Thursday, October 3, 2002
Has anyone else noticed these are grim times? The economy is stumbling like a dazed fighter in the ring, civil rights and environmental protections are fleeing the city in unmarked vehicles, and it appears the Persian Gulf will be on fire in the next hundred days.
Against such a backdrop of damnation a plate of dessert emerges as the trifle it really is, a bit of pink ribbon on a gorilla. But its virtues also become clear. It''s a discrete moment of pleasure separate from ordinariness and tedium and ugliness. It''s an escape. And so in these times especially it deserves an ode of thanks.
In this issue we praise three archetypal desserts, each laden with myth and symbol. We''ve got the ultra-rich Napoleon, dainty mouthful of the French; we have chocolate cake, that most wholesome or decadent of sweets, depending on the whim of the chef; and we have fruit tart, the elegant Grace Kelly of the dessert universe. We deconstructed them, tasted them, rated them, and present our findings a little happier for the experience. Dessert is the sweetest treat, after all, and a welcome respite. We chose this subject not in spite of but because of the trouble Out There. You might even say we''d like to buy the world a cake and keep it company.
The Art of the Tart
It''s berry, berry delicious.
By Traci Rae Hukill. Photo by Randy Tunnell.
A fruit tart is made of summer. There it is, being lifted from the icebox while the guests talk and laugh outside. There it sits, on a table under a tree. A sun of buttery crust, a cool moon of custard, a crown of plump ripe fruit. The mild season distilled.
No one sticks their fingers in a fruit tart. It''s too intimidating. It demands to be admired. People standing around a fruit tart can''t resist looking at it because it is like a kaleidescope fallen still: concentric rings of translucent fruit in that most classical and appealing of arrangements, the symmetrical. Just try not to stare at one that you are about to eat.
After a respectful amount of time, a fruit tart should be very carefully cut and the pieces transported to plates as gingerly as if the fruit were gems and the eaters communitarian and reverent pirates. People cannot help watching this part either, because they are secretly disappointed that the fruit tart''s integrity has had to be violated in order for it to be eaten. They would, if they could, eat the thing whole, swallowing it like gods gulping the sun at the end of the day. They are also perhaps watching because they have done the arithmetic and want one blackberry, three blueberries, two slices of kiwi and three strawberries on their piece and not one half-slice less of any.
And now it''s time to eat. This is what you want from a bite of fruit tart: First, a light sensation of coolness, followed quickly by a burst of juice and the feel of the fruit. Blackberries will usually dominate this sensory moment, but it''s only temporary. The flavor of strawberry, if one or a part of one is on that forkful, infuses everything. The subtler flavors of kiwi, raspberry, blueberry or orange filter in later, like echoes.
While the fruit flavors unfold, the custard or pastry cream steps into its supporting role--and it should definitely be a supporting role--as the understated foil to the fruit''s prima donna. The filling should be so creamy and smooth as to go almost unnoticed, except as a dimension of richness and stability. It''s best if it''s not too sweet.
The third and last wave of flavor emanates from the crust. And this should be merciless in its determination to seduce the diner. It should be as melting and buttery and greed-inspiring as the best shortbread, and about that texture--flaky and just hard enough to break under the fork but not so hard as to cause any unpleasant incidents on the plate.
So it was with this complete Platonic ideal in mind that the Weekly undertook to test an array of gorgeous fruit tarts and deconstruct their virtues. Because when you''re talking about procuring a disc of endless summer for you and some friends on a chilly autumn night, nothing should be left to chance.
Sweet Elena''s/Sand City
It is not the fault of Sweet Elena''s that the refrigerator at the Weekly is about the size of a short filing cabinet and crammed with moldy leftovers. So we hold it not particularly against this fine establishment that by the time we ate our Sweet Elena''s tart it had sat on the counter for a couple of hours and the pastry cream was a little runny. Still, it was perfectly not-too-sweet and very smooth, and the choice of fruit--all berries, black, rasp, straw and blue--worked superbly. We noted with approval that the blueberries were the big ones. And the crust was really nothing short of perfect--flaky and tasty. An excellent choice and we will assuredly be back for more.
First, our praises to Paris for offering a nine-inch version of its well-known tart. It was a very beautiful mix of kiwi, mandarin slices, strawberries, blackberries and (more big) blueberries. The filling was of good consistency, if rather sweet for our delicate palates, but some people might really like that. The biggest gripe was with the crust, which was absolutely delicious in taste but too doughy. Still, we liked this tart and we will not kick it out of bed for eating crackers, as the saying goes.
Bechler Patisserie/Pacific Grove
Yeah, baby--the stealth contender from Highway 68 bowled everybody over from the get-go. Right away people noticed that the fruit was arranged in 3-D fashion, with thin slices of apple--apple?--yes, apple propping up a riot of strawberries, raspberries and glistening blackberries and flanked by perfect little kiwi slices. Though I personally prefer the flat-surface presentation, this worked, in spite of the powdered sugar dusted over the fruit (gilding the lily, we thought). But it was the filling and crust that made this tart ring our bells. The filling was perfectly creamy and described by some as tinged with vanilla or lemon. And the crust was phenomenal. They must be using exceptionally good butter because it had that Scottish shortbread flavor that makes you want to put on plaid and hide in the closet with a bag of Walker''s for a couple of hours, maybe forever.
A lovely, elegant presentation of yellow and red raspberries and strawberries announced from the start that this was going to be a restrained and esthetic affair. The fruit was delicious, but it was the crust and filling that made me glad to be alive and--stuffed with fruit tart, just stuffed!--sneak back for more. Instead of the traditional creamy filling, this one was an almond paste that was almost cake-like, more along the lines of marzipan but without, mysteriously, that potent almond flavor. Somehow this choice allowed the fruit flavors to come ringing through. And the crust was a buttery delight--extremely rich, also with almond meal. Many proclaimed this tart their favorite.
First of all, this tart was visually stunning--the best looking of the crowd. The unusual choice of plums--deep crimson skins and cantaloupe-colored flesh--was inspired, and kiwi, strawberries, blackberries and blueberries (small ones, sadly) were artfully arranged. But when it comes to filling and crust, we know Whole Foods can do better. The filling was mealy and not really something you''d want to eat a bowl of (some tasters muttered darkly of "refrigerator taste" and others wondered if it had turned). The crust avoided the doughy pitfall but instead was almost brittle and lacked distinctive flavor. We urge a reassessment of the production process.