Sunday, April 1, 2012

My Brown Butter Tart Quest, Part II

So now that I've eased you into my consuming obsession with brown butter tarts, and even left you hanging (I'm sure the anticipation was keeping you up at night), it's time to finish the tale of my epic quest.

When we left off, I had scientifically broken down the three components of brown butter tarts - filling, crust, and fruit - and explained why each is spectacular both separately and as a whole. But I was at a crossroads at how to replicate them in my home kitchen. Should I take the plunge and just cut the recipe down severely? (How exactly could I 1/12th a single egg yolk?) Should I just resign myself to only enjoying brown butter tarts at Bistro VG? Should I send a kind e-mail to the pastry chef asking him or her to elaborate further on the recipe? Should I send an angry e-mail to the pastry chef asking him or her how any home baker was expected to deal with such an unhelpful "recipe" (the most tempting option, I assure you)?

The answer turned out to be none of the above. A few weeks ago, I was perusing one of my favorite food blogs, Smitten Kitchen, browsing innocently through the substantial recipe index when I stumbled upon a recipe for cherry brown butter bars. I stopped dead in my tracks. Could this finally be the answer to my (sugar- and butter-laden) prayers?
Indeed, it was. Turns out that Deb at Smitten Kitchen had adapted a recipe for raspberry brown butter tart (from Bon Appetit) to bars filled with cherries instead of raspberries. And she documented the whole thing, complete with those all-important cross-section shots, and put her stamp of approval on the recipe. It all seemed too good to be true. Was it?

I eagerly e-mailed my mom, who knew all too well that these tarts had become the object of my desire, asking her to confirm that these tarts really did look like the real thing.

Her reply (via e-mail): "om. that's it. I'm sure of it." (For those not in the know, "om" - pronounced "O.M." - stands for "oh my" and is my mom's totally adorable version of "omg.")
So that was it. It was settled. This was the recipe I should use. But for some reason, I was still unconvinced. Or not convinced enough that these were really the real deal, because I kept searching for brown butter tarts. After many hours of tireless searching, I finally came across another recipe from Los Angeles chef Suzanne Goin. Her recipe looked promising, and as a recipe source she seemed trustworthy.

So I did what any self-respecting baker would do. No, I didn't bake each version. Ironically, I wasn't willing to commit the time and calories to such an undertaking (didn't I realize I was baking brown butter tarts?). Instead, I did an ingredient-by-ingredient comparison of all three recipes (Bistro VG, Smitten Kitchen, and Suzanne Goin) to see where differences in flavor and texture might arise.

I had a hunch that, from the photos on SK, the filling might be too custardy and the crust not flaky enough. After several unit conversions and a little bit of Excel work, I figured out that the BVG recipe had much higher ratios of butter than the other recipes, which were pretty similar. To make a long story short, my Excel spreadsheet actually made me more confident in the SK recipe; seeing BVG as the outlier in terms of ratios made me think that perhaps the recipe was faulty to begin with.

So I forged on with the SK filling recipe; I was committed to it, custardy interior and all. As for the crust, I was looking for one that was a deep golden brown (no blonde crusts!) and intensely flaky. Whenever I found a photo of a crust that seemed to embody this ideal, it almost always contained powdered sugar instead of granulated sugar. I'm not sure why this ingredient produces these desired effects, but I knew for sure my crust recipe would utilize it. I eventually found my answer in Dorie Greenspan's tart crust, a fairly common pate sucree variation. Now that I had my crust, filling, and fruit (I opted to make three strawberry and one cranberry), I headed into the kitchen and began.

For all the work I did in researching these tarts, the process of actually preparing them was relatively simple. First, I made the dough, which comes together quite simply and has the added bonus of being ready to use right as it's made. Instead of rolling the dough (a task that always sends me into a stress-induced frenzy), it can be patted right into the tart pans. It takes a bit of practice to get the shells to an even thickness all around, but it was easy work.
While the crusts baked, I set to work on the filling, which was my favorite part of the baking process simply because brown butter is surely heaven-sent from the culinary gods. Its scent is particularly hypnotizing. To merely proclaim it to be "nutty" would be to do it a great disservice. I can only advise you to go brown some butter right now and then please try to capture and bottle that scent and send it my way promptly. Please and thank you.
Like the crust, the filling is quick work and becomes a thick, ribboned concoction spotted with brown butter magic. After assembling the tarts and baking them, it was time for the moment of truth.

How did they taste?

Well, they were everything I wanted and more. My fears about the filling being too custardy were misplaced. While not as cakey as the Bistro VG tarts, the texture was somewhere in the middle of the fudgy/cakey spectrum. Not too dense or airy, but just right. The strawberries turned out to be a spectacular choice for fruit. Their flavor intensifies in the oven, becoming altogether more sweet and tart, similar to the effect oven-roasting has on tomatoes. The real surprise was the crust, though. I was afraid the crust would be more like shortbread than short pastry, but this is the flakiest (and easiest) crust I've ever made. As a whole, the tarts were a resounding success.

The only problem? Given how little effort the tarts require and how big the gratification is, brown butter tarts are all I want to eat right now. I think you'll feel the same.
Strawberry Brown Butter Tarts
As I mentioned in Part I, these tarts are highly adaptable in terms of the fruit you choose to pair them with. I've yet to try out or apples or pears - which I think would require some form of pre-cooking - but feel free to substitute blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, peaches, or plums for the strawberries here. Or try a mixture! I'm currently dreaming of a strawberry-rhubarb version that would be perfect paired with the lovely spring weather we're having.

Yield: 4 (4.5-inch) tarts or 1 (9-inch) tart*

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen, who adapted from Dorie Greenspan

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons) cold butter, cut into pieces
1 large egg

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade, combine flour, sugar, and salt. Pulse a few times to combine. Scatter the butter pieces over the flour mixture and pulse 8 to 10 times, until the butter is the size of peas. Add the egg and pulse in short bursts until the dough gathers into a ball in the food processor. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 5 to 10 minutes, until chilled but still pliable.

Meanwhile, prepare your tart pan(s). Spray them liberally with nonstick cooking spray (especially if the edges are fluted, the last thing you want is precious pastry sticking to the tart pan!).

When the dough is chilled but still pliable (think cold play-doh), begin pressing into the prepared tart pans. I find the best way to do this is to start on the bottom and form an even thickness before working my way up to the sides. Using two fingers, mold the dough to an even thickness (about 1/2 an inch) on the sides, trim any excess, and use the scraps to fill in any gaps on the bottom. Remember that the crust needn't be perfect, but a uniform thickness is essential, as is making sure there are no bare spots.

When the dough is molded into the tart pans, place the pans on a baking sheet and freeze for 30 minutes. As the dough freezes, adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

After 30 minutes, remove the tart pans from the freezer. Prick the bottom of the dough 3 or 4 times with a fork. Prepare four small (or 1 large, if you're making a single tart) squares of foil - they should be large enough to entirely cover the tart dough. Spray the dull (non-shiny) side with nonstick spray and, sprayed side down, place on top of the dough. Fit the foil tightly against the crust.

Bake the tarts (still on the baking sheet) for 15 to 20 minutes, until they are a pale blonde color. Remove the foil and continue baking for 10 to 15 minutes longer, until they are golden, firm, and fully baked. Remove from the oven and allow to cool while you prepare the filling. The finished tarts can be made several hours ahead.

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

7 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces 
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
Pinch of salt
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a light-colored pan (i.e., not nonstick; something stainless steel works fine), melt the butter over low heat, swirling occasionally. Once the butter has fully melted, the foam will begin to sizzle and make cracking noises. Continue cooking, stirring constantly with a spatula or wooden spoon, distributing the milk solids (that's what browns) evenly. The butter will begin to take on a brown color, but watch it carefully as brown can quickly turn to black and you'll have a pan full of burned butter. Once the butter has taken on a deep brown hue and smells intensely nutty (and sublime), remove it from the heat immediately and pour into a small bowl or measuring cup. Allow to cool slightly.

As the butter cools, in a large bowl combine sugar, eggs, and salt and whisk until smooth. Add the flour and vanilla extract and whisk again until smooth. When the butter has cooled (it should be warm, not hot), add it slowly to the sugar-egg mixture, stirring until completely smooth.

At this point, you can set aside the filling, covered, until you're ready to use it.

8 medium-sized strawberries, sliced

To bake the tarts, begin by adjusting an oven rack to the center position and preheating the oven to 350 degrees F. Arrange sliced strawberries in tart shells in concentric circles or in an asterisk-like pattern. If you're baking individual tarts, use an ice cream scoop to portion out the filling evenly (giving it a quick whisk if it's been sitting for a while). It may take a little rearranging of the strawberries to make sure there is filling in all the nooks and crannies of the tart. The filling should come up to the top of the crust. If you're making one large tart, I still recommend using the ice cream scoop to portion out the filling, since it's quick and easy.

Bake the tarts on a sheet pan in the oven for about 30 minutes, or until the filling has puffed and no longer looks wet, and a cake tester inserted into the filling comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Serve the tarts warm, preferably with a scoop of ice cream or dollop of whipped cream.

The tarts will keep for several days in an airtight container, although they will lose some of their crispness. To re-crisp, bake in a low oven (300-325 degrees F) for a few minutes and serve warm.

 *This recipe will make enough for 4 individual tarts or 1 large tart. Because the tart is rich, I would say the entire recipe will serve 8. I know it's kind of awkward (and defeats the purpose) to serve an individual tart to more than one person, but one individual tart can easily feed 2 to 3 people. That said, if you're serving this to company, I'd go for making the large tart; if you don't have a fancy occasion to serve this (say, it's a Wednesday evening), then spring for the individual ones. It'll make you feel special.


  1. om. making this next weekend! which fruit combination should we try?! xo

  2. I was very happy to have one of those individual tarts to myself...and I somehow managed to make it last 4 days. LOVE that you've figured out the recipe. and that it's not too hard, so we can enjoy it more often. (p.s. the new food processor lid arrived last week - it fits, it works, whew!)

  3. outstanding work-peach season is just around the corner, and if they are anything like last year-watch out!

  4. My sister and I dined at Bistro VG for the first time last Friday. The whole experience was wonderful, but we finished with the brown butter tart- simply amazing. We left the restaurant also dreaming of obtaining the recipe. Upon her return to Seattle, my sister found your blog. Many thanks for all the research you have done; we can't wait to try this! Also, our waiter vaguely hinted that a Martha Stewart recipe was the nearest thing to the chef's tart recipe.

    1. I hope you like it if you try it! I'd love to see the Martha Stewart recipe if you have the link, as well. Thanks for reading!