Miette's Pastry Cream and Fresh Fruit Tart

I have a dear friend who is a phenomenal baker. She can make cakes like no other, but her preference is for pies. I have another friend who had a catering service on the side of a demanding teaching schedule; her brownies and cookies are to die for.

I am no baker.

Humidity and altitude and baking times and measuring ingredients precisely: all seem to baffle me when it comes time to bake something.

However, I have Miette to help me.

Miette is a wonderful little cake, pastry, and confections shop begun in 2001 by Meg Ray as part of the Berkeley Farmer's market; nowadays, she boasts four shops, including one in the Ferry Building, another in Hayes Valley, a new boutique in Larkspur Landing, and my favorite--a small shop connected to the bakery in Oakland at Jack London Square.

Her focus is on cakes, particularly the cakes she loved as a child, and she has streamlined her baking to focus on a foundation of tried and true recipes from which she can build. For example, this pastry cream shows up in the éclairs and the princess cake, as well as this tart, and the pâte sucrée tart shell is the base for the lemon tart and the chocolate truffle tart, also featured in her book. Further, she is committed to local, sustainable, and organic ingredients whenever possible and limits her fresh ingredients to those in season.

Along with adorable, if slightly twee (which I love), packaging, the stores boast display cases full of cupcakes and cakes, counters laden with shortbread cookies and macarons, cubbies lined with candies and caramels. Any of the shops are worth a visit if you're in town.

Thus, when I got yet another bag of apricots from our CSA, I knew I would be making this tart with an apricot, blackberry, and blueberry topping from Miette. Plus, I had bookclub, and as usual, I like to foist food upon them.

The tart has a simple pâte sucrée base: pâte sucrée is simliar to a pie crust, in that butter is combined with flour to make a light, flaky, and golden crust. However, the pâte sucrée has the added benefit of the richness of egg yolk and more sugar, making it more of a crumbly shortbread cookie than a pastry dough.

The dough does take some patience and planning, first in that you need to blend it properly if with a light touch (Meg Ray almost insists that you need a standup mixer), and second in that you need two turns in the refrigerator or the freezer to properly firm up the dough (further, once you put in the filling, you need to chill the tart yet again). By prebaking the shell with nary a filling, you create a barrier to moisture, thus keeping the crust from getting soggy and ensuring a solid base to hold even the heaviest of fillings.

However, the filling for this dessert is not heavy at all. Instead, the pastry cream is a lovely custard, rich and sweet with a smooth texture and a strong vanilla note. When making the cream, you do need to temper the eggs, which can be a challenge. Simply, remove the pan from the heat, gently and slowly add some of the heated vanilla-bean-steeped milk to the egg yolk mixture to raise the temperature of the eggs a bit without cooking them; then add a little more hot milk, then a little more. This should keep the cream from curdling. However, Meg Ray does urge a quick turn through a fine mesh sieve just in case anything did curdle. Where the cream went a little awry for me, however, was in its thickness: mine turned out a bit thin. 

I'll admit, I served the slightly runny cream to the book club, who all declared that despite the consistency issues, the taste was to be celebrated. However, what followed was an extensive Google search to determine what went awry; it turns out that I am not alone in my pain.

Craftybaking had this to say:

"[I]t’s vital to bring pastry cream to a quick boil for a couple of minutes (following the recipe) while stirring. Doing so sets the eggs and activates the starch, thereby ensuring a proper consistency; it must be heated to a temperature high enough to destroy the amylase enzyme present in egg yolks, which would otherwise break down the starch and make the pastry cream runny." 
Further, chilling the cream thoroughly also is essential in the thickening of the cream, which I will admit, I perhaps did not chill it long enough. Lucky for me, I have another pastry cream and fruit tart planned for this summer (once the peaches are far more luscious than they currently are).  I'll get to try again. However, I highly suspect that had I allowed my cream to boil just a minute more and then allow it to fully and completely cool, then we wouldn't have had runny pastry. But like I said, the taste was delightful.

Finally, I want to give a nod to a dessert of my youth: fruit pizza. Fruit pizza is, in many ways, the working parent's way of trotting out a pastry cream tart for a child, which is what my mother did. With a base of sugar cookies, a layer of cream cheese frosting, and an arrangement of fresh fruit (sometimes with a tapioca glaze, which was how my mom served it), this dessert was (on occasion) the replacement for cakes at my childhood birthday parties. Even now, I'll pick a pastry cream tart over a slice of cake any day.

So while Miette might make a mean cake, can boast a charming set of shops, and can vaunt their delicious macarons, I can attest they make a mighty fine pastry cream tart, too. Lucky for me, lucky for my abundance of apricots this summer. And look: it sure seems to fit right in on a book club repast table, doesn't it?

Look! An overflowing, slightly thin pastry cream, but also a laden table with prosciutto and melon for book club.


Pastry Cream and Fresh Fruit Tart

Notes:  You will have 1/2 pound dough leftover (enough for another 7-inch tart or about four to five 4-inch tarts).  To store unbaked dough, wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and freeze up to 2 months, or line the tart shell with the dough as directed, cover with plastic wrap, and freeze for up to 3 days. Thaw the frozen dough ball in the refrigerator for 3-4 hours before rolling and shaping. Bake lined and frozen shells straight out of the freezer.  You will have about 1 cup leftover pastry cream, which needs to be used immediately (it does not freeze well).  Since you will also have extra  pâte sucrée dough, why not make additional tartlets! Finally, make this tart over two days (making your shell and your cream the day before). I didn't and my pastry cream was a little runny. Have patience, chill your cream thoroughly!

one 7-inch tart

For the pastry cream:
2 cups whole milk
1/2 vanilla bean
 7 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
2 Tbsp corn starch
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature

For the pâte sucrée
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup cold unsalted butter, cubed
2 large egg yolks
4-8 Tbsp heavy cream

For the fruit
1-2 pints mixed fresh fruits, alone or in any combination including strawberies, blueberries, blackberries, and red and golden raspberries; or 2-3 peeled and thinly sliced nectarines and peaches; or 10-12 halved apricots or figs

1.  Make the pastry cream:  Pour the milk into a medium pot.  Use a sharp knife to slit the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the milk. Put the pod in the milk as well. Heat the milk until almost boiling.  Bubbles will begin to form at the edges. Remove from the heat, cover, and let steep for 1 hour.

2.  In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch util smooth. Set the bowl on a kitchen towel or nonskid surface and whisk the egg mixture while pouring about 1/2 cup of the hot milk into the egg mixture to temper the eggs. Gradually pour in the rest of the milk, whisking constantly. Pour the contents of the bowl into the pan and set over medium-low heat.

3.  Cook over low heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens and comes to a slow boil which is essential to its thickening, about 2 minutes. The cream should begin to look shiny and no longer have a cornstarch taste. Immediately strain the cream through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean container. Discard the vanilla bean. Let the pastry cream cool to room temperature, 10 minutes, and then whisk in the butter.  You want the butter to be incorporated without being melted.

4.  Cover the pastry cream with plastic wrap pressing the plastic directly on the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until well chilled, 2-3 hours and up to 3 days. A well-chilled cream is also essential to the thickening of the cream.

5.  Make the pâte sucrée:  In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Mix on low speed for 30 seconds. Add the butter and beat until the mixture is the consistency of cornmeal, about 5 minutes.

6.  In a small bowl whisk together the egg yolks and 2 tablespoons of the heavy cream. Add to the flour mixture and mix until just combined. If the dough does not come together into large chunks, slowly add the remaining cream, a little bit at a time, until it does. Gather the dough into a ball, pat it into a disk, and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

7.  Remove the dough from the refrigerator and unwrap. Divide the dough in two (each about 1/2 pound in weight).  Set aside one dough (see notes).

8. Gently pat the remaining dough into a disk. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough disk into a round about 1/4 inch thick and about 1 inch greater in diameter than the pan you're using (8 inches for a 7-inch pan). Drape the rolled-out dough into the tart pan, gently pushing it into the bottom edges and against the pan sides to make a strong and straight shell. Using a sharp knife, trim the edges flush with the rim of the pan, or roll the rolling pin over the edges to cut off the excess dough. With a fork, prick all over the bottom of the tart and place in the freezer to firm up for 30 minutes.

9.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

10.  Fully prebake the tart shell until golden, 10-12 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely. (You can make this up to 3 days ahead of time--just tightly wrap the fully baked shell in plastic and set aside.)

11.  Once the shell is completely cool, spread 1 1/2 cups of the cold pastry cream evenly into the bottom of the tart shell.  (You will also have leftover pastry cream, about 1 cup.  See notes). Chill for at least 1 hour and up to 8 hours. Just before serving, top attractively with the fruit.


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