I’d never seen Mom in a tiara, a flashing sash and Mardi Gras beads, waving a magic wand, until last weekend, right before the medics strapped her to a gurney and rolled the poor dear off.
OK, so not this year.
This year, Mom’s friends threw her a surprise birthday party that was supposed to last until 4:30 p.m., but there was green champagne punch and gifts of questionable taste and friends who’d be flying out of state the next day and good times to be had. So, they kept the party going.
I left around 7 p.m. to catch up with my grandmother (aka Mommaw) over fresh coffee and two slabs of French Pear Tart, which I’d hidden in my car for this purpose. Sweet dough topped with almond cream and thick slices of ripe Bartlett pears. In a perfect world, the pears would have been sliced thinly and arranged like spokes in a wheel, but I was making Mom’s birthday cake and missed that part. So the heavy pears sank a little. No matter. The nuttiness of the almond cream perfectly balanced the sweetness of the crust and pears. A fine dinner.
And then the party came to us. Mom, Pam, Jean and Boo laughing their way into the house with all the gifts, leftover punch and plates of party food they could carry.
Bring on the birthdays.
French Pear Tart
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s “Baking: From My Home to Yours”
Makes 6 servings
For the Pears:
- 6 canned pear halves (or 3 medium pears, firm but ripe)
- 1 lemon
- 4 cups water, optional
- 1 1/4 cups sugar, optional
For the Almond Cream:
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 3/4 cup ground blanched almonds
- 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 1 large egg
- 2 teaspoons dark rum or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 partially-baked 9-inch tart shell, made with Sweet Tart Dough (see below), at room temperature
- Confectioners’ sugar for dusting, or apple jelly for glazing
- If you are using canned pears, you have nothing to do now. If you are using fresh pears but do not wish to poach them, you have nothing to do now. If you are using fresh pears and want to poach them, peel them and leave them whole. Bring the 4 cups water, the 1 1/4 cups sugar and the juice of the lemon to a boil in a saucepan just large enough to hold the pears. Add the pears to the boiling syrup, lower the heat so the syrup simmers and gently poach the pears until they are tender when pierced with a knife, about 15 minutes. Cool the pears to room temperature in the syrup.
- To Make the Almond Cream: Put the butter and sugar in the workbowl of a food processor and process until the mixture is smooth and satiny. Add the ground almonds and continue to process until well blended. Add the flour and cornstarch, process, and then add the egg. Process for about 15 seconds more, or until the almond cream is homogeneous. Add the rum or vanilla and process just to blend. Scrape the almond cream into a container and either use it immediately or refrigerate it until firm, about 2 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Have a lined baking sheet at the ready. If you are using fresh (unpoached) pears, peel them now. If you are using poached or unpoached pears, cut them in half from blossom to stem and core them; rub the unpoached pears with lemon juice. Whatever pears you have, make sure to pat them dry – really dry – so that their liquid won’t keep the almond cream from baking.
- Fill the baked crust with the almond cream, spreading it even with an offset metal icing spatula. Thinly slice each pear half crosswise, lift each half on a spatula, press down on the pear to fan it slightly and place it, wide-end toward the edge of the crust, over the almond cream. The halves will form spokes.
- Put the crust on the lined baking sheet, slide the sheet into the oven and bake the tart 50 to 60 minutes, or until the almond cream puffs up around the pears and browns. Transfer the tart to a rack to cool to just warm or to room temperature before unmolding.
- Right before serving, dust the tart with confectioners’ sugar. If you prefer, prepare a glaze by bringing about 1/4 cup apple jelly and1/2 teaspoon water to the boil. Brush the glaze over the surface of the tart.
Sweet Tart Dough
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 stick plus 1 tablespoon (4 1/2 ounces) very cold (or frozen) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 large egg yolk
- To Make the Dough: Put the flour, confectioners’ sugar and salt in the workbowl of a food processor and pulse a couple of times to combine. Scatter the pieces of butter over the dry ingredients and pulse until the butter is cut in coarsely. Stir the egg, just to break it up, and add it a little at a time, pulsing after each addition.
- When the egg is in, process in long pulses – about 10 seconds each – until the dough, which will look granular soon after the egg is added, forms clumps and curds. Turn the dough out onto a work surface.
- Very lightly and sparingly, knead the dough just to incorporate any dry ingredients that might have escaped mixing.
- Butter the tart pan and press the dough evenly along the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Freeze the crust for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer, before baking.
- Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Butter the shiny side of a piece of aluminum foil and fit the foil tightly against the crust. Bake the crust 25 minutes, then carefully remove the foil. If the crust has puffed, press it down gently with the back of a spoon. Bake for another 3 to 5 minutes, then transfer the crust to a cooling rack; keep it in its pan.