Springtime is strawberry time, and we were excited to hear this weekend that Wright’s Firehouse Produce in Benton had just received their first batch of fresh Arkansas-grown berries. As soon as I walked into the store I could smell that warm, sweet fragrance and I immediately grabbed two quarts, barely making it back to my truck before eating a couple. Unlike the tough berries sold in many grocery stores that taste sour if they taste like anything, these berries were firm but soft and bursting with sweetness. The only thing to figure out now was what to do with them – and it had to be something worthy of such good ingredients. I don’t have an ice cream maker right now, so strawberry ice cream was out of the question, and it seemed a shame to just chop them up a over store-bought version. Jess and I finally decided we go all-in and make a strawberry tart from scratch, and it turned out so well that we thought we’d share it with you. The tart consists of three basic parts: the crust, the custard, and the glaze – and the berries, of course, but those take care of themselves. So first, let’s make a crust.
Sweet Short Paste Dough
- 1.5 cups flour
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/8 tablespoon salt
- 4 tablespoons chilled butter
- 1.5 tablespoons chilled shortening
- 2.5 tablespoons ice water
Mix your dry ingredients and then cut in the shortening and butter with a pastry blender. Add your ice water and work the dough with your fingertips lightly to form a mass. Turn the mass out onto a lightly floured surface and push the dough out with the heel of your hand in small increments (this mixes the fat into the flour a final time). Form the dough into a ball and chill in the fridge for a couple of hours – you want this dough to be very firm to work with.
Once your dough is chilled, roll it out quickly to about 1/8″ thick. I usually will roll mine out on lightly floured wax paper because when the dough has reached the thickness you desire, you can flip it over onto the tart pan and peel away the paper. The pan we’re using is a false-bottomed tart pan, and if you don’t have one of these, it really pays to get one. This crust is pre-baked and removed from the pan and the cold ingredients are put into the stand-alone shell, so the false bottom is necessary to get the crust out in one piece. We picked this one up at Eggshells Kitchen Company in Little Rock for about $16. Mold your dough to the shape of the pan, poke some holes in the bottom with a fork, then line the pan with parchment paper and weigh it down with dried beans (or pie weights). Bake like this for 7-10 minutes in a 400 degree oven; once the shell has set, remove the beans and bake for 5-7 minutes longer. The crust should be a light golden brown. Slip the crust from the pan and then slip the false bottom out from under it; let the crust cool on a rack while you make your custard.
- 1 cup sugar
- 5 egg yolks
- 1/2 cup flour
- 2 cups boiling milk
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 3 tablespoons cognac
With an electric mixer, gradually beat the sugar into the egg yolks. The mixture will turn pale yellow, and “form the ribbon,” which means that when you lift the beater from the mix, a slowly-dissolving ribbon of the mixture will fall back into the bowl. Once this has occurred, beat in the flour. Once the flour is incorporated, SLOWLY add the boiling milk, mixing all the while. If you go too fast here you’ll end up with scrambled eggs, so easy does it.
Once the milk is blended, pour the mixture into a heavy sauce pan and put it on medium-high heat and stir with a wire whip. It’s really easy to think you messed up at this point, because when the custard comes to the boil, it’s going to get all lumpy looking and weird. Don’t panic; just turn the heat down a bit and keep stirring for 2 or 3 minutes until everything thickens up and smooths out nicely – just be careful not to scorch the bottom. Remove the custard from the heat and add the vanilla and cognac; mix well. Cover the custard with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic into the surface to form an airtight seal and let chill in the fridge.
Even if you’ve decided that making a crust is too much work, this custard works as a yummy dessert on its own: just slice some berries over the top and add a little whipped cream (see above right). If you’re in for the long haul, though, it’s time to make the glaze.
- 1 cup red currant jelly
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons cognac
Boil the jelly, sugar, and cognac until it reaches about 228 degrees (a candy thermometer is handy here). Lacking the thermometer, just boil the stuff until it coats a spoon nicely. Take a pastry brush and paint the inside of your crust with a bit of the glaze – this will form a somewhat waterproof layer on the crust, which is handy if you want to make this dish in advance of serving it. Save the rest for when you build your tart.
To build the tart, spoon a layer of the chilled custard into the tart shell. If you’ve got a couple of rough spots in the shell, use that custard like a bit of magical glue to fix things up (sometimes the shell doesn’t behave). Hull your strawberries and place them stem side down into the custard, larger berries in the center and smaller ones to the edge. Alternatively, you can slice the berries into any number of shapes and arrange them into whatever pattern you like; we prefer large bites of sweet berry. Spoon or brush the red currant glaze over the top of the tart (you will probably have some left over) and you’re ready to serve. The tart keeps rather well in the fridge, so feel free to make this up a few hours in advance of serving. It’s a rather labor-intensive dessert, and it certainly was much easier with two of us working on it, but we can’t think of a better way to celebrate the first strawberries of spring. Enjoy!