October 17, 2018

Dear friends,
Tony went native in France. He embraced the culture as if he were coming home, even buying a straw fedora like the men wore in the rural chunk of France we visited. The hat is stowed for the winter now, and my husband seems a lost soul as he wanders supermarkets in search of decent cheese, a dry rose, a passable loaf of bread.

Mon Dieu.

My burden is a carb hangover. I couldn’t resist the baguettes and macarons, and now I’m paying for it. I crave bread. I crave sugar. I crave those addictive little custard tarts I bought at an outdoor market at Place Monge in Paris. They were so good I hid them from Tony and ate both of them myself. Don’t judge me until you taste one.

The mini tarts are sold at cheese stores and patisseries all over Paris. They have a puff pastry crust, although it’s not allowed to puff, and a very dense, sweet vanilla custard filling that is blistered in patches on the top. The tarts are actually Portuguese, I learned, although the French have enthusiastically adopted them.

Last weekend, in a final sugar splurge, I made a dozen of the tarts to both enjoy and to atone for swiping Tony’s share in France. I used an internet recipe from the French Cooking Academy, converting the grams and liters to ounces and cups. The tarts were as good as I remembered.

The tarts are tiny — they’re made in cupcake tins — and easy to assemble if you use frozen puff pastry. But because the ingredients are few, quality is important. Use a real vanilla bean to flavor the custard, and don’t downgrade the cream to half and half or whole milk.

The recipe makes enough custard — actually, creme patisserie — to fill about 24 tart shells. I thought that was an unconscionable number of tarts for two people, so I made just 12 tarts and spooned the remaining filing into two custard cups to eat as very rich pudding.

Tony loved the tarts so much I had to fight for my share. I’m glad I didn’t tell him about the leftover custard.

FRENCH CUSTARD TARTS

1 box (2 sheets, 17.3 oz.) frozen puff pastry
6 large egg yolks
3/4 cup superfine sugar (see note)
1/3 cup cornstarch
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 vanilla bean
Butter to grease pan

Remove pastry from box and thaw at room temperature for 45 minutes while you make the filling.

In the bowl of a mixer, beat the egg yolks and sugar until they turn a very pale yellow. By hand, gently stir in the cornstarch.

Heat milk and cream on medium-high heat in a medium-sized saucepan. As they heat, split the vanilla bean with a sharp knife and scrape the seeds into the milk mixture. Add the vanilla pod and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat.

Remove the vanilla pods and slowly whisk into the yolk mixture in a thin stream, beating rapidly to prevent the egg yolks from cooking. Return to saucepan. Whisk and cook until the custard comes to a boil. Continue to whisk and cook for 1 minute, until custard is thick but still pours in thick ribbons.

Remove from heat and place plastic wrap directly on custard. Cool to room temperature while fashioning tart shells.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. On a lightly floured board or counter, unfold one sheet of puff pastry. With a floured rolling pin, roll to about one-eighth-inch thickness. With a 4 1/2- or 5-inch circular biscuit cutter or glass, cut 4 circles. Ease them into a buttered 12-hole cupcake tin. Re-roll half of the scraps. Cut one more round and fit it into another cupcake hole. Set aside remaining scraps.

Repeat with remaining sheet of puff pastry. You should have two empty cupcake holes. Re-roll remaining pastry scraps from both sheets of pastry. Cut two more rounds and fit them into the remaining cupcake holes.

Spoon custard into the tart shells to fill no more than half way. Refrigerate the remaining custard to eat later. Bake tarts at 375 degrees for about 45 to 50 minutes, or until filling puffs, then subsides, and turns dark in spots. Cool. Serve tarts at room temperature or chilled. Makes 12 tarts.

TIDBITS
Ruth Reichl book signing:
The former New York Times restaurant critic and Gourmet magazine food editor will give a free lecture at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 25 at the Canton Palace Theater. Afterward she will sign copies of her 2014 novel, “Delicious.” Reservations are required from http://www.starklibrary.org.

Musings on food and life:
Lists of the best food memoirs of all time are a thing now. I’ve seen lists on Amazon, Pinterest and Food52. A Canadian friend, former Toronto Star food editor Marion Kane, has an interesting list. Check it out here: https://www.marionkane.com/recipe-2/im-eating-delicious-food-memoirs/.

I segued from reading mostly fiction to mostly memoirs and biographies a decade ago. My latest reads include “Mastering the Art of French Eating” by Ann Mah, “Medium Raw” by Anthony Bourdain and “Hunger: A Memoir of My Body” by Roxane Gay.

Because everyone is doing it, I might as well, too. Here’s my list for the best food memoirs I’ve read, in no particular order:

“The Art of Eating” by M.F.K. Fisher; “Born Round” by Frank Bruni; “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain; The Tummy Trilogy (three books) by Calvin Trillin; “Garlic and Sapphires” by Ruth Reichl; “Heartburn” by Nora Ephron, and “Blood, Bones and Butter” by Gabrielle Hamilton.

Are there any I missed?

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
Pumpkin pie; honey-mustard pork chops, stir-fried bell peppers and olives with Szechuan chili oil; cornbread, venison-lentil chili; soft-scrambled eggs with truffle salt, buttered toast; French custard tarts; baked leeks, carrots and chicken tenders with a mayonnaise-mustard crumb topping.

What I ate in/from restaurants last week:
Pork chow mein with crispy noodles from Chin’s Place in Akron; pad Thai at the stir-fry bar at Giant Eagle in Cuyahoga Falls.

THE MAILBAG
From Sue B.:
On a chilly fall Sunday morning I made your Carrot-Leek with Thyme Soup. Although my carrots were not freshly dug from the ground, the soup is/was just delicious! I will definitely grow carrots next year in the garden. Sharing today with friends as we gather around my new Amish table… so lovely!. I especially enjoyed your writings while in France. Lucky you!

Dear Sue:
Thank you for the feedback on the recipe. That’s nice to hear. I’m also glad you enjoy hearing about my trip to France, because I’m still dishing about it. The trip was my first to France in almost 20 years. The last time I went (with my mother), the Eiffel Tower was not surrounded by wire fences patrolled by gun-toting police, the black swans were still in the ponds at its feet, and the lines to enter the museums and Notre Dame were not a couple of blocks long. But the food is still good and the city is still impossibly romantic.

Before I remarried, I had planned to spend three months in Italy when I retired. Two weeks in France with Tony seems like a fair trade-off.

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