Summer is drawing to a close (although I’d like to point out that it’s still summer until September 22nd), and that’s always a bit sad. One consolation, though, is fig season. The plump, tender figs in the markets at the end of summer help soften the blow and remind me of the pleasures of autumn. This tart is my new favorite way to eat them. It combines the singular flavor of figs with two perfect complements –orange flower and honey.
The recipe looks long, but it falls into three parts, none of which is complicated or time-consuming and any of which can be done at a separate convenient time: a simple buttery crust, the orange flower custard and assembly and baking. If figs are in season, the only potentially hard-to-find ingredient is orange flower water. It’s inexpensive, though, and available at middle-eastern grocers and, of course, online. Its flavor and aroma are extraordinary –fresh and floral without being cloying. Try it wherever you’d use vanilla in something rich and creamy like puddings, or with oranges or put a few drops in whipped cream.
(Recipe for the custard adapted from “Crème Pâtissière” in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child.)
For the orange flower custard
(makes enough for two 9″ (23cm) tarts)
1 cup (236ml) granulated sugar
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup (118ml) all-purpose flour
2 cups (473ml) whole milk
1 tablespoon butter
2 teaspoons of orange flower water
For the shell
1 cup (236ml) all-purpose flour
1 stick (1/4 pound, 113g) butter, chilled
1 teaspoon kosher or medium-grain sea salt
About 1 tablespoon ice water
For the tart
1 tart unbaked tart shell, frozen
1/2 recipe orange flower custard
16-20 ripe figs, depending on size
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon Cointreau (or another orange flavored liqueur) or orange or lemon juice
1. In an electric mixer fitted with the whisk, gradually beat the sugar into the egg yolks and continue beating for 2-3 minutes until the mixture is pale yellow and forms the ribbon. (That is, when you lift the beater, the bit of the mixture that falls back into the bowl will form a slowly dissolving ribbon on the surface of the mixture.)
2. Beat in the flour.
3. Bring the milk to the boil over medium heat. With the mixer running a low speed, gradually pour in the milk and mix until combined.
4. Pour into a large saucepan set over medium-high heat. Stir with a whisk, reaching all over the bottom of the pan. As the sauce comes to the boil, it will get lumpy, but will smooth out as you beat it. When you reach the boil, beat over medium-low heat for 2-3 minutes to cook the flour. (Be careful the custard does not scorch on the bottom.)
5. Remove from the heat and beat in the butter, then the orange flower water. If you’re not going to use the custard right away, transfer it to a bowl and press plastic wrap into the surface to prevent a skin from forming on top. Keep in the refrigerator (or freezer for longer term storage). This recipe makes enough for two 9″ tarts, so I often freeze half for later use.
Make the shell
1. Put the flour and salt in a large bowl. Cut the butter into chunks and drop it into a bowl. Using a pastry blender, a fork, or your fingertips, blend the butter into the flour, but don’t fully incorporate it. About 1/3 of the mixture should be pea-sized chunks and the rest should look like damp sawdust.
2. Pour the ice water over the mixture and gather it up into a rough ball. (It should just barely cling together.) Move to a lightly floured work surface, knead a few times until there are no dry spots, and then form the dough into a disk about an inch thick. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least a half hour (or for up to a couple of days). Again, don’t try to fully incorporate the butter — you should see flecks of it in the dough.
3. Before you’re ready to bake, roll out the dough on a lightly floured work surface until it’s about 1/4 inch thick. Go for uniform thickness rather than shape. Transfer the dough to your (ungreased) tart pan, using a metal spatula to loosen it from the board if necessary. Don’t worry about tears or a poor fit to the pan. Press the dough into the tart pan with your fingertips, healing tears, patching holes and filling gaps as you go. Again, focus on uniform thickness rather than appearance as the filling will cover the scars. Place the crust in the freezer until it’s frozen solid, at least 30 minutes. This will prevent the crust from shrinking and slumping into the filling as the tart bakes.
Assemble the tart
1. Preheat the oven to 425F (218C). Wash the figs, cut off their stems, and cut them in half, the long way.
2. Spread the orange flower custard over the bottom of the frozen tart shell in an even layer. (The recipe above makes enough for two 9″ tarts, so use just half.)
3. Arrange the fig halves on top of the custard in a radial pattern, cut side up. (I like to put the largest figs in the outer ring.
4. Dissolve the honey into the Cointreau (or juice) and brush it over the figs with a pastry brush.
5. Place the tart on a baking sheet and then bake for about 40 minutes, until the juices are bubbling and the figs are tender and carmelized. Serve at room temperature.