Before I started to write about food – when it was just an obsession and not a job – I kept notebooks for particular subjects. There was a whole book on summer puddings, another on dishes that you could make with chicken, and a small blue one simply entitled Tarts.
This book was full of ideas for what to put in a tart and, at the back, was a sort of ready reckoner on how much custard, how many eggs and how much cream was needed for different sizes of tin. This was so I didn’t just use other people’s recipes, but could create my own fillings based on what I thought would work well together.
Tarts were one of the first things I learnt to make as a teenager. I’d been making cakes for years and found most savoury dishes – braises and roasts – were easy. But tarts were the pinnacle of difficult things you could produce in your kitchen because unlike pies, which have a pastry top, they were open. They could look sensational.
Historians believe that tarts evolved because we love layering foods, but also because you could show off the filling. Pies were closed and could contain the humblest ingredients, but tarts were about making a statement.
We also love tarts because they’re made with fat. Filo layers are brushed with melted butter; in puff pastry, the butter is trapped in the dough then melts in the heat of the oven, creating steam that pushes the layers apart. There’s fat in the fillings, too, so our mouths end up full of something we crave.
The first tart I made was actually sweet, a strawberry tart following a recipe by Katie Stewart. For me, at that time, it was complicated. I’d never used a proper metal tart tin with a removable base, and I’d never made crème pâtissière for a filling. But once I’d glazed the berries and stood back to admire my glistening creation, I was thrilled. This was proper grown-up cooking.
After that I made my first quiche, a tart filled with onions and bacon. It was golden, its top studded with little lardons, and again I was amazed that I had managed to make it.
The mere idea of making a tart tends to frighten people because it involves pastry. Most of us can knock up a cake if we follow a recipe, but tarts require handling stuff – shortcrust, puff and filo pastry – that can fall apart.
If you can overcome your fear, however, the buzz you’ll get from creating something beautiful, something that you’d usually buy or see in the window of a bakery, will make you a more confident cook in all areas.
For the recipes below, you don’t have to make the pastry – filo is very difficult for the home cook and ready-made puff pastry (as long as you buy a good one) is as buttery and flaky as anything you can make yourself. I’m hoping that you will see how easy it is to make a tart, and then you can start thinking about creating your own fillings.
Two of the tarts on these pages have a basic custard filling – made from crème fraîche, cream and eggs – which is more or less the same. I suggest you use the filling as your blueprint.
You’ll also learn how to deal with filo, and how to use puff pastry for both a flat tart and one that has sides and a filling. Once you’ve made the bacon and egg breakfast tart, for example, you can move on to other flat summery tarts. The cheese and mascarpone base works with sliced tomatoes, olives and basil, or spinach, onion and goat’s cheese.
My tips for great results? Make sure your oven is preheated to the right temperature and that you season your filling well. Believe me – you’re going to be amazed at what you can do.