Monday, December 10th, 2012

Simple Pear Tart

Easy as tart, the saying would be better put. The elegant, refined-looking, open-faced pie -- tart -- is a holiday crowd-pleaser that requires about half the work. This recipe will ...

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Easy as tart, the saying would be better put. The elegant, refined-looking, open-faced pie — tart — is a holiday crowd-pleaser that requires about half the work. This recipe will also yield a treat that’s about half the height of an average fruit pie with a top crust, but top it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and I don’t think you’ll hear any complaints. With juicy pears now in season, I’ve added just a touch of sugar to the fresh fruit, to bring out its ripe flavor against a cookie-like shortbread crust.

The Bartlett pears I’d picked up at the market seemed just a bit too firm to eat yesterday; I had a houseguest from out of town also, so that was reason enough to speed-soften them as some baked dessert. The steps were done intermittently, as breakfast was also being made. After some hesitation, and thoughts of a crisp, a cobbler, or custard-filled something-or-other, I settled on making a pure and simple tart. It’s easy, and all you need is a few ingredients: three pears, flour, butter, sugar, and one egg.

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Tarts generally have a richer, sweeter pastry than pies; a good comparison is the classic shortbread. So go about making the dough as if they’re cookies, beating the butter with sugar, incorporating the egg, and gradually, the flour next. You can flavor it with an optional spike of vanilla, or cocoa powder to make a chocolate crust; delicious also is a tart shell with ground almonds or some other nut, as in this summery hand tart. Don’t have a tart pan? No problem — neither do I. I find an average 9″ pie pan does the job fine, and often forego rolling out the dough in favor of just patting it down evenly into the pan. (It’s fun.)

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Pears are fantastic for making tarts, because their juices don’t run as much as those of fresh peaches, berries, or plums (threatening to spill over the edges, and burn on your oven floor). After peeling and quartering the pears, be sure to remove the coarse inner cores of the fruit along its length; unlike apples, this grainy-textured flesh runs all the way up to the stem. But you can feel it slipping off as you zip through each wedge with an (aptly named) paring knife. Next, try to get even, thin slices from the pears, by arranging them back into halves on a cutting board. This will make for arrange-worthy pieces to fan across the shell. To heighten the pear’s flavor, just a squeeze of lemon juice and tablespoon of sugar can be folded in next; a couple teaspoons of cornstarch also will help thicken its juice. Layer the slices in a spiral one after another into the crust; alternately, you can just pile them all in there for a rustic look, or come up with any design you want.

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Stop for a moment and take in the loveliness of your about-to-be-baked dessert. Smell the fresh pears mingling with butter one last time. This post may have begun by stressing the speed of making a tart, but you probably wouldn’t be bothering at this if every minute wasn’t a delight.

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Sit back; the tart is in the oven. Its fragrance will spread throughout the kitchen soon. It’s difficult to mess things up at this point, as your nose will send you peeking at the thing until its crust is gently browned. Let it cool awhile, the juices will be much more tame once it’s room-temperature. There’s time; you can wait.

Simple Pear Tart
(makes 1 9″ tart)

for the crust:
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 egg
2 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1/2 teaspoon salt

for the filling:
2 large or 3 medium pears, slightly underripe
1 tablespoon sugar plus 1 more tablespoon for sprinkling
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon cornstarch

Cream the butter, sugar and salt in a bowl. Beat in the egg and gradually incorporate the flour until dough comes together into a ball. Roll the dough onto parchment paper and carefully peel to place into a 9″ pie or tart pan. (Alternately, you can just smash the dough out by hand and press it into the pan in an even layer with your fingers.) Let the dough come about one inch high around the edges, and straighten them out into a neat rim. Refrigerate crust in the pan for 15-20 minutes, as you prepare the filling.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Peel the pears and cut into quarters. Remove the cores from each wedge, and slice them into roughly 1/8″ slices lengthwise. Toss with 1 tablespoon of the sugar, the lemon juice and cornstarch. Arrange the pears in a fan-like array into the chilled pan of dough. Sprinkle the top evenly with the remaining tablespoon of sugar. Bake for about 30-40 minutes, or until the edges are just lightly golden-brown. Let chill at least 15 minutes before slicing and serving.

Cost Calculator
(for 1 tart, or about 8 servings)

3 pears (at $2.50/lb): $3.00
6 tablespoons butter: $1.00
1 egg: $0.40
4 tablespoons sugar: $0.25
3/4 cup flour: $0.25
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice: $0.20
1 tablespoon cornstarch, 1/2 teaspoon salt: $0.20

Total: $5.30

Health Factor

Seven brownie points: Keeping the ingredients pure and natural doesn’t exactly keep the calories away. This rich, sweet dessert has plenty of fats from the butter, as most pastries do, although it has less added sugar than most.

Green Factor

Eight brownie points: By keeping it simple this recipe uses mostly in-season, local ingredients, including the butter, egg, and some all-purpose flour from Upstate New York wheat (from Cayuga Organics). Sugar won’t be found in this state anytime soon, but you could drizzle in honey or maple syrup should you want to go on a 100-mile diet.

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