Berry Tartlets

Though I don't often reread books, I've read My Life in France, Julia Child's autobiography, more than a few times now (this was previously an honor reserved only for Harry Potter books). Julia Child, for those of you who don't know, was an American who moved to Paris in 1948 along with her husband Paul, who had been posted there by the U.S government. Julia had never been to Europe, spoke no French, and knew nothing about cooking, yet found herself completely at home in Paris and completely fell in love with French cuisine. She took cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and began to master French cooking home. She evenntually gained fame after publishing Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a cookbook aimed at adapting the rather sophisticated French cuisine for American home cooks. "The Book" (as Julia called it) was so comprehensive and well-tested that it took her 9 years to complete and proved to be wildly popular in the U.S. Fifty five years later, it is still considered a classic and a point of reference for French cooking. To top it all off, Julia also hosted her own TV show, The French Chef, one of the very first cooking shows in the U.S. which further helped to introduce French cuisine and good food to Americans at a time when TV dinners and frozen food reigned supreme. Not bad for someone who only started to cook at age 36, no?

Despite the fact that Julia was in France and I am in Italy, and that I moved abroad nearly 60 years after she did, I feel a certain connection with her. Perhaps it is because I am also an expat who feels at home in a different country, or because I, too, have discovered Italian food in my years in Bologna and Rome. Kinship aside, My Life in France is a pleasure to read -- Julia's love for cooking and France just about jumps off the pages, and the descriptions of the food she eats and prepares are beautiful. Her curiosity about cooking -- her determination to get a recipe just right, to understand why something works or not -- is admirable. If Julia Child were living in today's world, she would have a great food blog, I think. Along with Deb Perelman and Gina DePalma, she is one of my culinary heroes.

As you can see I could talk volumes about Julia Child, but then you wouldn't hear anything about these Berry Tartlets! Reading My Life in France has made me momentarily put aside and American or Italian dessert recipes in favor of French ones, and thus I was inspired to make these classic French fruit tarts. The crust here is buttery and light and crispy, the cream is sweet and vanilla-y, and the berries are juicy and add a nice tart contrast to both the cream and crust. If you've already written these off as too hard to make, think again! Though there are different elements involved here neither the crust or the pastry cream are difficult to prepare. Plus, both the tart dough and pastry cream can be made in advance, and all that needs to be baked is the crust. I think Julia would have approved.

A couple of notes on this: If you prefer, you can make one big tart instead of individual ones. Use a 10 inch tart pan, and increase the baking time slightly (about 10 minutes with the beans or rice, and then about 20 minutes or so without). If you make one big tart you can also use other fruit, like kiwi, grapes, oranges, or even figs since you have more surface area for decorating. Tart or tartlets, it is best to eat this dessert the day you make it, as the cream will otherwise make the pastry soggy. If you're in Europe, you can get your mini tart pans at Tiger -- they should be about 4 inches in diameter. Enjoy everyone!


Ingredients for the crust:
1 1/4 cups flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
3-4 tablespoons ice water

Ingredients for the pastry cream:
3 large egg yolks
6 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon heavy cream

8 (4 inch diamter) mini tart pans 

Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries for decorating

Start with the tart crust. Combine the flour, sugar, and salt and place in the freezer for 30 minutes. Put the flour mixture into the bowl of a food processor along with the butter and pulse until the butter forms small pieces. Add the ice water and process until the dough comes together. Place the dough on a well-floured work surface and form into a disc. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 30-45 minutes. 

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the dough from the fridge and let it sit a few minutes. Roll the dough out into a large circle (about 1/16 inch thick) and cut out 8 circles. I used a small bowl as a template -- use whatever you have on hand and trace around with a sharp knife. You might have to gather up the scraps the re-roll the dough to make enough circles. Place the circles into the mini tart pans, pressing the dough down and up the sides of the pan. Cut off the excess dough with a sharp knife. Line the tart shells with aluminum foil, and then dried beans, rice, or pie weights. Bake 8 minutes. Remove the foil and rice, beans, or pie weights and prick the bottom of the shells with a fork to allow steam to escape. Bake another 10 minutes or so until lightly browned. Cool the tart shells to room temperature. 

Next, make your pastry cream. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or using an electric hand mixer), beat the egg yolks and the sugar on medium-high speed about 3 minutes, until the mixture is light yellow. On low speed, beat in the cornstarch. In a large saucepan, bring the milk to a simmer. Slowly pour milk into egg mixture, whisking steadily, then pour back into saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring .constantly with a whisk or wooden spoon until mixture is thick, about 4 minutes. Bring to a boil and cook on low heat 2 to 3 more minutes. Remove from heat; mix in butter, vanilla, and cream. Pour the custard through a strainer into a bowl. Place plastic wrap directly onto the custard and refrigerate until cold. Place baked tart shells on a serving plate and spread the pastry cream over bottom of each shell. Decorate with berries and serve as soon as possible. Makes 8 tarts. 

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