Thursday, February 26, 2009

Recapturing a memory: A tale of two tarts

In a lifetime, there are only a handful of memories that we carry with us in their entirety. Most memories are like the collage I had on my high school trapper keeper: snippets of words and images that don't really add up to anything meaningful. But I have a few precious memories that are whole and complete, and which I can actually play in my head like a technicolor movie.

These rare memories, it happens, usually involve food.

Last August, in Paris, I had my first real baguette. I mean, my first REAL baguette. Within a few blocks of the apartment I'd rented in the Latin Quarter were literally dozens of boulangeries, each with gorgeous breads on display in their window. But one shop, Eric Kayser's just off the main street, had a line that stretched out its door from the time it opened, until they were all sold out. So, finally, after I'd practiced my pointing and "sil vous plait" in less popular shops, I got up the courage to get in line.

(That's me, standing with the celery bouquet in my arms like I'd won some sort of vegetable-themed pageant.)

When I finally reached the front, I pointed shyly to a modest baguette, handed the patient french girl all the wrong coins, fumbled for the right ones, and was eventually handed a warm baguette wrapped in wax paper.

I knew. Right then, I knew.

Back out on the street, I ripped a piece from the baguette, the crisp crust caving in to a warm, chewy center, which I pulled at, almost like taffy. I took a bite.

And another. And another. And another, somehow growing hungrier with each swallow.

I went back every day. I stayed up at night, plotting ways to convince my then-fiance that we must walk east, by the magic bread shop, even though the museum we were going to was west of us. Every time I had that warm baguette in my hand, I turned into a carnal creature, and when I'd undress at the end of the day, I'd find crumbs in my bra, like evidence from a secret affair.

This is what that bread did to me:

No shame. No self-control. No awareness of the world around me. Here I am at Place de Vosges, eating my lunch of warm bread smeared with butter, while my future husband sat helplessly next to me. It was a bread-induced tunnel vision: just me, and that modest little flute of crunchy, tender, chewy perfection. It was a lot like being in love, or -- more accurately -- in lust.

I remember every single detail about that bread, and each of the times that I ate it. I know that as long as I live, I will remember every moment and every detail of those days. It's one of my favorite memories.

So, I can't help but want to recreate it somehow, even just a little bit. Which leads us to a recipe from Eric Kayser for a savory tart. (And yes, I know I look rather like a tart in that photo above. I was, in fact, inclined to place a "censored" bar over the cleavage, but, for the sake of complete disclosure, decided that you should know the truth about what that bread did to me.)

Eric Kayser, master french bread maker, published a cookbook of tarts, which my now-husband was brave enough to give me. Greedily hoping to recapture just a tiny piece of that glorious memory by making a distant cousin of the Kayser baguette, I decided to make the Three-Colored Pepper and Smoked Ham Tart, following the detailed instructions for Kayser's crust. I was careful not to knead the dough too much, and followed every word of labor-intensive advice, even making the pastry the night before, as instructed. As I rolled out the herbed dough on my counter, I conjured that first bite of bread I had, hoping it would pass through my rolling pin and into the dough like some kind of culinary osmosis.

The finished tart was, well, lovely. It was smokey and infused with herbs and the crust was not too dense or too flaky. But as I ate the results of my meager attempt to recreate Kayser's brilliance, I couldn't help but find my thoughts drifting away from the meal in front of me, and toward new visions of bread. In fact, instead of being captivated by the tart, I planned tonight's dinner in my head: I'll use the leftover roasted peppers to layer on top of sliced, crusty bread and melted sharp cheddar cheese, with a glass of French Pinot Noir.

Alas, the tart did recapture the essence of what I felt in France last summer. But you never know. Perhaps tonight, with enough wine and enough wishing, dinner will provide just a glimmer -- just a single, bra-captured crumb -- of that bread I had in Paris.

Three-Colored Pepper and Smoked Ham Tart
Adapted from Eric Kayser

1 pound savory pie pastry (see recipe below)
5 large eggs
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
½ pound smoked ham, finely chopped
2 red bell peppers
2 yellow bell peppers
2 green bell peppers
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

One day ahead, make pastry and filling.

For Crust:

2 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
2 tablespoons Herbes de Provence (or thyme, rosemary, oregano and marjoram)
½ cup unsalted butter, soften and diced into ½-inch cubes
¼ cup cold tap water

Sift the flour together with the salt into a mixing bowl through a fine sieve. Add herbs. Make a well in the center of the flour and add diced butter. Mix it together with your finger tips.

Again, use your fingers to make a well in the mixture. Pour in ¼-cup water. (Depending on your flour or just the color of the shoes you’re wearing, you might need a tad bit more water. Use your beautifully-honed judgment.) Knead the dough with your fingertips until it forms into a ball.

Lightly sprinkle a little flour on the working surface and flatten the dough with the palm of your hand. Reshape into a ball. Repeat the process once more. Cover the ball of dough with plastic wrap.

Chill overnight.

Prepare the filling:

In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs with the cream and milk. Stir in the garlic and smoked ham. Season with salt and pepper. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

The following day…

Remove dough from the refrigerator and leave at room temperature for about 15 minutes. Lightly dust rolling pin with flour and roll out the dough to a size slightly larger than your tart pan.

Butter tart pan, and line pan with dough, laying it gently in the pan. Lift the edge up with one hand while pressing lightly with the fingertips of the other hand to fit the dough into the bottom and against the sides of the pan. Allow the excess to hang over the edge, and refrigerate for an hour, to allow for shrinking.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Broil the bell peppers, whole, in the oven for 30 minutes. Peel them, remove the seeds, and cut them into strips. Lower the oven temperature to 350.

Remove the crust from the refrigerator 15 minutes prior to baking. Trim the excess dough: Cut the overhang with a small, sharp knife, holding it at the edge of the pan, and turning the pan while holding the knife still.

Pre-bake the dough. Lightly prick the shell all over using a fork. Place a sheet of parchment or waxed paper over the shell. Cover the paper evenly with dried beans or lentils so the pastry does not rise.

Bake for 20 minutes.

Remove from oven and let rest 15 minutes. Then pour the mixture with the chopped ham into the crust and bake for 25-30 minutes at 350.

Arrange the bell pepper slices over the cooked tart in any such was as might trigger your favorite memory.


  1. That tart looks fabulous! So does the food!! I can't wait to try it!

  2. I'm procrastinating at work and reading your back blog posts, and I have two things to say:

    1) We were in Paris last August, and on our last day (a perfect day, that involved a lot of walking and a picnic in the Parc Monceau) we stopped at a little boulangerie for a cup of chocolat chaud, and it was perfect. They brought my daughter a plate of mini financiers and she got to sit at the table like a big girl and the chocolat chaud was perfect and imagine our surprise when it was one of the least expensive cafe visits we had had. The boulangerie? Eric Kayser.

    2) Eric Kayser owns breadbar, in WeHo and Century City. You can have that same (or nearly same -- it just doesn't taste quite like Paris) baguette here.

    Oh, and a third thing -- we should really have lunch.