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Queen of Hearts Strawberry Tart

As a child, I had a book of poems and stories for children. This was my favorite illustration:

This nursery rhyme is easy for little kids to understand – thieves who steal sweets get punished. And those tarts look yummy, even though they’re just a cartoon. The rhyme doesn’t say what flavor they are, but they must be strawberry. Strawberries are shaped like hearts. The queen was making the tarts on a summer’s day, and strawberries are a summer fruit.

This strawberry tart recipe I'm sharing here was inspired by the magic conjured up by that illustration, even though my version looks nothing like those the knave is stealing. Even so, this strawberry tart is fit for a queen’s table. It is made of four components: a sugar-cookie crust (pâte sucrée), vanilla pastry cream, rhubarb compote, and sliced strawberries. You can make everything a day or two ahead and assemble it the day you plan to serve it. The tart benefits from resting in the refrigerator for at least three hours, and should be served chilled.

Each flavor in the tart compliments the other perfectly. Rhubarb and strawberry are a classic pairing. Pastry cream (which is really just a high-quality vanilla pudding) brings out the flavor of so many other ingredients – especially summer fruits such as berries, cherries, and peaches. In this case, it launches the tart beyond a mere fruit pie to a whole new level of deliciousness.

A note about the ingredients. In the photo below, I used strawberries that had been frozen whole at the height of their flavor. They macerated in sugar for several hours as they defrosted. Then they were drained, sliced into quarters, and arranged on the top of the tart. The advantage of using previously-frozen strawberries is that they soften considerably when defrosted, making it easier to slice the tart at serving time.

You can use fresh strawberries. If you want to macerate them in sugar first, be sure to allow a few hours so that the sugared berries can throw off liquid. Drain, slice, and arrange on top.

The tart is composed of a sugar cookie crust, rhubarb compote, vanilla pastry cream, and sliced strawberries.

Queen of Hearts Strawberry Tart

Yield: One 10-or 11-inch diameter tart, about 12 servings.

Each component can be made a day or two ahead of time, and the tart assembled on the day it will be served. The crust is blind-baked first, and then the fillings are added when the crust is cool. Be sure to let the tart chill in the refrigerator before serving.

Sweet Cookie Crust (Pâte Sucrée):

This recipe makes enough to line a 10- or 11-inch tart pan. If there is extra dough, it can be cut into shapes such as stars or hearts, baked, and arranged on top for decoration. Or simply bake the extra dough into a cookie – chef’s dividend!

· 65g sugar

· 250g all-purpose flour

· A pinch of salt

· 145g butter

· 1 egg yolk (about 16g)

· 40g heavy cream

Make the dough by first combining the dry ingredients in a bowl. Next, cut in the butter using a pastry cutter or your fingers (wear food service gloves so the butter stays cold). The mixture should be crumbly, the texture of coarse meal. If some of the butter is in small flakes, that is okay.

Turn the mixture onto the countertop, make a well in the middle, and add the yolk and heavy cream. Use a fork to whisk the liquids together, and then draw in the flour mixture. At some point, switch to a bench scraper or your hands to mix the dough until it is uniform and all the liquid is absorbed. If there isn’t enough liquid for the dough to cohere, add more heavy cream by the teaspoon. Don’t over-mix or you’ll end up with tough crust.

Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 30 minutes. This makes the dough easier to handle. On a floured counter, roll out the dough into a circle larger than your tart pan. Press it into the pan. Cover with plastic and refrigerate until cold, about an hour and up to a day. At this point, you can freeze it (well wrapped) for up to two weeks if you don’t want to bake it right away.

When you are ready to blind-bake the crust, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Line the tart shell with parchment, then weight it with dried beans, dried rice, or pie weights. Bake for about 10 to 12 minutes, then remove the parchment and weights. Return to the oven and lower the temperature to 375. If the crust starts to puff up with air bubbles, prick them. Continue to bake for another 15 - 20 minutes (or longer if it was frozen) until the edges are golden and the bottom no longer looks wet. The bottom should not brown, it should just set. The tart shell will continue to harden as it cools. If there are cracks, don’t worry. They won’t matter.

You can brush the bottom of the tart with egg white as soon as it comes out of the oven. This insulates the crust somewhat against the moist filling. Personally, I think having it soften is a nice effect, so I don’t bother with the egg white. It’s up to you.

Vanilla Pastry Cream

· 1 egg (about 50g by weight)

· 15g cornstarch

· 120g heavy cream

· 50g sugar

· A pinch of salt

· About ½ teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla paste

Whisk the eggs and cornstarch, then add a few tablespoons of the heavy cream until the cornstarch dissolves.

In a saucepan, heat the heavy cream with the sugar and salt. Stir occasionally until it comes to a simmer. Add a few tablespoons of the hot cream to the egg mixture, then dump the egg mixture into the rest of the hot heavy cream in the saucepan. Whisk constantly until the mixture comes to a boil and thickens. As soon as it is thick, like pudding, scrape it into the strainer that is suspended over a bowl. Press the mixture through the strainer. Add the vanilla extract and stir.

Let cool, and then press greased plastic wrap directly onto the surface, and store in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it, up to 2 days.

Rhubarb Compote

· About 500g (approximately 1 pound) rhubarb, chopped into half-inch slices

· About 100g of sugar, more if you like it sweeter

· About two tablespoons water

Place all the ingredients in a saucepan, cover, and cook the rhubarb on low heat until it is soft and has cooked down. Stir it once in a while to prevent scorching. Taste and add more sugar if you think it needs it. Let cool. Refrigerate until needed, up to 2 days.

Strawberries for the Top

· About 2 pints (700g) of fresh strawberries, slice lengthwise into halves or quarters. It’s hard to estimate how many you’ll need to cover the entire top of the tart because it depends on how big the berries are. If you prefer to use frozen strawberries, you’ll need about 700g (that’s about 24 ounces).

· Sugar for macerating the strawberries (this is optional for the fresh berries)

If using fresh strawberries, rinse and hull them. If you want to macerate them in sugar, start with a half cup of sugar. Give them time to throw off liquid, and taste to determine if they are sweet enough. If not, add more sugar. When they’ve macerated long enough, drain and slice.

If using frozen strawberries, sprinkle them with about a half-cup of sugar and let them defrost. Taste. If they need more sugar, add it. They will throw off a lot of liquid. Drain them before slicing and arranging on the tart.

Note: The strawberry syrup is delicious mixed with soda water or used in cocktails.

Assemble the Tart:

1. Spread the rhubarb compote into the bottom of the tart shell.

2. Spread the the pastry cream over the compote.

3. Arranged the sliced strawberries on top.

4. Chill for at least three hours, covered with plastic wrap. Serve chilled. Store leftovers in the refrigerator. The tart will keep in the refrigerator for about 3 days.

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