Don't let their low profile fool you.
Savory tarts are perfect for entertaining.
"They're so versatile," said master baker Nick Malgieri, author of numerous cookbooks, including Bake! (Kyle, $29.95) and The Modern Baker (DK Publishing, $35).
"They may be used as hors d'oeuvres, or as a first course, brunch or lunch dish," he said via email. "Best of all, most can be prepared entirely in advance and served at room temperature."
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Savory tarts certainly deserve more respect. The humble pie is lavished with buttery streusel topping or sweet whipped cream or billowy meringue, but cheese savories are relegated to the appetizer platter at catered affairs.
Even quiches — essentially the same as savory tarts — are seen as more sophisticated. Pies and quiches are baked in deep sloped pans and require more filling, whereas tarts are baked in inch-tall pans with straight sides. A tart's short stature means the ratio of filling to crust is lower. This, with the tart's removable sides, makes unmolding easier and opens up a world of possibilities in terms of presentation.
Their portability makes tarts ideal for a potluck or buffet. And because the ingredients may be prepared ahead, and assembled and baked at the last minute, they ease the pressure when entertaining.
Their presentation may be formal or casual; serve them in the baking pan, or unmold and plate them.
Their ingredients may be rich or light: Make them with whole eggs or just yolks, use milk or cream, meat or vegetables. They may be as simple as phyllo dough brushed with pesto or sauce, and topped with cheese and caramelized onions.
Many cookbooks suggest partially blind-baking the crust, brushing the inside of the shell with an egg-milk glaze and returning the crust to the oven and baking until lightly browned to get a crisp pastry shell.
Malgieri never partially bakes a crust that has a filling that requires baking.
He uses baking powder in sweet and savory pie dough and always bakes tarts and pies on the lowest rack of the oven.
"I always use a dough that's a little lower in fat than the typical pie dough," he said. "Baking powder in the dough makes it expand slightly during baking and maintain contact with the bottom of the pan (flaky doughs with a lot of butter in them can shrink and lose contact with the pan), ensuring that the crust bakes through well. Most of all, always bake a pie or tart that's filled before baking on the lowest rack of the oven for good bottom heat."
Malgieri's other recommendations, culled from his cookbooks:
■ Meat, fish and shellfish need to be just cooked through before being combined with other filling ingredients and baked, so they don't overcook and toughen.
■ Vegetables and greens need to be completely cooked so they don't leach water into the filling and keep it from setting properly.
■ Taste the filling for seasoning and then add eggs. Overseason slightly when eggs are being added to accommodate for their introduction to the filling.
Malgieri offers one final tip for the novice baker:
"Start with something easy," said Malgieri, who once attended a dinner party for 10 whose host didn't start cooking until the guests had arrived. "And prepare it the day before or early on the day you're going to serve it." You don't want to hold your guests hostage. "We started dessert at 3 a.m.," he said of that dinner party.
This recipe, from The Modern Baker by Nick Malgieri, makes dough for a 10- or 11-inch tart or 6 to 8 individual tarts.
Rich pie dough
1½ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
10 tablespoons (1¼ sticks) unsalted butter
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
Have all ingredients cold before starting. Combine flour, salt and baking powder in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Add butter and pulse about 20 times to finely mix in the butter.
Add the egg and egg yolk, and pulse until the dough just begins to form a ball. Turn out dough and press into a disc about ½ -inch thick. Refrigerate the dough to chill after mixing and again after it has been rolled and fitted in the pan.
This recipe is from The Art and Soul of Baking by Sur La Table with Cindy Mushet (Andrews McMeel, $40). Fromage blanc, a fresh, soft, spreadable goat cheese with a texture similar to that of ricotta cheese, is a beautiful match for ripe tomatoes. If you cannot find it, simply substitute a log of your favorite mild, young goat cheese, broken into small pieces. This is best with ripe tomatoes and fresh herbs.
Makes one (9- or 9½ -inch) tart, serving 8.
Fromage blanc, tomato and herb tart
2 medium ripe tomatoes, cored
1 prebaked pie crust
4 ounces fromage blanc
½ cup heavy whipping cream or whole milk
2 large eggs
1 clove garlic, finely chopped or pushed through a press
1 tablespoon chopped or snipped fresh chives
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme, or 2 teaspoons chopped fresh basil
Pinch of salt
3 or 4 grinds of black pepper
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and position an oven rack in the bottom third. Use a serrated knife to slice the tomatoes into ¼-inch-thick rounds. Place them in the bottom of the cooled tart shell in a single layer. Place the fromage blanc in a medium bowl and add the cream slowly, whisking all the while to blend the two together. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time, and blend thoroughly. Add the garlic, chives, thyme, salt and pepper, and blend well. Pour the filling over the sliced tomatoes in the tart shell. Fill the shell to no more than ¼ inch from the top, or it might overflow while baking.
Bake the tart for 25 to 30 minutes, until the custard is set in the center; give the tart a gentle shake to check. Transfer the tart to a cooling rack. Serve the tart warm or at room temperature.
Caramelized onion and cheese tart
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 red onion, sliced
2 tablespoons ricotta
1 tablespoon basil pesto, homemade or jarred
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 cup Asiago cheese, grated
¼-½ cup sun-dried tomatoes, packed in oil, chopped or julienned
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Heat olive oil in a large skillet and add chopped red onion. Cook on low to medium heat until just caramelized, then add a splash or two of balsamic vinegar. Continue to caramelize a few minutes more.
Meanwhile, mix the ricotta and pesto until combined.
Roll out the pastry sheet slightly on a lightly floured board. Using a 4½ -inch round cookie cutter or pastry ring, cut out four tart circles and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Gently score another circle inside each ring using a 3½ -inch cookie cutter, but don't cut all the way through. This allows the outer circle of the tart to rise. Using a fork, prick the inside circle several times, going all the way through. (For appetizer-sized tarts, use a 2½ -inch ring for the outer circle and a 1½ -inch ring for the inside.)
Place a bit of the Asiago on the bottom of each tart circle. Keeping all the filling on the inside circle, top with a spoonful of onions, a couple dollops of the ricotta mixture and then the sun-dried tomatoes. Finish each tart with another light sprinkling of Asiago.
Bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, until the outer circle of the pastry is golden brown.
Makes four individual tarts or about 12 to 16 appetizer tarts.
This recipe, also from The Modern Baker, makes eight generous servings, or one 11-inch tart.
Corn pudding tart
5 ears of corn
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 bunch scallions, white part and half the green, finely sliced
1 small bunch chives
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
1½ cups whipping cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper (about 1 teaspoon salt)
3 large eggs
Set rack in the lowest level of the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grate corn from three ears, and cut whole kernels from two ears. Use a knife to scrape cobs clean. Stir in butter, scallions, chives, red pepper, cream, and salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning; overseason slightly to make up for the addition of the eggs. Whisk eggs and stir into filling. Pour filling into tart crust. Bake until crust is baked through and the filling set and puffed, about 30 minutes.