Tarts

Effortless summer baking: The (life-changing!) joy of frozen puff pastry

How much fun can a (relative sane) person have with a box of frozen puff pastry? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

I spent most of my adult life avoiding puff pastry. Well, I'm always happy to eat it, but make it? Not so much. I made it from scratch exactly once, a hundred years ago; that was enough. I'm not the type of person to spend endless hours rolling out layers of dough and butter and chilling it and waiting and rolling, etc. etc.

Until very recently, it never occurred to me that there were good brands of pre-made frozen puff pastry made with actual butter rather than hydrogenated vegetable oils. 

I know, right?! How out of it can a person get?!

Some months ago, I happened upon a box of frozen puff pastry in the freezer case at Trader Joe's that boasted an all-butter situation, snapped it up, stuck it in my freezer and nearly forgot about it. Then, when I was visiting friends in London last month, my dear friend Jenni’s wonderful sister Alison invited us for dinner. It one of these off-the-cuff affairs for 20 or so. What I love about the way these girls entertain is that they don't stress (even when 20 people are coming!); they don't worry if everything's not ready when people start arriving. Sometimes Jenni doesn't even start cooking until people start walking in the door! She and Alison understand that the important thing is to hang out with friends and family, and whatever winds up on the table will be delicious just because. 

They also happen to have some very good ideas up their sleeves. On this particular evening – a regular weekly Friday night dinner with extended family and friends – Alison pulled a savory tart out of the oven, placed it on a table out in the garden, and wheeled a pizza cutter through it to slice it into hors d'oeuvre bites. 

This is Alison's savory appetizer tart, before it was sliced into pieces. Doesn't it look *fantastic*? It was!

This is Alison's savory appetizer tart, before it was sliced into pieces. Doesn't it look *fantastic*? It was!

The thing looked so delicious, I was mesmerized. Free-form, golden-crusted, beautifully messy, it was strewn with greens and mushrooms and slices of some kind of marvelous-looking washed-rind cheese melted into it. It was even more delicious than it looked – some kind of serious umami savory action on that perfect, flaky crust. I stayed there, parked next to it, trying with all my might not to eat piece after piece until it was demolished.

After showering her with compliments, I asked how she made it. "Frozen puff pastry!" she said. "All butter."

That was then (about a month ago). Now, four savory tarts, three fruit tarts and a set of cheese straws later, I can't imagine life without a box of the stuff in my freezer. At. All. Times.

All-butter frozen puff pastry, where have you been all my life?

All-butter frozen puff pastry, where have you been all my life?

So far, I have found three brands. Perhaps there are more out there. Both the Trader Joe's and the Dufour Pastry Kitchens' brands are far superior to the Pepperidge Farms non-butter frozen puff pastry I used to use occasionally in the past (that's the one with the hydrogenated vegetable oil; it also includes high-fructose corn syrup). The Dufour Pastry Kitchens classic puff pastry contains only butter, unbleached unbromated flour, water, salt and lemon juice. It's not inexpensive: I paid $10.99 for a 14-ounce box at my local Whole Foods Market and $10.49 for a box at my local Central Market. The Trader Joe's pastry was nearly as flaky and delicious, and much less expensive: $3.99 for an 18-ounce box. The Dufour brand is one single large rectangle, which comes folded; the Trader Joe's brand is two rectangular pieces, wrapped separately, which is nice (you can defrost one at a time); they come rolled.

Just one problem with the Trader Joe's brand: According to a clerk at my local store, the chain only sells it during the last quarter of the year, presumably for fall and holiday baking. So unless you keep a box in your freezer for more than six months, you can forget about it for summer baking. (Mr. Joe, please change your policy! If you do, I'll make you a summer tart!)

Mr. Trader Joe, if you start stocking your frozen all-butter puff pastry year-round, I will make you one of these. I promise.

Mr. Trader Joe, if you start stocking your frozen all-butter puff pastry year-round, I will make you one of these. I promise.

A third brand, White Toque, was $12.99 for a one-pound box at Whole Foods, but this brand is two rounds – which struck me as less wonderful for a savory tart to cut in small rectangles to eat as pre-dinner nibbles, but very nice for a fruit tart. The White Toque brand – which I've only spotted once – did not rise as high as either the Dufour or Trader Joe's brand, but it's possible it was because my refrigerator died, and after defrosting it sat in a less-than-optimal temperature for more than a few hours. I will give it another try next time I find it. Still, it worked just fine for a cherry-plum tart that I will blog about soon.

First I need to tell you the two ways all-butter frozen puff pastry has changed my life (and no, I'm not exaggerating). 

The first is the savory tart. I managed to approximate Alison's, although Alison used a really nice aged washed-rind goat cheese on hers, and I haven't been able to find anything like it 'round these parts.

But the great news is once you grasp how to put one of these tarts together, you can make one out of just about any kind of summer veg. The general idea is this: Thaw the pastry, unwrap it, and fold up the edges to make a rim, painting a little egg wash on them if you want glossy look. Make a filling of sautéed veg, add a couple of eggs beaten with a little cream or half and half, and either put some grated or crumbled cheese in the egg (feta, goat cheese, cheddar, etc.) or strew crumbled feta or goat cheese on top. Pop it in the oven. So easy.

 

You can riff on it endlessly, changing up the cheese or the sautéed veg, adding sliced fresh or chopped sun-dried tomatoes. It always turns out great, even if you're in such a hurry that you make a terrible mess of it – as I did with a zucchini, tomato and okra version in which I used too much egg and had a sloppy a edge, so egg spilled out all over the parchment.

My hastily-assembled zucchini, tomato and okra tart. With too much egg and sloppy edges, it spilled all over the parchment.

My hastily-assembled zucchini, tomato and okra tart. With too much egg and sloppy edges, it spilled all over the parchment.

It was still pretty fabulous. (For that one I sliced the okra in half vertically and grilled them before laying them atop the tart, along with sliced fresh tomatoes, before popping it in  the oven.)

Even so, it looked – and tasted – pretty great!

Even so, it looked – and tasted – pretty great!

The point is, these savories are so easy and impressive that they have already become a go-to appetizer for me for laid-back summer entertaining. A glass of rosé, a slice of savory tart – who needs anything else?

OK, here's the other way in which all-butter frozen puff pastry changed my life: They are brilliant to use for summer fruit tarts, including those that star unbaked fruit, like berries.  

Until I learned the joys of frozen all-butter puff pastry, I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to make a good tart using fresh strawberries. All you do is make a quick pastry cream – which is way less involved than you might think (much less tricky than making most custards), blind-bake a crust, spread the pastry cream on top, and cover with berries. If you want to be fancy you can melt some fruit jelly and glaze the berries, but you don't have to. 

I also made a pretty wonderful tart using mixed berries – blackberries, blueberries and raspberries. That one is super easy because you don't have to stem or slice or pit anything -- just toss the berries with a little orange liqueur before dropping them onto the pastry cream. 

Easy berry tart. How festive would this be for the Fourth of July -- or Bastille Day?

Easy berry tart. How festive would this be for the Fourth of July -- or Bastille Day?

 

I'm thinking it could be the perfect, patriotic-hued dessert to serve on the Fourth. Or for Bastille Day! What the recipe? Here you go. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ta-da! Presenting a custom-created, Cooks-Without-Borders reader-asked-for-it lemon-raspberry tart

So I'm pretty excited about this: A reader who signed up for the Cooks Without Borders newsletter mentioned that she's craving a lemon-raspberry tart and would love a recipe. Hmm, I thought. That does sound awesome! Especially this time of year. 

I didn't know how I would make one, but I decided to give it my best. I knew what crust I'd use: Lindsey Shere's amazing short crust pastry from the Chez Panisse Desserts cookbook. It's foolproof, easy to put together (even if it seems kind of crazy while you're doing it), doesn't require rolling pin skills (you press it in the pan with your fingers) and results in an incredibly tender and flaky crust. 

I thought it would be nice to marry a classic lemon tart – filled will lemon curd – with raspberries somehow. But simply garnishing a lemon curd tart with raw raspberries didn't sound great. I could create a raspberry tart with lemon pastry cream, but pastry cream is a pain in the neck; lemon curd is easier and more forgiving. 

I found inspiration in Shere's recipe for a simple raspberry tart. She has you brush a prebaked tart shell with melted, strained raspberry preserves, line the shell with rows of berries, bake it for only five minutes, and then glaze it. Why bake the berries only five minutes? "This brings out the perfume of the raspberries without softening and making them mushy," she writes. Bingo! I'd make a lemon-curd tart, pull it out of the oven five minutes early, add just a couple rows of berries (so as not to overwhelm the lemon flavor with too much berry flavor), bake it five minutes more, then glaze the berries.

It turned out great! Two pals and I nearly polished off the whole thing, in any case – after eating a giant dinner. My raspberries were sort of dull-tasting supermarket berries, but treating them this way heightened their flavor. 

Are you up for it? Here we go!

 

First we make the crust. Don't be afraid: It's easier than you may think, and every time you make one it gets easier and easier. (Believe me: I'm not much of a baker, and I can manage it!). It's such a great crust that if there's one thing you want to learn dessert-wise, this crust might well be it. It's that good. 

To make it, whisk flour, salt and sugar together in a bowl, add sliced chilled butter and work in the butter with your fingers or a pastry blender until it looks like this:

Add vanilla and water, gather it into a ball, let it rest 30 minutes, then use your fingers to press it into a tart pan. It may look at first like you won't have nearly enough dough to cover the pan, but you do – just keep pushing it around with your fingers until you have an even layer covering the bottom and sides.

 

Stick it in the freezer for a half an hour, then it's ready to bake: in a 375 degree oven for 25 minutes, or until it's golden-brown and baked through. Got it? Here's the recipe:

Now let's make the lemon curd. Again, this may sound scary, but it comes together really nicely – and it has beautiful, bright lemon flavor.

Basically you cook eggs, sugar, lemon juice, lemon zest, milk and butter – stirring constantly – over low to medium heat until the mixture thickens to the consistency of a thick cream. Let it rest five minutes, give it a quick whisk, then chill it. Once it has cooled down, pour it into the baked tart shell.

Bake it in a 375 degree oven for 25 minutes, pull it out (leaving the oven on), add a couple of rows of berries, and pop the tart back in the oven for 5 minutes longer. Remove it from the oven, melt some strained raspberry preserves, stir in a little kirsch, and glaze the berries. Tart accompli! Shall we do this? Here's the recipe. Please let us know in a comment if you plan to try it – and if you do, how it turns out!