It may just be residual stress from cookery school, but making a tart – sweet or savoury – is up there in the top five reasons to bring me out in a cold sweat. Various forms of confrontation are another. As is speaking French. But back to tarts; over the last 6 and a half years since leaving cookery school, I have avoided making tarts at all costs. But now I live in France where, not only do I have to speak French but the tart was born and bred here. So, I mustered the strength, rolled up my sleeves, and made a goat’s cheese and onion tart, simply to see if I could.
And, you know what? I could.
Although, you know the expression ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’? I still managed to spend an excruciatingly long time working out if it is a tart or a quiche. It was honestly days later that I settled on goat’s cheese and onion tart. Even with this pastry-phobia conquered, tarts know how to push my buttons.
A goat’s cheese and onion tart combined with pastry-phobia…
At cookery school, we started with the basics. First there was scrambled eggs and mayonnaise, then there was shortcrust pastry. Learning the essentials means you have to wipe your memory, like a chalkboard being vigorously cleaned. Forget everything you know, and now learn how to make shortcrust pastry in a bowl with a cutlery knife in either hand.
Aside from all of us looking like Edward Scissorhands, the clanging of metal knives on metal bowls rang in our ears as we cut the butter into the flour, acting like human scissors, the knives our bladed hands as we sliced over and over again. While liquid in shortcrust is necessary, at school oh boy I believed those two spoonfuls of iced water were sacred, and that the flood would come if I added a drop too much. All of this was to teach us precision and caution, but I think we’ve got the picture of my general anxiety, and asking an anxious person to be cautious means you won’t get anything done.
As a result, my pastry was always bone dry, sucking all moisture out of my mouth, so crumbly it would shatter at a touch. So, away I scuttled, to the safety of a tart and quiche-free life.
Of course, we all know we must conquer our fears. It took me time to learn that making pastry isn’t just one way or the other – the Edward Scissorhands-way or in a food processor. At one of my restaurant jobs, I made sweet shortcrust in bulk in a bread dough mixer. It looked and felt like playdough, and I’m sure my teacher at Leiths would have needed a lie down if he’d seen me hunched over the machine like a weird pastry Gollum. That pastry was pain-free and easy. There are rules – in both pastry and life – that we are advised to follow, but it’s ok to deviate from time to time, to see what works best for us.
So, with that in mind, I bought a tart tin. It’s been sitting in the cupboard for a year now, but it’s good knowing it’s there, just in case. Finally, I used it last week to make this goat’s cheese and onion tart. And I’m so glad I did.
The French Tart: Pâte brisée
Pâte brisée and shortcrust pastry are one and the same, however, the pâte brisée recipe I followed (in a cookbook of Gaylord’s that has no front or back cover so, unhelpfully, I have no idea what it’s called or who it’s by and neither does he) takes away all the caution and pastry-phobia by whacking everything in a bowl, and what do you know, I had pastry!
So which of my cookery school commandments did it ignore?
Use cold butter?
This butter was creamy soft, I even left it outside to sunbathe for a while.
Don’t overhandle it?
Again, this recipe simply stuck two fingers up at the rules. Those dreaded cutlery knives distanced warm hands from cold butter, but here the butter is already soft so get your hands in there and give it a good old rough and tumble if you want.
Add only a touch of water??
Well I suppose not all rules are made to be broken, although in this recipe there are 2 tablespoons of water rather the mere teaspoon I would add, and there’s an egg. With all the moisture, the pastry comes together effortlessly, and I practically skipped into the living room with my ball of dough to proudly show it off to Gaylord – yes! I made this!
So far, so good! Half a goat’s cheese and onion tart conquered! Now, for the filling.
Goat’s Cheese and Onion Tart
So, it turns out, the pastry wasn’t the only rule this recipe broke. If recipes could be rebellious, this goat’s cheese and onion tart would be right up there with Miley Cyrus, laughing away on a wrecking ball together. Sign me up to all the pastry-rules protests with this guy around.
To take you back to my first week at cookery school, we started with the egg and then, to combine our learning on eggs and pastry, we made quiche. This goat’s cheese and onion tart takes all that teaching, pretends to be interested, then throws it out the window.
It starts off gently enough – I was led down a path of a false sense of security as I caramelised onions with fresh thyme which is always fun and gentle, adding a spoonful of balsamic vinegar and brown sugar for a touch of sharp sweetness. Then it got weird.
The eggs and cream were merrily whisked together with a touch of salt and nutmeg, then I had to cook them. Before pouring it into the pastry case. The recipe simply said cook them over low heat until thick. My inner goody-two-shoes from cookery school went into a flap, shrieking about scrambled egg, so to calm her down, I set the bowl in a bain marie over steaming water. Patience is a virtue but after 15 minutes of stirring a bowl of unchanging custard, I may have turned the heat up a smidge too much. Cue the hurried use of the sieve to catch any overcooked egg.
Into this thick creamy, airy custard the caramelised onions went, the filling coating every strand and then it was all scooped into the blind baked pastry case – and that pastry was an absolute dream to roll out, line the tin, then bake, honestly I feel like a proud parent. Garnished with some rounds of onion and fat creamy circles of goat’s cheese, I couldn’t believe such a beauty of a tart was made by these fair hands. Then I checked the recipe again, and it said bake at 200C. And that set my internal panicked cookery school student off again.
Eggs need low heat otherwise they scramble (please see above). This goat’s cheese and onion tart just didn’t care though, and possibly that precooking helped. The custard was stabilised without the slightest souffle, and the oven crisped some of the surface into russet gold patches.
By this stage, I was starving so I immediately cut a slice. The pastry was surprisingly crisp and not the slightest bit dry, and I bit through with a satisfying snap. However, that filling was so smooth and creamy, the onion muddled up in sultry tendrils of sweetness, and adorning the top, those cheeky circles of goat’s cheese had oozed and melted.
I ate two slices standing there in my kitchen, then another for dinner with potato salad, and another for lunch the next day. If we all had a cooking hall of fame, mine would probably be dominated by photos of brownies, but I think I can finally add a tart to the end, and it would be none other than this rebellious goat’s cheese and onion tart.
Goat’s Cheese and Onion Tart
- 1 28cm fluted tart tin
For the pastry
- 150 g unsalted butter softened and cut into cubes
- 300 g flour
- 1 egg beaten
- 2 tbsp cold water keep in the fridge until you need it
- A pinch of salt
- Beaten egg for egg wash
For the filling
- 3 large onions approximately 550g
- 40 g butter
- 3 sprigs of fresh thyme and a few extra leaves for garnish
- 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
- 1 tsp dark brown sugar
- 225 ml double cream
- 2 eggs
- A pinch of nutmeg
- 100 g log of soft goat's cheese
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- In bowl, sift in the flour and stir in the salt. Make a well in the centre and add the beaten egg, the cold water and the cubed butter. Get your hands in there and slowly incorporate all the flour and breaking down the butter. Soon you'll have crumbly dough so tip it onto the surface and gently knead it until it is fairly smooth and cohesive. Flatten it into a circle, wrap it in cling film and chill for an hour.
For the onions
- Carefully slice one onion into rounds, and reserve a quarter of the slices for the top. Slice the rest of the onions into thin strips. Melt the butter in a non-stick frying pan, and once hot and sizzling add the onion slices. Stir to coat in the melted butter, sprinkle with some salt and cook for 5 minutes as the water evaporates. Add the thyme sprigs.
- To really soften the onions, lower the heat and take a square piece of baking parchment, a little bigger than the frying pan. Scrunch it up then run it under cold water, squeeze off the excess then straighten it out. Place it over the onions to trap in the moisture. Leave the onions to cook for 10 minutes.
- Check on the onions – they will have browned on the bottom so stir them all together. You can leave them for another 10 minutes, or you can now add the balsamic vinegar and brown sugar. Increase the heat to let the vinegar and sugar caramelise then take the pan off the heat to cool. Remove the woody thyme stems.
For the pastry
- Once the pastry has rested for an hour, remove it from the fridge. Sprinkle some flour on the kitchen surface. Bash the pastry a couple of times with the rolling pin to loosen it up a bit as it will be quite firm. Roll it out into a big circle until it is all evenly the thickness of a £1 coin. Measure the tart tin on top to ensure there is enough overhang.
- Gently wrap one end of the pastry over the rolling pin then slide the tart tin underneath. Flip the pastry over so the side you were rolling is on the underneath – the outside of the tart. Rip off a corner of pastry dough and use it to press the edges into the flutes and corners. Smooth it down across the top, then roll the rolling pin over to cut away the excess on the sharp edges. Set the lined tin in the fridge for half an hour.
- Preheat the oven to 210°C/190°C fan/410°F. Place a tray in the oven to heat up.
For the filling
- Meanwhile, mix together the cream, eggs, nutmeg and some salt in a mixing bowl. Warm a saucepan with a little water and set the bowl on top. Make sure the heat is low and gently stir with a spatula. It will take a while for the mixture to warm but take your time, maybe listen to a podcast so you don't get too bored! It will thicken quickly so be ready to remove it from the heat (if necessary keep a sieve on standby!). Stir the onions into the custard, ensuring all the pieces are well coated.
- Take the pastry case out the fridge, pierce some holes in the base with a fork, then line with some crumpled baking parchment. Weigh it down with baking beans or uncooked rice. Place the tin on the hot tray in the oven and bake for 15 minutes.
- After 15 minutes, check the pastry by carefully lifting the baking parchment. If the base is still greyish, it will need longer but you can remove the parchment with the baking beans or rice. Return it to the oven for another 5 minutes, then brush it all over in egg wash and bake for 5 more minutes.
- Fill the baked tart case with the creamy onion filling, then top with the reserved circles of raw onion and some thyme leaves. Cut the goat's cheese into rounds and dot them across the top. Return the tart to the oven and bake for 20 minutes until the surface is golden and the cheese has melted.