Getting the recipe for the wonderful tarte that Marie-Claire served us at her home for tea a few weeks ago, proved to be somewhat challenging. It wasn't that the recipe is a family secret. In fact Marie-Claire was extreemly generous and even told me she was "honored" to be asked. It was simply finding a moment to be in contact with her. Her daughter, our neighbor Anne, is my go-between, and she has been out of town lately. Finally Anne asked her mother to give me a call, which Marie-Claire kindly did. She offered to give me the recipe over the phone. I dutifully got my pencil and paper, and prepared to write it all down. Of course French is still something of a struggle to my Anglo ears, and doubly so on the telephone. There's a great advantage to being face-to-face with someone when it comes to understanding what they are saying. Then there is the issue of the technical nature of a recipe and the units of measures not being the same between the U.S. and Europe. I still can't think metrically. I therefore approached the conversation with a bit of trepidation and skepticism!
I began to take down the directions as Marie-Claire gave them to me, and as I listened I put down my pencil and paper. This was another wonderful example of something I was already well aware of. French do not think of cooking and recipes as Americans do!
Rick and I took a cooking class in the Dordogne a few years ago. It was absolutely wonderful and involved goose livers, duck breasts, peaches, fresh figs and a few other choice ingredients put together in remarkable ways to create a meal which we then devoured together with gusto. Danielle, our instructor, had been one of the cooks at the Elysees Palace when François Mitterand was president of France. She would demonstrate the making of a sauce, for instance and say, "you add the liquid until it is the color of light tea" and we would say "but how much is that"? Or she would say "and stir the mixture over the heat until it is the consistency of thick cream" and we would ask "but for how long"? We kept trying to get exact measures and times, where as she was trying to give us principles.
She, as most great French cooks, work intuitively. She looks, she smells, she tastes and listens. She knows how much to add and how long to cook based on how things are progressing in real time, rather than following a strict recipe. There is nothing like cup measures, or tablespoons and teaspoons available in France. You have tea cups, you have tea spoons, you have soup spoons and these are the tools you use. No one seems disturbed if my tea cup is slightly bigger or smaller than yours! You add just the right amount of each ingredient and that's that. The right amount will change from season to season, from one time to the next.
So here is the recipe as Marie-Claire explained it to me:
Take 125 g of butter, just the right amount of flour and mix them together with your hands until they are in little crumbs. Add about 2 soup spoons of water until the pastry holds together.
When I tried this, I used 2 cups of flour and closer to 4 tablespoons of water, but I had a certain amount of raw dough left over.
Secret # 1: throw your rolling pin away. Next she said to pat this mixture into the tarte pan with your hands, until it holds the right shape. This makes for an extremely flakey and delicious crust.
The first fruit to add are apples. Secret #2: cut the apples very thinly. This was my mother's secret for the best apple pie in the world. Most people make their apples much too chunky, and they don't cook through...Cover the bottom with one layer only. I used 3 small apples.
Next cut up seasonal fruit and arrange in pan. I used 2 nectarines, 2 yellow peaches, 2 white peaches and 4 apricots. Secret # 3: the quality of the fruit, of course, is critical to your result. If your peach isn't delicious raw, it's not going to improve in flavor when it's cooked.
On top sprinkle as much powdered sugar as strikes your fancy. I used about a half a cup. That is simply all there is to putting this masterpiece together.
Secret # 4; Cook it fast, in a very hot over. #9 in Europe, which has got to be about 450º at least. I was a little afraid of that, so I backed it off at first to closer to 400, but then cranked it back up when I saw that the crust wasn't browning quickly enough. Cook for half an hour at the high heat.
Secre #5: Put it under the broiler for just a few seconds after cooking to seal in all those good flavors.
When I was done I was very pleased to discover how beautiful the tarte looked and how wonderful the aroma was! I didn't know if it was really going to compare to Marie-Claire's, but I had the opportunity to find out, since Anne and Christine had invited us to their house for dinner. I brought it along with us. Anne was impressed with the presentation of the tarte. After she'd had the chance to taste it she was very complimentary. I had almost reproduced her mother's tarte. There was only one small fault...when Marie-Claire had said "butter" I had assumed salted butter, which was a bad assumption. She had, of course, meant sweet butter. Another cultural wire crossed. In the U.S. one would say butter and mean salted butter and "sweet butter" to make the difference. Here is it exactly the opposite. The term butter means sweet butter. Anne could notice that one additional ingredient.
Marie-Claire has invited me to a cooking party at her house in September. Maybe I'll learn a few new tricks!