Thanks to the copious and rapid descent of white stuff from the sky, I, along with much of the Mid-Atlantic region, was the beneficiary of an unexpected weekend in the middle of the week. I did mention before that there is an unhappy coincidental tendency for there to be the worst winter in decades shortly after I move somewhere, didn’t I? Yeah, sorry about that, population of the greater East Coast. No promises, but it’s usually a one-shot and the curse lifts the following year.
So anyway, what did I do with my snow days, you ask? Well, like a good little bee, I actually did some work that could be done from home, and which needed doing lest deadlines back up unpleasantly when I got back to the office. I also — I won’t lie — did plenty of slothing around on the couch, with my laptop, a warm blanket, and a huge cup of tea.
Since we have recently killed off the cable TV, thanks to the largely craptacular state of programming nowadays and with the cheering encouragement of a certain family member, I have been catching up on a lot of older material via Netflix, Hulu and DVDs, and getting re-acquainted with some old favorites. High up on that list is a tragic casualty of the writer’s strike and the generally out-of-step-with-mine tastes of the American viewing public, a delightful little confection called Pushing Daisies, which, if you aren’t familiar with it, you must go out and rent right now. It had everything I love: whimsy, intelligence, cute dogs, fantastic art design, random musical numbers, a soupcon of darkness, a whole lot of snark, and, last but decidedly not least, yummy-looking desserts.
The lead character being the owner of a shop irreverently named The Pie Hole, there was a whole lot of pie on the show. When I watched it the first go-around, I was too busy and harried to indulge the pie cravings it always engendered. It’s a different story on re-watching, since my acquisition of the entire series on DVD has coincided with a lot of stuck-indoors time. There was one particular pie that I had most wanted to try re-creating, and it occurred to me as I was lounging around, watching snow fall faster and faster, that I had everything I needed to finally try it, including the time. So I got off the couch and did it, and I had a lot of fun in the process.
The facts were these: a pear pie, with Gruyere cheese baked into the crust. As I love both pears and cheese, this sounded like nothing but win. Fortuitously, I had a bit of Gruyere left from my last visit to my delightfully surly favorite cheese monger, who gives major discounts on a rotating variety of cheeses if you buy more than a pound at a time. I had also recently tried out a recipe from Rick Bayless for freeform tarts, which had just the kind of sturdy dough that would stand up to this kind of wild experimentation. The only compromise I had to make was mixing apples in with the pears, because I didn’t have quite enough to keep it pure.
Are the results refined and elegant? Heck no. Just take a good look:
They are rustic to the extreme, the way they spread and flatten and get speckled with gold from the toasted cheese. Absolutely no beauty contests are going to be won by these tarts. However, and much more importantly, they are both tasty and intriguing, with juicy, lightly spiced fruit surrounded by a crumbly, melting, rich dough that would, with a bit more salt and a much heftier hand with the Gruyere, make a really good cheese straw.
These tarts are basically a re-engineered cheese and fruit course, which makes them ideal for those who only grudgingly accept dessert. There is no sugar in the crust, and very little sweetener in the filling. While the baking tarts filled the house with the scent of fondue, they’re not aggressively cheesy in flavor, especially after they’ve cooled to room temperature, at which point they just hint at cheese.
I think it would be very interesting to play some more with this idea — maybe rosemary and parmesan with just apple or cheddar with cranberries. I might even get really daring with the chemistry and see what goat cheese or brie would do in place of the cream cheese, maybe with sour cherries.
First, though, I intend to test out this idea of individual “cup pies” made in muffin tins, with honey baked into the crust. Yum!
Pear and Apple Tarts with Gruyere Crust
(Extremely loosely adapted from Rustic Cajeta Apple Tarts in Rick Bayless’s Mexico: One Plate at a Time)
Makes 6 tarts
For the pastry:
1 1/3 cups (6 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 1/2 ounces cream cheese
1 1/2 ounces Gruyere, grated
1 1/2 teaspoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons ice water
For the filling:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 Honeycrisp or other crisp-tangy apples
3 ripe but still firm Comice or Anjou pears
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Juice of half a lemon
Cut the butter and cream cheese into small cubes and place in the freezer for 15 minutes.
Combine the flour, baking powder and salt for the pastry in a food processor and pulse several times to mix. Add the very cold butter, cream cheese and Gruyere and pulse a few more times, until no pieces of butter larger than a pea remain. Sprinkle the vinegar and ice water over the mixture and pulse briefly until the dough just starts to come together in moist-looking large crumbs that hold together when pressed between your fingers. Tilt the dough out onto a large piece of plastic wrap or a quart-sized zip top bag, seal tightly, and refrigerate at least 1 hour.
Peel and core the apples and pears, and slice into sixteen wedges each. Melt the 3 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the apple wedges. Cook, stirring frequently, until all the apples are browning at the edges. Add the pears, maple syrup and cinnamon and continue cooking until the fruit are tender but still holding together. Turn off the heat and stir in the lemon juice. Cool the filling to room temperature.
Once the dough has chilled and the filling has cooled, divide the pastry into six equal pieces and squish each section into a ball. On a floured work surface, roll out each ball to a rough circle around the six inches in diameter.
Set the first circle of pastry onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Pile one sixth of the fruit in the center of the circle, leaving behind the juice. Make sure at least an inch of dough is left clear around the fruit. Fold the pastry over the filling, pleating as you go, and leaving some fruit exposed in the middle. Repeat the process for the remaining circles, leaving 2 inches of space between each tart. Put the sheet into the freezer for 15-20 minutes, while the oven is heating.
Heat the oven to 400 F.
Bake the tarts, straight from the freezer, 25-30 minutes, until golden brown. Serve warm or just at room temperature.
Although they’ll keep for about a day, I think these are best when recently made. If they’ve been sitting overnight, try reheating them in the oven to crisp the dough back up.
I think the dough is just a tiny bit too rich, so next time, I’ll cut back the butter in the pastry by four tablespoons and up the Gruyere to three ounces, plus extra for sprinkling on top, as they did on the show. This time, I was necessarily limited to the 1 1/2 ounces I had left after we made a frittata for breakfast, and obviously I wasn’t able to pop out and buy more!