Tart pan or recipe? I’m not sure which it was that first inspired me to try baking a tart. But when I get out my fluted tart pan, I fall in love with tarts all over again. There’s nothing more elegant than starting a holiday meal with a tart filled with roasted vegetables or ending it with a rich and creamy pumpkin tart—they’re so gorgeous, they immediately set a festive mood.
You may think of tarts as dessert fare, but savory crusts filled with fresh vegetables make sophisticated sides, appetizers or vegetarian main courses. This time of year, I love bringing a savory tarragon-scented carrot tart to a dinner party. For dessert, I like to combine pears and apples in a rustic tarte tatin studded with fresh cranberries. And my chocolate hazelnut tart is a welcome treat anytime I serve it.
For all their beauty and elegance, tarts are surprisingly easy to make. They typically start with dough fitted into a shallow tart pan with fluted sides. Metal tart pans with removable bottoms, which come in a stunning array of shapes and sizes, may just be the coolest kitchen devices ever. After the tart is cooked, you place your hand under the bottom and let the sides drop away to reveal perfect ruffled edges. Transfer the tart to a pretty serving platter and the whole thing can go right to the table. Ceramic tart pans don’t make for such a dramatic presentation, but they are more portable—handy if you’re taking a tart to a party.
The crust can be the one area that intimidates cooks. But for most of these recipes there’s no rolling required: you just blend all the crust ingredients in a food processor then press it straight into the pan. Once that’s done, you can quickly add the filling and pop the tart into the oven. My Roasted Fall Vegetables in Cheddar Crust is a foolproof masterpiece every time, no matter who makes it. Just roast some seasonal vegetables (broccoli or Brussels sprouts, leeks, fennel) and assemble in a Cheddar-and-cornmeal crust pressed straight into the pan. Bake, take off the sides, and voilà: a piece of art without a minute of stress for the cook.
Another way to avoid the rolling pin is to experiment with phyllo. Everyone loves the decorative frilly edges and the way they turn golden and crunchy. Try my recipe for mini tarts made with phyllo and filled with a spanakopita-inspired blend of spinach, ricotta and sun-dried tomatoes.
The one time I do get out the rolling pin is when I bake tarte tatin, a sort of upside-down tart made in a skillet. I love its homey look and the way the fruit is gently caramelized. You drape the crust over the filling, so the press-in-the-pan method is out of the question—the crust has to be rolled out. But that’s not so hard: I roll the dough between parchment or wax paper so it doesn’t stick. The paper also makes it simple to transfer the dough to the pan.
For any tart, sweet or savory, I make healthier crusts incorporating whole-wheat flour, nuts, healthy oils and reduced-fat cheeses. I’ve said goodbye to the old-fashioned crusts that call for heaps of butter, shortening and white flour. And a delicate slice of tart can be a sensible way to satisfy your sweet tooth. An artful eye helps to compose a beautiful tart, but with these recipes it’s hard to go wrong. Whether it’s the recipe that leads you to the tart pan or the other way around, you’re sure to fall in love with both.
Ellen Ecker Ogden’s most recent book is The Vermont Cheese Book (The Countryman Press, 2007). She also is the cofounder of The Cook’s Garden seed company and author of the cookbook From the Cook’s Garden (Morrow Cookbooks, 2003).