You don't have to be a genius to figure out that we here in Maryland are swimming in fruit. From here on out, each week's harvest is going to include all manner of locally grown fruit in a bewildering variety. And as Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Schola Cooking School can verify, aside from munching on a peach, there's a lot of ways of making use of this wonderful bonanza, especially if you're inclined to make a fresh fruit tart.
Click on the image for the instructions.
We could include in this discussion tarts, clafoutis, and cobblers, all essential variations on the theme. A tart has a pastry base and sides and fillings, often consisting of sliced fruit embedded in a custard, with an open top. A clafoutis is a baked dish that features fruit, usually cherries, covered with a thick flan-like batter. Its close cousin, the cobbler, starts with a liquid batter on the bottom and cooked fruit on top of that. As the cobbler bakes, the batter rises and covers the fruit. But let's focus on the tarts.
At this point in time we have local cherries (a rarity), the first of the peaches, the first plums, berries of all types, and some of last year's apples. Pears and new apples are on their way. Any and all of these can go into a tart.
For baking, there are any number of ceramic tart dishes, which inevitably have scalloped edges to produce a crimped crust. However many cooks swear by non-stick spring form pans that pop open and leave a finished tart resting on a metal bottom.
The basic tart crust is much easier to manage than the dough for a pie crust.
One easy recipe calls for melted butter, confectioner's sugar, a bit of salt, and all-purpose flour. This is essentially a shortbread crust. You whisk the ingredients together, and knead it with your fingers. You don't roll it out, you just press it into place with your fingers.
Other recipes call for the addition of egg yolk, or a whole egg, or the use of ice water, milk or cream. In any case, it's smart to work with cold ingredients. Other recipes call for crumbled graham crackers or vanilla wafers, the addition of cocoa powder, or ground-up nuts.
One technique you're going to want to master is blind baking. This is baking the crust before adding the filling, to keep it resistant to liquids. The trick is to use ceramic pie weights (easily available) to hold the bottom of the crust down so that it doesn't bubble up and weaken.
The custard portion of the filling can be very basic: sugar, milk, flour and eggs. You can work whipped cream into the custard, or beaten egg whites to give it some lightness. You can add cream cheese to give you sort of a cheesecake texture. Or you can be very simple; some recipes will coat the bottom of the crust with nothing more complicated than fruit jam.
When it comes to using your fruit you should try to channel your inner artist. Cut up your fruit in regular slices and arrange artfully on top of your filling. Concentric circles are always easy and attractive. Arranging rows of different fruit is fun, and it can be a good time to use those forlorn kiwis and star fruits you see in the store.
Finally, you can melt down some fruit jelly, and thin it with a little lemon juice to make a glaze. It's very professional looking.