I’ve never been a fan of tomato tarts. The idea is always appealing, especially around this time of year when gorgeously juicy tomatoes in every color of the rainbow are bursting forth from lush backyards and heavy market tables. Really now, what doesn’t sound wonderful about a slightly warm juicy tomato encased in a buttery pastry crust? Along with heavily buttered sweet corn, it just screams summer. Loudly. The problem starts with everything that makes that tomato so delicious: the juice. As soon as that sliced beauty hits the oven, the juices start flowing creating the mortal enemy of flaky pastries everywhere. Sogginess. After too many droopy tarts, I gave up. Until now.
Back in July, which seems like an inordinately long time ago, I spent two wonderfully enjoyable weeks in the southwestern of France cooking with the delightful Kate Hill, her equally delightful sister Stephanie and their rascally giant of a dog, Bacon. Kate has a little slice of heaven called Camont tucked away in Gascony, alongside the prettiest little canal and smack dab in the middle of orchards, sunflower fields and other such glorious things. She teaches cooking classes out of her old stone house, where I was lucky enough to assist, and in my opinion she’s really figured out how to enjoy life to the fullest. Camont. Just saying it makes me smile. When a place has a name rather than an address you know it’s gotta be good. Really, you must go for a visit.
Every morning, we would pile into the car and seek out delectable things at markets in towns with the delightful names of Agen, Nerac, Lavardac. Wandering about, we’d have little conversations about a particular ingredient, what to cook, perhaps an introduction to an old friend or a favorite vendor. Many discussions ensued about cheese, foie gras, farm eggs, fat ducks, pork pork and more pork, the overwhelming bounty of brightly colored fruits and vegetables and my favorite discovery of all: cultured French butter with big chunks of fleur de sel. Oh man. Then we’d haul our treasures back to Camont’s beautiful French kitchen and cook. And I mean cook. Wonderful things came out of that kitchen which we would then sit down and devour among new friends and ice cold glasses of rosé. Of course we would.
One morning when the tomatoes were just too pretty to resist, it was decided that a tomato tart was in order. Ho hum, or so I thought. We then proceeded to make the simplest of pastry doughs; just flour, salt, butter, water expertly smooshed together and rolled into a large, thin rectangle. Simple as that. It was then topped with the thinnest schmear of Dijon mustard with the most curious of tools: a feather. Kate explained that using a feather (goose I believe) was rather old school in those parts and I have to admit, it was terrifically efficient. Who knew? (well, besides wise old Gascon farmwomen perhaps.)
Tomatoes were sliced in the Goldilocks manner – not too thick but not too thin either, just right – and laid over the mustard in a single layer. A pinch of fleur de sel, a few grinds of pepper and then the pastry edges were folded up and over the tomatoes. A relatively quick bake at a high temperature then a sprinkle of fresh herbs and it was done. It was all very easy and didn’t take long at all.
The tart that came out of the oven was a beauty. To my surprise and delight, it wasn’t drowning and sodden with juice. The high heat of the oven and the simplicity of ingredients had allowed the tomatoes to give up some but not all of their liquid. The mustard added a nice little tang, a good underlying support flavor. I was impressed. So impressed that I made two more the following week that were similar but different – with caramelized onions and an enormous zucchini I found in the garden and sautéed first.
Back home, I thought of this tart as I admired the tomatoes at my local farmers market, overflowing from heavy tables in their full glory. A few days ago, I’d had a valiant struggle with my overgrown and unruly lemon verbena plant and was currently wrestling with a thicket of clippings in my fridge that should be used for something. That I also had a pot of lemon verbena mustard, picked up while roaming the pretty little streets of Collonges-la-Rouge, seemed serendipitous. How delightful to use those together? The floral lemony accents would be lovely with the bright yellow tomatoes. And I was right on that one. I didn’t have a feather, probably the one thing I didn’t buy on that trip, but the back of a spoon was a fine, though not nearly as fun, stand-in. Salt, pepper, a sprinkle of the verbena, a nice egg wash to burnish the pastry and into a hot oven. It was gorgeous and delicious.
The beautiful thing about this tart is that you can use whatever you have: tomatoes, of course, but any vegetable is delicious. You may want to sauté your filling first as I did with the zucchini if you think it would benefit from a little extra cooking. Vary up the herbs –sprinkled on top before baking (if hearty like rosemary or thyme) or after (if soft like parsley or basil.) Mix up the mustards; again, my beer mustard would be wonderful. Just saying.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: C’EST MAGNIFIQUE. Really, it truly is. High up on the satisfaction index of things that feel good is a pastry dough made by hand. To create something so pretty and tasty with your own hands is a highly rewarding thing, my friends. Bust this one out when you need something sunny in your day. A guaranteed pick-me-upper. No question about it, especially if it can bring back such happy memories of a summer spent puttering about in the Gascon countryside. Sigh.
FRESH TOMATO TART
For the pastry:
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt (kosher or a fine fleur de sel)
½ cup unsalted butter, cold & cut into ½” pieces
4 Tablespoons cold water
for the filling:
2-3 large, ripe tomatoes
Leaves from 3 sprigs of fresh thyme
Salt (kosher or fleur de sel)
For the egg wash:
1 large egg
1 Tablespoon milk or cream
- For the pastry: in a large bowl, combine the flour and salt.
- Add the cold butter to the flour and toss to coat. Rub the butter between your fingers until it is the size of small peas, tossing to combine.
- Make a well in the center and add the cold water then slowly work in, kneading ever so gently to just combine the mixture and incorporate any dry bits.
- Turn the pastry out onto a work surface and pat into a flat rectangle (or a circle if you plan on making a round tart.)
- Wrap in plastic wrap and chill 30 minutes. (Note: dough can be frozen, tightly wrapped for up to 2 months. Defrost in the refrigerator overnight.)
- For the filling: slice the tomatoes ¼” thick and set aside.
- Place a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 425°F.
- To assemble: on a silpat mat or a piece of parchment paper, roll the chilled dough out to a rectangle, roughly 15” x 11”.
- Spread the mustard in a thin, even layer leaving a 1” border all around.
- Place the tomatoes on top of the mustard layer, overlapping slightly.
- Sprinkle salt, pepper and the thyme leaves on top.
- Using the silpat mat or parchment, fold up the pastry border up and over the tomatoes to completely encase all the edges.
- Beat the egg and milk (or cream) together until smooth then brush the pastry edges.
- Bake: transfer the tart (on the silpat mat or parchment) to a baking sheet and bake until golden brown, about 20-25 minutes.
- Let cool and serve warm or at room temperature.