Queen of Tarts

Joy of joys: ‘I’ have been making fruit tarts again. (That sentence makes me the opposite to the actual Queen: she says ‘we’ but means ‘I’; I say ‘I’ but mean ‘we’.) These days, when it comes to tart-making, ‘I’ = me, with the help of my PA (think homehelp/carer, not someone who is typing my letters and planning my diary), and anyone else I can rope in to help. (See, I am like the Queen after all – I have ‘staff’!) I give orders from my reclined position on the sofa and then claim the credit. Or, as I like to say: ‘T did most of the work and I added the magic’. Heck, I can’t even make my own tea most days.

Summer Fruits

‘Team tart’ generally operates as follows: I project-manage, provide the recipe and the expertise, supervise, do occasional brief and light duties spread over several weeks, exhibit extreme control-freakery over exactly how it must all be done, and take the credit. My PA does the heavy work – shopping, rolling pastry, zesting, juicing, and chopping fruit, hand-mixing, beating, clearing and washing up.

My friend K (whose wedding started all this tart business) steps in when necessary to get the thing finished: on one occasion rushing round to dehull and chop strawberries which I hadn’t realised I could no longer do (my muscles can’t do repetitive movements – five strawberries in and I couldn’t move my hands); on another going out on an emergency apricot hunt when they were the only thing Tesco had failed to deliver; and last week doing a pile of tart-related washing up when she had just popped round to borrow my hoover and had found the tart done, me done (in a crumpled heap on the sofa), but the washing up very definitely not done. I pay her in tart and occasional coffee cake.

If I plan the enterprise like a military operation and start several weeks before I actually need to serve the thing I can do more of it myself. Five or ten minutes at a time. Days of getting up to weigh out one or two ingredients, resting in between, storing and preparing, a little light mixing, freezing components ready for assembly at a later date.

Raspberry

I was awarded my title – Queen of Tarts– by the father of the bride when I did French style fruit tarts for 60 for my friend’s wedding: raspberry with crème pâtissière, apricot and frangipane, and lemon. One large and two medium of each with two spares in case of disaster. My health was the best it had been for a while at that point but it was still a crazy enterprise. The father of the bride called round Friday evening to discuss arrangements with another member of the household (between us we were providing wedding car and chaffeur, photography, readings, prayers, wedding cake, and all the desserts). My goddaughter, a friend and I were sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by tart cases, painstakingly arranging apricots on top of frangipane. When he came back the next morning we were in the same places putting raspberries on top of crème pâtissière. He was worried we might have been there all night.

Apricot and Frangipane

For six weeks before that I had been making pastry in batches, lining tart tins one or two at a time, and gradually mounting a takeover of the freezer. Quite what possessed me to offer to do all the desserts and to choose to do something so labour intensive, much of which had to be done last minute is beyond me. But thus my obsession with tart-making began.

French Lemon Tart

And once I had my crown, and owned three very large tart tins as well as my medium ones, I clearly had to continue, even when I was far too ill to do it in anything like a normal manner. There was a church meal once a month and it became a tradition that I would take (or send, if I wasn’t up to going) a tart which could serve at least 12, 16 at a push. I would lie in bed dreaming up new recipes or adapting old ones…

Crème pâtissière with raspberries, strawberries or mixed fruits; frangipane with apricots, pears, spiced plums or mincemeat; apple and calvados with hazelnut pastry; blackberry and apple glazed with blackberry liqueur; rhubarb and custard; pear, chocolate and hazelnut; lemon with redcurrant topping; pastry flavoured with almonds, hazelnuts, citrus, chocolate or cream cheese….

Then…plan my timetable and strategy, and spend three weeks gradually creating it. It was a month’s work including resting and recovery time. For one tart.

I hadn’t done a tart for nearly a year. My health has been worse and the regular church meals have stopped. Basic daily survival takes most of my limited energy. But when friends were coming to dinner, (because it’s entirely sensible to invite friends to dinner when most days you can’t even make your own), I was determined to do a tart. And a few months ago I had offered one in an auction which the winning bidders turned out to be hoping for for a birthday celebration last weekend. So suddenly it was a two-tart-month. (I did have to check that ‘team tart’ were available before saying ‘yes’!)

Lemon with Redcurrant Topping

When I found myself chiselling the pastry in bits from the bottom of the tart tin the other Saturday I was a bit worried my crown had slipped through lack of practice. (It’s hard to keep a crown on straight when you spend most of your life lying down.) It wasn’t exactly a soggy bottom but it wasn’t up to my usual standard. Fortunately the filling was delicious – creamy sharp but sweet lemon topped with a set tangy redcurrant coulis which I studded with all the redcurrants I had left in the freezer from a friend’s allotment crop last summer.

A week later ‘I’ was back on top tart-making form for the completion of the much larger auction-winner’s tart (lemon tart with orange pastry, raspberry and redcurrant coulis on the side). One diner scored it 12/10.

Phew! Crown firmly back in place.

Once a Queen of Tarts, always a Queen of Tarts. (To misquote C S Lewis*)

Top tart tips since many of you have been asking:

(You can give up now if you have no interest in baking but have stuck with it thus far, hoping in vain for some deep theological musings. I promise this isn’t turning into a recipe blog. Tarts are a one-off.)

  • For a tart topped with fruit use a lot more fruit than the recipe suggests. If you can see the filling below you need more fruit. It’s all about the fruit…
  • Except when it’s about the pastry…the best sweet pastry has a little more than half butter (and it must be butter) to flour, icing sugar not caster, and is bound with just egg yolk. It’s a nightmare to work with but melts in the mouth.
  • It flies in the face of conventional wisdom but you get a much finer and shorter pastry making it in a food processor rather than by hand. I only tried it because my hands stopped working but it is much better. (Don’t tell Mary Berry I said so.)
  • Always use a metal tin not ceramic. And place this on a large baking tray to catch leaks.
  • Roll it as thin as possible. The shorter the pastry the harder it is to roll out and get into the tin. It falls apart if you so much as breathe near it (as evidenced in at least one of my photos). You can roll it straight onto the floured loose base of the tart tin to help but will still end up sticking the edges on in bits. I call it patchwork pastry. (Mary would be horrified but she isn’t watching, and as long as you stick it together firmly nobody will know.) It is easy to panic at this stage and throw it all in the bin. Don’t!
  • Do not let anyone else neaten your edges. They will do it WRONG. Use a knife and do it before baking if it is short sweet pastry. Try it after baking and it will just fall apart.
  • Cracks that appear during baking can mostly be covered with filling. It’s the taste that counts.
  • If your filling is very runny, save some pastry to patch up any fault lines that occur during blind baking. Brush the base with a thin layer of filling and bake briefly to seal it before adding the rest. Otherwise your filling will run straight through the cracks and out into your oven. I experienced this so that you don’t have to.
  • Recipes which say they do not require blind-baking are lying. Believe me or you will have a soggy bottom.

Happy tart-baking!

* ‘Once a king or queen of Narnia, always a king or queen of Narnia.’ – Aslan in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobeby CS Lewis

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7 thoughts on “Queen of Tarts

  1. Faith and food are closely linked so this post is theological. Proud to be a member of ‘team tart’. ‘Once a member of team tart, always a member of team tart?’

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  2. I’ve been enjoyed reading about your tart making Alison. A good insight into your tart making enterprise. You are the dynamic creative genius behind your tartmaking and of course your PA is there to help or any of your friends if required. Looking forward to tasting a gluten-free tart one day. Love José 🌈💕❤️

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    1. One of the top tips that I didn’t include was as follows: ‘The pastry can make or break a tart. Don’t even try to make it gluten-free. Gluten-free pastry is never good and will ruin it. I have tried and failed. Repeatedly. Eat cake instead.’ I do have an ok-ish recipe for gf pastry after much experimenting but can never bear to make my tarts a lot worse by using it! Maybe one day I’ll make one just for you. They are pretty dairy-heavy as well though.

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  3. Love this..there can be little more defiant than choosing to make tarts in your state of health and I am so glad it brings you joy! I get a huge send of accomplishment making our own granola and muesli.

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  4. Hi Alison

    To enable you to continue your tart ministry would it be possible for me to drop off your tart mould sometime on Friday and if so, when would it be convenient for me to drop it off.

    It truly was delicious and thanks for the tips and the background shared below – a fascinating read!

    Love Hilary x

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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