Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Beautiful Asparagus Tart

As we head into asparagus season I thought I would finally post one of my all time favorite asparagus recipes—a beautiful tart. Adapted from a special "Paris issue" of Gourmet magazine, I have been teaching this tart annually in a popular class called "Everyday French" for at least ten years. I never get tired of it. It is so simple (nothing more than a bare bones asparagus quiche, really)...but because of the unusual shape of the crust it never fails to impress.

Instead of a traditional tart pan, the crust for this tart is fitted into a pizza pan. This wide, shallow crust is perfect for displaying a single layer of asparagus arranged like the spokes of a wheel. Whether presented whole or in slices, this tart really is lovely. For my private dinner clients, I like to serve it in narrow wedges alongside a salad. It makes an elegant first course. When I make it at home, I cut it into six fat wedges and serve it as an entrée (also accompanied by a salad).

You would think that this style of crust would be limiting, but in fact it is not. Any vegetable that can be cut into large, wide slices can probably be arranged attractively in this crust. In early summer I like to make the tart with broiled/grilled slices of zucchini. Last August I used this style of crust as a base for a nice Eggplant & Goat Cheese tart. And even if you don't have vegetables that can be arranged artistically in the shell, you can still use this crust for a myriad of different fillings...especially if you are one who (like me) likes a larger proportion of crisp, flaky crust to filling. A couple of years ago when I had one of these shells in my freezer I made a delicious and memorable impromptu tart with spinach and artichokes.

When you read through the recipe for the asparagus tart you will notice that asparagus is supposed to be peeled. This may sound like a tedious and time consuming activity, but since the tart only uses about a pound of asparagus, peeling it doesn't really add that much extra time. More importantly, the cooked peeled asparagus will have a uniformly soft and tender texture—much more in harmony with the soft egg custard than asparagus that has not had its slightly tough, stringy exterior removed. So please don't skip this step. As always, it's the little attentions to detail that make a big difference in the end result.

Asparagus & Gruyère Tart

1 12- to 13-inch tart shell, blind baked (see below)
1 to 1 1/4 lb. asparagus
4 oz. Gruyère cheese, coarsely grated
2 eggs
1 c. heavy cream
salt & pepper

Trim the asparagus into 5- or 6-inch lengths (depending on the size of your pizza pan). Starting about 2 inches down from the tips, peel the asparagus. In a pan of boiling salted water, blanch the asparagus until tender—2 or 3 minutes for thin; 5 minutes or so for thick. Drain and refresh in an ice bath or under cold running water. Pat dry.

Preheat the oven to 375°. Scatter about 2/3 of the cheese over the baked crust.

Arrange the asparagus spears like the spokes of a wheel—with the tips at the outer edge, pointing out.

Whisk together the eggs and the cream. Season with salt and pepper—and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg if you like.

Pour the custard over the asparagus, jiggling the pan a bit so the custard will be evenly distributed. Scatter the remaining cheese over all.

Bake the tart until the custard is set—about 20 minutes. Slide the tart under the broiler to brown slightly. Serve immediately. Serves 6 to 8.

(Recipe adapted from Gourmet, March 2001)

Printable recipe

1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour (200g)
1/2 t. salt
11 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces (150g)
1/4 to 1/3 c. ice water

Combine the flour and the salt in a medium-sized bowl. Rub the butter into the flour until the butter is in small pea-sized pieces. Drizzle 1/4 c. ice water over the flour/butter mixture. Using your hands, fluff the mixture until it begins to clump, adding more water 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 dough warm up for a moment or two. Butter a 12- to 13-inch pizza pan and set it aside. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface into a circle that is about 1/8- to 1/6–inch thick and is about 15 inches across. Trim any ragged edges. Brush off the excess flour and fold the dough circle in half. Transfer it to the prepared pan. Unfold the dough and ease it into the pan being careful not to stretch it. Fold the edges to form a ½-inch rim of a double thickness of dough. Chill for at least 30 minutes.

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° 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 golden brown (another 5 to 10 minutes).

Printable Recipe

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