06 September 2011


I like to imagine that someday, somewhere, I will have enough land to have a proper garden. Rows of tomatoes, long beanpoles, cucumbers big and small grown for various pickles, a fruit tree or two. Until then, I just have to satisfy myself with my little starter garden on our patio. Every year we try a something new in the spring—it was sweet, oblong French breakfast radishes this year—and spend the summer coaxing as many peppers and tomatoes as we can out of our various containers and small strips of earth.

Yesterday, I decided to pick the tomatoes that were ripe.

a good haul

I don't think we're doing so badly for an apartment patio.

Perhaps unfortunately, I haven't been doing much of particular interest with the tomatoes. We've eaten at least a half dozen dinners of panzanella; some sandwiches with mayo, tomato, and sharp cheddar cheese; and today we had pasta with the simplest tomato sauce: fresh blanched tomatoes, onion and garlic, olive oil, salt, herbs, and a touch of butter at the end. My favorites may have been the specimens that were sliced and eaten plain, still warm from the sun.

They may only be around, in all their end-of-summer glory, for another month or so, but I'm actually not here to talk about tomatoes. I'm here to talk about a meal that it took me several weeks, no few tears, and a burn scar on my arm to perfect. I'm here to talk about cheese gone bubbly and golden-brown in the oven. I'm here to talk about a mushroom and fontina tart.

golden cheese is never a bad thing

Cheese and mushrooms, I'll venture, aren't ever likely to be a bad pair. Years ago, when I was still living in Morocco, I was paging through a borrowed vegetarian cookbook when I saw a recipe for polenta, baked with fontina and topped with mushrooms. In later years, I developed a slight obsession with savory tarts. Chard, beets, tomatoes ... you name it, I'll probably be happy to stick it in a buttery crust.

The first time I made this tart, I planned it days in advance. I read recipes and made notes and made a special trip to the store to get some fontina; I bought mushrooms and scrubbed my kitchen clean.

I should have known early that it wasn't going to work out. As I sliced onions and hummed along to Motown classics, suddenly it came to me: I never made the crust! I abandoned my vegetables, cranked up the oven, and feverishly put together the food processor, shaped my crust, and tossed it in the freezer, and by the time it was ready to go into the oven to blind-bake, it was nearly nine.

Never one to quit, I kept working. My mushrooms were prepped and custard mixed when the par-baked crust came out; the whole thing wasn't out of the oven more than 2 minutes before I popped it back in with its fillings. Then I waited.

And waited. The house was filled with delicious smells and both of us were practically drooling when the timer finally beeped. Perhaps I was starting to bonk and my hands were shaking; perhaps I was just tired, getting ready for dinner at 10 pm. As I took the bubbling, golden tart from the oven, something possessed me to unmold it immediately and without a spatula. As the metal tart ring inevitably slipped and wrapped around my forearm like a bracelet, I yelled, jerked ... and the entire tart fell, face down of course, onto the floor.

I'm not ashamed to admit it. I sat down, surrounded by tart-maggedon, and I cried for a few minutes. Afterward, I got up, iced my arm, helped Mike clean up the mess, and made ramen for dinner.

Tarts were on probation in my house for a few weeks after that. Eventually, though, I was ready to give it another whack, and I'm glad that I did.

mushroom-fontina tart

As long as you don't wait until 8:30 to start dinner, this tart is totally worth your time. The ingredients may be difficult to find (or a bit expensive) in some places, but they're used in small enough amounts that it's not a wallet-buster. The first time I made it, I used a crumbly tart crust enriched with an egg yolk, but the second time I chose to use an all-butter flaky pastry dough, which was quicker, easier, and better suited to the filling. When making an all-butter crust, I use a method similar to the one on Chez Pim—I use more water and don't roll it nearly as much. While it's blind-baking, the onions and mushrooms have ample time to cook, and while the composed tart is then baking, there's ample time to make a salad—in my case, an incongruous but delicious warm corn salad. Just make sure you unmold it carefully when it's done.

mushroom tart

Mushroom and Fontina Tart
You might notice that my pictures look a little bit light on mushrooms; that's because I'm much worse at meal planning (and the shopping that goes along with it) than I would have you believe, and I made the second tart with only about 4.5 ounces of mushrooms

For the pâte brisée:

1 ¼ cups unbleached flour
½ teaspoon salt
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, well chilled
¼ cup cold water, plus more if needed

For the tart:

½ onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons butter, divided
6-8 ounces assorted mushrooms (I used a mixture of shiitake, maitake, and cremini)
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme, or ½ teaspoon dried
salt and pepper to taste
4 ounces fontina, grated
2 eggs
¾ cup milk, preferably whole
pinch salt

Preheat the oven to 375ºF.

To make the crust, mix together the flour and salt in a bowl or on a clean counter or chopping board. Cut the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles very coarse meal. Pour the cold water over the flour and mix until it just holds together; feel free to add more, a teaspoon or so at a time, if necessary. Form the dough into a flattened disk, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Roll out the dough to 11-12 inches in diameter and transfer to a 10 inch tart pan, gently pressing the crust into the edges; fold the crust under at the edges if it is thin in spots. Trim the edges, cover with foil, and weight with pie weights or some dry beans. Place the tart pan on a baking sheet and place in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove the weights and foil and return to the oven until just golden, 8-10 minutes more.

Meanwhile, set a large skillet over medium high heat with the olive oil and one tablespoon of the butter. Sauté the onion with a bit of salt until softened and just beginning to brown, 5-7 minutes; transfer to a medium bowl. Slice all the mushrooms and sauté in two additions, adding one tablespoon of the butter and seasoning with salt and pepper each time; when cooked, transfer to the bowl with the onion. Add the thyme, stir well, and set aside.

Beat the eggs together with the milk and salt; stir in the cheese, leaving a bit out. Spread the mushroom mixture evenly over the tart crust, then carefully pour the custard-cheese mixture over. Sprinkle the reserved cheese over the top.

Return the tart to the oven and bake 45-60 minutes, until golden brown all over and bubbling; if you prod a toothpick in near the middle you will see that the custard has set. Let cool 5-10 minutes before unmolding and serving. Serve hot or warm.

Serves 6 to 8

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