Pear and Pecan Tart

Pear-Pecan Tart

Pear-Pecan Tart

The best seasonal recipes are templates that work with whatever happens to be available fresh from your backyard or local farmers’ market. This pear tart, for example, could turn into a plum tart, or a peach tart, or a fresh fig and raspberry tart (and yes, it’s possible to grow fresh figs in New Hampshire).

Unless you have access to a nut tree – and we do grow black walnuts, hazelnuts, butternuts, hickory nuts and chestnuts, among others in southern New Hampshire – your nuts probably won’t be local. But if you can get local nuts, use them, by all means.

The basic concept is to make a sandy mixture of nuts, sugar and flour, sprinkle it over a rectangle of pastry (puff pastry as here, but plain old pie dough will also work) and top it with very ripe fresh fruit. As the tart bakes, the fruit releases it’s juices, which are soaked up by the nut mixture. The nut mixture becomes soft and a little chewy, and the pastry stays crisp on the bottom.

For my tart, I used home-made, all butter puff pastry (here’s a link to that recipe) but you can substitute store-bought frozen puff pastry and get great results. Use Trader Joe’s or Dufour brands if you can find them, because they are made with butter and taste better than those made with shortening. Otherwise, Pepperidge Farm makes a reliable and easy-to-find frozen puff pastry.

These brands are packaged with slightly different weights, but all are close to 1 pound, which is what this recipe calls for, and all will work. Plan ahead so you can follow the directions on the package for refrigerator defrosting. And if the pastry comes in two pieces, simply make two smaller tarts.

This tart goes together quickly once the ingredients are assembled. Try serving it, as I did, fresh from the oven for a lazy Sunday morning brunch. It would also be delicious as the finale to a dinner party featuring the best of what fall has to offer. Either way, it is best eaten the day it is made, or it may become a little soggy.

Fresh Pear and Pecan Tart

  • 1 pound (approximately) puff pastry dough, defrosted
  • 4 very ripe, juicy, pears
  • 1 orange
  • 1 lemon
  • 1-½ cups pecans
  • ½ cup sugar, plus a few tablespoons more for sprinkling
  • 1 tablespoon flour

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Roll the puff pastry, if necessary, into a rectangle about 12 inches by 14 inches, and a little less than ¼ inch thick. Use a knife to cut directly down (do not drag it – dragging seals the edges and will keep the pastry from rising) to even the edges of the dough (reserve the scraps and re-use if desired).

Place the puff pastry on a sheet tray that has been lined with parchment paper. Prick the pastry all over with a fork, leaving about 1-½ inches all around the edge of the pastry un-pricked. This will allow the edges to rise in the oven while the center of the tart stays flat. Place the dough in the refrigerator to rest.

While the dough is resting, zest the orange and lemon and reserve the zest. Squeeze the juices of the lemon and orange into a medium sized bowl.

Place the zest and ½ cup sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the zest is well combined with the sugar. Leave the sugar in the processor and proceed with the next step. This will allow the sugar to absorb the oils from the zest and add a lot of flavor to the mixture.

Peel the pears, one at a time. When a pear has been peeled, cut it in half, use a melon baller or other implement to scoop out the seed cavity and tough stem, and place the halves in the citrus juices, coating well to keep them from browning. Proceed until all the pears are soaking in the juice.

Place the nuts and the flour in the food processor with the sugar and zest and pulse until they make a coarse mixture.

Remove the pastry from the refrigerator. Lightly sprinkle it with half the remaining sugar all the way to the edges. Cover the pricked portion of the dough with the nut mixture. Arrange the pears on top of the nuts in a decorative manner (discard the citrus juice or use for another recipe). Sprinkle the tops of the pears with the remaining sugar.

Place the tart in the center of the preheated oven. Allow it to bake for 10-15 minutes until the edges have risen nicely, then reduce the temperature to 325 degrees. Continue baking for about another 45 minutes, turning once or twice to ensure even browning.

The tart is done when the pears have released their juices into the nut mixture and they are soft and beginning to brown a little on top. Allow the tart to rest for 10 minutes or so before cutting with a serrated knife. Serves 8 or more.

Puff Pastry

Puff pastry is a sublime demonstration of the power of mathematics. You begin by layering a block of butter between two layers of dough. Fold the dough in thirds, and now there are 3 layers of butter between the layers of dough. Let it rest, roll it out, fold it in thirds again and now there are 9 layers of butter. Repeat – 27 layers of butter. Repeat – 81 layers of butter. Repeat – 243 layers of butter. And one last time – 729 layers of butter, and 730 layers of dough (including the top and bottom layers).

As the puff pastry bakes, the butter fat melts, which separates the layers of dough, while the butter liquids turn to steam, forcing the layers apart and causing the pastry to rise in a spectacular fashion. And unlike a soufflé, which must be served immediately before it falls, properly baked puff pastry will maintain its loft even after it cools.

When golden brown and fully cooked, puff pastry is a delight in the mouth, melting almost as soon as it hits the tongue into rich, delicate shards. And rich as it is, puff pastry provides a neutral backdrop, working well with both sweet and savory fillings.

I think puff pastry’s reputation for being tricky to make has more to do with the cultivated mystique of the pâtissier than the reality of the recipe. It’s actually a pretty straightforward process, though it does require a cool kitchen and patience through all the resting and rolling. It also requires care in choosing ingredients – the butter needs to be cold, the flour needs to be bread flour.

It also requires care in measuring. I recommend weighing ingredients whenever you’re baking, for this recipe in particular. If you don’t have a scale, make sure you fluff up the flour, dip a measuring cup designed for dry ingredients into it, and then use a knife to level the cup (rather than tapping it on the counter, or pushing it down with your fingers, which compacts the flour).

Below is the basic recipe for puff pastry. On separate pages, you’ll find recipes using it as an ingredient, including Vol-au-vent, Spinach Tart and Maple Tarte Tatin.

Puff Pastry

Butter Block

  • 1 pound, 2 ounces cold unsalted butter (4-1/2 sticks)
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • pinch of salt
  • 4-1/2 ounces bread flour (1 cup measured by the dip-level-pour method)

Dough

  • 15 ounces bread flour (3-1/3 cups measured by the dip-level-pour method)
  • 2 ounces cold unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
  • 1 cup cold water
  • 2 teaspoons salt

For the butter block:

Cut the butter into pieces and put it into a large bowl or the bowl of a mixer. Add the lemon juice and salt and use your fingers to mix them into the butter a bit, or use the paddle to of the mixer to combine them a little. Add the bread flour and continue mixing until the mixture becomes fairly homogenous. Don’t let the mixture get warm and soft; rather, it should have the consistency of clay.

Put the butter mixture on a large piece of plastic wrap. Pat it into a 6 inch square and cover completely with the plastic. Refrigerate the block while you make the dough.

For the dough:

Cut the butter into small pieces. Put the flour on a work surface, (a clean countertop will do), sprinkle the butter over the flour, then use your fingers to work the butter into the flour until it has the texture of corn meal with a few butter-peas floating around in it.

making puff pastry - water in the well

making puff pastry – water in the well

Make a well in the center of flour-butter mixture and sprinkle the salt into the well. Pour about half the water into the well, then use your fingers to begin swirling the flour mixture into the water. When there’s a thick paste in the well, add a little more water and then stir in more of the flour-butter mix. Continue adding water and mixing in the flour mixture until you’ve used up almost all of the water.

Gently knead together the dough, adding the rest of the water if necessary to finally arrive at a messy, slightly sticky ball of dough. Don’t  knead it too much – just so that it all holds together and isn’t dry.

puff pastry - cutting an X in the dough

puff pastry – cutting an X in the dough

Use a sharp knife to cut an X about halfway through the dough ball, then loosely wrap it in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour so the gluten in the flour relaxes a bit.

To make the puff paste:

Ideally the butter block and the dough will be about the same consistency. Pull the dough ball apart at the X to open it into a rough square. Shape it until it’s about an 8 inch by 8 inch even square.

puff pastry - placing the butter block on the dough

puff pastry – placing the butter block on the dough

Place the butter block on the dough, juxtaposed to it so that the butter is a diamond to the dough’s square. Fold the dough over the butter so the corners of the square meet in the middle. Pinch the seams together firmly so that the dough completely surrounds the butter.

puff pastry - enclosing the butter block in the dough

puff pastry – enclosing the butter block in the dough

Turn the dough so that it sits like a square again, sprinkling a little flour on the counter and on the dough so that it won’t stick as you roll it out. Roll the dough into a rectangle 12 inches wide by 16 inches long, keeping the sides as straight and even as possible, sprinkling more flour as necessary to keep the puff paste from sticking.

puff pastry - folding dough in thirds to make a turn

puff pastry – folding dough in thirds to make a turn

Fold the dough into thirds so that it becomes a three-layered rectangle about 5 inches by 12 inches. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 1/2 hour.

Repeat the process 4 more times, rolling the dough out to a

puff pastry - a completely folded turn

puff pastry – a completely folded turn

rectangle 12 inches by 16 inches and then folding it in thirds, wrapping it in plastic wrap and refrigerating for 1/2 hour.

After the final rest period, roll the dough out into a 20 inch square (trim the sides if necessary, reserving the scraps) and then, if desired, cut that square into 4-10 inch squares (this is a convenient size for storage and works well for most recipes). Wrap each of the squares in plastic, place on a baking sheet and freeze until needed. You can also freeze the scraps; thawed and rolled out, this can be used just like regular puff paste, except that it won’t rise quite as high. The dough will keep frozen for several months.

Eggs from Pastured Chickens: Amazing

What to do with lots of fresh eggs: Goat Gouda and Pecan Meringues with Fresh Greens and Lemony Herb Dressing and Boston Cream Cupcakes

The flock of Black Jersey Giant hens I share with my sister-in-law has just turned four, and they’re still laying more eggs than our two families can absorb. Getting rid of the excess is no problem, though – actually quite the opposite.

Black Jersey Giant Hen

Black Jersey Giant Hen

Okay, I’m going to brag a little here; forgive me. Our eggs are really good. Our chickens are true free rangers, spending most of the day outside eating bugs and greens. The proof of their excellent diet is in the egg yolks, which are calendula orange, so bright that when I make cakes with them, the batter looks as if I’ve dyed it with yellow food coloring.

It turns out, according to several studies done by Mother Earth News, that the average egg produced by pastured chickens contains 7 times more beta carotene than the average conventional supermarket egg, hence the brilliant yolks. The studies also show pastured chickens produce eggs with ⅓ less cholesterol, ¼ less saturated fat, ⅔ more vitamin A, twice as many omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E, and between 4 and 6 times as much vitamin D.

Here are two egg-rich recipes. The first is for a whites-only nut and cheese meringue cracker that’s a delicious contrast to spring greens. The second recipe is a good way to use up the leftover yolks, Boston Cream Cupcakes, light enough that you’ll want to eat two, but rich enough that you should probably only eat one. The pastry cream recipe makes more than you’ll use filling the cupcakes, but it’s delicious on its own or topping fresh berries or stewed rhubarb.

Goat Gouda and Pecan Meringues with Spring Greens

Goat Cheese Gouda and Pecan Meringue with Spring Greens

Goat Gouda and Pecan Meringue with Spring Greens

  • ½ cup pecans
  • 2 ounces goat gouda, grated (about ½ cup)
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne or hot red pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • ½ teaspoon freshly grated black pepper
  • 4 large egg whites
  • tiny pinch of cream of tartar
  • a mixture of fresh spring greens, washed and dried, about 8 cups total
  • Lemony Herbed Salad Dressing (recipe below)

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Line a half-sheet tray with parchment paper; butter and flour the parchment. Set aside.

Place the pecans, cheese, salt, and peppers in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the nuts are finely chopped. Be careful not to pulse so much the mixture turns into a paste.

In the bowl of an electric mixer whip the egg whites and the pinch of cream of tartar using the whisk attachment until the whites form soft peaks. Fold the nut mixture into the whites carefully, trying not to deflate the whites completely.

Spoon the batter evenly into 8 spots on the prepared parchment, leaving lots of space between the spots. Use a spoon to flatten and spread into approximately 4 inch wide rounds – don’t let the rounds touch.

Place in the oven – if your oven has a convection fan, turn it on as it will speed the cooking process. Cook the meringues until they are just golden brown, about 25 minutes. Turn off the oven, but leave the meringues in it and leave the convection fan on.

After 1/2 hour, remove the tray from the oven and allow the meringues to cool completely. To serve, place each meringue on a plate. Toss the greens with the dressing, then top each meringue with greens. Serve immediately, before the meringues get soggy.

Serves 8.

Lemony-Herb Salad Dressing

  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about 1/2 lemon)
  • 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar (or other mild white vinegar)
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 small clove garlic minced
  • 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons mild oil, such as sunflower
  • the leaves from several sprigs fresh thyme, lightly chopped (about 1/2 teaspoon)
  • 1 teaspoon fresh chopped dill

In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, vinegar, salt and minced garlic. Gradually whisk in the oils, dribbling them in slowly so the mixture emulsifies. When all the oil has been added, whisk in the herbs. Makes about 3/4 cup.

Boston Cream Cupcakes

Boston Cream Cupcakes

Boston Cream Cupcakes

  • Light Pastry Cream (recipe below)
  • Chocolate Glaze (recipe below)

For the cupcakes (adapted from Cook’s Illustrated: The Science of Good Cooking):

  • 2 cups all purpose flour (fluff the flour a bit with the measuring cup before scooping and leveling with a knife – don’t pack it down)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 12 tablespoons unsalted butter, at cool room temperature, cut into 12 pieces
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature (put in a cup of warm water if necessary)
  • ¾ cup whole milk, at room temperature (heat a little in the microwave, if necessary)
  • 1½ teaspoons vanilla
  • butter and flour to grease the cupcake pan

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine about 1 tablespoon of softened butter with about 1 tablespoon of flour to make a smooth paste. Use this mixture to grease the cupcake molds evenly and thoroughly.

Place the dry ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer and stir gently with the paddle to combine. Add the butter a few chunks at a time while mixing gently. As the butter is cut into the dry ingredients, add more butter until it is all mixed in. You should wind up with a mixture that resembles coarse cornmeal.

Add the eggs, one at a time, combining well after each addition. Finally, add the milk and vanilla. Beat well a minute or two until light and fluffy.

Divide the batter evenly between the 12 cupcake impressions. Place in the oven and bake, turning once for about 20 minutes. The cupcakes are done when they have risen and spring back when touched in the center. A toothpick inserted in the center of a cupcake will come out clean. Try not to over-bake.

Let the cupcakes cool a few minutes before gently lifting them onto a cooling rack. Let them cool completely before filling and frosting.

To fill, cut the top off each cupcake and use a small sharp knife to cut a cone shape out of them – leave enough cake on the bottom and sides so that the cupcake doesn’t fall apart. Fill the cavity with pastry cream, enough so that a little squeezes out the side when the top is replaced. Spread the top of each filled cupcake with some of the chocolate frosting, enough so that it drips down the side. Chill the cupcakes until they set, then serve. Makes 12.

Light Pastry Cream

  • 1½ cups whole milk
  • ½ vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ¼ cup flour, sifted
  • 2 tablespoons cold butter
  • ¾ cup cold whipping cream

Have ready a sieve fitted over a clean bowl, a whisk, and a wooden spoon. Place the milk in a medium saucepan. If using the vanilla bean, split it in half lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the milk. Add the bean halves to the milk along with about ⅔ of the sugar. Heat the milk over medium heat until it is just about to simmer.

Meanwhile, place the yolks in a medium bowl and whisk in the remaining sugar. Continue whisking for about a minute, until the yolks are lighter in color and a little thicker. Whisk in the sifted flour.

When the milk is hot, lower the heat beneath it. Temper the egg yolks by scooping out about a cup of the milk and pouring it into the bowl of egg yolks, whisking constantly. Add another cup of the hot milk, whisking constantly. Finally, pour the tempered egg yolks into the pot of hot milk, whisking constantly.

Heat the mixture over low, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Scrape the the pot with the spoon to incorporate the thickening mixture on the bottom back into the thinner mixture on top. Occasionally whisk the mixture briskly to break up lumps. Continue cooking the mixture, stirring constantly, until it just barely begins to bubble; it should be very thick. Pour the pastry cream through the sieve into the clean bowl. Stir the cold butter into the pastry cream until it melts and is completely incorporated.

Place the bowl of pastry cream in a cold bath of ice and water in a larger bowl being careful not to let any of the water get into the cream. Cover the surface of the cream with a piece of plastic wrap to keep a skin from forming on it as it cools. When the pastry cream is cooled, you may place it in the refrigerator for up to a day before proceeding.

When the pastry cream is completely cold, place the whipping cream into the chilled bowl of an electric mixer and whip with the chilled whisk attachment. Whip the cream until very stiff and thick, almost to the point of over-whipping. Fold the whipped cream into the cold pastry cream and use to fill the cupcakes.

Chocolate Glaze

  • 8 ounces good quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped or chips
  • ⅔ cup heavy cream
  • 3 tablespoons corn syrup
  • 3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter

Combine the first three ingredients in a small pot and heat over a low flame microwave. Stir gently until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is homogenous. Remove from heat and stir in the butter until it has melted and is incorporated. Allow the mixture to cool a little before using to frost the cupcakes. Makes about 1¾ cups.