One of the most involved projects I had to do in school was a group project on a California chef. Our group was assigned Julia Child and we were given a menu taken from the pages of Mastering the art of French Cooking. Each group member was in charge of preparing 25 portions of one course. I love to bake and excelled in my Baking and Pastry class so I volunteered for dessert to the great relief of my group mates (culinary students are notorious for not loving the art of pastry). This was a fun and challenging project, and everyone in my group did a great job.
Our 25 portions were served to the rest of the class and critiqued by our fellow students. We were graded on preparation, taste, and presentation. Think of those cooking shows where the chefs are critiqued by a panel of three judges. It was sort of like that, but we were judged by 25 of our peers. Our dishes being picked apart, physically and verbally, was something we went through almost every day. We would prepare a new dish, walk it up to the front of the kitchen lab, and watch as the chef instructor poked, prodded, cut, and chewed our food. They would then give us their honest, professional opinion, good or bad. Through the last day of school I got that slight nervous twist in my stomach each time I had to present a dish. Let me tell you, though, as students we were more harsh on each other than our instructors were on us. I sat with my peers as the other groups presented their dishes to us just knowing my time was coming, and hoping I would impress at least one person, and do a good enough job for a passing grade.
Julia Child’s strawberry tart is a full tart topped with strawberries that is meant to be sliced into individual portions. We had to rework these recipes to smaller portions that would be worthy to be served in a fine dining establishment. They had to be small portions with pretty presentation and with our own little twist that didn’t totally change the dish. I played around with a few ideas to make mini tarts that would be small enough to be single portions. but big enough to be worth ordering off a menu. I have four-inch tart pans, but that made a too large tart. I tried pressing the dough into the bottoms of a muffin pan and those were just a touch too small. I strolled through all the kitchen stores in my area and finally settled on a whoopie pie pan. This helped me make shallow, two-and-a-half-inch tarts that came out to be about three bites worth of dessert.
When it was finally time to present my dish to my peers and instructor I served the dish and then immediately went back to clean up my station so that I wouldn’t have to hear what people were saying about my food. I was so flattered and happy that everyone loved my dish! They liked the presentation and taste and felt that my mint coulis was a welcome addition of flavor. The only negative comment was provided by my instructor, and she said that my tart shell was “slightly over baked”, but other classmates told me she was just trying to find something to criticize. haha.
All in all, this was a fun project and these strawberry tarts are so light and refreshing. The vanilla custard is just sweet enough to balance the slight tartness of the strawberries. You can also coat the tart shells in chocolate for an added touch of delicious!
Tarte Aux Fraises
Very slightly adapted from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Makes about 36 individual tarts or 2 9-inch tarts
tart shell dough (recipe follows)
vanilla pastry cream (recipe follows)
1 quart strawberries, hulled
1. Preheat the oven to 350.
2. Roll pastry dough to 1/4 inch thick and mold into desired tart shell.
3. Bake tart shell for 10-15 minutes, or until golden brown and cooked through. Let cool.
4. Spread a thin layer of pastry cream inside your tart shell.
5. Slice or chop the strawberries and arrange them decoratively on top of the pastry cream. You can also leave the strawberries whole if desired.
2 2/3 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup (1 stick) plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled
4 tablespoons vegetable shortening, chilled
2 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. In a bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder, butter and shortening. Mix with fingertips, a pastry blender, or in a food processor to form fine crumbs (about pea-sized).
2. Blend in the egg and vanilla and knead (or pulse in the processor) until the dough holds together and forms a ball.
3. Shape dough into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill for 1 hour.
Vanilla Pastry Cream
1 cup granulated sugar
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup all purpose flour
2 cups hot milk (warm on the stove top, but do not boil)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1. In a bowl, beat together the sugar and egg yolks until the mixture is pale yellow and forms a ribbon (see photos below).
2. Beat in the flour. Continue beating and gradually pour in the milk in a thin stream.
3. Pour mixture into a saucepan over medium heat. Whisk. The pastry cream will get lumpy as it cooks, but it will thin out as you continue to whisk.
4. When the mixture starts to bubble, turn the heat to low and continue to whisk for 2 minutes.
5. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter and vanilla. Pour into a clean bowl and cover with plastic wrap or parchment paper pressed directly on top of the cream (this will prevent a skin from forming). Refrigerate until ready to use.
The egg and sugar mixture will form a “ribbon” when picked up and drizzled back on to itself. It should hold it’s ribbon shape on top of itself for about 3 seconds.