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.”