'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Strawberry cream tart

Kitchen disaster (and how to get on with life)

In many creation myths throughout the world, the apparent order of the universe emerged out of a primeval chaos. In Greek mythology, Chaos was personified as the first of the primordial deities and the god of the air. In fact, primal Chaos was sometimes said to be the true foundation of reality (particularly by Ionian philosophers such as Heraclitus). Cooks often have to do just the same: turning culinary chaos into something edible and tasty with a sensible form. With baking there is much less room for for this transformation: everything has to be 'right' to start with if you want your batter to turn into a cake rather than a cookie. Sometimes, however, you're left with no choice but to summon all your faculties to save your failed baking attempts.

Yesterday I had to prepare dessert for a last-minute dinner the next day with a friend who was leaving town soon. I had a carton of strawberries sitting in the fridge, so I thought it's good timing to make a strawberry dessert. I started preparing the dessert last night, thinking that I would have plenty of time in case something didn't quite work out. As it happened, one disaster followed another and it ended up with something very different from what I had set out to make. Thankfully, my rescue efforts weren't in vain it and I was informed that the end-result was edible!

Originally, I wanted to serve berries with a sabayon and caramelise it with a blowtorch. It looks stunning and doesn't require much work. A sabayon is an egg foam made with egg yolks and a sweet wine like Marsala. I didn't have sweet wine any on hand, so I thought that I could substitute with Chinese rose wine, thinking that rose would complement strawberries very well - I often make strawberry tarts with a pastry cream flavoured with this wine and it works beautifully. Well, this particular rose wine I had wasn't of very good quality to start with, and maybe there's just too much of it compared to its subtle presence in a pastry cream... The sabayon tasted bitter, confused and... cheap. I dumped the whole batch.

Having failed the sabayon, I turned to Francis Coulsons's strawberry pots de crème at 2:30am which are basically little baked strawberry custards. I took them out of the oven at about 3:15 and let them cool overnight, expecting to see perfectly set custards this morning. My heart dropped when I tilted the little ramekins after I woke up - they were still liquidy and didn't set properly at all. I was pretty sure I had baked them enough, so my guess was that there weren't enough eggs in the recipe to set the liquid. I still had about six hours before dinner, so I started thinking about what I could do to the goop to transform it to something palatable.

Since the culprit for the pots de crème failure was a lack of setting agent, I thought that I could perhaps make use of all those leftover egg whites from making the sabayon and add them to the strawberry goop and bake them again. Then this thought came to me: why not add more egg whites to it and bake it in a tart shell? (I happened to have some frozen tart pastry in my fridge.) If strawberry pots de crème work, why not strawberry custard tarts?

Improvised strawberry tart

Since I didn't have a recipe at all, I had to improvise with how much egg whites I needed to add to the mix so that it would set up nicely. I tasted the mixture, added more lemon juice and Grand Marnier to round out the flavour, threw in more egg whites, and baked the whole thing as I would for a custard tart. I served my 'creation' after dinner and of course I didn't tell them about the disasters I had! The tart turned out better than I had hoped - the refreshing strawberry flavour was well encapsulated in the filling, which set firmly but still had a creamy consistency to it. Normally I'm not a berry eater at all, but even I found it quite tolerable. As in any field, creations often emerge out of chaos - think of tarte tatin. My desperate attempt to save the failed strawberry pots de crème gave me the impetus to create a strawberry tart that I would never have come up with it had I not had this disaster. I'm definitely going to keep it in my baking repertoire!

In hindsight, I should have taken photos of the miserable failures so as to make this final product appear all the more glorious... I made the tart again and here's how I would go about it in normal circumstances.

Strawberry cream tart

Okay, I know that the filling oxidised a bit and turned browner than it should have - I was playing with it for too long. This can be partially remedied by the addition of lemon juice, and dusting with icing sugar always helps prettifying it a little. Nevertheless, it was a particular pleasure biting into this beige-coloured filling not knowing what flavour to expect, and be rewarded with a much more strawberry-ly filling than one could have expected.

I'm calling this a strawberry cream tart rather than a custard tart partly because it sounds better, and also because it captures the soft consistency of the filling. When eating a well-chilled slice of this tart, it is like biting into strawberry ice cream encased in a crisp tart shell. As with other tarts, you can use a pre-made crust from the supermarket to save half of the work. Please check out my lemon tart for step-by-step photos on most of the steps.

1 quantity of shortcrust pastry or pâte sucrée enough for lining a 9-inch tart pan

For the strawberry custard filling
250g strawberries, hulled
300ml (1 1/3 cup) heavy/double cream
4 eggs
60g (4 tbsp) sugar
1 1/2 tsp lemon juice

One 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom

Set a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 190C/400F.

Roll out the pastry

1. Roll out the sweet pastry between two pieces of clingfilm/plastic wrap until it's about the thickness of a coin. Remove the top piece of clingfilm and flip the pastry over to the tart pan - now the bottom piece of clingfilm will become the top. Leave the clingfilm on. Press the pastry against the edges of the pan so that the crust is set firmly against the pan. Leave the excess pastry hanging at the side.

2. Put the tart pan on a baking sheet and freeze for at least 30 minutes.

Pre-bake the tart shell

3. Remove the tart pan from the fridge and carefully lift off the clingfilm. If you see any holes, patch it by snipping off a tiny piece from the excess pastry hanging at the side and use it to fill the gap. Snip off an extra piece of dough from the side in case any cracks or holes emerge later after baking.

4. Place the tart pan (on the baking sheet) on the rack in the preheated oven and bake for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, turn the oven down to 180C/350F and continue to bake for an extra 10-15 minutes, until the colour turns a very pale brown.

5. Now take the tart pan out from the oven, and use a sharp knife to trim off the excess pastry hanging at the side. If you see any cracks or holes, use the bit of dough you saved and pinch it in.

6. Put the tart pan back to the oven and bake for another 10-15 minutes. The crust should be fully baked and turns a golden brown. Remove from oven and save the bits of fallen pastry - you'll want to nibble on them later.

Sealing the crust

7. Whisk the eggs together in a medium bowl with a wire whisk. Use a brush to apply it to the bottom of the crust evenly. Return to the oven and bake for another 2 minutes so that the egg wash is dried out. Repeat the process once more. Remove from the oven.

Prepare the strawberry custard filling

8. Puree the strawberries in a blender. Pass through the mixture through a fine sieve to catch the seeds. Slowly heat the cream in a saucepan until it is very hot.

9. In a large bowl, mix the strained strawberry puree with the sugar and lemon juice with a wire whisk. Whisk in the eggs one by one to the strawberry mixture.

10. Pour the cream to the egg mixture slowly, whisking with your other hand as you go. Taste the mixture - does it need more sugar or lemon juice? Every pack of strawberries is different. Pass the mixture through a fine sieve to remove any bits of egg.

The colour becomes a pale pink after adding the cream

Final baking

11. Return the tart pan back to the oven and pour the custard filling onto the tart pan - be careful! You would want to do this with an oven glove. The filling should fill right to the top. If you filled the tart with the filling first before transferring it to the oven, you risk spilling half of the filling by the time it gets to the oven.

12. Close the oven and bake for 10 minutes at the previous temperature of 180C/350F. Reduce the temperature to 150C/300F and bake for another 15-20 minutes or so. The mixture should jiggle ever so slightly when you give it a gentle shake. Every oven is different so it's difficult to give a precise timing.

13. Remove from the oven and let cool completely. Chill for a good couple of hours before serving. Top with sliced strawberries if you like and dust with icing sugar.

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