There was something about this little tart that made me pause as I was leafing through the cookbook. Something about the simplicity of strawberries arranged on a bed of sunshine-yellow pastry cream and crisp golden shortbread that captured me – here was pastry pared down to luminous, naked essentials.
I find a lot of beauty in my food, as I’m sure anyone who spends time in the kitchen does. The honeyed, heavenly fragrance of ripe berries; the cool, marble-smooth feel of perfectly rolled out dough; the languorous, somnolent burble of a slowly thickening custard on the stove, the mirror-slick sheen of tempered chocolate hardening; the heft and curve of a sun-warmed peach; the plashing of cold water into the metal sink.
Perhaps more than any other category of food, pastry is about beauty, about the ruler-straight, perfectly parallel layers in a cake, the silken smooth surface of a mousse, the curve of coulis around the tart on the plate, the jewel-tone buttercup gold of the lemon curd. Most of the time when I bake something I’ll look at the finished result and think it looks pretty nice. Sometimes I’ll shake my head and think I could really make it better next time. And sometimes I’ll put a dessert together and the pastry stars have aligned and I’ll think, this is something really special.
I don’t why this particular tart struck me, but I guess it’s like the mystery of why different people are drawn to different pieces of art or music. To me, this looks like snow falling on a candyland forest sprawled over a golden hilltop. The pieces were so simple: a round of buttery shortbread, a layer of custardy pastry cream, a circle of spring-ripened strawberries. All the elements needed for magic to happen.
This tart is from Eric Kayser’s new book, Sweet and Savory Tarts. The force behind Maison Kayser, one of Paris’ most famed boulangeries. Kayser has chosen for his first English-language cookbook a sumptuous collection of very French, very delicious tarts. There are various delightful quiches and savory tarts (I was almost tempted to make the very first savory item for this blog upon seeing some of the recipes!), and a patisserie-worthy array of sweet tarts filled with fruit, chocolate, caramel, and cream. All of the multitude of photos show the fulfillment of the concept of tart: perfectly squared, evenly browned crusts; lush, smoothly layered fillings just cresting the edge of the tart shell; fruits arranged in neat, straight rows, not a single piece mismatched or out of line. I’m very eager to try out so many of them…after I finish eating this one.
Breton Shortbread with Strawberries
adapted from Eric Kayser’s Sweet and Savory Tarts
makes one 10-in round tart or six 3 1/2-in round tarts
90 g unsalted butter, room temperature
80 g sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
120 g cake flour
6 g baking powder
4 egg yolks
1/4 cup (50 g) sugar
3 tablespoons (30 g) cornstarch
1 cup (250 ml) milk
14 oz (400 g) strawberries, washed and hulled
Shredded sweetened coconut
For the shortbread: in either a food processor or stand mixer, cream the butter until light and fluffy.
Add the sugar and salt and mix to combine.
Add the egg and mix to combine.
Add in the cake flour and baking powder and mix until thoroughly combined. The dough will be very soft.
Scrape the dough out onto a floured surface and form into a flat disk. Wrap in plastic and place in refrigerator overnight so it will firm up.
When you are ready to make the shortbread, preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Take the dough from the refrigerator and roll out on a floured surface to about 1/2" thick. The dough may be very soft and sticky so use flour as needed to keep it from sticking to the rolling pin or the surface.
Either fit the dough into a 10-in tart ring and trim to fit (note this dough bakes up like a cookie, not like a tart shell, so you do not need to fit the dough up the sides of the ring) or into smaller 3 1/2-in rings and trim to fit. I found that leaving the circles of dough inside the rings helped them bake up into nice, round circles in the oven.
Make an egg wash with an egg yolk and some water and brush lightly over the tops of the dough circles.
Bake for about 30 minutes until the shortbread is golden. Remove and let cool.
While the shortbread is baking, make the pastry cream: whisk the egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch together in a bowl.
Heat the milk in a saucepan on medium heat until almost boiling, then pour about half into the egg mixture, stirring constantly.
Pour the egg mixture back into the rest of the milk and cook the mixture on medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until it thickens. Remove from heat and force the mixture through a strainer to get rid of any cooked bits. Cover the pastry cream with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator.
To assemble the tart: Spread the pastry cream evenly over the shortbread. Arrange the strawberries on top of the pastry cream, and sprinkle with the shredded coconut to decorate.