Sweet, locally grown strawberries are now in season and perfect for this pastry
Now that local strawberries, bursting with a combination of sweet and tart juices, are here, I find myself eating them all day long. A bowl at breakfast, a few just-picked berries warm from the sun in the afternoon, and a few more cold ones from the refrigerator in the evening. My wife Dorothy's strawberry plants have never produced so many delicious berries, and we've been gorging on them for weeks.
Besides eating them whole or sliced with a bit of sugar, one of the best ways to showcase the berries is in a strawberry tart. Of course, there is also strawberry shortcake, which I also make, but I seem to be more in a mood for tarts these days.
America has had a love affair with strawberries for a couple hundred years now. Strawberries grew wild throughout the original colonies. Roger Williams, who founded Providence, R.I., in 1636 wrote that the strawberry "is the wonder of all the Fruits growing naturally in those parts. … In some parts where the Natives have planted, I have many times seen as many as would fill a good ship, within few miles compasse." American Indians, Williams went on to say, "Bruise them in a Morter, and mixe them with meale and make Strawberry bread."
Because wild berries were so plentiful then, few people bothered to cultivate them. But as populations spread, cultivation began in the early part of the 19th century. Strawberries became somewhat of a luxury item, especially when served with cream. John Mariani writes in the Dictionary of American Food and Drink that "President Martin Van Buren (1782-1862) … who was often accused of trying to turn the White House into a highfalutin palace, was criticized before his election for using public money to grow strawberries for his delectation."
By the 1880s more than 100,000 acres of strawberries were under cultivation compared with only 1,400 at the turn of the century. In a single night in June 1847, the Erie Railroad transported 80,000 baskets of strawberries to New York on its milk train.
Today, strawberries are grown in all 50 states, with about 75 percent of the nation's crop coming from California. Most of the time we're eating berries grown somewhere else and transported hundreds of miles.
Right now it makes no sense to eat anything other than local berries. They have a richness and depth of flavor impossible to capture in berries grown for travel. Homegrown berries are tender and juicy, not blah and crunchy. It's been estimated that it takes 435 calories of energy to transport a 5-calorie strawberry across the country! So eat our local harvest to your heart's content.
Strawberries - all berries, in fact - are loaded with antioxidants, too. As the strawberries end their season, raspberries and huckleberries are right on their heels. Feel free to substitute them for strawberries in this tart.
Greg Patent writes a monthly food column for the Missoulian. He is co-author with his wife, Dorothy, of the cookbook "A is for Apple," and co-hosts a weekly radio show about food with Jon Jackson on KUFM, Sundays at 9 a.m.
For this tart, be sure to use only the tenderest, tastiest, fresh local strawberries - raspberries or huckleberries will also work.
Make the custard filling first, since it should chill overnight. You can also make the pastry the night before and bake it the next day. You will need a 9-inch metal pastry ring (a hoop of metal about 1-inch deep) or a 9-inch tart pan about 1-inch deep with a removable bottom. Both are available in specialty cookware shops.
For the best eating, the tart should be put together a few hours beforehand and refrigerated. If you want to make two tarts, just double everything.
Fresh Strawberry Tart
For the custard filling:
1 cup whole milk
1 large egg
1 egg yolk
Pinch of salt
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon cold butter, cut into 4 pieces
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Heat 3/4 cup of the milk in a 2-quart heavy saucepan over medium heat until the milk is very hot and almost boiling. In the meantime, whisk the egg and egg yolk together in a medium-sized bowl just to combine them well. Add the salt. While whisking, gradually beat in the sugar. Continue beating with the whisk until the egg mixture has thickened slightly, 1 to 2 minutes.
In a small bowl, stir the remaining 1/4 cup milk and cornstarch together to make a suspension. When the saucepan of milk is ready, drizzle in about 2 tablespoons into the egg mixture, whisking all the while. Continue adding the hot milk slowly, whisking constantly.
Stir the cornstarch mixture and add it to the egg mixture. Return this mixture to the saucepan. Set the pan over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly but gently with a heatproof rubber spatula, scraping all over the side and bottom of the pan. As the mixture cooks, add the pieces of butter one at a time, waiting until each is melted before adding the next.
Continue cooking, stirring and scraping as the mixture heats and thickens. The mixture will be lumpy as the boiling point is reached, just keep stirring and scraping over medium heat (not any hotter, or the custard might burn). In 6 to 8 minutes, when the mixture is uniformly thick and very hot, reduce the heat to very low and continue stirring and cooking another 2 minutes.
Remove the pan from heat, stir in the vanilla and scrape the custard into a small bowl. Apply a piece of wax paper or plastic wrap directly on the surface of the hot custard. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate overnight.
For the butter tart pastry:
1 cup (5 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, measured by scooping the dry measure into the flour container and sweeping off the excess with a metal spatula
2 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter
1 large egg, beaten with a fork to combine the white and yolk
To make the pastry in a food processor, place the flour, sugar and salt in the work bowl fitted with the metal blade. Cut the butter into tablespoon-size pieces, add them to the work bowl and turn the machine on and off in 1-second bursts 8 to 10 times, until the butter is cut into small pieces resembling a coarse meal. Add the egg and pulse the machine very rapidly, about 20 times, until the dough almost gathers into a ball.
To make the pastry by hand, combine the flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter pieces and use a pastry blender to chop the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
Add the lightly beaten egg, and toss the mixture thoroughly with a fork until the dough almost gathers into a ball.
Turn the dough mixture out onto a lightly floured surface, flour your hands and squeeze the mixture together to form a 5-inch disk.
Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes or longer. You can make this one day ahead. If the dough is very cold, beat it a few times with a rolling pin to make it easier to roll. Roll the dough to a 12-inch circle on a lightly floured surface, trying to make the dough an even thickness. Don't be concerned about rough edges; they'll be trimmed.
To line the pastry ring or tart pan with the pastry, set the ring on a baking sheet, fold the dough in half, then in half again, center the point of the dough in the center of the ring, and carefully unfold the dough. (For the tart pan, center the point of dough on the bottom of the pan). Without stretching the dough, unfold it so that it is a circle again, lift the edge all around and ease the pastry down into the pastry ring or tart pan so the pastry is a bit loose along the sides.
Run the rolling pin across the top of the ring or tart pan to cut away the excess dough. Now press on the pastry lining the side of the ring or tart pan so that it extends about 1/8 inch above the rim. The pastry should be evenly thick around the edge and on the bottom. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour. May be prepared one day ahead and refrigerated.
When ready to bake, adjust an oven rack to the center position. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Press a square of aluminum foil, shiny side out, into the chilled pastry shell, making sure the foil fits snugly in the edges. Excess foil should extend upward. Fill the foil-lined shell with dried beans (a 2-pound bag will be enough) and place the pastry in the oven. Bake 30 minutes. Remove the pastry from the oven and carefully lift off the foil and beans.
Return the pastry to the oven and continue baking another 8 to 10 minutes, until it is golden brown and completely cooked. Watch closely during this time. If the pastry puffs up, quickly reach into the oven with a toothpick, and prick it gently to release the air. Cool the pastry completely on a wire rack.
The cooled dry beans can be stored in a resealable plastic bag and reused for many years.
For the strawberries and glaze:
36 to 40 fresh local strawberries, about 1 to 1 1/2 inches across
1/2 cup apricot jam, currant jelly or strawberry jam
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon Cognac, optional
2 tablespoons sugar
Quickly rinse the berries in cool water and pat them dry. Remove their stems with a strawberry huller or pinch them off with your fingers. Set the berries aside.
Set the pastry shell on a dessert platter. Stir the cold custard with a whisk to be sure it's perfectly smooth and spread it evenly on the bottom of the pastry shell. It will be a thin layer. Artfully arrange the strawberries on the custard in concentric circles, stem side down, starting at the edge and working toward the center. Set aside.
To make the glaze, strain the jam into a small, heavy saucepan. Add the water, optional Cognac and sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Cook until the mixture is thick and syrupy and becomes almost clear. This will take 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the pan from heat and set it aside to cool for a minute or two.
With a pastry brush, carefully brush the glaze over the berries to give each berry a beautiful shine. Excess glaze may be spooned onto the exposed surfaces of the custard. Refrigerate for at least 3 or 4 hours. To serve, cut with a sharp knife. Let the portions stand at room temperature 15 to 20 minutes before serving.