Last week, Julia Child died two days before her 92nd birthday. No single recipe of hers can sum up everything she meant to American cooking.
But most cooks of a certain age have a special Julia Child memory. Mine is her fresh fruit tart. Apricots, peaches, strawberries -- whatever fruit was fresh, it found its way onto tarts I could barely believe I'd made.
When I lived in a small fifth-floor walk-up apartment in New York, I was new to fine cooking. And my kitchen was so small that it barely deserved the name. I'd grown up in a food-phobic home, too, so the idea of producing a serious dessert seemed tantalizingly forbidden and very difficult. Then "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" (Knopf, 1961) came into my life.
A fruit tart might not be the first thing that comes to mind if you wanted to impress dinner party guests. But it had its challenges: There was the crust to master, sometimes a layer of pastry cream, the fruit and the glaze. It was a lot.
Child made it seem possible. Her writing was legendarily clear. Each dish was broken down into cogent parts. She not only told you the ingredients you needed but warned you what utensils the recipe required. She topped each recipe with information you really wanted to know. And because she was a vibrant television personality, you heard her urging you on.
If she gave you the confidence to try her recipes, doing them gave you even more. Once you'd conquered the master recipe, the variations seemed if not easy then certainly possible.
My first tart was the strawberry one (it appealed to me that you didn't have to do much to the fruit). Later on, I conquered the apple tart and the pear-and-almond and even the cherry -- though I didn't have the courage to serve it alight with flames.
My favorite, to this day, is her peach tart. If you've never tried it, do it now while you can still get spectacular summer peaches. And give thanks to the woman who taught countless Americans that if you could slow down, read carefully and follow her lead, you could master at least some of the arts of French cooking.
Tarte aux Abricots
ou Tarte aux Peches
(Fresh Apricot or Peach Tart)
For 6 people
From the 40th anniversary edition of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One," by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck (Knopf, 2001):
8 to 10 fresh apricots or 3 to 4 freestone peaches
2/3 cup granulated sugar
8-inch partially cooked pastry shell placed on a baking sheet (recipe follows)
2 tablespoons butter, cut into pea-sized dots
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup Apricot Glaze (recipe follows)
Drop the fruit in boiling water for 10 to 15 seconds. Peel, halve and remove pits.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of sugar in the bottom of the pastry shell. Arrange the peach halves over the sugar in a closely overlapping layer of concentric circles. Place the halves, domed side up, closely together in the shell. Spread on the rest of the sugar. Dot with the butter.
Bake in the middle level of the oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until fruit has colored lightly and the juices have become syrupy.
Slip the tart onto a rack. Decorate with the slivered almonds, and spread on the apricot glaze.
Serve warm or cold.
Per serving: 488 calories, 4 gm protein, 68 gm carbohydrates, 24 gm fat, 44 mg cholesterol, 11 gm saturated fat, 61 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber
Pate Brisee Sucree
(Sweet Short Paste)
For an 8- to 9-inch shell
Sweet short paste is made exactly like regular short paste except that sugar is mixed into the flour before you begin.
1 cup flour, scooped and leveled
11/2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon plus a pinch salt
6 tablespoons chilled butter
2 tablespoons chilled vegetable shortening
4 to 41/2 tablespoons cold water
Directions for making short paste by hand: Place the flour in the bowl and mix in the sugar and salt. Add the butter and shortening and, with the tips of your fingers, rapidly rub them together with the dry ingredients until the fat is broken into bits the size of small oatmeal flakes. Do not overdo this step as the fat will be blended more thoroughly later.
Add the water and blend quickly with one hand, fingers held together and slightly cupped, as you rapidly gather the dough into a mass. Sprinkle up to 1 tablespoon more water by droplets over any unmassed remains and add them to the main body of the dough. Then press the dough firmly into a roughly shaped ball. It should just hold together and be pliable but not sticky.
Directions for making short paste in the food processor: Measure the dry ingredients into the bowl (equipped with the steel blade). Quarter the chilled butter lengthwise and cut crosswise into 3/8-inch pieces; add to the flour along with the chilled shortening. Flick the machine on and off 4 or 5 times. Turn the machine on and pour in the water. Immediately flick the machine on and off several times, and the dough should begin to mass on the blade. If not, dribble in a little more water and repeat, repeating again if necessary. Dough is done when it has begun to mass; do not overmix it. Scrape the dough out onto your work surface and proceed to the fraisage.
The fraisage -- or final blending -- for handmade and machine dough: Place the dough on a lightly floured pastry board. With the heel of one hand, not the palm which is too warm, rapidly press the pastry by two-spoonful bits down on the board and away from you in a firm, quick smear of about 6 inches.
With a scraper or spatula, gather the dough again into a mass; knead it briefly into a fairly smooth round ball. Sprinkle it lightly with flour and wrap it in waxed paper. Either place the dough in the freezing compartment of the refrigerator for about 1 hour until it is firm but not congealed, or refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight. (Uncooked pastry dough will keep for 2 to 3 days under refrigeration, or may be frozen for several weeks. Always wrap it airtight in waxed paper and a plastic bag.)
Rolling out the dough: Because of its high butter content, roll out the dough as quickly as possible, so that it will not soften and become difficult to handle. Place the dough on a lightly floured board or marble. If the dough is hard, beat it with the rolling pin to soften it. Then knead it briefly into a fairly flat circle. It should be just malleable enough to roll out without cracking.
Lightly flour the top of the dough. Place rolling pin across center and roll the pin back and forth with firm but gentle pressure to start the dough moving. Then, with a firm, even stroke, and always rolling away from you, start just below the center of the dough and roll to within an inch of the far edge.
Lift dough and turn it at a slight angle.
Give it another roll. Continue lifting, turning and rolling and, as necessary, sprinkle the board and top of dough lightly with flour to prevent sticking. Roll it into a circle 1/8-inch thick and about 2 inches larger all around than your pie pan or flan ring. If your circle is uneven, cut off a too-large portion, moisten the edge of the too-small portion with water, press the 2 pieces of pastry together and smooth them with your rolling pin.
The dough should be used as soon as it has been rolled out, so that it will not soften.
Making a pastry shell: Mold your pastry in a false-bottomed, straight-sided cake pan 1- to 11/2- inches deep and refrigerate.
(A French tart is straight sided and open-faced and stands supported only by its pastry shell.) When the shell is ready for unmolding, the pan is set over a jar and the false bottom frees the shell from the sides of the pan. It is then, with the aid of a long-bladed spatula, slid off its false bottom and onto a rack or the serving dish.
Prebaking the pastry shell: Partial baking sets the dough and is a safeguard against soggy bottom crusts. Line the pastry with buttered lightweight foil or buttered brown paper, press it will against the sides of the pastry and fill it with dried beans. The weight of the beans will hold the pastry against the mold during the baking. Bake at the middle of a preheated 400-degree oven for 8 to 9 minutes until pastry is set. Remove mold or foil and beans. Prick bottom of pastry with a fork to keep it from rising. Return to oven for 2 to 3 minutes more. When the shell is starting to color and just beginning to shrink from sides of mold, remove it from the oven.
Per serving (based on 6): 232 calories, 2 gm protein, 19 gm carbohydrates, 16 gm fat, 33 mg cholesterol, 9 gm saturated fat, 49 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
For about 1/2 cup apricot glaze
Apricot preserves contains enough pectin so that when boiled to between 225 and 228 degrees it will stiffen slightly as it cools and not be sticky to the touch. You may then use it as a glaze, paint it over the top of a tart to give brilliance and glitter, spread it over a cake to act as a simple icing or paint it inside a baked pastry shell to provide a light waterproofing before the filling goes in.
1/2 cup apricot preserves
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
A small saucepan
A wooden spatula or spoon
Optional: a candy thermometer
Before using apricot preserves (or jam) in a recipe, stir it over heat, if necessary, until it has melted, then rub it through a sieve to leave the bits of skin behind. (If not used immediately, it will keep almost indefinitely in its original container.)
Stir the strained apricot preserves with the sugar over moderately high heat for 2 to 3 minutes until thick enough to coat the spoon with a light film, and the last drops are sticky as they fall from the spoon (225 to 228 degrees on a candy thermometer). Do not boil beyond this point or the glaze will become brittle when it cools.
Apply the glaze while it is still warm. Unused glaze will keep indefinitely in a screw-topped jar; reheat again before using.
Per serving (based on 6): 80 calories, trace protein, 21 gm carbohydrates, trace fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 11 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber