Last Sunday I had my book club over for an afternoon of Julia Child, chatting, and food. We were reading Julia Child’s memoir, “My Life in France,” about Child’s first years in Paris and her education at the Cordon Blue Cooking School. Back in July when I watched Julie and Julia I had the bright idea that I should have the book club over in December and make lunch from “Mastering The Art of French Cooking.”
I have to say, I was so focused on making the lunch that I actually didn’t read all of the memoir (okay, I stopped at page 70). And I had no idea that the recipes in “Mastering” were so damn labor intensive – I wanted to make a sauce to go with my chicken, but I didn’t have the four hours that it would require. I read somewhere (and I can’t now remember where, otherwise I would link to it) that Child’s techniques reflected classic French restaurant cooking – her laborious methods reflect the technique of a restaurant chef rather than those of a home cook. I believe it.
Even if looking through the Mastering the Art of French Cooking transports me back to the 1950s, I was surprised at how great all the food was. The butterflied chicken, bathed in butter and tarragon, was delicious, and the cauliflower, cooked in cheese sauce and spread with bread crumbs, was one of the most perfect things I’ve had in a long time.
But I was really surprised at how much I loved the dessert. It seemed so staid and boring – a poached pear tart with a sugar cookie crust and frangipane (almond pastry cream) filling. But the simple flavors were perfect. I poached the pears in a wine syrup flavored with cinnamon and spices, which made them sweet and spicy and even more pear-like than before. The almond cream was sweet and creamy and paired perfectly with the pears. And the cookie crust was crunchy and sweet and fresh. It was a perfect dessert.
Really, this Julia Child person really knew what she was talking about. And some classic things – even if they feel stuffy, actually are classics for a reason. The only problem I had with the tart was that the pears were a little too big to fit in the tart shell – I guess pears were probably smaller in Julia Child’s time.
Julia Child’s Pear Tart
For the frangipane:
1/2 cup almonds
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
3/4 cups sugar
1/3 cup flour
1 cup whole milk
3 tbs butter
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almond extract
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Toast almonds until brown (about 10 minutes), then pulverize in a bender, food processor, or with a mortar and pestle.
Whisk egg and egg yolk in a large mixing bowl until combined. Gradually add sugar and beat until mixture is pale yellow – about 3 minutes. Beat in the flour.
Heat milk on the stove over moderate heat until it reaches the boiling point. Beat a small amount of milk into the egg mixture, to temper the eggs. Then pour in the rest of the milk and whisk vigorously.
Pour milk mixture into a sauce pan and heat over moderate heat. Stir slowly, until mixture begins to thicken and coagulate into a stiff paste. Beat vigorously over low heat for 2-3 minutes to cook the flour. Off the heat add the butter, vanilla and almond extracts, and almonds. Let cool. To prevent a skin from forming, cover custard with buttered parchment paper.
For the sugar crust:
1 1/3 cups flour
7 tbs sugar
1/8 tsp baking powder
5 tbs butter, chilled
2 tbs shortening, chilled
1 egg beaten with 1 tsp water
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Whisk together flour, sugar, and baking powder. With a pastry cutter, fork, or in a food processor, cut the butter and shortening into the flour mixture, until it resembles small oatmeal flakes. Blend in the egg and vanilla, until the dough forms a ball. Flatten into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 1 hour, or until firm.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
On a well floured work surface, roll dough until 1/8 inch thick. Transfer dough to a false-bottomed tart pan, pressing the dough into the corners of the pan with your fingers. Trim excess dough with a knife or kitchen shears, leaving a 1/2 inch overhang. Fold overhang over and press into the edges of the tart.
Line the tart with buttered foil, and place uncooked rice, dried beans, or pie weights on top of foil. Bake for 8-9 minutes, until the pastry is set. Remove tart from oven, remove foil and prick the bottom of the tart with a fork. Return tart to oven and bake for 7-10 minutes more, until the shell is very lightly browned. Let cool on a rack until completely cool.
2 cups red wine
2 tbs lemon juice
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
3 6 ripe, firm pears
1/4 cup red currant jelly (or other preserve – I used raspberry)
Bring wine, lemon juice, sugar and cinnamon to a boil in a saucepan over moderate heat. Meanwhile, peel, halve, stem and core pears. When syrup is boiling, drop in pears and let simmer for 8-10 minutes, until pears are tender when pierced with a knife. Let pears cool in syrup for 20 minutes, then drain on a rack.
Rapidly boil down the syrup to the thread stage (230 degrees). Add jelly or preserves to the syrup and simmer until jelly has dissolved and syrup coats the back of a spoon with a light glaze.
Paint the inside of the tart shell with the pear and jelly syrup. Fill shell with the frangipane, smoothing with a spatula. Cut pears into crosswise or lengthwise slices and arrange them over the custard. Lightly glaze pears with some of the remaining jelly using a pastry brush.
Serve chilled or at room temperature.