One of the advantages of growing up in the West Country is that you will undoubtedly get taken on a trip to France at some point. In my case these trips were a semi-regular occurrence, largely dependent upon the condition of my Dads wine rack.
French supermarkets are like an Aladdin’s Cave for me. I can cheerfully while away the hours while my Dad stocks up on wine by taking in all the amazing produce that they offer. Here you can often struggle to find a supermarket with a fishmonger let alone one with tanks full of live crabs and lobster and mounds of fresh langoustine.
The patisserie is by far my favourite department. I marvel at the amount of effort and talent that must go into the array of beautifully decorated cakes, essentially created out of butter, eggs, flour and sugar. But for all their fanciness I don’t really think that you can beat a nice simple tarte aux fraise.
I love the fragrant strawberry nestling atop thick, creamy crème pâtissière piled into crisp, buttery pastry. Perfection.
Now, obviously strawberry tarts are not hard to find, it’s finding one that matches the high French bar that proves to be a challenge. I needed to make something with a pretty strong accent to satisfy this craving.
Google.fr and my incredibly rusty A’ level French held the answer. I clumsily struggled my way through a few articles extolling the virtues of various recipes and settled on one for the pâte sablée pastry and another for the crème pâtissière filling.
I halved the amounts here to make a tarte for two and eight dinky petits four sized tarts (using silicone mini cupcake cases). The full amount should make a 25cm tart.
250g plain flour
2 egg yolks
pinch of salt
splash of water
4 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla paste or seeds of 1 pod
enough small ripe strawberries to fill the tart in your chosen style
1 tbsp warmed strawberry jam to glaze
Preheat the oven to 180°c.
To make the pastry case whisk together the egg yolks and sugar. If they look very stiff then you may want to loosen then with a tiny splash of water. Be careful not to add too much though, you don’t want there to be too much liquid for the flour to absorb.
In another bowl rub the butter into the flour. Mix together with the eggs and sugar using a butter knife until the dough forms a soft ball.
Now either carefully roll out the dough (do this between sheets of grease proof paper to avoid incorporating any extra flour into the dough) or gently press the dough into a greased tart tin to line it. If you use this second method try to keep the dough fairly thin so that it stays crisp when it bakes.
Once you have lined your tin with pastry prick the base with a fork and cover it with grease proof paper and baking beads. Blind bake for 20-25 minutes, until the pastry is just starting to think about browning. Leave in the tin to cool.
Whilst the pastry case is baking you can make the crème pâtissière – this will give it a bit of extra cooling time before you assemble the tart.
In a large pan gently heat the milk and vanilla. It needs to be quite warm but not simmering. Whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and cornflour.
Carefully pour half of the warm milk on the egg mixture whisking continuously as you do so, no one wants sugary scrambled eggs. Add the remaining milk, give it a mix and return the whole lot to the saucepan.
Gently heat this mixture, stirring the whole time until the custard becomes gloriously thick and creamy. It needs to be able to hold its shape when the tart is sliced.
Once you’ve got the consistency right you need to cool the custard. I just pour it back into the bowl and then sit this in a sink of cold water. Supposedly if you dust the surface with icing sugar it will prevent a skin from forming on it but I’ve never had much success with that. I just cover the bowl with cling film.
When all the components are cooled you can assemble your tart. Simply pile the crème pâtissière into the pastry case (remove it from the tin before filling) and top with strawberries, whole or sliced in any pattern that you like. Warm the jam, I just use the microwave, and use a pastry brush to brush it over fruit and give the tart a lovely shiny glaze.
Chill until ready to serve. Bon appetite!