Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Almond Pear Tart

Growing up, did you ever come across words that you did not know the meaning of but that sounded absolutely magical? I certainly did! When I think back, many of these words were centered around food, generally consumed by one of Enid Blyton's heroines at 'clandestine' midnight pool parties...words like 'scones' or 'crumpets' or 'heather'. (I realize now that heather has nothing to do with food, but I still think it sounds magical.) Frangipane, the main ingredient of this recipe, is another such word. Don't you think it just sounds so delectable; I almost like the word more than I like frangipane itself. Frangipane is a pastry filling that is made or flavored with almonds. The filling in this almond pear tart is both made with and flavored with almonds. I first found this recipe on one of my favorite food sites, Epicurious, and owing to its simplicity and understated elegance, I have made it countless numbers of times without modifications. Yesterday, I decided late in the day (and I mean really late) to bring this recipe to a work gathering the following day, having forgotten that one of my colleagues is allergic to dairy. As I had purchased all the other ingredients for this tart already, I decided to just modify the recipe to include non-dairy margarine instead of butter in the filling. Also, it being a weekday, I decided to cheat a little and buy a pre-made pie-crust instead of making the one listed in the recipe (which happens to be quite good). It turns out that frozen pie crusts contain either lard (yuck!) or vegetable shortening (yay!), so having them be dairy-free was not a problem. Additionally, they were sold in sets of two, so I made one tart using butter in the filling and another one with margarine. The consensus from most tasters, who admittedly were not blinded to the identities of the tarts, was that the butter one was slightly creamier, but that both versions were equally 'scrumptious'!

Recipe for Almond Pear Tart

For the pears:

Simmer 3 firm but ripe peeled pears in 4 C of water with 1 C sugar and 2 T lemon juice. When softened, cut in half, discard stem and core, and slice pears crosswise into thin sections. Flatten them slightly with the side of your knife to fan the slices out ever so slightly.

(Cook's Note: You can also simplify your life, as I always try to do, and use canned pear halves in pear juice – you will need 1 can per tart.)

For the crust:

  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/4 cup blanched slivered almonds
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 9 tablespoons (1 stick plus 1 tablespoon) unsalted butter (or vegetable shortening such as margarine), room temperature
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 1/4 cups all purpose flour

Blend powdered sugar, almonds, and salt in processor until nuts are finely ground. Add butter and blend until smooth, scraping down sides of bowl occasionally. Mix in egg yolk. Add flour. Using on/off turns, blend until dough comes together in clumps. Gather dough into ball; flatten into disk. Wrap in plastic and chill at least 3 hours or upto 2 days.

(Cook's note: I don't actually own a food processor, so I generally blend the nuts in a Mr.Coffee coffee grinder which works great as a nut grinder. I then mix in the butter and egg yolk using a pair of electric beaters and mix in the flour gently by hand.)

Blind-baking the crust: Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 375°F. Roll out chilled dough on floured sheet of parchment paper to 12-inch round, lifting and turning dough occasionally to free from paper. Using paper as aid, turn dough into 9-inch-diameter tart pan with removable bottom; peel off paper. Seal any cracks in dough. Trim overhang to 1/2 inch. Fold overhang in, making double-thick sides. Pierce crust all over with fork. Freeze crust 10 minutes. Blind-bake your pie crust in a heated oven for about 20 minutes until crust is golden brown all over. Let your crust cool at room temperature, while you prepare and chill the filling.

(Cook's note: Since the crust is frozen, it should not be necessary to fill your empty shell with beans or weights during the baking process. If your crust bubbles up during the pre-bake, as mine always does, just smooth it down with the back of a spoon as soon as you remove it from the oven.)

For the almond filling:

  • 2/3 cup blanched slivered almonds
  • 1 tablespoon all purpose flour
  • 7 tablespoons sugar
  • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter (or margarine), room temperature
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp. Almond flavoring (optional, but highly recommended)

Finely grind almonds and flour in processor (or nut/coffee grinder). Mix in 7 tablespoons sugar, then butter/margarine, blending until smooth. Mix in egg and flavoring. Transfer filling to medium bowl. Cover and chill for 20 minutes.

(Cook's notes: If you're like me and always cut down the sugar called for in recipes, DON'T on this one -- this is just the right amount. Also, the original recipe calls for a chill time of 3 hours, but I have done this only once. Ever since then, I have cut the chilling time way down, and it appears to make no difference at all. The margarine recipe was slightly softer than the butter recipe after this short chill time of 20 minutes, which makes complete sense when you think about the chemical composition of the two fats. But then again, perhaps not everyone wants this level of detail from a recipe, so I will stop by saying that no more than 20 minutes of chilling is required for a delicious end product.)

Baking the tart: Spoon chilled filling into the cooled crust; arrange the sliced halved pears in a spoke pattern around the tart; fanning them out away from the center slightly; sprinkle a few pieces of almond in the middle of the tart; and bake at 350°F for about 45 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove and cool slightly before attempting to slice.

Serving the tart: This is the most important part of this recipe, in my opinion. Slice the tart in the middle of each "spoke" of pears, so that you have tart slices with pears on either edge of the slice. Serve warm or cold, with or without accompaniments such as whipped cream or vanilla bean ice-cream.

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