A few years ago, I set out with the intention of preparing a fresh fruit tart. I wanted one that was lined with strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and kiwis, all shiny and glazed, with the fruit piled high in a golden brown, shallow pastry shell. Of course I wanted it to taste good, though I will admit that my primary intent was to create a tart that was worthy of a bakery window. Nervous that my inexperience would produce an uneven, lopsided dessert with a runny cream filling and a gummy glaze, I procrastinated for several weeks, all the while imagining that when I finally made this tart, it would serve as a personal milestone in my fledgling culinary career, which was entirely self-taught and not without a great many kitchen disasters.
When at last I decided to take the plunge and make my first fruit tart, I was surprised to learn how easy it was to assemble. For the dough, I chose a press-in shell, which can be made entirely in a food processor, an easy cream filling thickened with eggs and corn starch, a few selected fruits from the market, and a glaze consisting entirely of warmed, strained apricot jam. Had I realized how painlessly these steps would come together and how incredibly easy this tart was to make, I probably would’ve been experimenting with these beautiful little desserts far sooner.
I am really a tart person at heart, generally preferring them to cakes and custards, and invariably choosing them over pies. I’ve never baked a pie that’s made me feel the same sense of baker’s pride that I feel for a homemade tart. Even the most perfect pie, one that’s crisp, golden and stocked to the brim with fruity fillings, rarely holds its shape when cut, with its juices leaking out onto the pie plate only to form a splotchy, syrupy mess. Each time I make a pie, I discover that the edges are less even than I’d imagined, and that the bottom crust isn’t quite as crisp as I’d like (which I suppose is expected, considering that my favorite crusts are those reminiscent of buttery shortbread cookies). In addition, it is my opinion that the worst of the pie’s violations occurs during baking, when, all too often, I peek through the oven window only to discover that some of the filling—this vibrantly colored, fruity, gelatinous sap—has bubbled up and gushed over top of my carefully crafted latticework.
Then there are tarts—beautiful, polished, delicate disks chocolate, fruit, custard or cream, available in all shapes and sizes, freeform or otherwise, sweet or savory, warm or cool. I’m not quite sure how to define a tart in technical terms. Most often they’re open faced, though I’ve certainly prepared a few with lattice tops. I won’t fail to mention crostatas here, an Italian tart, in which the crust is folded over the edges of the fruit to hold it in place. To that end, I’m not sure what differentiates the tart from a galette, or even, in some cases, a flan.
Whatever that difference may be, tarts (galettes, flans, crostatas) are almost always my go-to dessert. They can border on being almost overwhelmingly rich (take this dense orange and chocolate tart, for example), or light and refreshing as a tart piled high with fresh summer berries. The best part about them? How rewardingly basic and deceptively easy they can be, so much so that I would even go so far as to describe some tarts as being a last-minute dessert idea.
One of the easiest tarts to prepare is an elaborate looking French pear tart (I quite like this recipe from Dorie Greenspan), which consists of a roll-out (or press-in) pastry crust, and a filling of canned, (or poached, or fresh for that matter) pears accompanied by an easy-to-throw-together almond cream, more specifically known as a frangipane.
As for me, what I craved this week was a fig tart. In the absence of fresh figs, which sadly won’t be appearing in my local supermarket anytime soon, I opted for a spiced tart, made with a dried fig filling, flavored with orange, ginger, cinnamon, and clove, and baked in a buttery almond crust. This tart isn’t too sweet, which makes it the perfect ending after a large dinner, perhaps even served alongside a nice nutty cheese, and maybe enjoyed with a healthy splash of grappa.
Spiced fig tart
This might be my favorite dessert to serve after a large, overindulgent holiday meal. It's not too sweet and it's fabulous alongside a cheese plate. This spiced fig tart, along with its almond-studded buttery crust, is both seasonal and festive.
The filling for this tart can be made several days ahead and refrigerated, while the dough for the crust can be made several hours and up to a day ahead.
For the fig filling:
1 1/2 lbs dried figs, stems removed, and halved
2 cups water
zest of one navel orange
juice of two navel oranges
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
2 tablespoons honey
1/3 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan, bring almost to a boil, and then simmer for 45 minutes or until the figs soften (they just need to soften, they don’t need to get mushy). Puree the mixture in batches or pulse in a food processor until it’s ground finely, like jam. I like to leave mine just a bit chunky.
Allow the mixture to cool completely before putting it in the prepared tart shell. The filling can be made several days ahead and chilled.
For the crust:
2 cups all purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 cup finely ground blanched almonds
3/4 cups sugar
2 1/2 sticks butter, cut into small pieces and chilled (or frozen)
1 large egg, plus one extra for an egg wash
Put the flour, almonds, and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until well-combined. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture is crumbly and the bits of butter are pea-sized. Pour the mixture into a bowl and add the egg. Stir with a fork until well combined. If the dough seems too dry, add a drop or two of ice water (you will probably need less water than you might think, because of the fat content in the almonds). Divide the dough into two disks and refrigerate them.
Butter a 12-inch fluted tart tin and remove one of the disks of dough from the refrigerator. Pull off walnut-sized pieces of dough and fit them into the tin, then press them flat until the entire bottom and sides are covered. Cover the tin with plastic wrap and refrigerate, along with the other disk of dough, for at least one hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Add the cooled filling to the tart tin, and roll out the second disk of dough on a floured surface. Cut the dough into strips and create a lattice crust across the top of the filling. Beat the remaining egg and use it to brush over the lattice strips to make a shiny crust.
Place the tart on a baking sheet and bake for 45-55 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. If any areas begin to brown too quickly, cover the top of the tart with aluminum foil.
Allow the tart to cool almost completely before unmolding, and serve.