One summer afternoon between my junior and senior years of high school my mom and I took a walk (more of a sweaty stagger in the Woodland Hills heat) to a nearby restaurant for lunch. We managed to stop squabbling long enough to enjoy the food at Villa Piacere, and dessert consisted of cake and brandy-soaked cherries, which, to my delight, got me tipsy. I had been looking for a summer job for the past several weeks, with no luck. Emboldened, I asked the hostess about possible employment. When she handed me an application for a serving position, I explained that, actually, I preferred to work in the kitchen. She gave me a quizzical look, left again, and returned with the head chef, who smirkingly agreed to give me a shot in the pantry.
Serge had a thick, Southern French accent, and though in the midst of 4 years of highschool french classes, I could barely understand a word he said in any language. Your stereotypical, hot-tempered French chef, he would scream when things didn’t go his way. One day while demonstrating how to make crème brulées, he confided that he had a daughter around my age. ‘She does not go near zee kitchen,’ he said, apparently perplexed, then proceeded to berate me for over-soaking the tiramisù.
I probably learned more during the two months working at Villa Piacere than I have at any other job or school, put together, including which bartenders would trade me a piña colada for a slice of cheesecake and how to make the cooks laugh by swearing in Spanish. My duties consisted of prepping all the salad makings and cold appetizers, including cooking shrimp and ripping their legs off and hacking up huge chunks of bloody tuna; making fresh pasta, including squid ink linguine; baking fresh rosemary-garlic rolls and making and plating all the desserts: tiramisu, pots de creme, cheesecake, and more. Looking back, I can’t fathom how I could have possibly gotten everything done in the short amount of time I had, and I wonder to this day why Serge decided to hire slow, inexperienced me for such a challenging position (daughter issues, perhaps?).
Serge had little respect for his clientele. One day, when I asked if I could do a baked goat cheese salad ala Cafe Fanny he spat, ‘Zee Americans, zay do not like zee goat cheese. Zay like zee shrimp!’ and insisted instead on a large platter of seafood louis. (To my delight, I did do the goat cheese salad one night when Serge was off and it was the top seller that evening, and remained on the menu for years afterward.)
Serge once showed me how to make the blue cheese dressing, and instructed me to use both blue cheese and roquefort. ‘What’s the difference?’ I asked. Shocked by my ignorance, Serge enlightened me, ‘Zee blue cheese is Americain, zee roquefort is French.’ The way he phrased it left no question as to which was the superior cheese.
You can use any blue cheese you like for this tart, and I promise not to berate you for it. This time I used a creamy Saint Agur, but a sweet gorgonzola would be tasty, too, or even a soft chèvre or a creamy brie. The recipe comes from The American Boulangerie, by Pascal Rigo, a French chef himself, and daddy of the La Boulange. Sweet, ripe pears combine with blue cheese, hazelnuts and a bit of custard in a buttery tart shell to make a richly satisfying brunch or supper. Use any nuts you like in place of the hazels, such as pine nuts, walnuts or pecans. If you want to substitute apples for the pears, peel them and slice them very thinly as they are firmer and take longer to cook than pears. I would go with a semi-firm, semi-tart apple such as fuji, gala, pink pearl or pink lady.
This tart is assembled in an un-baked crust, which makes things simpler than having to deal with pie weights and all that, but the crust does turn out softer than it would were it par-baked. If you choose to par-bake, line the crust with parchment and pie weights (or clean pennies) and bake at 400º for 15 – 20 minutes, then remove the weights and bake another 5 minutes to dry out the bottom. Proceed with the tart from there, baking the assembled tart at 350º until the filling is puffed and set, 25 – 30 minutes.
Pear, Blue Cheese and Hazelnut Tart
One 10 or 11″ tart, 8-ish servings
This tart can stand many variations. The first time I made it, I used all heavy cream in the custard in place of the crème fraîche and milk. This time around, I used a combination of quark and heavy cream. You can substitute walnuts, pecans, or pine nuts for the hazels if you prefer. If you use apples in place of the pears, slice them 1/8″ thick; I would go with fujis, galas or pink ladies. Serve this rich tart with a crisp salad of arugula, beets, fennel and vinaigrette, and a glass of prosecco or sauvignon blanc.
3/4 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole spelt or whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick (4 ounces, 8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cold, in 3/4″ dice
4 – 6 tablespoons ice water, as needed
Adapted from The American Boulangerie
1/2 cup raw hazelnuts
2 large, ripe but firm pears (preferably Bartletts), cut off the core and sliced lengthwise 1/4″ thick
4 ounces blue cheese (such as Roquefort, St. Agur or gorgonzola)
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup crème fraîche
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
a few turns black pepper
For the crust:
In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, sugar and salt. Scatter the butter pieces over the top and rub with your fingertips until the mixture is the texture of cornmeal with some larger, pea-sized butter chunks remaining. Sprinkle the ice water over 1 tablespoon at a time, tossing with your fingers or a rubber spatula, until the dough begins to clump together and no loose, floury bits remain. Gather the dough into a ball, flatten into a disc and wrap tightly in plastic wrap or a plastic bag. Chill at least 30 minutes, or until firm.
Remove the dough from the fridge and roll out on a lightly floured surface into a 12 – 14″ round (depending on the size of your pan). Fit the dough into a 10″ or 11″ tart pan. Trim the overhang to 1 inch, then fold it over to make a lip, pressing the sides gently. Freeze the tart crust while you prepare the filling ingredients.
For the filling:
Position a rack in the bottom of the oven, place a baking stone on the rack if you’ve got one, and preheat the oven to 350º.
Place the hazels on a small baking pan and toast 10 – 12 minutes until fragrant and the skins are starting to peel away from the nuts. Let cool until handleable, then rub between your hands to remove as much of the skins as possible. Coarsely chop the nuts.
Increase the oven temperature to 425º.
Measure the crème fraîche and milk in a 2-cup measure, and whisk in the egg, salt and pepper. Arrange the pears in the bottom of the unbaked, frozen tart shell. Crumble the cheese over, and sprinkle with half the nuts. Pour the custard over the pears and sprinkle with the remaining half of the nuts. Immediately place the tart pan on a baking sheet and place in the oven on the baking stone.
Bake the tart until the crust and top are golden, 35 – 40 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. The tart is best soon after being baked, but will keep in the fridge for a few days. Warm in the oven or toaster oven before serving.