Strawberry Tartlets

Local strawberry season is late spring to summer around here (northeast US) but lately, my market has been stocking the most amazing (organic) berries, which I guess are from California or Florida or somewhere else warm. Typically, I like to shop for local and seasonal fruit because that's what tends to be the freshest and yummiest but the smell of these berries was so phenomenal, I couldn't pass them up.

I knew I wanted to make a dessert and I considered a few ideas like strawberry shortcake and strawberry cheesecake and a strawberry handpies. But then, I settled on a strawberry tart because I wanted something that would really showcase the fresh berry. And then I decided to make personal-sized tartlets because I thought that they'd be cuter. "Tartlets. Tartlets. Tartlets. Word has lost all meaning." Name that show!
Ingredients [6 tartlets]:
  ¾ cup all purpose flour
  ½ cup blanched almonds
  2 tablespoon sugar
  1 stick cold butter
  1 cup cream
  1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
  2 tablespoons sugar
  1½ tablespoons corn starch
  ½ teaspoon salt
  2 egg yolks
  1 teaspoon vanilla extract
and you'll need 2 pints of strawberries

The first step in making the crust is to toast the almonds. Toasting the almonds serves a few purposes. First of all, the oils in the nuts will be warmed up which it will deepen the flavor and make the almonds more fragrant. Seriously, your house will smell amazing, uh-may-zing. Secondly, it will give them a slightly firmer texture, which will help the crust have crisper texture. The last reason is aesthetics. The golden color just looks prettier. So, heat up your oven to 350F and spread out the almonds on a sheet pan in a single layer. Toast them in the oven for 10 to 12 minutes, giving the pan a little shake halfway through, until they're golden brown and fragrant. A good rule of thumb: when you start to smell the nuts, they're probably ready to come out of the oven. A second too long and you'll end up burning them so keep an eye on them. Set the almonds aside to cool.
Once the almonds are cooled completely, throw them into a food processor with 1/4 cup of flour. Pulse together until the almonds are pretty finely ground. Then, add in the remaining flour and sugar and pulse again just to get everything mixed together.
Dump the almond and flour mixture into a large bowl.
Cube up the cold butter into small chunks. If it's a particularly warm day, I suggest chucking the cubed butter into the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes. This will just buy you more time to form the dough without the butter going too soft.
Use a pastry cutter (or fork) to blend the butter into the dough. You're looking for a crumbly, almost sandy texture with a few larger chunks of butter here and there.
You'll know the dough is ready when you grab a handful and give it a squeeze and the dough keeps its form.
Get your mini tart pans (or fluted ramekins meant for creme brulee, which is what I used) ready by greasing them (I used my butter wrapper). Then, dump in a few spoonfuls of the crust dough. First, gently spread the dough out so there's a relatively even layer and then press the dough down into the pan with your fingers.
Pop these bad boys (or girls?) into a 350F oven for 12 to 15 minutes or until just lightly browned.
Set the crusts aside to cool.
Start by adding the cream and scraped vanilla bean - both the caviar and the bean itself - to a saucepan. Heat the pan up over a low and gentle heat until scalding.
While the milk is heating, combine the egg yolks, sugar, salt, and cornstarch in a bowl and whisk vigorously until the mixture is pale yellow and the sugar has dissolved.
Pour a little of the hot cream into the yolk mixture to temper the eggs so they won't scramble. Once it seems like the eggs are used to the temperature, you can pour in the rest of the cream and whisk to combine. Pour the creamy yolk mixture back into the saucepan.
Don't forget to scrape the bowl! The vanilla caviar tends to sink and you'll abandon a lot of flecked vanilla goodness if you don't. I'm a huge advocate of scraping; the rubber spatula is one of my favorite kitchen tools. Is it just me? I get so annoyed with Food Network shows where the hosts leave behind a bunch of yummy goodness because they don't have time to scrape.
Add the vanilla to the custard mix and then heat up over a low flame. Whisk continuously until the custard thickens.
Next, fish out the bits of vanilla bean or, if you want a really smooth custard, push it through a fine strainer.
Chill the custard for at least 2 hours.
Rinse a bunch of strawberries, snip off the green tops, and halve or quarter them (depending on the size). This particular container had long old-fashioned-Christmas-lightbulb-shaped strawberries that were all on the smaller-side so I halved most of them. By the way, you could substitute the strawberries with blueberries or raspberries or blackberries. I just picked strawberries because as I'd mentioned in my intro paragraph, they looked and smelled so amazing.
Get your tart shells lined up and grab the custard from the fridge.
Spread a generous layer of custard on the bottom of the tart shell and then top with berries. Easiest assembly ever, right? Once you have your tarts made, put them in the fridge to chill for 2 hours before you serve them.
And all that's left to do is dig in. This tart is one of my favorites because there's a lovely fresh aspect from the raw, unadulterated berries and a really delicious combination of richness and decadence from the cream and the buttery, nutty crust. It's so good. And the little flecks of vanilla bean in the custard make me really happy.

This would be a lovely dessert. It would also make an indulgent breakfast with a hot cuppa. It's beautiful but not overly difficult and the components can be made ahead of time and at your leisure; I would suggest making this to impress a dinner party or relatives or just to hoard and eat by yourself. I won't tell. Oh, and Valentine's Day is just three weeks away so maybe you could make a batch to get in the spirit of the "holiday."
Here's the recipe page:


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