There are few culinary joys equal to biting into the still-warm crust of a puff pastry tart. The way those crisp yet airy layers shatter into crumbs always makes me giddy with wonder: How can butter be so light and feathery? How can air be this rich and crunchy?
If you have an exacting nature, plenty of patience and loads of time, making your own puff pastry is ideal. But for the improvisational cook, a box of good, all-butter puff pastry kept in the freezer is a perfectly legitimate alternative, baking up as ethereal and burnished as anything I’ve been able to make from scratch. They make whipping up impressive fruit and vegetable tarts a feat you can do on the fly. And, once you’ve learned a few simple rules, the possibilities are vast and easy to riff on.
First, though, you’ll need to track down a good brand of puff pastry, preferably one made with butter. Some supermarkets stock it only around the winter holidays, so if you see it then, consider buying a few extra packages. In doing so, you can bake something with asparagus or strawberries for Mother’s Day, or have your way with tomatoes and peaches come summer. When properly stored in the freezer, it can last for eight to 10 months.
It’s best to thaw puff pastry slowly — for at least three to six hours in the fridge, where it will keep for a week or so. If you’re in a rush, you can cheat, as long as you’re careful. Take the pastry out of the box and place it, still wrapped, on a metal pan on your counter, then turn it over every 15 minutes until it’s thawed enough to unfold, but not at all warm (about 1 ½ hours total). Avoid the microwave no matter what; it will melt some areas of the pastry into sticky puddles while leaving other parts rigid and frozen.
A flabby, underbaked center is the scourge of puff pastry tarts, and the usual culprits are toppings with a high moisture content or piling on too many ingredients that can steam and ooze all over your dough. Be sparing. A little topping goes a long way, especially when the buttery crust is as much a part of the appeal as whatever is on top. Two to four cups of fruit or vegetables is a good range.
Precooking the vegetables can help reduce moisture and add flavor, whether you’re roasting, grilling or sautéing them. But there are some quick-cooking, low-moisture vegetables that can be used raw: Asparagus, corn kernels and broccolini are excellent strewn over the crust. And if you’re working with fresh tomatoes, be sure to drain them on a clean kitchen towel before they meet any pastry, lest sogginess ensue.
I like to add a smear of crème fraîche spiked with herbs, lemon and garlic beneath the vegetables. It makes the tart velvety and adds panache. But ricotta, mascarpone, goat cheese and cream cheese are fine alternatives. Just don’t use anything thin and runny like plain yogurt, or you risk dampening the pastry.
For sweet tarts, tossing juicy summer fruit with a little cornstarch will bind the liquid and keep it from leaking, but there’s no exact science on what amount you should use. Sliced ripe stone fruit and rhubarb need more, while berries and cherries need a little less. (Skip the cornstarch entirely for apples and firm pears if you’re looking toward autumn.) Two to three tablespoons per quart of sliced fruit should do it.
Sugar amounts are similarly variable. Plan for about two to five tablespoons sugar per quart of fruit, bearing in mind that ripe July peaches will need less sugar than rhubarb and puckery raspberries. Taste your fruit before adding the sugar, then wing it. If the tart ends up too sweet, you can top it with crème fraîche for tang. And if it’s not quite sweet enough, a little ice cream goes a long way.
Now that you’ve figured out what to put on top of your pastry, here’s my trick for enhancing its underside. For savory tarts, I sprinkle a layer of grated cheese on the pan before adding the dough. The cheese melts and browns, giving the bottom crust the taste and texture of a giant cheese straw. For fruit tarts, I use a sprinkle of Demerara sugar, which caramelizes, turning candylike and pleasingly brittle.
Whether you go with a savory or sweet tart, be sure to serve it either still slightly warm, or within a few hours of baking. That’s when a puff pastry tart is at its crispest and most-compelling best.