Among the myriad things that I treasure about baking are the eureka moments, the times when I make something differently and it not only works but becomes part of my kitchen canon, forever altering the way I bake. It can be a new technique or twist — big or small. Even a change in a dessert’s shape or size can make something new out of what was familiar. The transformation might be set in motion because I’ve finally figured something out; other times it comes from something I read, saw, learned or stumbled upon because the kitchen gods were on my side that day.
I’ve been lucky — I’ve had lots of these moments. For example, I solved the pesky problem of hard raisins in soft oatmeal cookies and morning buns as soon as I began dunking the fruit in hot water or tea before mixing it into the dough. I built in extra flavor when I soaked the fruit in whiskey, rum or strong Armagnac. (The best was when I heated the booze and fruit and, channeling my inner Julia Child, set it aflame.) When I stopped using drops of vanilla and pinches of salt and went bold with both, my cookies, cakes, custards and pretty much everything else I bake became more intriguing. I became a more confident and infinitely calmer pie maker when, in a moment of frustration, I committed pastry heresy: Instead of refrigerating the dough for a crust and then rolling it, as I’d been taught — a procedure requiring patience I can’t always muster — I rolled it out as soon as it was mixed, when it was at its most submissive, and then chilled it. (It’s a great trick for tart and cookie dough too.) And then there was that day in Paris, maybe 15 years ago, when a chance encounter with a quirkily constructed sweet shook my belief in the unalterable perfection of the classic French fruit tart and made me rethink how I baked it.
The traditional tart is a masterpiece of simplicity. It has only three components that seem to have been brought together by magnetic attraction. There’s the crust, often a pâte sucrée, which is almost like a shortbread cookie. There’s the filling, a luxurious pastry cream, rich with butter and egg yolks and redolent of vanilla. Finally, there’s the fruit — fresh, bright and artfully arranged on top.
This classic, reduced to a miniature boat-shaped pastry the length of my pinkie and topped with three tiny strawberries, was the first thing I tasted on my first trip to Paris. I was traveling on a student’s budget, and that tartlet, which cost more than my full day’s allotment for treats, beckoned. I had one every afternoon during my stay in Paris, and when I returned to New York, I taught myself the recipe. Made large enough to share with family and friends, the tart became a touchstone for me, a homage to the city I’d fallen in love with and that would later become my part-time home.
But things changed when, on a warm afternoon in Paris, my husband and I went to La Palette, a cafe near our apartment, ordered glasses of rosé and, on a whim, one slice of strawberry tart with two forks. What arrived was completely different from my first pastry, but just as captivating — a slice of crust with a swipe of jam and an abundance of sweet berries. With no pastry cream to tether them, the berries tumbled off the edges of the pastry and arranged themselves by whatever geometry berries choose when they’re not constrained. This glorious jumble was outside the realm of the usual, and elegantly plain, totally without pretense and conceived in such a way that each of the flavors and textures counted and inclined toward pleasure.
La Palette no longer makes this tart, but I do — every summer, all summer long. I make it with a crust (rolled and then refrigerated, of course) that could pass for an old-fashioned cookie (in fact, you can use the scraps to make cookies; sprinkle some sugar over them before baking). And because the dough has confectioners’ and granulated sugar, the crust is both tender and crisp. I love that it keeps its snap, because I cut only as many servings as I want, glossing the wedges with jam at the last minute before spooning on the berries, being very generous and not at all careful about where they land. Sometimes I pass a bowl of cream; sometimes I put a dab on each serving. And always, I think of the moment when I first saw the tart, so beautiful, so cleverly thought out, so practical and so original at the same time. Eureka!
Recipe: Tumble-Jumble Strawberry Tart