To anyone who will listen, I am often heard banging on about the importance of mastering basic techniques. I find that in this modern world of ours we are bombarded with recipes from many angles: newspapers, the internet, magazines, television programs and even podcasts. Often we will come across a recipe that will interest us but may be scant on instructions, or even a picture of something delicious on a picture-only social media site. It is here that the understanding of basic techniques enables us to apply our knowledge of these techniques and cook something beautiful without too much stress.
So here is a little strawberry tart. It is made up of three distinct components, the pastry, the crème pâtissière and the fruit. From the instructions for the first two, many things can evolve. Firstly, strawberries can be exchanged for many fruits. The sweet shortcrust pastry used here can be used for other sweet pastry applications, and the crème pâtissière, once mastered, can be used in tarts, filling choux pastry and even between puff pastry sheets to create a vanilla slice.
First to the pastry. Sweet shortcrust has been a pastry that has vexed me for many years. It behaves differently to other shortcrust pastries because of the addition of sugar. Those tiny little crystalline edges on the sugar mean the pastry has a tendency to tear when it is being rolled out. I know there are many out there who have had terrible experiences when attempting to roll out various versions of a sweet shortcrust. So, break a little rule. I think many of us are terrified of overworking pastry but, with this one, it can save an enormous amount of grief. So, once the pastry has been made and rested, before you roll it out, give it a gentle little knead. The movement will take the edges off those pesky sugar crystals and you will have a much more enjoyable experience rolling out your pastry.
Now the crème pâtissière, or pastry cream, is another foundation technique in the pastry kitchen. The trick is to not be fooled by its appearance. During the cooking process, the mixture goes through several metamorphoses. First from a liquid to a thickening mess. It is always lumpy and unnerving at this stage. But persist, all the while stirring vigorously, and that ugly, lumpy mix will turn into the most beautiful silken custard.
– 400g plain flour
– 200g chopped cold unsalted butter
– 100g castor sugar
– pinch salt
– 1 egg yolk
– 50ml cold water
Place the flour, butter, sugar and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on slow speed until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs.
Add the egg yolk and water and mix until the pastry comes together in a ball. Remove from the bowl, flatten into a disc and wrap and chill for at least half an hour. Alternatively the pastry can be made in a food processor or on the bench by hand.
Remove the pastry from the refrigerator, unwrap and give a little knead on a floured surface for about 10 seconds. Then proceed to roll out the pastry to about three millimetres thick. Line six small tart moulds or a 22-centimetre round flan tin with pastry. Cut a size that sits slightly above the top of the tin and roll backwards over the edge to help prevent it from shrinking. Chill again for at least half an hour.
Preheat oven to 200ºC. Line each tart case with baking paper and fill with blind-baking beans. Often people seem to just put a little layer at the bottom, I use a mixture of rice and chickpeas, and use them over and over again, which allows me to fill the tart cases right to the brim. Bake for 10 minutes, check if the edges are cooked and then remove the “beans” and paper. Return to the oven and cook until golden brown. (A large flan tin will take another five minutes or so.) Remove from oven and set aside.
– 550ml milk
– ½ vanilla bean
– 6 egg yolks
– 125g castor sugar
– 50g cornflour
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, place 500 millilitres of the milk and the vanilla bean, split and scraped. Bring to scalding point.
In the meantime, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together. In another bowl add the remaining 50ml of milk to the cornflour and stir to a paste. Add this to the egg mixture and whisk together.
When the milk has scalded, pour it onto the egg mixture, whisking vigorously. Return to a clean saucepan, cook over medium to high heat, stirring constantly until the mixture boils and is thickened and silken. Remove from heat. Scrape into a vessel and cover with cling wrap or paper to prevent a skin from forming. Chill.
– 1 punnet of strawberries
Fill each tart case with crème pâtissière, top with cut strawberries and dust with icing sugar. Serve.
2015 Crofters Fold Mylestone sparkling blanc de noirs, Macedon Ranges ($35).
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 23, 2017 as "When calls the tart". Subscribe here.