I arrived in Paris for the very first time way back in the ’60s. I can still remember the frisson of delight when I spied my first patisserie window display. Sixty years on we are used to shimmering displays of cakes, but I wonder how many of them taste as delectable as these classic babas, eclairs, macarons, friands, tartes aux citrons, and decorated gateaux of every colour and flavour did? For me the knockouts were the jewel-like strawberry tarts glistening with a glaze of melted redcurrant jelly.
I continue to buy strawberry tarts whenever I am in Paris and sometimes these days they disappoint, or is my memory unreliable? The pastry can be too shortbready rather than crisp. Or the berries are on a bed of something other than true pastry cream, and the glaze can be solid and claggy. Or, even worse, filled with tired, poor-quality strawberries.
Here then is my way to make a very good strawberry tart. The only disadvantage of using a crisp crust, a proper pastry cream and a glaze of fruit jelly is that the tarts are only perfect for an hour or two. The jelly does ooze and soften the pastry. I find it best to have all the components ready – baked tart shells, chilled pastry cream lightened with whipped cream, a small pot of melted fruit jelly and, of course, perfect berries. And I assemble the tarts no longer than an hour before they are to be eaten.
A final word about the strawberries you choose. Different varieties produce berries of very different dimensions, and I have had marvellous and awful ones that are large, medium or small. So size is not a determinant of quality. But for the best chance of neat assembly, medium to small strawberries are best. (And the same applies if you decide to fill your tarts with raspberries instead.)
1 quantity sweet shortcrust pastry
1 free-range egg white, lightly whisked
½ cup fruit jelly (apple, redcurrant, crabapple or whatever you have)
2 teaspoons liqueur, brandy or water
750 g best strawberries
1 cup milk
1 vanilla bean, split
80 g caster sugar
3 free-range egg yolks
25 g cornflour
¼ cup thickened cream, firmly whipped
2 gelatine leaves (optional, for a firmer pastry cream)
Remove the pastry from the refrigerator and allow it to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes before rolling.
Choose 6 tart tins – the quantities here will be plenty for 8 cm or 10 cm tins (my preference), and will probably stretch to 12 cm tins. Dust your workbench and a rolling pin with flour. Roll the pastry from the centre, turning the disc a quarter of a turn after each roll. Cut out rounds 3 cm larger than the diameter of your tins.
Fit the pastry into the tins, letting the excess pastry hang over the edges (because of the size of the tins, there is a higher likelihood of shrinkage – this will help). Chill for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C fan-forced). Line the chilled tart shells with foil or baking paper and fill with pastry weights. Bake for 15 minutes.
Remove from the oven and set aside for 5 minutes but leave the oven on. Remove the pastry weights and paper or foil. Brush the tart bases with egg white and return to the oven for another 5 minutes. Allow to cool completely before filling. Trim the excess pastry with a sharp knife when the pastry has cooled.
Have a coarse strainer resting over a bowl next to the stove before you start making the pastry cream. Put the milk, vanilla bean and half the caster sugar into a saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat.
Beat the egg yolks, cornflour and remaining caster sugar in an electric stand mixer (or with handheld beaters) until thick. Pour in the hot milk and whisk until smooth. Return the mixture to the rinsed-out saucepan and stir continuously over medium heat until the pastry cream has thickened, is smooth and has come to a boil. Continue to stir vigorously for a minute and then pour through the strainer. Remove the vanilla bean, then wash and dry it for future use (I bury mine in a canister of caster sugar). Scrape the pastry cream from the bottom of the strainer until all is in the bowl. Cover with a layer of plastic film pressed right down onto the cream to prevent a skin forming and refrigerate until completely cold. (A firmer pastry cream set can be achieved by soaking 2 gelatine leaves in cold water for a few minutes, before squeezing and dissolving them in 2 spoonfuls of boiling water, then whisking this liquid into the cooling cream.)
Lighten the cooled pastry cream with a spoonful of the whipped cream and then fold in the remainder of the cream. Chill until ready to use.
Put the jelly and liqueur, brandy or water into a small saucepan and bring to a simmering point over low heat, stirring. The jelly will take a few minutes to melt – you need to wait for all the little blobs to melt before you can use the glaze. Allow to cool but not set.
Hull the strawberries. Select a beautiful berry to stand in the centre of each tart. Halve the rest lengthways. Half-fill each tart shell with pastry cream. Stand a whole berry in the centre of each tart, pointed-end up.
Working from the central berry out, rest the halved berries, pointed-ends up, against the central berry, and then against each other, until the pastry cream is covered. Brush the berries with the glaze or carefully spoon the glaze over the berries. Do not use too much as the glaze will melt and ooze into the pastry cream.
Serve as soon as possible.
Words and images from Home by Stephanie Alexander, photography by Armelle Habib. Macmillan Australia, RRP $59.99.