I love to cook, but I’ve never been much of a baker, maybe because I don’t have much of a sweet tooth; so desserts seem to be an afterthought and of no consequence. That said, I admit to practically swooning when I walk into a French patisserie. I become a believer in dessert when I see the tarts that are displayed in the cases, with glistening fruit nestled within a smooth custard that sits in a crust that is both crisp and impossibly rich. But unlike most pastries, these are never cloyingly sweet, not even barely sweet—only impossibly buttery rich.
Because I’ve never paid much attention to desserts, I never really explored this mysterious science. Beyond that, because I don’t like to measure anything I put together, nor do I like to taste as I go, I’m much safer throwing together the main events of a meal. And when I’m told I really need to measure when I bake, that is out of my comfort zone. Pies, cookies, no problem. Fancy cakes? Forget it.
Betty spent the weekend with us and we had another of our sister adventures, explorations. We started out with the idea of making soap together, so we checked out Zenith Supplies, the place my daughter Kim introduced me to a couple of weeks ago. And of course, since Whole Foods was almost across the street, we certainly needed to see if there was anything we couldn’t live without. Of course, “live without” is a relative term, at best. With our limited budgets, we could still get what we needed, as long as it was on our list and comparable in price to any other place. I needed Crisco for the soap-making so we headed down the baking aisle. And Betty mentioned a flour her English friend uses so we looked for the almond flour. It was pretty expensive but we decided to split it since whatever we did with it, we wouldn’t be using much.
Betty decided to stay an extra day when it turned out that my son Sean would be coming for dinner with his new girlfriend. Much excitement for all of us since we haven’t seen him in a long while (maybe because of the new girlfriend?). Betty and I decided to prepare steak au poivre, one of our favorite steak preparations. And we would test out the new almond flour in a French plum tart. I would substitute peaches I froze this summer for the plums. And I had discovered Sichuan peppercorns for the steaks which would lift them to a new level. I always like a reason to have a feast…
The first difference I noted when I prepared the pastry for the tart was how easily it came together. I’ve made a lot of pies over the years, sometimes reluctantly for the mess I invariably make with flour all over the counter. Even when I use the processor to make the pie dough, it still seems to get everywhere and crumble too much. I put the flour in the processor bowl, added the almond flour, a tiny bit of sugar and a lot of butter and watched it whir to perfection. As I added the ice water, the dough easily came together to be turned out onto the ax paper. Even rolling it out was easy and after it had chilled, turning it out into the tart pan was a breeze. Amazing!
We had one of the more perfect dinners Betty and I have ever collaborated on. This was our menu:
Steak au Poivre with Grilled Asparagus and Baby potatoes, Tarte au Pèche
To prepare the steaks, begin with a very hot pan. Sprinkle it with whole Sichuan peppercorns and coarsely ground sea salt (this acts as small ball bearings to quickly sear the meat without steaming it). Before cooking the steaks, begin the potatoes in another pan, tossing them in herb infused olive oil. When the potatoes are nearly done, begin the asparagus in a third pan with chopped garlic and olive oil. Sear the steaks on high heat, with sliced mushrooms, turning once. Remove from heat and set aside on a platter. Top with pats of butter. Quickly deglaze the pan with wine and pour reduction over steaks. Arrange grilled asparagus and potatoes on platter and serve immediately. Serve with a simple salad tossed with light balsamic vinaigrette and fruit of your choice. We used pomegranate seeds and Satsuma orange slices and sliced avocado.
This is a quick and delicious preparation that Betty and I both remember from our childhood when our father would work his magic in the kitchen. The whole meal comes together in less than a half hour so there is plenty of time for easy conversation throughout the process.
Tarte au Pèche
1 cup flour
¼ cup almond flour
1 teaspoon superfine sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter in small pieces
4 to 8 tablespoons ice water
Put flours, sugar, salt and butter in bowl of processor and whir until dough comes together in pea-sized pieces. Slowly add water with motor going until dough begins to break away from sides and come together. Don’t over process or dough will be tough.
Turn dough out onto a large piece of wax paper. Fold wax paper over it and flatten with your hand, then roll into a circle that will fit a tart pan. Chill dough at least 30 minutes.
Lift off top of wax paper and turn dough into tart pan, carefully removing bottom layer of wax paper, smoothing dough to edges of pan. Cut away excess from top of pan. Prick bottom of tart with a fork. Lay a piece of foil over bottom and fill with baking beans.
Bake at 400˚ for 15 minutes. Remove from oven, remove baking beans and foil and let cool.
Meanwhile, prepare peaches (or plums, or pears). Toss with 2 tablespoons Kirsch or Calvados brandy and let sit for 30 minutes.
Brush bottom of pastry shell with raspberry jam and set aside.
¼ cup superfine sugar
¾ cup heavy cream
Grated rind of ½ lemon
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
Beat eggs and sugar until well combined, then beat in cream, lemon rind and vanilla, and any juice from the fruit.
Arrange fruit over bottom of tart in a pleasing shape. Pour the custard over the fruit and bake at 350˚ for about 30 minutes, or until custard has set. Remove from oven and let cool. Cut into wedges and serve.