Sunday 27 September 2015

Plum / pear frangipane tart... and other more unpleasant memories of Paris

Aged 12 here.
My mother gave me that horror of a haircut.
The teeth are my own, yes,
I'm not breaking them in for a beaver
This is my first ever frangipane fruit tart made. It wasn't bad; a bit uneven and messy. Maybe I should have layered up more plums? But this was, after all, a development tart.

My first frangipane fruit tart eaten was probably in France in 1980 (I was 13) during a horrific exchange. This was the trip where I also first tasted fillet steak, crème fraîche, fromage frais (avec wasps), lapin à la moutarde, pain au chocolate and the first and last time I drank hot chocolate from a bowl the size of my face.

So why horrific? I was paired up with Christophe, a boy who was merciless with insecurity, I suspect because he had none himself. The same age as me but a foot taller, due in no small part to his high protein diet (after six weeks I returned to Wales with trouser legs distant from the floor). His fluffy, but highly strung, mother was married (again) to the head of Rank Xerox in France - a rich man. In their Paris apartment bedroom she had a huge, framed poster of her only child. I should have recognised that as the warning it was.

I had only about four phrases of French (one of those was Je t'aime - unused, sadly) and had never been abroad before; certainly never flown. In fact, I'd not visited a large city, other than a school trip to the Houses of Parliament. 

In light of my bug-eyed bumpkin-ness, Christophe thought it would be hilarious to abandon me on the deuxième étage of the Eiffel Tower; he and his (blameless) friend pointing and laughing at my face, hollowed out of fear, as I finally wobbled my way off the metal stairs, resigned to having to live under a Seine bridge and forage for food - the prospect of actually speaking to someone, in French, in France, made me crease up like the slippery intestines of an Andouillette.

This was a crash course in cuisine too and not one I relished - having been raised on (over) roast dinners, egg and chips and a special tea (the meal not the drink - breakfast, dinner, tea) which my mother called, without embarrassment, cheese on a plate. A description of crushing accuracy.

This was a crash and a clash. My family was broke, his was monied. In addition to the Paris pad they also had a 'farm house' in Normandy at which we weekended. They had two cars and ate out in restaurants at least three times a week - which was about twice more than I ever had. I still remember their acute embarrassment as a waiter returned my steak to the kitchen a second time - it was still pink. I do remember learning one new word: le briquette!

But I also remember, with deep glee, the glisten of French patisserie in a boulevard window; the impossibility of combination of such angles, sugar, cream and colour. Before France, my most exotic pastry was probably a Clarke's pie ('ark, ark' the lark - one for the Welsh there). Crisp, buttery pastry, soft fruit with a sweet and tart glaze and that lush almond filling.

Anyway, wow, that was a hell of a diversion. Some memories genuinely recovered for the first time in three decades. I won't tell you about the second bicycle with the perished brake blocks (hilarious), the dinner wasps or Christophe prostrate with brutal, rubbery laughter at managing to finally push me out of the dinghy and into the duckpond. No. Let's return to London and the safety of my kitchen.

Here served with creme fraiche ice cream and crystallised almonds
These are traditional French affairs: glazed fruit, set in frangipane in a sweet pastry case. Guests, Sue and Dan, had expressed dessert interest in some poached pears and I wanted to spend more time with plums. So I made two tarts.

Frangipane, an almond butter-cream baked to moorish moistness, has a history fraught with counter claim and culinary apocrypha. Its name means (maybe) to break the bread or (perhaps) coagulated milk. There were several historical, real figures of note, named Frangipane but they may be irrelevant. The first mention I can find is in Varenne’s 17th Century, The French Cook but I suspect this is another example of French appropriation (like creme brûlée). I think the Itialians have this one.

My tarts are from a mix of recipes (a meta-tart anyone?) but I should acknowledge Sonya Kidney for the pastry and Angela Hartnett for the filling.

So the case and filling can be topped with any soft (usually stone) fruit. Plums and apricots can go straight on. Firmer fare like apples and pears need poaching first. I'll show both below.

Fruit frangipane tart
Makes one 27cm tart.

Actually the pastry here is enough for two cases. Freeze the other half. And then throw it away when you happen across it in a year's time while looking for some frozen vodka.

Don't worry too much about tin size and shapes. The instructions below will work, so long as you're not silly.

Sweet short pastry

In a bowl mix, cream together 280g unsalted butter with 110g caster sugar. When light and fluffy, add 400g plain flour with 2 tsp baking powder and a pinch of table salt. Mix. Add 1 egg and 50ml water

Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for a while until cold enough to roll out without sticking. Turn your pastry often, dusting it lightly with flour. I like mine thinner than a pound coin, especially as thin one puffs slightly. This isn't a badly behaved pastry. It will roll easily (unless it's a heatwave) and presses into tins without breaking or stretching. If you are struggling, roll it out on baking paper and return it to the fridge for ten minutes to make it more manageable.

Press pastry into tin corners. Line the pastry with baking paper (scrunch it first for a better fit) and fill with baking beans/coin/rice, or as I now do, another tin. leave some overhang or else your pastry will recede down the sides of the tin, never to be seen again.

A good overhang
Bake blind at 170°C for about 15-20 minutes until the case is coloured. It'll start to smell like pastry too. Trim the pastry now with a sharp knife. return to the oven for another 10 minutes until it's a light golden brown and crisp. The timings and temperatures are less important than the end result. If you think it needs longer, put it back in.

Trimmed and baked for a second time. Note the colour.

Frangipane filling

Cream together 125g softened butter with 125g caster sugar until lightly coloured and creamy. Add 125g ground almonds and a tablespoon of plain flour. Beat in two eggs. The mix should be light and fluffy. Don't worry that it's grainy.

I pipe in the mix, mainly because I am scared of using utensils around such a friable, delicate case. It looks like mushrooms!

Fill the case with soft stone fruit, cut on an angle and layered up. I've used plums here. the more you overlap your fruit the more fruit you will taste. It's up to you. You might have to make a few tarts before finding your preferred balance. What a bind that'll be. Good thing you have that frozen pastry mix (it's underneath the vodka).

This is actually only a 7" tart. I was experimenting.

For apples, pears or quinces you'll need to poach them first. This is done in a 1:1 mix of sugar and water, brought to the boil with some aromatics added. try star anise, cloves, orange rind and cinnamon first. Stick in half a lemon too. Make a round 'cartouche' of baking paper and place on top of the fruit. Weigh this down with a small plate or saucer. This ensures the fruit are submerged and don't brown and oxidise.

Pears can be poached whole for about ten minutes. Many recipes, Hartnett included, suggest twenty minutes but mine would have been mush by then. Remember the fruit is to be baked in the tart later. When done and cooled, core and halve your fruit.

Now the bake. This was an area of maddening diversity. Some recipes calling for 20 minutes at 170°C and some asking for over an hour and 200°C. I went cooler and longer. Around 55 minutes at 180°C. Look for a firming and browning of the frangipane. It will rise up and infill the fruit.

You could eat it as it is. It will be delicious. But better to glaze it. I made mine with some pear poaching liquor reduced down with a little vanilla paste and some arrowroot but you could also make a simple paste with apricot jam or marmalade, let down with a teaspoon or two of boiling water. A glaze makes everything look more mouth watering and maintains moisture within the fruit.

Some recipes suggest you grill or blow torch the top for a caramelised edge. While this is doubtless delicious I think the caramel sometimes interferes with the fruit flavour, especially something as delicate as a pear. Tread lightly.


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