The 2nd grade science fair project required some delicate diplomacy and negotiation. Mostly because Henry’s idea for what he wanted to do was “build a helicopter and see if it will break the sound barrier.” He wouldn’t budge from this concept for the two weeks leading up to the due date for his project, even when given a frank, point-by-point budget and time-frame for building a working helicopter in the backyard, teaching him how to fly it and explaining the local ordinances regarding sound barrier breakage. After such briefings he would shout, “You build stuff when you’re a scientist!” and storm off to play with his two cardboard guns that he taped together to make a gun. When on Friday I reminded him that his project was coming due, he was outraged that you couldn’t drive down to Third Street and pick up the parts for a helicopter at the McMinnville hardware store. We promised to take up the matter with the local shopkeepers.
So most of the weekend was devoted to getting a science fair project done that he could live with, laying it out on the display boards, reeling him back when he ran off to play, or needed another hot chocolate. Tears were shed all around, alliances were made and broken, but in the end it was pretty cool to see our 7-year old study and display (without primary testing) why helicopters are unable to break the sound barrier.
By 7 p.m. on Sunday night, as it grew dark outside and the rain increased to a steady drumming on the porch, I started to have sharp, longing feelings about apple tarts. How simple and understated they are, how elegant, how deeply satisfying. How they bridge the gap between dessert and perfect breakfast food. How I wanted one right that minute. When Henry casually mentioned that apple tarts were among his favorite baked goods, I got to work, and before it was his bedtime but after a bath (another delicate negotiation), it was ready. Here’s how it went.
A THREE-LAYER, SUNDAY NIGHT APPLE TART WITH ALMOND CREAM AND CINNAMON CUSTARD
TIP #1: Put a stick of unsalted butter and an egg onto your counter to warm to room temp before you start doing anything else. Assemble the rest of your ingredients.
Make a pastry dough from this recipe, let it rest in the refrigerator for at least a half-hour, and then roll it out large enough to fit a 9-inch tart pan (but don’t put it in the pan yet). Let it rest at room temp while you make the other components.
Make an almond cream, which doesn’t actually have any cream at all in it, but the term “almond butter” has already been taken. Let’s call this an almond filling. In your food processor, combine the first two of these ingredients, grind them together into a paste, and then add and pulse in each successive ingredient:
6 T butter (preferably unsalted, although salted works fine, too; nobody has gone broke lately from adding salt to sweet things — and I’m talking to you, Salted Caramel)
3/4 C powdered sugar
3/4 C ground or slivered or sliced almonds (blanched work best, but any almonds are fine; I had sliced almonds handy, so that’s what I used)
2 t all-purpose flour
1 t cornstarch
Whiz all of this around a few more times to combine and then remove it to a bowl and put it in the refrigerator. This whole thing takes about 2 minutes and then you go, “Wow, I just made almond cream. On a Sunday night. From stuff I already had lying around in the cupboard. I am one cool Pastryologist.”
Make a cinnamon custard or pastry cream (which also doesn’t have any cream in it; go figure). Just like you did on the Parisian flan recipe, start with a large saucepan and heat up . . .
2 C milk
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together, in this order, and each ingredient added a little at a time in order, whisking out all lumps each time before adding more . . .
3 egg yolks
1/2 C sugar
1/3 C cornstarch (sifted)
1/2 t cinnamon
When the milk is hot and just before it boils, add a third of it, whisking like a madperson, to the egg mixture, to temper it. Return it all to the pot and whisk constantly over medium-high heat until it thickens. Turn the heat down to medium and whisk for 2 more minutes to cook out the starch. Put the whole custard mixture back through the strainer into a clean bowl and let sit out to cool.
Prepare 3 medium to large apples. I used Granny Smiths, but most apples will be fine, and an assortment of different varieties works great.
Cut the apples in half and use a melon baller or cookie scoop to scoop out the seeds in a nice, round divot. You can do this with a paring knife but won’t get as uniform an apple slice for your tart. Peel the skins away with your paring knife, and give the skins to your house bunny.
Now place the apples flat side down and make uniform slices, winding up with about 90-100 slices total from the 3 apples.
Put the slices into a pan with a quarter-inch of water. Sprinkle in a bit of sugar, maybe 2 T, toss the apples in the water to coat and bring to a simmer. Simmer for only 2 minutes or so to soften the apple slices, then drain the water away and remove the apples to another bowl.
Preheat the oven to 375 and put a rack in the center.
Spray or butter a fluted, 9-inch tart pan and line it with the dough circle, pressing it in tight all around and trimming off the excess. Patch any holes or cracks with bits of the excess dough. Place the tart pan onto a cookie sheet that has been lined with a Silpat or foil, in case your tart leaks or boils over.
Spread the almond cream into the pastry shell and even it out with an offset spatula.
Spread a thick layer of the cinnamon custard over the almond cream and even that out, too.
Arrange the apple slices on top of the custard, starting on the outside edge and overlapping each slice, all the way around, then overlap the second row of slices over the first ones, working all the way around. Continue until the entire top is covered in slices of apple. Admire your work; it’s a pretty thing.
Bake for 60 minutes, turning halfway through for even baking.
Remove the tart pan to a cooling rack, wait 10 minutes, and then unmold the tart from the pan. Serve warm or completely cooled. Extra points for serving with barely or unsweetened whipped cream or vanilla ice-cream.
Enjoy your science project.