Thursday, March 29, 2012

My Brown Butter Tart Quest, Part I

I have three words for you: brown butter tart.

Let me elaborate.

At one of my favorite restaurants, Bistro VG in Roswell, they serve brown butter tarts filled with seasonal fruits: apples and cranberries in the fall, pears in the winter, fresh berries in the spring, and stone fruits in the summer. They are magical. For real, they rival cheesecakes for my favorite desserts, and that’s really saying something, if you know how much I love cheesecake.

And similar to my quest for the perfect cheesecake, I’ve also been on a quest to recreate these brown butter tarts. This quest began nearly five months ago. It was a few days before my birthday, in early November, and I was on the phone with my mom, answering her questions about what I’d like to have for my birthday dinner at home. After discussing the finer details of the main meal, I said, “And I assume you’ve got dessert covered,” with a knowing tone.

“You know we’re not going to have cheesecake,” she said. My heart sank.

“NO CHEESECAKE?!?!!?” I wanted to scream. Instead I muttered, “Oh, alright, well, ok. Well, I’ve got to go. See you soon.” I hung up the phone and quietly mourned by cheesecake-less birthday.

But I shouldn’t have been so devastated. Instead of cheesecake, I was happily presented with three brown butter tarts in various flavors: fig, cranberry, and blackberry. They were heavenly, to be sure.
The tarts that started the obsession: (from left) fig, cranberry, and blackberry. I think the visual of them at my own home allowed me to grasp that I could actually make and enjoy the tarts outside of the confines of the restaurant. 

The very next day I e-mailed the manager at Bistro VG asking for the recipe so that I could recreate it for Thanksgiving. It wasn't until a few weeks later, less than a week before Thanksgiving, when I finally had the recipe, straight from the pastry chef at the restaurant, sitting in my hands.

Well, I should say "recipe." Because apart from a list of ingredients and a general guideline, this was no recipe. For starters, it was fit for a small country, what with the five or so pounds of butter and 20+ cups of flour. It's generally not so hard to halve or quarter a recipe with success, but I'd never dealt with a recipe this industrial in size and with no general idea how many tarts could be made with this gargantuan recipe. So I chickened out, not wanting to risk failure on Thanksgiving, my holy grail of dessert holidays, and decided to go the safer route with my beloved (but not nearly as exciting) pumpkin cheesecake and apple crisp.

But I still couldn't shake the thought of homemade brown butter tarts from my mind. Soon it became something of an obsession for me. Anytime I saw a recipe with brown butter I was drawn to it, and I soon had scoured all of Foodgawker, Tastespotting, and Google of every permutation possible of the words "brown," "butter," and "tart."

Maddeningly, there were few recipes to be found for brown butter tarts. The few contenders were either sparsely reviewed and therefore unreliable (the problem with the Bistro VG recipe) or far from what I had in mind.

To be clear, there are three main components to the Bistro VG tart that make them so incredible: the crust, the filling, and the fruit. Let me explain.

The crust:

Everyone loves a good pastry crust. And this one, a deep golden brown and supremely flaky, is what pastry crust dreams are made of (what, you don't have pastry crust dreams?). It's buttery but not too rich, crisp but not tough.
This photo became my guiding light in my attempt to find a crust recipe that would replicate the supreme buttery, flaky qualities of the original. The excellent golden brown color indicates far more flavor than a blonde crust would, and you can practically see the bits of butter in the baked crust. Also, the flakiness is evident at the bottom of the tart.

The filling:

Imagine the moistest and most buttery and nutty cake and you'll have a good idea of what the filling is like. On the fudgy/cakey sprectrum, it's firmly in cakey territory, but it's not airy. The closest approximation I can make is to a denser, moister gingerbread (in texture, not flavor).
No cross-section shots of the original tart make it hard to visualize the texture of this filling, but this photo comes close. The lightness and cakiness of the filling can be approximated on the perimeter of the tart (left side). 

As for the flavor, it's sublime. Bistro VG always serves these warm, a major plus. The browned butter perfumes the entire filling, giving it a nutty and rich character, but it never crosses over into excessively rich. And like my favorite cheesecake, there's also a gradation of texture. The filling that's in direct contact with the fruit becomes a little bit moister and takes on the dueling sweetness and tartness of the fruit. In contrast, the filling nearest the crust is drier and less dense. Perhaps most importantly, it's not overwhelmingly sweet.

The fruit:

The fruit is what makes the tart. Without it, there would be no balance at all. I doubt I'd turn down a browned butter tart sans fruit, but without it, something is definitely missing. (Plus, adding fruit to any dessert makes me somehow think it's less artery-clogging than a cheesecake or chocolate ganache.) Adding fruit lends a distinct sweetness but also a tartness that cuts the butter flavor from the crust and filling.
This is a cherry tart served with pomegranate arils and rum raisin ice cream. The importance of the cold ice cream and warm tart should not be understated. The contrast in temperature (and the custardy sauce that soon forms from the melting ice cream) is magical.

While I've dissected the components of this tart (and literally, I have: "Wait, let me cut open it to examine the texture," I said to my mom the last time we had it at Bistro VG), it's important to note that the finished product is so much greater than the sum of its parts. The way that everything combines - flaky crust, crumbly filling, a piece of sweet raspberry, and all in one bite - is nothing short of divine.

But how to recreate it at home? I'm not afraid of a project, but I'm a baker and a cook, not a recipe developer. The Bistro VG recipe was a good starting point, but I couldn't bring myself to plunge into five pounds of butter headfirst. Fortunately, and thanks to a fortuitous series of events, my brown butter tart quest was about to take a turn for the better, and in a place I least expected it.


  1. dun dun dunnn ... i hope part two will lead to me baking a brown butter tart :D

  2. what a trip down memory lane. I'll bet my flickr feed has quite a few pretty tarts to show! can't wait to read part two. (is a brown butter tart a quick bread? :-)

  3. i'm thinking i cam across this receipe either on a blog or in a recent magazine. i'm sure there would be plenty of willing tasters if you choose to make the VG recipe:-)