Summers for me in the city take on a different pace and tone than the rest of the year; most of my clients have left, slowing my workload to almost unemployment level. The emptying of my schedule makes room for jobs I might not take on during the rest of the year. Last summer, for example, I was hired to cook for two young men in from the UK for business. They were staying at a hotel close to Times Square, where they were in meetings all day and wanted something other than the touristy fried sugar crap in nearby restaurants. I delivered every meal they ate at their hotel for a week; breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. It was exhausting, but a lovely distraction from my sweaty nothingness. This summer, I’ve had a few interruptions from the boredom and terror of unemployment. I was hired to cater a party out of town where a teenage girl had her first ever cocktail and then threw up all over the living room… just as I was walking in with a beautiful tray full of mini crab cakes. No, it wasn’t the food. It was the whiskey. Poor thing.
I was hired to cater a faaaaabulous gay baby shower where the couple was presented with a cake fashioned in the shape of a baby being born, a strawberry buttercream labia cake if you will. It was high-larious and delicious too actually, but not something I’m going to add to my cake menu anytime soon. I was also hired to track down some specialty desserts for an out-of-town client. She was having a huge party in the Hamptons and wanted individually portioned desserts that weren’t hoity-toity. She wanted something fresh, cool, and new. She didn’t want French pastries. She wanted the New York version (which actually doesn’t exist). The order was a little heavy for me (over 300 pieces) and they caved and wound up ordering some French pastries from a bakery in the Hamptons. It got me thinking about single serving pastries. I make an almond pastry crust that isn’t labor or time intensive, and a vanilla bean pastry cream that makes everything in the world better, so I figured, why not play around. God knows I’ve got the freedom to play. These take some time, but they aren’t as work intensive as they seem. Believe me, for the impression you’ll make when you walk out with them, they’re worth the effort. And just wait until the guests taste them!
Summer Berry Tartlets with Almond Crust and Vanilla Pastry Cream
Almond Pastry Dough for tartlet shells
Makes 12 individual shells in a muffin tin
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon oil (not olive oil)
- 2 tablespoons water plus 1 teaspoon
- 2 teaspoons almond extract
- 1 ½ tablespoons sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1 heaping cup unbleached flour
- Preheat the oven to 410 degrees.
- In a medium, non-reactive metal bowl, combine the butter, oil, water, almond extract, sugar, and salt. You don’t have to melt the butter or stir these things together. Just put them in the bowl together and then put the bowl in the oven.
- Bake for 15 minutes.
- The mixture will be very hot and possibly splatter, so carefully take the bowl out of the oven.
- Dump the heaping cup of flour into the mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until a nice dough is formed (this will happen quickly so don’t overwork it).
- Separate dough into 12 balls and press the balls into a muffin tin, flat on the bottom and up the sides. With a fork, gently poke a few holes into the base of the dough for any bubbles to vent.
- Bake for 10-13 minutes until the shells are golden, checking halfway that they are cooking evenly.
- Let cool.
Vanilla Pastry Cream
- 1 vanilla bean
- 2 cups whole milk
- ½ cup sugar
- Pinch of salt
- 5 egg yolks
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 4 tablespoons butter
- With a small sharp knife, split the vanilla bean open lengthwise.
- In a medium pan, heat the milk, HALF the sugar (1/4 cup), the salt, and the vanilla bean – scraping the inside of the vanilla bean with a knife to make sure that all the seeds are released. Let the mixture come to a simmer but do not boil.
- In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs, the rest of the sugar (1/4 cup), and the cornstarch.
- With a ½ cup measure, add a little bit of the hot milk mixture to the eggs. Continue to add the milk mixture, but go very slowly at first. This is called “tempering the eggs” which is the process of bringing eggs up to a temperature slowly without scrambling them, and yes, I say “temper temper” every single time I make a pastry cream. Every single time.
- When you’ve added about half the milk mixture into the egg mixture, the eggs are tempered enough to be heated. Pour the egg/ milk mixture back into the pan with the milk and heat on medium heat until the mixture has thickened, making sure to scrape the sides of the pan. Watch it carefully because it still can scramble or burn easily. It should take a few minutes to thicken. It should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
- Off the heat, fish the vanilla bean out of the mixture, add the butter, and stir to incorporate.
- Scrape into a bowl and place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the top of the pastry cream (not over the bowl). This will keep a skin from forming.
- Let cool.
Put a healthy dollop of pastry cream into the pastry cups and then top with fresh fruit. I don’t cover the fruit with a glaze because if you’ve got great fruit it shouldn’t need the extra sugar, but sometimes people like the fruit to have an extra shine. If that’s your pleasure, you can paint the fruit with a strawberry jam or a simple syrup.