Why is it that you can find plenty of fresh fruit tarts that look good, but very few that actually taste good? Too often you’re attracted by shiny, colorful fruit and then disappointed by a soggy crust, gluey pastry cream, and flavorless fruit. I take a lot of pride in the fact that the tarts we make at my shop don’t share this problem. When a customer takes a bite of the tart, it tastes even better than it looks—and it looks great.
I have no real secrets to making my tarts; it’s more a matter of good technique. Because fresh fruit tarts are simple and uncomplicated, it’s important that every element be prepared with care. With something so simple, in fact, each element has to be perfect.
The parts of the tart
First is a lesson that I try to instill in my pastry cooks the very first day they come to work for me. The tart shell must be cooked until brown. Not white, not pale, not beige, but BROWN. I find that almost all novice cooks never cook a tart shell enough; they’re too scared to cook it fully, convinced that they will burn it. But you must cook a tart shell until it’s completely brown in order to bring out the warm, sweet, buttery taste of the pastry; here I use a sweet dough called pâte sucrée. If you don’t bake it long enough, then your pastry will have a raw, doughy texture with a floury flavor that will sit in your mouth like glue.
I like to line my pastry shells with a layer of almond cream, also called frangipane. The frangipane reinforces the bottom of the shell and helps support the weight of the fruit; without it, the shell is much more likely to break apart. And, perhaps more important, it protects the shell from getting soggy from the leaking fruit juices and pastry cream. The subtle almond flavor of the frangipane doesn’t stand out, but it’s a flavor that’s flattering to just about every type of fruit.
A light and creamy pastry cream is one of the key differences between a nondescript fruit tart and a spectacular one. The role of the cream is to hold the fruit in place and to accent its fresh textures and flavors. I make a basic pastry cream, but then I lighten it with whipped cream to keep it from being gluey and dense. The cream is rich tasting, slightly billowy, and a delightful foil to the crisp pastry and juicy fruit.
Finally, the fruit you choose for your tart will determine whether you end up with a tart that’s bursting with sweet, juicy flavor or one that’s merely okay. Select whatever fruits are in season—don’t just try to replicate what I’ve done here. In early summer, when apricots and strawberries reach their perfumy heights, highlight them in your tart. In the hot, late summer months, fill your tarts with perfectly ripened peaches, plums, and cherries. During the winter, when your selection of fruits is more limited, focus on sweet and tart apples, juicy pears, bright citrus fruit, and luscious tropicals like mangos and pineapples.
A removable-bottom pan is easy; a flan ring takes more practice
You can use a regular removable-bottom tart pan, though I prefer a French bottomless flan ring. Every pâtisserie in France that I know of uses the straight-edged flan ring because it makes a cleaner, straighter tart whose sides are less likely to buckle and fall inward. You can buy these at specialty cookware shops, and I recommend buying one or two if you make tarts regularly. Because they have no bottom, you obviously need to have a good sheet pan underneath them. Make sure yours is perfectly flat and fairly heavy-duty. For this article, I’m using the tart pan because that’s what most people have.
Showcasing the fruit
On most fruit tarts, the fruit is arranged in nice patterns on the surface. Maybe some whole strawberries or raspberries stand vertically, but generally the fruit lies in the same plane as the cream. I do things a little differently. I arrange most of the fruit so it’s standing up in the cream. It looks really dramatic, and it lets me create colorful juxtapositions of different fruits.
• Play with the shapes. Different shapes—spiky, round, angular— add to the beauty of the tart.
• Pay attention to the different “views” you’re creating. It’s a bit like flower arranging. If you want to present the tart with one side as the “front,” arrange your fruit so it looks best from that angle. If you want an all-over view, check the different angles as you construct the tart.
• Add a few special touches. Apple slices add lots of feathery texture. I cut a small wedge of apple into five or six very thin slices and spread them out into a fan. Sometimes I’ll take an apricot half or portion of a kiwi, score crosshatches on the surface, and then push on the skin side so the tiny cubes stick out. Blueberries tossed in confectioners’ sugar look great. Sprinkle them on as a finishing touch.
Standard components, with tasty technical upgrades
The size of your tart will dictate the thickness of the dough. If you’re making a large tart, say 10 inches or bigger, the shell has to be thicker—almost 1/4 inch—to support the greater amount of filling than if you’re making a bunch of individual tartlets, which can manage with a thinner, more delicate crust.
One more detail about the tart crust: when you roll it out, keep turning the disk of dough as you go. I give a quarter turn after each roll to make sure that the disk is rolling out smoothly and uniformly. By regularly turning the disk, you also can make sure the dough isn’t sticking to the work surface.
I do two things to my frangipane that make a crucial difference. First, I make sure the frangipane is nice and fluffy because I want the layer to bake off light and tender, not dense and chewy. To do this, I start by creaming the butter and sugar really well, and then when the cream is finished, I give it a few more seconds in the mixer to aerate it and fluff it up. I use almond flour, which is fine and powdery, to make the frangipane. You can make an acceptable substitute by grinding sliced almonds in a food processor until very fine.
The other important point is to spread the frangipane evenly in the shell so there won’t be any thick, undercooked spots. You can use a spoon to spread it, but I prefer to pipe it in so I’m assured that the tart has the same thickness of frangipane everywhere.
Like frangipane, pastry cream is a simple and classic filling, and I make a straightforward version, but again, I use a couple of tricks to make mine taste good and have a light, silky quality rather than the familiar pasty feel. At the pâtisserie, we use a professional French ingredient called flan powder instead of flour. It makes a lighter, smoother pastry cream with no hint of a starchy taste. In the recipe here, however, I use flour, which makes a perfectly delicious pastry cream. You must, however, be sure to cook it at a boil long enough to cook off the raw flour flavor. The other thing I do that improves the texture of the pastry cream is that, once the cream has cooled, I beat it again in the mixer, preferably with a paddle attachment, to loosen it up and lighten it before I fold in the whipped cream.
Once you’ve taken the time to make each of your base components—crust, frangipane, pastry cream—as good as they can be, you can start having fun with the fruits. But before you start decorating, I must re-emphasize that the most important element of a good fruit tart is ripe and flavorful fruit, so pick yours carefully.
The final, finishing touch is a light coat of glaze to keep the fruit from drying out. Professionals use something called nappage (a clear, sweet glaze made from glucose and gelatin), but a good home substitute is apple jelly or strained apricot preserves. A sheer, shiny coat will make your fruit tart look elegant and appealing from the moment you finish assembling it to the moment the lucky diners bite into it.