I grew up with an Alsatian father, so our weekly menu always included a traditional Alsatian onion tart. Served for lunch or supper, often preceded by a soup and accompanied by either a salad or a bowl of homemade cornichons, this savory tart with a buttery crust and a sweet onion and Gruyère filling was one of my very favorite dishes.
So naturally, as soon as I got my own kitchen, I invested in a good rolling pin and some traditional porcelain tart pans and began to make quiches and savory tarts of my own. This was in the ’60s, and with Julia Child on TV, quiche, crêpes, mousse, and just about everything French were all the rage with home cooks and restaurant chefs alike. But the thrill of discovery also brought the inevitable bad versions: crêpes filled with anything-goes combinations and soggy quiches with tasteless, rubbery custards. Before long, these French classics lost out to designer pizza and all things Italian.
But I never stopped loving quiche, and I’m glad to see it back on menus, even in fancy restaurants (though they often call it a savory tart). And thanks to the more educated palates of chefs and cooks everywhere, they’re being treated with the respect they deserve.
Don’t get confused by names
Quiches and savory tarts are really just different names for very similar dishes. To my mind, a savory tart is a bit more chock full of ingredients than a quiche; conversely, a quiche has a slightly higher proportion of custard to filling than a savory tart. I tend to favor savory tarts because I like the generous flavor of the filling; but I don’t neglect my custards: I make them rich and flavorful, and I cook my tarts just so the custard sets but doesn’t overcook and become weepy.
Both quiches and savory tarts can be baked in either porcelain or metal tart pans. I favor baking savory tarts in short-sided pans, while quiche can be nice in slightly deeper pans. Either way, the fluted sides are essential, since they keep the crust from collapsing. I like porcelain (or ceramic) pans because I think they retain heat better and provide a crisper crust. They’re also attractive enough to go straight to the table, and so you don’t need to unmold the tart.
Make a rich custard and precook the filling ingredients
For the custard, I use only cream and fresh eggs. Some cooks try to lighten the mix by using milk or even (horrors) low-fat milk, but this is a mistake. The whole point of a tart or quiche is the rich, binding nature of the custard. Skimp on the custard and you’ll get a watery, sad-looking tart.
I generally blend the cream and eggs by hand with a whisk. Once they’re well combined, I add a pinch of salt, a few grinds of pepper, and any other herbs or spices (a pinch of nutmeg or cayenne is a good addition). You can make the custard hours ahead, as long as you cover and refrigerate it, but don’t hold it for long once the filling ingredients are added to it.
Cheese is a natural marriage with custard, and here you can be creative. Goat cheese, blue cheese (especially the mild Gorgonzola dolce), and Stilton are wonderful with custards, as are Gruyère and Comté. I also like to use fresh herbs like parsley, thyme, sage, chervil, and sometimes a bit of rosemary. Keep in mind that milder herbs, like parsley, chervil, and dill—lose some of their oomph when cooked, so use generous amounts.
The most successful quiches or tarts are made with members of the allium family: onions, leeks, chives, or scallions. I find it’s best to precook these, and most other filling ingredients, so that they don’t leak moisture into the tart. Sauté leeks, shallots, and onions in butter and then cool and drain them well. Be sure to cook meats like sausage and bacon and drain them of all fat.
Once all the filling ingredients are prepared, carefully ladle the custard and filling into the shell. Be careful not to overfill, as the custard will puff, and if the custard seeps over the sides, you’ll have a heck of a time getting the tart unmolded.
Use the food processor for a buttery tart dough
When it comes to making a crust for your tart or quiche, you may need to practice a bit. There’s nothing simpler than making a crust, and yet it can be devilishly frustrating. I make mine in a food processor, as I find it doesn’t overwork the dough. I have also discovered that the less liquid I add, the less it shrinks. You can take most of the guesswork out of making and handling a tart crust by following the dos and don’ts I’ve included here (see the sidebar).
In a pinch, it’s okay to use a store-bought pie crust to make a tart or quiche, but look for ones made with lard that aren’t already molded into a tin, as the shape won’t work. Even better, you can use frozen puff pastry, which works perfectly in savory tarts and quiches. Any dough you use must be partially baked (blind-baked) before filling. If you like, brush the bottom of the shells with egg wash, or even mustard, as extra protection to keep the crust crisp.
I find that the best way to serve a tart or quiche is at room temperature (but you can certainly serve them warm); it’s much easier to unmold and cut them, and the flavors have had a chance to come together just right. They also reheat marvelously the next day.
I’ve included recipes for some of my favorite savory tarts here. The Alsatian Onion Tart and the Cabbage, Leek & Bacon Tart are classics. My friends all love the Spinach, Goat Cheese & Chive Quiche; it’s a takeoff on a Provençal pie that is usually made with bread dough. Less traditional but flavor-packed, the Salmon, Mushroom & Dill Quiche is ideal for dinner. Here you can use leftover grilled or pan-seared salmon and add a touch of tarragon, chives, or chervil. It’s great with a platter of steamed, buttered asparagus or crunchy glazed cucumbers. All of the recipes call for ingredients that are easily available, and their flavors are simple and straightforward.
Tart crust tips
•Do keep your flour, water, and butter very cold; leave them in the refrigerator until the very last minute.
•Do cut the butter into tiny cubes; you will be less likely to overwork the dough.
•Don’t overwork the dough; process until it’s just beginning to form a ball.
•Don’t mash the dough into a ball; flatten it gently into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap; it will be much easier to roll out.
•Do let the dough rest for at least an
hour in the refrigerator before rolling; this allows the gluten to relax and makes for a flakier crust.
•Do keep your work surface cold when rolling; rub ice packs or ice-filled plastic bags on it if you don’t have a marble pastry board.
•Do use a straight French rolling pin instead of a standard pin; the French pin lets you control the dough better.