During my years at The American Restaurant in Kansas City, I was given several opportunities to create items for the dinner menu. At the time I thought, and still think, that this was quite an honor (I was just a young cook, after all). It was also a great exercise in applying the things I was learning about food every day—how to combine flavors in a harmonious and thoughtful way and then present them beautifully. Even at this early stage in my career, my interests leaned toward vegetables and the seeming never-ending possibility that they present. Because of this, most of my menu items were salads, appetizers and vegetable side dishes. One of my all time favorites was a salad course that featured a simple goat cheese tart.
My goal when I was working on this tart was to create a tart filling that was more dense than it was custardy. I discovered that, just as with a dessert-style cheesecake, it was the addition of cream (or milk, or half & half), not the addition of the egg, that gave a custardy effect. After one or two tries, I found that I didn't want any liquid in the tart at all. My final version was nothing more than soft goat cheese, bound with just enough egg so that the tart could be sliced. The result—warm goat cheese cradled in a crisp crust—was exactly what I was after.
The tart, as we served it at The American, featured fresh Laura Chenel goat cheese and was sprinkled with some minced thyme and rosemary. It was garnished with fennel and orange infused Niçoise olives and served alongside a small salad of baby greens dressed with a simple red wine vinaigrette. I was so pleased with this menu item. It stayed on the menu for a relatively long period and even garnered a positive mention in a New York Times Review.
As much as I liked it, I have not made this tart in years. I decided to pull it out and dust it off for an upcoming dinner class at The Community Mercantile in Lawrence, Kansas. Although I loved the Provençal flavors of the original accompaniments, because this dinner falls on the Friday before Valentine's day, I decided to garnish it with a salad featuring dried tart cherries, pears and a port-reduction vinaigrette. The sweet tart flavors are wonderful with the goat cheese.
When I made the tart again the other day—sort of a trial run before the dinner to verify that the written recipe that I will be handing out at the dinner is accurate—instead of just sprinkling the tart with the minced herbs, I folded them in along with the zest of a lemon. The lemon is particularly nice with the dried cherries and port. I also found when I started to make the tart that I was 4 oz. short of goat cheese. I happened to have about 4 oz. of mascarpone left over from something else, so I used that to make up the balance. It turned out very nice—maybe a tad softer than the original version. I have noticed a goat cheese tart in the Balthazar Cookbook that cuts the goat cheese with half cream cheese—a tasty and money saving alternative.
One of the nice things about this tart is that it can be made ahead—making it a perfect first course for a dinner party...or a ladies luncheon. Also, once you begin to think about the kinds of things that you like to pair with goat cheese (olives, dried and fresh fruits—in particular cherries & figs, roasted red peppers, beets, fresh fennel, tomatoes, summer and winter squash,...) the possible accompaniments for this simple little tart begin to multiply....
Goat Cheese Tart
1 lb. soft goat cheese (Montrachet type), at room temperature
1 t. minced fresh thyme, plus more for sprinkling over the tart
1/4 t. minced fresh rosemary, plus more for sprinkling over the tart
zest of 1/2 a lemon
2 large eggs, beaten
salt and freshly-ground pepper
one blind-baked 9-inch Pâte Brisée tart shell (see below)
In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the goat cheese just until smooth. Beat in the herbs and lemon zest. Gradually beat in the egg until fully incorporated.
Spread the goat cheese mixture into the tart shell and sprinkle with the reserved herbs.
Bake at 325° until just set—about 25 minutes. Cool. The tart may be made the day before serving. To serve, cut into wedges and warm in a low oven. Serves 8 as part of a light entrée or 12 to 16 as part of a first course salad.
Note: For the original version of this tart, omit the lemon zest and the minced herbs from the filling. Sprinkle the surface of the tart lightly with some of the minced herbs before baking.
Pâte Brisée (Short Crust Pastry):
1 c. all-purpose flour (4 oz.)
1/4 t. salt
6 T. (3 oz.) unsalted butter, chilled and sliced
2 to 3 T. ice water
Combine the flour and the salt in a medium-sized bowl. Add the butter. Rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Drizzle 2 T. ice water over the flour/butter mixture. Using your hands, fluff the mixture until it begins to clump, adding more water, a bit at a time, if necessary. Turn the dough out onto a counter and form into a mound. Using the heel of your hand, gradually push all of the dough away from you in short forward strokes, flattening out the lumps. Continue until all of the dough is flat. Using a bench scraper, scrape the dough off the counter, forming it into a single clump as you do. Form the finished dough into a thick disk. Chill for at least 30 minutes.
To roll out: Let the disk of dough warm up for a moment or two. Butter a 9-inch removable-bottom tart pan. On a floured surface, using a floured rolling pin, roll out the dough into a circle that is about 1/8-inch thick. Brush off the excess flour and transfer the dough to the prepared pan. Ease the dough into the pan being careful not to stretch it. Cut the dough off flush with the edge of the pan by pressing gently. Chill the shell for at least 1/2 hour.
To blind bake: Line the pastry with aluminum foil or parchment paper, pressing it into the corners and edges. Add a layer of pie weights or dried beans. Bake in a 400° to 425° oven for 10 to 18 minutes. When the pastry begins to color on the edges, remove the foil and weights and continue baking until the pastry dries out and turns a light golden color. Let cool before filling.
Note: The tart dough may be made ahead and frozen—raw in disk form, or rolled out in the pan (raw or baked).
Salad of Baby Greens, Pears, Hazelnuts & Dried Tart Cherries
1 c. Port
2 T. red wine vinegar
1 T. lemon juice, or to taste
1 shallot, minced (about 1 1/2 to 2 T. minced shallot)
6 T. Olive oil
8 small handfuls of mixed baby lettuces (5 or 6 oz.)
2 ripe pears (Anjou or Bartlett)
1/2 to 3/4 cup hazelnuts, toasted, skinned and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup dried tart cherries
Simmer the port in a small saucepan set over low heat until reduced to 2 T. of syrupy liquid. Set aside to cool.
While the port reduces, place the vinegar and lemon juice in a small bowl with the shallots. Let the shallots macerate briefly to soften. Whisk in the cooled reduced port and season with salt & pepper. Gradually whisk in the olive oil. Taste and correct the seasoning and balance.
Place the greens in a large bowl. If the pears are firm (or even crisp), halve core and thinly slice, lengthwise (a mandoline slicer works well for this). If the pears are buttery-soft, peel, halve, core and cut into a 1/2-inch dice. Add the pears to the lettuces along with some of the hazelnuts and cherries. Season with salt & pepper and drizzle with some of the vinaigrette. Toss until the greens and pears are lightly but thoroughly coated with the vinaigrette. Divide the salad among individual serving plates, sprinkling with more hazelnuts and cherries and drizzling with a little more vinaigrette, if desired.
Serves 8 alongside a small wedge of goat cheese tart as a salad course. Serves 4 as a light entrée or lunch course with a larger slice of tart.