When it comes to cooking, I am notorious for making things hard on myself. I always sail into a situation with the best of intentions, and end up overcomplicating things to the point that I’m stressed out and panicky. I’ve been struggling with this for years, and it’s true that if I consider a full retrospective of my culinary progress, I’ve come a long way, I still feel like I have quite a ways to go.
The hard part for me— in fact, for both me and my usual partner in entertaining crimes—is editing. Not so much in an individual dish, but in the overall composition of an event. We think of this or that to make, and every single thing sounds great, so we make it all. We wind up over budget, with too many servings of each dish and too many options.
What makes this interesting is that one of my first jobs was in catering sales. I talked with clients about their events, understood what their culinary needs were, and came up with menu options and pricing for them. Part of my role was to help them stay within their budget, which was often accomplished by finding lower priced alternatives, or by reworking a menu to exclude certain items.
So it should come as no surprise that when my third grader’s teacher announced that they would be having “heritage day” during the last week of school, and that each child would be responsible for bringing a dish that represented their ancestry in some way, I immediately made the jump to hypercomplication.
I gave my son the choices for his ancestry: German, Dutch, French, Welsh, English, Irish, and Polish. He immediately picked French. Naturally this is where the complication comes in. Last names, of course, can signify many things—a trade or profession (Miller), a relationship (Johnson), a characteristic (Small), or a region or town or origin (DiCaprio), among other
things. Our name falls into this last category.
For reasons that I cannot articulate, I decided that thedish had to be authentic to the region that my husband’s family was actually from. Or at least, the ingredients did. Why did I make this decision? Would twenty three 9-year-olds call bullshit if I served them something from Provence or Alsace or Burgundy? Would they even know where the town that our last name comes from was in France? Was I just crazy?
Of course the answers to those questions are: I have no idea, no, no, and probably. I suppose I should have been grateful he didn’t pick Polish, since I’ve never tried to make pierogi, and I’m sure it would have been a disaster. As it was, I was grasping at straws to figure out what to make. So I turned to the modern day Oracle at Delphi: Google. I looked at some of the menus of restaurants in the region and found something that sounded both interesting and palatable to 9 year olds. A sausage and shallot tart.
This tart consists of a savory short crust base, with a slightly custardy filling topped with sautéed shallots and sausage. I made it initially with sweet Italian sausage, and then again with hot, because the store was out of sweet, and decided I like it better with the sweet. The heat of the hot sausage was just too fighty with the rest of the flavors for me. But it’s entirely a matter of preference, and if you like hot sausage better than sweet, it will still be good.
The shallots are cooked in the residual fat from the sausages, to give them a flavor kick as well. To add a little authenticity to the dish, I used fromage blanc as the dairy component of the filling, with an egg and an additional yolk. Although I’ve made no secret of my feelings for quiche and nything that closely resembles it, I was pleasantly surprised by the result of this tart, and the way the bottom crust stayed crisp, even with the cheese/egg filling.
You should be able to get fromage blanc in a decently stocked grocery store. My grocery store keeps it with “specialty” cheeses. It has a consistency rather like sour cream, but I can’t speak to substitutes. Online sources offer both quark and Greek yogurt as ideas, and those may work, but I didn’t try them, so I can’t say if they’ll hold up to the oven’s heat.
I made this in a rectangular tart pan because it was necessary for me to cut it into 30 2-bite portions, but it could just as easily be made in a round pan. The cooking time for the blind baking would be the same, but it might need a little longer in the oven the second time around to set the filling in the middle.
So the story has a happy ending—the tart turned out, the kids liked it reasonably well, it was pretty easy to make. I don’t think my overcomplication complex is cured, but I’ve identified another symptom. In the past I’ve recognized the “too many servings” and the “too many options” symptoms as primary. Now I see that I need to add, “excessive need for authenticity” in certain situations to my list. I guess I can categorize this discovery as, “life is a journey, not a destination.” But next time I swear I’m just making French bread and calling it a day.
Sausage and Shallot Tart
For the crust:
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons cold butter (two 4 ounce sticks),
cut into small cubes
3-5 tablespoons ice water
For the filling:
¾ pound of Italian sausage, casings removed
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 medium shallots, sliced into thin rings
½ cup white wine
¾ cup fromage blanc
1 large egg + 1 large egg yolk
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Salt + freshly ground pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 12” x 4” rectangular tart pan with a removable bottom.
To make the crust:
In the work bowl of a food processor, combine flour and salt. Pulse 2-3 times to combine. Add cubed butter and pulse 10-12 times, until butter is in small bits. It will look something like almond meal. With the motor running, add the water, a tablespoon at a time, through the feed tube. The mixture should be damp but not sticky. Check the consistency by stopping and squeezing the dough together. It should clump and form a mass, but not stick to your fingers like a paste. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board, and work it gently into a cohesive mass. Pat it into a rectangle, and roll it out to a large rectangle, approximately 14” x 6” and about 1/8” thick.
To move the dough into the tart pan, roll it up on the rolling pin (rather the way a roller shade rolls up), and move the rolling pin over the pan. Starting at one end, unroll the pastry. You should start unrolling over the counter an inch or two before the edge of the pan. This will give you enough dough at that end to pat down into the pan and up the side.
Gently work the dough into the crease of the pan and up the sides, trying not to stretch it (stretched dough shrinks. There will be some shrinkage, but you want to minimize it). The biggest problem with rectangular pans is that the corners punch through. If that happens, just patch the hole with some of the excess dough.
Once you have the pan well lined, remove the excess overhanging dough by rolling your rolling pin over the top. The sharp edges of the pan will cut the dough, and you can just pull the excess away.
Line the dough with a piece of aluminum foil, and fill it with beans, pie weights, or uncooked rice. Bake for 12-15 minutes. Remove the foil and the weights. The dough will have a partially cooked appearance. Parts of it will be translucent, parts will be opaque. Return the pan to the oven for an additional 10-12 minutes, or until the crust is just starting to turn golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before filling.
For the filling:
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sausage, breaking it up into small pieces with the side of a spoon as it cooks. Cook the sausage through, 10-15 minutes. Remove the sausage from the pan to a bowl, leaving as much of the residual fat in the pan as possible.
Add the shallots to the fat in the pan, and sauté until just starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Add the wine, and scrape up the bits in the bottom of the pan. Allow the wine to cook down until almost completely evaporated. Scrape the shallots into another bowl and allow to cool slightly.
In a bowl, combine the fromage blanc, egg, egg yolk and Dijon mustard. Add a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Turn sausage out onto a cutting board and chop it a little more finely. Do the same with the shallots (this makes them easier to eat, as they’re not in long strands). When the crust is cool, pour the egg mixture over the bottom of the crust and spread evenly. Scatter the shallots over the egg mixture, and the sausage over the shallots.
Return the tart to the oven and bake 20-25 minutes. Remove from the oven, allow to set up for 10 minutes, then serve warm or at room temperature.