful cookbook for Christmas: The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Pastry by Judith Choate with the pastry chefs at the French Culinary Institute. It’s a 500+ page tome that mirrors their pastry school. From the first pages that descibe the attributes of a pastry chef – disciplined, precise – I knew it was the book for me. I skipped ahead to the recipes that begin around page 95, and first up are the three basic tart crusts, explained in detail with a list at the end for evaluating one’s success. I decided to bake my way through this book, one recipe at a time.
Writing is always a desired component when I want to create but I think about it more than I do it, so the natural question was “should I blog about it?” A blog gives me a deadline, the baked goods give me a structure. I’ll make two pastries a week and will shoot for one entry per item. There’s the risk of becoming repetitive and boring; the flipside being the challenge to look for unusual things, to observe the fine tuning of baking, enriching both the baking and the writing experience, for me at least. Consider it my creative exercise in public. I admit I feel a bit sorry for whomever reads this as my writing skills are rusty and that’s partly why I want to do this, to build up my writing — comments and critiques are welcome.
Google “baking blogs” and the result is 4,700,000! Only one sticks out in my mind: Julie and Julia. This has been done already; I’d be…copying. However, it’s a different book, and I’m a different person, my experiences will be different.
Hope you like it.