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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 03/02/2012

Cooking Off the Cuff: Updating a classic

Ed’s take on a tarte flambee, with squash standing in for creme fraiche and fresh cheese. (Edward Schneider for The Washington Post)
A couple of years ago, New York’s high-end pizzerias were having a winter-squash obsession — or so it seemed to me. At least three times, I encountered pies topped with either chunks of squash or squash puree. I don’t recall eating any of these pizzas, but the memory of their existence lodged in my brain.

We recently had a somewhat disappointing butternut squash in the house. When halved, it was wonderfully fragrant, like a ripe melon. But when oiled, seasoned and roasted cut side down until caramelized and very tender, it proved watery. The situation improved when I cooked some of it down in a skillet (to drive away excess liquid), seasoned it well and spread it on grilled bread with a drizzle of good balsamic vinegar — something you might wish to try some time.

That, plus a recent happy encounter with an Alsatian-style tarte flambee in a restaurant, suggested another use for the roasted squash. The topping of a real tarte flambee includes creme fraiche — thick cultured cream — along with onions and bacon, and it occurred to me that, with its almost creamy consistency, pureed squash might make a good foundation for the other toppings. And the squash’s time in a hot oven would concentrate its flavor and fruity sweetness, which would mate well with the onions and bacon.

Squash tarte flambee: looks good, tastes great. (Edward Schneider for The Washington Post)
To make dough for a normal one-serving pizza, say 10 or 11 inches across, I use a cup of bread flour (plus blood-temperature water, instant yeast, plenty of salt and — heresy! — a tablespoon or so of olive oil). Because I wanted my tarte flambee to have a particularly thin crust, I used only 2/3 of that finished dough. After it had risen for much of the day and after I had heated the oven to its maximum 500 degrees, I rolled the dough into an eight-inch circle then stretched it over my knuckles until it was about 10 inches across. I laid it on a floured pizza peel (I was baking on a pizza stone, but this can certainly be made on a baking sheet), covered it with a towel and let it rest and rise for five minutes. Then I was able to stretch the relaxed dough a little wider and thinner — obviously being careful not to tear it.

Atop the dough, I spread 2/3 cup of squash puree, well seasoned and mixed with just a tablespoon of cream (which you could omit if you’re feeding people who can’t — or more likely won’t — eat dairy products). This I topped with half a small onion sliced wafer thin and two strips of bacon cut crosswise into thin matchsticks. (Both of these I pre-blanched for a moment in boiling water, but my onion was uncommonly strong and my bacon unusually salty.) I slid the disc onto the pizza stone and baked it for 10 minutes, though I started checking it after seven. (If your oven gets hotter than 500 degrees, take advantage of the extra heat and start checking after five or six minutes. If you have a pizza oven, you don’t need me to tell you what to do.)

It worked. Because of the onions and bacon, and because of the thin crust and the consistency of the squash, it was definitely reminiscent of a genuine tarte flambee, but the squash gave it an extra dimension: a bit more complex in flavor. It also looked great.

Imagine what it will be like next autumn with a squash that is delicious to start with.

By Edward Schneider  |  07:00 AM ET, 03/02/2012

Categories:  Recipes | Tags:  Cooking Off the Cuff, Edward Schneider

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