My favorite farmer’s market opened last Saturday, first one of the year, and most of the city seemed to be there when I finally got there at 10:30. I’m not sure what the allure is, because I don’t eat a lot of vegetables, or buy organic honey or homemade soaps (I make my own soap). But there’s something about all the white tent tops and the aisle that leads through a sea of people in a parking lot and all those glorious mounds of fruit. I start craving farmer’s market sometime in February.
Our favorite family farmers were back, with corn and yellow onions and basil and the like, none of which I needed yet. They’re also my favorites for tomatoes when it’s time for tomatoes (which is another way of saying When it’s time for salsa and When it’s time to just bite into fresh tomatoes.)
This time I was looking for blackberries and apricots, both of which I found, along with strawberries I didn’t even try to resist.
Back when it was cold and snowing I came up with an idea for blackberry tarts – graham cracker crust, vanilla pastry cream, blackberries dredged in sugar and scented or flavored gently with sage.
What I ended up with was different than what I imagined, but wonderful, once it made its strange trek to the table.
The Graham Cracker Crust
I’ve never made a graham cracker crust before. It never seemed like there’d be any point – surely the ones made by elves and pressed into an aluminum pan with a plastic cover were more than good enough, right?
Right. But making my own allowed me to add (toasted almonds, chopped fine) and subtract (all the additional sugar, and any preservatives). Plus it was fun. Until the part where I forgot the almonds and had to back up several steps.
I toasted the almonds on Monday. Then I put them in cupboard so I wouldn’t see them and simply eat them. I know myself. I know myself around toasted almonds.
Then Tuesday I made the crusts. I was 5/6 of the way through pressing them into tart pans when I remembered the almonds. All the crusts got dumped back in the bowl and I started over. Which doesn’t sound that troubling, but the crumbs wanted to stick to me, not the pan.
It was so worth it.
1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs, crushed under a heavy rolling pin*
7 tablespoons salted butter, melted and cooled
½ cup toasted almonds, chopped fine
Mix the crumbs with the butter, stir in the almond pieces, and press the mixture into whatever size tart pan or pans you’re using. Bake at 375 for 7 minutes. Set aside to cool.
(*We were completely out of baggies. It is possible to crush graham crackers inside a folded up piece of parchment paper, but you’re going to have to sweep afterwards.)
I live in Northern Nevada. High desert. The idea of sage was to celebrate summer and desert. Not a close encounter with a bunch of tiny ants or to go buy sage from a grocery store. But that’s what happened.
From what I can tell from reading up on it, culinary sage and sagebrush are two different things anyway. I didn’t want to poison anyone who ate the tarts, but I had wanted to just go pick some sage.
I didn’t. I bought it. And used it sparingly, about 2 long, silvery leaves chopped up in 1 ½ cups of sugar poured over 2 dozen berries. If it added any flavor whatsoever, I missed it.
The berries I dredged in granulated sugar, separating blackberries from strawberries in separate bowls. I hoped they’d act like lemons that macerate in sugar for Shaker Lemon Pies. They kind of did, but the developed crusts of hard sugar and bits stuck to them. I didn’t want to glaze any of the berries, so I didn’t mind, but I’d hoped they’d be sweetened, hold their shape, and flavor the sugar.
They didn’t do any of that. Oh, well. They were still heavenly berries.
The Pastry Cream
I ended up making two recipes of this. The first used half-and-half and I followed every instruction but it came out grainy and I think the half-and-half was more liquid than when it went into the mix. The eggs, meanwhile, had almost solidified when whipped with cornstarch. I have no idea why it didn’t work, but it tasted lovely and I had to throw it out before drinking it all. I was, at least, positive it would work with the graham cracker crust, since the leftover graham crackers dipped in it were wonderful (I didn’t throw it all out).
The second recipe is a No Muss, No Fuss Pastry Cream from Martha Stewart, and uses whole milk. I quite like the flavor and it handled really well and set up nicely, but next time I think I’ll try half-and-half instead of milk.
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
Pinch of coarse salt
2 cups whole milk
4 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons salted butter (original calls for unsalted)
1 teaspoon vanilla
Whisk together sugar, cornstarch and salt in a medium saucepan. Whisk together milk and egg yolks in a measuring cup. Add milk mix to pan with the butter. Cook over medium heat until the mixture comes to a boil.
Boil for one minute.
Remove pan from heat and add the vanilla. (I was out of vanilla. I’m always running out of vanilla. But I had only run out the day before with the first, runny pastry cream attempt. So I added a teaspoon of water to the vanilla bottle and shook it rigorously. It worked.)
Strain the cream into a bowl through a fine mesh sieve. Cover the top of the cream with cling wrap (parchment paper works here, too, if you don’t have cling wrap or wax paper). Refrigerate anywhere from two hours to two days.
Just before using, whisk pastry cream until smooth.
Putting it all together
I wanted to do everything at once. So with six tart pans, I made six different tarts. In the picture below, left to right, top to bottom, they are:
Sage-dredged blackberries on top of cream in which plain blackberries have been mashed;
Plain blackberries atop pastry cream;
Strawberries on top of pastry cream;
Strawberries on top of pastry cream in which plain strawberries have been mashed;
Sage-dredged blackberries on top of pastry cream in which sage-blackberries have been mashed;
Pastry cream over dark chocolate-laced crust and topped with dark chocolate was drizzled.
We tried them last night. Rick can take or leave berries – the chocolate was for him. The hot chocolate hitting the pastry cream meant the design on top lifted off, one of those grace notes I’ve never achieved on purpose.
I had one with plain blackberries on cream. And one was sent to work with him for a coworker, who heartily approved the sage-dredged berries on top of blackberry-filled cream.
Things I’d do different if I Made These Again
There’s so many different things to make and ideas to realize, it’s hard to make something again. If I did, though, I might try glazing the berries with something other than jelly (I saw that suggested somewhere). And I’d use the pastry cream recipe above, but try it with half-and-half, and actual vanilla. The grainy version was creamier and richer, which is probably just the half-and-half.
In the meantime, it was a great kickoff to summer and the reason why this morning, when a storm was rolling in and it was 55 out and windy and cold, I took a half hour hike I didn’t want to take – just to burn off some of that.
Worth it. Happy Summer!