Wednesday, January 21, 2015

T Is For Tarts

A tart shell is a blank slate, an empty canvas waiting for color and cream and crunch, an opportunity for a few fantastic forkfuls of heaven to end a meal or to get you through the afternoon or to destroy your however-many-weeks of carb avoiding ridiculousness.  

A tart shell is a delicate little open box.  It can hold the simple, the complex, the exotic, the rare, the common, the few, just enough, or too many.  It sits there on the counter silently waiting to be filled with the next best thing, whatever that may be.  Waiting, available, blank.  

And that's the thrill and that's the problem.  That's the thrill and the problem with all opportunities for potential greatness.  The tart shell, like other blank slates, offers no clues, contains no hidden hints as to what would best fill it, what would take it from being just that thin fragile circle of crust to spin it into something memorable, exquisite, or sublime (or at least just really really good).  It doesn't tell you.  It sits there, empty, quiet, ready, and waiting.  Waiting for you to make the next move.  

A tart shell, a blank page, a sketchpad, a vacant lot, a long stretch of empty road.  They all offer the same tight-lipped promise.  And that excites me and drives me crazy at the same time.  The blank slates of the world are everywhere.  They are the potential that gives us that eager-anxious quiver in our stomachs before we start a new adventure.  They are the trigger for creativity.  

You feel it, that inner urge to make something good, something new, something interesting, and it nags you and pushes you and teases you.  It's standing on a precipice, and that first step, that first word, that first idea, which so often feels like a leap, takes you out over the beach and the waves, on the wind, in the sky, and you are soaring and writing and drawing and moving and nothing can stop you and it's exactly as good as you were afraid to admit that you thought it would be, and you can't stop, won't stop, until you do, but it's okay because you started and the page is no longer empty, you already broke trump, and picking up where you left off, even if it's tomorrow or the next day, is easier than starting over or starting from scratch.

It's going from nothing to something that is difficult.  The blank page carries with it a sense of responsibility, to do it right, to do it justice, to make it honest.  Maybe it is that weight that so often presses on the brake, that blocks the flow, when facing the empty page.

How many times have I opened the laptop and stared at the grey-white emptiness on the screen, fingers poised above the keyboard, frozen.  How many nicely bound journals and notebooks have I purchased to hold my ideas and sentences, only to pile them in the drawer, unfilled, unused, waiting.  How many maps have we bought without taking the trip.  How many seed packets lay on the shelf, unopened, unplanted.  

The toga-clad Romans thought that we entered the world as blank slates, tabula rasa, ready and primed for life and experience to become etched onto our minds, to create who we would become.   But in that model we are passive, breathing and watching and absorbing the world around us, waiting for our selves to emerge.  Creativity is not passive; it is generative; it is transitive, it is hard.  Some composers claim to be merely conduits for their music, and that may be true, music may be different, but in the world of words that has not been my experience.  We are not the shell.  We are the filling.

Beginning a project, discovering the story, the meaning, the what and the why, that is Step One, and Step One is hard.  Discovery is hard, it isn't scary, but it is hard.  But it is also satisfying, every step of it.  A new phrase, even if it is pretentious and will later be deleted, can make my day.  So too can watching egg whites grow as they are sweetened and whipped into clouds of meringue.  Stirring hot cream into chocolate to make a ganache filling, few things make me happier.  

The page isn't the goal, the canvas isn't the product.  A poem can be written on the back of a receipt and still bring you to tears.  Masterworks have been painted on cardboard. Not so the tart shell.  Even though the crust isn't the treat, it has to be tasty, it has to be good.   Pie dough sounds homey and rough, and I love it.  But a tart is different.  It is finer, more fussy, or at least that's how it seems.  Mix it, chill it, roll it, bake it, fill it, that's the process, those are the steps.  But the finest moment of the tart is the final bite, when a few small crumbs of almond-flecked crust adhere to a juicy blackberry, or a nickel-sized piece of the shell adds just the right crunch to that last swirl of chocolate and cream.  

I hold my breath when I'm looking at empty Page One.  When words are flowing and ideas won't stop I am not at all aware of my breathing.  Rereading and editing and rehearsal is exciting and my heart is racing, and I need to stop and make myself breathe to get a clearer picture, to see it in focus.  And at the end, after the final change has been made, the final word and the final period are in place, that is the best moment of all.  My favorite moment when making a cake is when it is delivered, and I'm driving away, and it is no longer in my hands.  The page is full.  That's when I take the deepest breath.  

Tart Dough (Pate Sucree)
All-Purpose Flour                2 cups
Powdered Sugar                 1/4 cup
                                           3/4 cup
Almond Meal                      1/2 cup
Butter, unsalted                8 oz, room temp
Egg                                     1
Vanilla                               1 tsp extract OR
                                           seeds from 1 vanilla bean

  1. Beat the butter in a stand mixer for several minutes, until it is creamy.
  2. Add the 1/4 cup powdered sugar and beat until combined.  (Add the vanilla seeds now if you are using them)
  3. Sift together the flour, remaining powdered sugar, and the almond meal.  
  4. Add the dry ingredients in two parts, mixing briefly between additions, scraping the bowl as necessary.
  5. Add the egg and the vanilla extract (if using).  Mix on low until the wet ingredients are combined and the dough holds together.
  6. Dump the dough onto the counter and, using the heel of your hand, press forward into the dough.  
  7. Fold the dough over once with a dough scraper and repeat the maneuver.  The dough should look smooth.
  8. Form into a disk, wrap well in plastic wrap and chill for at least an hour.

When ready to bake the tart shells:
  1. Roll the dough to approximately 1/8-1/4 inch thick and place in tart rings, pressing gently into the corner.
  2. Trim the top and chill until firm.  
  3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  4. This dough need not have pie weights or beans in them during baking, but you can if you are worried about shrinkage or an uneven bottom crust.  
  5. Bake 25 minutes, until golden brown.  (If you have filled with dry beans, remove the parchment and beans after 25 minutes, and continue to bake another 5-7 minutes until the bottom crust is browned.
  6. Let cool fully before filling.
Suggestions for Filling:

Place a layer of caramel in the tart shell and chill until cold.  Top with chocolate ganache.

Berries And Cream:
Place a layer of pastry cream in the bottom of the tart shell.  Top with berries.


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