Dessert can be a challenge for all but the most casual dinner parties. After the varied textures and colors of the main course—a true ensemble presentation—the finale should look appealing as well, even if it is a solo performance. Of course nobody would turn down a plate of fudgy brownies or a pan of apple crisp that grows more shapeless as each scoop is served. But it is worth the effort to put together a dessert that is a pleasure to the eye as well as the palate.
A carefully constructed tart makes an ideal attractive dessert, with all the work done well in advance. My recent favorite recipe makes lovely use of plums, which are at their best in these waning days of summer. Glazed wedges of the slightly tart fruit rest atop a sweet, buttery almond filling known as frangipane. There is no need to fuss with frosting or assemble individual servings at the last minute; just let the sides fall away from the pan and let the tart shine on its own.
The crumbly, buttery crust is easier to make than you may think. I do not own a pastry cutter—who has room for single-function kitchen tools?—and I have found that the “quick” food processor method takes just as much time once you account for cutting up the butter, hauling out the machine and washing all those parts afterwards. I used to work in the butter by hand, but this method runs the risk of melting away those irregular clumps that will provide all the texture in the finished crust.
A friend saved my pastry—and my sanity—a couple of years ago with one brilliant trick: freeze the butter and grate like cheese on the largest holes of a box grater. The resulting butter slivers are nearly the perfect size. Now I spend only a few seconds working them in with my fingertips before forming the dough.
Although this tart requires some hands-on fussing, the work can be done a little at a time, spread out over several days. Put together the dough one evening and refrigerate it for a day or two. Roll out the crust, press it into the pan and freeze it until later in the week. Slice the plums and whip up the frangipane as the crust bakes. Put it all together, and then pop the tart into the oven while you work on the rest of dinner.
You can certainly save a few minutes by scattering the plums across the surface indiscriminately; as long as they don’t overlap too much and there are spaces for the frangipane layer to poke through, the end result will be nearly as beautiful and just as delicious. But after investing your time in pitting and slicing the plums, it is worth a few extra minutes to arrange them in tight concentric circles. The end result is sure to impress; only last week a friend gasped, “You made that? It looks so beautiful that I was sure it came from a bakery!”
I’m sure he meant it as a compliment.
- 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour, plus more for rolling out crust
- 1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 9 Tbsp unsalted butter, well-chilled or frozen, plus more for greasing pan
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 Tbsp cold orange juice or water
- 1 1/4 pounds ripe plums (about 1 quart)
- 2/3 cup almond meal
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 1 egg
- 3 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 4 tsp rum or brandy
- 2 Tbsp apricot jam
Sift together flour, confectioner’s sugar, and salt in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Grate butter directly into flour mixture using a box grater’s largest holes; after every few tablespoons toss the mixture gently with a fork to distribute butter throughout. (If the butter grows soft, place the flour mixture in the refrigerator and return the remaining butter to the freezer for a few minutes to firm it up before finishing grating.) Gently work the grated butter into the flour with your fingertips until the mixture resembles coarse meal, with clumps ranging in size from grains of rice to small peas.
Combine egg yolk and orange juice in a small bowl, mixing just enough to break up yolk. Pour over flour mixture a little at a time, mixing with a fork, until a dough forms. Knead dough briefly and gently with a lightly floured hand, directly in the bowl. Form dough into a ball, flatten slightly, wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate for at least an hour or up to three days.
Butter a 10-inch tart pan with removable bottom and set aside. Unwrap dough and turn out onto a lightly floured counter, leaving plastic wrap on top. Roll dough out to a 12- to 13-inch round, adding more flour underneath as necessary and occasionally peeling off plastic wrap to allow even rolling. Loosely roll dough over rolling pin and transfer to prepared pan, floured side down; remove plastic wrap. Seal any cracks with excess bits of dough and press the crust into pan, taking care to avoid stretching the dough. Trim overhang to 1/2-inch and fold overhang in to make double-thick sides. Prick bottom of crust all over with a fork and place pan into freezer. Freeze for at least one hour or overnight.
Place rack in center of oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Transfer pan directly from freezer to preheated oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until pale golden. Check crust about halfway through baking and press down any puffed-up areas. Cool crust in pan on a rack for at least 10 minutes; maintain oven temperature.
While crust is baking, prepare filling: Halve plums, remove pits and slice into wedges 1/2-inch to 3/4-inch thick; set aside. Combine almond meal and brown sugar in a small mixing bowl. Add egg, butter and 2 teaspoons of rum or brandy and mix together with a fork to form a smooth, thick batter.
Spread almond batter evenly into cooled crust. Arrange plums over filling so they are close together but not overlapping.
Loosely cover edges of crust with strips of aluminum foil or a pie shield. Bake tart for 30 minutes and remove pie shield or foil. Continue to bake until filling is set and plums are tender, about 20 minutes more.
Melt apricot preserves in a small saucepan over low heat or in a bowl in the microwave. Stir in remaining two teaspoons of rum or brandy, and brush this mixture generously over surface of tart. Let tart cool completely. Serve at room temperature with lightly sweetened whipped cream if desired.
Note: Unbaked crust may be held in the freezer for up to two months. Wrap the crust and pan tightly first in plastic wrap and then aluminum foil; be sure to remove all wrappings before baking. Finished tart may be made one day ahead and stored, covered, at room temperature.