Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Berry tarts

I don't like to admit it but I have been secretly petrified of summer-fruit tarts for my entire baking life. This fear, like many of my culinary blocks, is not rooted into a specific incident but was born instead, surreptitiously, from repeated encounters with soggy, insipid specimens. You know the ones. They come in different guises but share one overarching characteristic: insufferable blandness. Sometimes their sandy crust is smothered with thick, mustard-yellow custard, occasionally a gloss of jelly gives it an unnatural shine. Always, they're topped with unripe, aggressively sharp fruit.

But last week an innocuous stroll down Marylebone high street miraculously cured my fruit-tart phobia. Here's what happened, I was browsing the chunky, hand-painted ceramics at Emma Bridgewater, when I spotted a cake stand on the sale. I took one look at it and decided it was the cake stand that had been eluding me for years, neither too frilly nor too stark. I brought it home.

What comes next won't surprise you, I decided to bake something to show if off. The only problem was, I quickly concluded, any full-blown cake would dissimulate its best feature, the delicate leaf pattern on its plate. I concluded only individual tarts would exalt its beauty. And so one decade of fruit-tart phobia came to an end.

The secret of sweet pastry is to handle it as little as possible and let it rest in the fridge before you roll it out. Once you've spread it in your pie cases, flash freeze it to avoid it losing its shape upon baking.

To make 10 small tarts:

For the sweet pastry (known as pate sablee in French) 
250g (9 ounces) plain flour
125g (4 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter
150g (5 ounces) icing sugar
1 egg

For the filling
200ml (7 fluid ounces) double cream
125g (4 1/2 ounces, or half a standard container of the Galbani brand) mascarpone
50g (2 ounces) icing sugar
250g (9 ounces) raspberries
250g blueberries

Make your sweet pastry. You do not need a food processor, although I have heard it helps. I get on perfectly well without one. Put the flour in a mixing bowl and add the cold butter, cut in small chunks. Rub it with the flour between your hands until it's reached the texture of wet sand. Add the confectioner sugar and then the egg. Be careful not to overwork the dough, make two discs, wrap in cling film and let them rest in the fridge for at least an hour.

Roll out the dough, but not all at once. It's much easier to work with about a quarter of a disc at a time. Just roll it out a bit wider than your individual tart cases. You should get enough for 10 small cases with the quantities here but do not worry if you get less, it just means your cases were wider than mine or you like your pastry a bit thicker. Using a fork, puncture the bottom of each case a few times, it will help prevent it puffing up too much. Pre-heat your oven to 180 degrees, put the cases in the freezer for 30 minutes, then bake for 10-15 minutes.

While the tarts are baking, whip the double cream, mascarpone and later on the sugar in a mixing bowl until the mixture forms soft peaks. Once the tarts have cooled, spread the filling in them and top with your fruit. Keep in the fridge if you're not serving it immediately.

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