When berries crop up at their sweetest and most succulent, I want nothing more than to eat big bowlfuls of them plain. This is the simplest of spring pleasures. That said, I’m not a fierce berry purist. When I want a classy way to show berries off without too much fuss, I turn to fresh berry tartlets.
The word “tartlet” throws people off. Put anything in little pastry shells and it sounds suspiciously like petits fours. All of a sudden, you’ve entered the realm of high-class patisserie, where miniature clairs, tuiles and ladyfingers simper and preen and demand to be plated with silver tongs.
Banish these thoughts. It’s already reassuring to know that “petit four” is simply French for “small oven.” These little confections were baked at the end of the day, when fading brick-oven fires emitted a low, even heat. And fresh berry tartlets are the least high-maintenance of the bunch, less, in fact, than the familiar pie.
The foreign tartlet may seem more intimidating than our homespun pie. But it’s not as though pies are stress free. After all, they’re the American symbol of domestic competence, and certain things go along with that status. There’s the wringing of hands over weepy fillings, the fretting over lattices and double crusts. And who wants to spend all that time with the oven on?
Tartlets dispense with some of this. They’re essentially butter cookies topped with pastry cream and fruit – the only thing you bake is the crust.
The magic of fresh berry tartlets is that they’re not just beautiful, but also easy to make. Two of the three elements can be prepared in advance. Bake mini-tart shells from short pastry dough or buy ready-to-use frozen puff pastry shells. Make and chill a simple vanilla pastry cream.
All you have left to do before serving is to fill the tart shells with a dollop of pastry cream and a generous layer of fresh berries. With the berry arranging, you can opt for understated uniformity or create fanciful compositions that vary in color, shape and size. A simple glaze of apricot jam thinned with water adds a nice sheen, but a sprinkling of sugar will do, too.
Easy and elegant, tartlets are perfect for Easter brunch or to finish off a light springtime meal. And for the berry purists out there, you can serve a brimming bowl of berries on the side.
Sweet Tart Dough
(Adapted from Dorie Greenspan)
•1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
•1/3-1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
•1/4 teaspoon salt
•1 stick cold butter, cut into small pieces
Pulse dry ingredients in food processor. Pulse in butter until it resembles coarse crumbs. Pulse in egg until just combined. Add a bit of ice water if mixture doesn’t come together.
Press into mini-tart shells or bottoms of muffin tins and chill at least 30 minutes.
Bake in preheated 375 F oven for 20 minutes or until golden brown.
Vanilla Pastry Cream
(Adapted from Martha Stewart)
•1 1/2 cups whole milk
•1/2 cup sugar
•1 egg yolk
•2 tablespoons cornstarch
•1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Bring milk to simmer in saucepan. Whisk eggs, egg yolk, cornstarch and sugar in separate bowl, then whisk in a little hot milk before gradually transferring everything back to saucepan. Continue simmering until mixture thickens, approximately 5 minutes.
Pour into bowl over ice, cover with plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator until cold (at least 2 hours).