A Very Improbable Tart
Sometimes the messy answer is the truth.
When I first sat down to write, I knew I wanted to introduce you to my shallot tart. I call everything my favorite, I realize this; it’s somewhat the price of having deeply personal feelings about food — everything is my favorite. When I call this food “among my favorites,” however, that slight rhetorical adjustment should tell you everything you need to know: I’m serious. This is in the pantheon of all food that has ever given me calories. And that’s a lot. The next time you’re having steak, take the time to make this; it’s a positively bewitching side. For my vegetarian friends, use vegetable stock instead of chicken, and make this the star.
First of all, you should know: testing custard-filled-anything tart recipes is not a game for the faint of heart. Get someone else to do that part for you, if you ever need to test like this. (I’ll do it!) It seemed simple enough to formalize the recipe from my collected pencil scribblings. Never a major arm-twist anyway, I threw a tart together and dove in. It was good. It wasn’t perfect. I’d cut the shallots just a little bit too large, and consequently there wasn’t quite enough custard. Those are easy fixes. The other issue was with recording the amount of shallot used; I realized that by the time these are cooked and ready to put in the shell, I will have eaten approximately half of them. Whether or not you have better self control than I do, I would suggest you use way more shallot than I call for, and, rather than overfill your tart shell, let any excess cook until even more jammy, and then smear this divine substance on literally every savory food in your home.
For this tart, I like to use moderately large pieces of peeled shallot lobes, still attached at the root. These get seasoned and sautéed in butter for about half an hour, rather slowly, to avoid letting them crisp anywhere; some slight browning here and there is expected. At the end of this step, the shallots should be tender and developing some translucence. I then add some rich chicken stock, edge the heat down to a bare simmer, and let it percolate gently for about a half hour more, until the stock is thickened to a sticky, luscious glaze. The flavor that concentrates and bathes these beautiful, silky allium petals is otherworldly. (Also I tend to cheat here, as the stock I use is often both chicken and duck. This is how cheating should be done.)
The liquid component of the filling is a mixture of crème fraîche and egg yolk. If you don’t have or can’t get or don’t feel like making (it’s quite easy, actually) crème fraîche, you can either use a mixture of sour cream and heavy cream, or simply use cream. I do this often.
We’ve taken such care and time, and used such rich and excellent ingredients, obviously the crust has to be perfect. I’ve made a lot of crusts. It’s what happens when you’re running pastry at a restaurant during fall Restaurant Week in NYC, and your boss is sadistic enough to ask you to do small pies. (There were 800, that time, if I recall correctly.) You learn. I have taught crust. I feel like I know crust. I love crust. I wasn’t unhappy with the crust I made for this test, but it tickled my brain: something was just slightly missing, something I could make better.
I knew I wanted a “short” texture — not overtly flaky, but tender and crisp, with a slight and pleasant crumbly character. I proceeded as I would for regular pie dough, only cutting my butter in more finely, so I had that classic “parmesan cheese from a can” texture you look for in certain biscuit doughs, before adding the liquids. It was an excellent crust, and it worked just fine. After such careful babying, though, my shallots deserved better than “fine,” so I sought out to test again, and found myself on a bit of a crust journey. (Admittedly, not an entirely unfamiliar path.)
I’m always amazed by the accuracy of all those clichés about journeys leading you back to where you started. I was especially amazed this time because I’ve always made tart crust a certain way, and in thinking about sharing it, I started to feel that the way I was doing it was far too complicated or messy or wrong. I was sure I could get identical results from a simpler and more familiar method that would be easier to share. I know you love it when I drop spoilers in, so here’s one for today: Nope. The old way was the best, however unlikely that seemed.
I remember reading in an old French cookbook decades ago that there is a technique called fraisage, whereby flour is placed in a mound on the counter, a well is made at its center, and in this well are placed the wet ingredients and enrichments, including softened butter. Everything is then mixed with the fingertips until a loosely cohesive dough forms, and then — the actual fraisage — it is smeared across the countertop using the heel of the hand, one bit at a time. This technique may or may not be common in French pastry kitchens, however it was absent from my training and experience in restaurants, and from everything I’ve seen of American pastry technique. And it produces absolutely the most perfect tart crust of any method I’ve tried. The butter, in this method, is incorporated in long ribbons throughout the dough. When I want a very flaky dough, for a classic pie, I have found it good practice to leave larger pieces of butter wandering about in the dough — they will create pockets of steam in the oven and push the dough apart. Boom, flaky. What the long striations of butter created by fraisage do in a dough, then, is to create a sort of micro-flakiness, that translates to a texture perfectly brittle and tender at the same time; a sort of center space between flaky and crumbly. Additionally, since the flour is not working in direct contact with too much liquid, being insulated by fat and being handled minimally, gluten does not develop as readily and a tough crust is avoided.
My back was to the wall. I had no choice. I would have to test just one more time, going back to my old and slightly messy friend, fraisage. I have apologized for my roving eye. We are back together, and I will not forget again. This method gets one of your hands and your counter slightly messier than strict OCD boundaries will want to allow, and will produce the most perfect cradle for your ravishing shallot tart.
Long ago I used sliced onions for this tart — a pretty classical treatment which, it must be said, leaves little to be desired when executed with patience and care. I made the switch to shallots at some point and stuck with it. I would imagine any allium — even garlic — would be wonderful here, as long as the vegetable in question is treated sensibly before filling. As fall begins and new leeks pop up at the market, they’re definitely next on my tart agenda. Is there a better agenda to have?
Recipe: Shallot Tart
One eight-inch tart, perfect as a hearty side for four. For crust, preheat oven to 400°F.
- Flour (all-purpose): 1 c (5 oz)
- Salt: 1 good pinch
- Egg whites: 2 (you will use two yolks in the filling)
- Water: 2 t
- Butter (softened): 5 T (2.5 oz)
Ingredients — Filling:
- Shallots: about 5 medium; just under a pound
- Butter: 2 T (1 oz)
- Salt & Pepper
- Thyme: 1/2 t
- Stock: 1/2 c (4 oz)
- Egg yolks: 2
- Heavy Cream: 2/3 c (5.3 oz)
- Make your crust: Mound the flour on the countertop, and make a well at the center.
- Add the salt, one egg white, the water, and the butter to the well.
- Using the fingertips of your dominant hand, mix a loose dough by gradually incorporating flour into the other ingredients. (I find having it’s very handy to have a scraper nearby for tidying the working hand.)
- Once the dough is fairly cohesive, squeeze it together into a mound. Using the heel of your hand, smear approximately golf-ball sized portions of dough across your work surface, perhaps 10–12 inches. Repeat until you’ve done this with all the dough.
- Repeat this fraisage once more, and your dough should appear uniformly mixed. Wrap in plastic (or cover with a bowl) and set aside. Allow to rest while you prepare the shallots for cooking. Preheat oven to 400°F.
- Prepare the shallots: Peel and separate the lobes, trimming the roots off but leaving everything attached.
- Slice the shallots into sections that are about as wide as a meaty scallion or a young leek.
- Heat the butter in a 3- or 4-quart saucepan, and add the shallots. Salt and pepper generously, and add the thyme.
- Sauté gently for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid crisping, until the shallots are tender and somewhat translucent.
- Add the chicken stock, adjust heat to a very gentle simmer, and cook 30 minutes more, until the stock is a thick, sticky glaze. Stir occasionally.
- While the shallots are cooking, return to your dough and roll out on a floured surface. Line your tart pan.
- Gently prick the dough — including the sides — until it is thoroughly “docked” — this will prevent large areas of the dough from bubbling up during its first bake.
- Put the shell in the oven and bake for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, remove, brush with the second egg white, and return to the oven for 12 minutes more. Remove, and allow to cool slightly. Reduce the oven temperature to 275°F.
- Place the shallots neatly (or not neatly) in the shell. Combine the dairy and egg yolks with a whisk, and carefully pour over the shallots.
- Grate a whisper or three of nutmeg over the top of the tart, and place in the oven.
- Bake for approximately 35 minutes, until just set. Allow to cool fully before eating.
- I prefer to cool and then chill my tart, allowing it then to return to a cool room temperature for serving.
- For a nine-inch tart, increase the yolks in the filling by 1, and the cream by 2 oz. Increase the shallot by a third, as well. The crust will suffice as written. Cooking time for the finished tart should not be much affected; perhaps just a few minutes more.
- Try it with onions, leeks, or garlic!