This week I saw the first promise of tomato season. A few brightly colored cherry specimens were brought home from the local market, as well as the more standard varieties. I was down in Gascony visiting my friend Kate Hill, and her photographer friend Tim Clinch was there preparing to lead a photography workshop. Looking for something tempting and colorful, tomatoes seemed the obvious choice as willing subjects.
In addition to the profusion of flowers plucked from the lush garden by the canal du Midi, the tomatoes had their moment in front of the camera. But once the participants stopped clicking, we grabbed them and put them where they rightfully belong: In the kitchen.
In France, tarts are not considered “special occasion” fare, and if you’re invited to someone’s house for a meal, even the most inept home cook will make a quiche or tarte salée, which will surprise you when they present a stunning tart à table, looking just about as good as anything whipped up from the local bakery.
True, some cooks here cheat a bit and use pre-purchased pâte brisée, which you can buy in the supermarket refrigerator case where it’s sold rolled up and boxed like plastic wrap. However I will concede that it does make quick work of making a savory tart and on more than one occasion I’ve been duped by someone, whose tart I’ve complimented, which prompted what I call “The Garbage Can Confessional”: when someone has to fess up and extract an empty box from the poubelle, usually from Picard, France’s popular frozen food chain.
I’ve not bought or used the pre-made stuff, however tempting it might be (!) but this dough is as easy as pie to make and roll out. And by the time it takes to go to the store and buy the dough, you can make this. I haven’t tried it with the French tart dough recipe but Kate assured me it would work with either an unbaked or pre-baked tart shell.
Unlike other savory tarts, such as the Herbed Ricotta Tart, this one has no custard or cream added; it’s just sliced tomatoes, fresh herbs, and sliced rounds of soft goat cheese, which get browned on top. Without a rich custard, the taste and texture of the tomatoes doesn’t get lost. But the fresh goat cheese is wonderful, especially when it gets all crusty-brown on top, and warm and creamy-soft inside. You could swap out another cheese that you like, such as comté, haloumi, or fontina, or another favorite fromage which melts well.
Ditto with the fresh herbs. A few steps outside of her always-buzzing kitchen are big bunches of herbs growing in verdant, leafy profusion. Thyme, variegated two-color sage, lovage, and savory are well-represented, but I was especially pleased to find fresh oregano, which for some reason is elusive in Paris.
So when she wasn’t looking, I clipped a few sprigs (ok, more than a few sprigs), which I squirreled away in my suitcase. Along with the homemade red wine vinegar and foie gras that she did give me. Plus I had some bitter chestnut honey that I picked up at the market in Cahors. (And, of course, a trip to the local antique market yielded me a few vintage wine glasses and Kate scored three gorgeous old French jam jars for just €5 a pop.)
I’m not a fan of sweet-savory cooking—with a few exceptions, most notably glazed Korean chicken wings, but when I saw the sticky jar of brusque miel de ronce (wild blackberry honey) on her counter, I suggested drizzling a bit over the tart just before baking. We had a bit of dough leftover, so it got rolled out and we made a mini-tart to give it a try. And it was a big hit.
But the real stroke of genius, I think, is the layer of mustard you spread on the tart, which provides a spicy back-bite to the baked tomato slices. You can go as easy or as generous as you want. The French love their Dijon mustard so don’t be shy: a layer that’s a thick as what you’d spread on a sandwich is just about right.
Perfect hot from the oven, or mighty good at room temperature as well, this is perfect summertime fare. You could pair it with the proverbial leafy green salad or go whole hog and serve it on a buffet with PLTs (Pig, Lettuce, and Tomato sandwiches). But in my mind, the best accompaniment are glasses of rosé over ice. And from the number of bottles we went through that afternoon, no one seemed to disagree.
French Tomato Tart
One 9- or 10-inch (23-25 cm) tart
Adapted from A Culinary Journey in Gascony
Because this is ‘country-style’ fare, this tart is open to lots of interpretation. For those of you with tart dough “issues”, you can make this either free-style or in a fluted tart ring with a removable bottom. Kate didn’t let the dough rest, but simply rolled it out, transferred it into the tart ring, and ran the rolling pin over the dough to neatly shear away the edges.
If you wish to make a free-style tart, roll the dough out to about 14-inches across, then transfer it to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicon baking mat. Assemble the tart, leaving a 2-inch (5 cm) border, which you’ll then fold up to enclose the tart.
Depending on the size of your pan, you may have a bit of dough leftover. We used it to make a few mini-tartlets, which we enjoyed later than evening with our aperitifs.
- One unbaked tart dough (see recipe, below)
- Dijon or whole-grain mustard
- 2-3 large ripe tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- two generous tablespoons chopped fresh herbs, such as thyme, chives, chervil, or tarragon
- 8 ounces (250 g) fresh or slightly aged goat cheese, sliced into rounds
- Optional: 1 1/2 tablespoons flavorful honey
1 1/2 cups (210 g) flour
4 1/2 ounces (125 g) unsalted butter, chilled, cut into cubes
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
2-3 tablespoons cold water
1. Make the dough by mixing the flour and salt in a bowl. Add the butter and use your hands, or a pastry blender, to break in the butter until the mixture has a crumbly, cornmeal-like texture.
2. Mix the egg with 2 tablespoons of the water. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add the beaten egg mixture, stirring the mixture until the dough holds together. If it’s not coming together easily, add the additional tablespoon of ice water.
3. Gather the dough into a ball and roll the dough on a lightly floured surface, adding additional flour only as necessary to keep the dough from sticking to the counter.
4. Once the dough is large enough so that it will cover the bottom of the pan and go up the sides, roll the dough around the rolling pin then unroll it over the tart pan. “Dock” the bottom of the pastry firmly with your fingertips a few times, pressing in to make indentations.
If making a freestyle tart, simply transfer the dough to a prepared baking sheet (see headnote); no need to make indentations with your fingers.
5. Preheat the oven to 425ºF (218ºC). See note.
6. Spread an even layer of mustard over the bottom of the tart dough and let it sit a few minutes to dry out.
7. Slice the tomatoes and arrange them over the mustard in a single, even layer. Drizzle the olive oil over the top.
8. Sprinkle with some chopped fresh herbs, then arrange the slices of goat cheese on top. Add some more fresh herbs, then drizzle with some honey, if using.
(If baking a free-form tart, gather the edges when you’re done, to envelope the filling.)
9. Bake the tart for 30 minutes or so, until the dough is cooked, the tomatoes are tender, and the cheese on top is nicely browned. Depending on the heat of your oven, if the cheese doesn’t brown as much as you’d like it, you might want to pass it under the broiler until it’s just right.
Note: Kate indeed does cook her tart in a very hot oven. You might wish to check the tart midway through baking and turn it down a bit in case the top is getting too dark, before the crust and tomatoes appear to be cooked.
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