One of life's great ironies is that the perfect time to bake fruit tarts is in the summer, when it's too hot to turn on the oven.
Peaches, plums, berries, nectarines ... no matter how beautiful the fruit might be, if you crank up the oven when it's blazing outside, it had better be short and sweet. Make every degree count.
Fortunately, tart shells take only about half an hour to bake and most fillings can be made in a few minutes on the stove or even in the microwave. Then you just need to arrange the fruit on top, and the tart is ready to serve.
There is nothing better than a simple crisp tart shell filled with smooth vanilla pastry cream and topped with ripe summer fruit. But you don't need to stop there. Armed with a few basic recipes and variations, you can serve a wide variety of summer fruit tarts.
Start with the shell: What if you ground some macadamia nuts into the flour? Their buttery richness would make a great accent to tropical fruits.
And just imagine how that would work with a coconut-flavored pastry cream. It's simple: Replace some of the milk with canned coconut milk and arrange slices of mango, kiwi and raspberries on top for a colorful tart.
Papaya works well, as do segments or circles of navel oranges, and fresh passion fruit seeds can be scattered for a bit of crunchy tang. Fresh pineapple should be avoided; an enzyme in the fruit breaks down the pastry cream quickly.
Or go away from the pastry cream idea entirely. What about a quick citrus curd? Maybe top it with some summer berries and garnish it with a little whipped cream? Lemon curd is the obvious choice and works well with raspberries and blueberries, but in August, when we get great blackberries, a lime curd is a natural variation.
And what about a curd made from passion fruit?
Sometimes I eliminate the cream or curd altogether and simply brush the bottom crust with jam, fill it with fruit and serve each slice with a scoop of my favorite ice cream or a dollop of creme frai^che.
Leaving out the pastry cream simplifies the recipe and allows for other cool creams--mascarpone, creme frai^che or lightly sweetened sour cream--to be served on the side. Without the pastry cream or curd, the tart will hold longer, up to three or four hours without refrigeration.
Because many stone fruits brown soon after being placed on top of a fresh fruit tart, I sometimes prefer to bake them into a nutty almond frangipane filling. Blackberries and blueberries also complement almond and can be baked into the filling. These baked fruit tarts are sturdier than the fresh fruit or citrus curd tarts and perfect for traveling to the beach or on a picnic.
Arranging the fruit on a tart shell can be as complicated or as simple as you choose, a play of colors and a bit of whimsy. If you are intimidated by the careful placement of the fruit, try cutting the fruit into similar-sized cubes and tossing the cubes with a bit of melted currant jelly. Then pile the mixture onto a tart shell into a glistening mound.
Of course, the key to any of these recipes is the fruit, but given that and these basic recipes with their variations, you can assemble an almost endless variety of fruit tarts with hardly any notice. And hardly any heat.
Weil is a professional baker and baking teacher. She lives in Berkeley and is writing a book on American baking.
Basic Tart Shell
Active Work Time: 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour plus 1 hour chilling
This sturdy dough has a butter cookie-like texture and is perfect for tarts because it shrinks only a bit during baking. It must be made in a standing mixer, as it's hard to pull it together by hand. I like to double this recipe and store shells that have been rolled out and pressed into the tart pans in the freezer for up to 2 months. Double wrap them in plastic to ensure freshness. I bake them in a preheated oven directly from the freezer. Baked shells can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 days. You can also make 24 to 30 small tartlets with this recipe.
2 1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) cold butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
* Combine flour, sugar and salt in bowl of standing mixer. Cut butter into 1/2-inch cubes and add to flour mixture. On slow speed, mix butter and flour until texture resembles coarse oatmeal.
* Beat egg and vanilla together in small bowl and add to flour mixture. Mix until dough pulls together. Form 2 thick flat disks and set aside to rest 5 minutes.
* Roll out dough disks slightly thinner than 1/4-inch thick and cut out circle 2 inches larger than your tart pan. Ease dough into tart pan and press firmly into pan. Chill 1 hour. Line shell with foil and fill with baking weights.
* Bake at 375 degrees 20 minutes then remove foil and weights and return shell to oven until edges are lightly golden and center is no longer wet looking, 8 to 10 minutes more. (Small individual tartlets may be baked without foil and weights and take 15 to 20 minutes depending on size.)