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Wine & Dine

Berry good

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It's the season for strawberries and what better way to eat them than in cream tarts.

Some of the fondest childhood memories I have are of picking fresh strawberries at a quaint little farm on the outskirts of London. Red, luscious and bursting with flavour, strawberries instantly became my favourite fruit.

Years later, on a trip to Mahabaleshwar, I was reminded of the farm-fresh strawberries. I was astonished to see how shiny and flavourful these heart-shaped berries were. That's when I said a little prayer of gratitude for living in Mumbai, which is so close to the source of world- class strawberries.

I'm so enamoured of strawberries that I even pack my freezer with boxes of pureed strawberries to fulfil my off-season cravings. Aside from eating it as is, my top favourite way of enjoying strawberries in all their splendour is in a strawberry and cream tart: a buttery tart, filled with sweet smelling, vanilla speckled cream, and topped with layers of freshly sliced strawberries.

While slicing strawberries is a cinch, and making the pastry cream little work, what takes a bit of effort to get right is the tart crust. It has to be crisp and flaky, the kind that shatters into buttery crumbs on the plate when you press it with your fork. For that, the rule of thumb is to chill all the ingredients before use and work the dough minimally.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a great tip for tart crust by New York Times columnist Melissa Clark. She recommends using pennies instead of beans as weights in the tart pan - a genius idea indeed. With all the heat that the copper pennies conduct you are bound to have a gorgeous golden inner crust as well. While we in India don't have copper pennies, we can replicate the effect with silver coins that grandmothers store at the back of their cupboards. Since silver has higher heat conductivity than copper, you will end up with similar results.

SWEET TART CRUST BASE

Yield: 9-inch tart crust 250 g all purpose flour 2 tbsp icing sugar 125 g butter, cut into cubes and chilled 3-4 tbsp ice water 1 In a bowl, stir the flour and icing sugar. 2 Add the pieces of butter into this, and with two forks (since we don't get pastry cutters here) work the butter into the dough very quickly. At the end of it you should have a mixture that looks like coarse bread crumbs along with some chunks of butter that are the size of kidney beans. 3 Add water, a spoonful at a time until the dough holds itself together without being too dry. You are simply working on binding the dough with the water - you don't have to knead it. 4 Flatten the dough and wrap it up in cling film. Let it chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour. 5 Now roll out the dough between two sheets of cling-film to a thickness of 2-3 mm. 6 Transfer to a buttered 8-9 inch tart pan and refrigerate it for another 30 minutes. Poke the tart crust with a fork at regular intervals. 7 While the pie crust is chilling in the freezer, preheat the oven to 180 degree C. 8 Line the tart dough with foil or parchment paper and fill it up with coins or beans to act as weights. This is called blind baking, and it keeps the tart from puffing up. 9 Bake for 15-20 minutes, until golden brown at the edges. 10 Cool completely before filling it with pastry cream.

PASTRY CREAM FILLING

300 g whole milk 1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped or 1 tsp vanilla extract 3 large egg yolks 100 g caster sugar 30 g cornstarch 45 g butter 1 Bring the milk and vanilla bean (pulp and pod) to a boil in a small saucepan. Cover the pan, turn off the heat, and set aside for 20-30 minutes for the vanilla to flavour the milk. Bring it back to boil after 30 minutes. 2 Working in another saucepan, whisk together the yolks, sugar, and cornstarch until thick and pale. Drizzle a quarter of the hot milk onto the yolks very slowly, and continue whisking vigorously as you pour the rest of the liquid in a steady stream over the tempered yolks. 3 Put the pan over medium heat and continue whisking without stopping, while the mixture comes to the boil. Turn down the flame and keep the mixture at boil, whisking energetically for 1 to 2 minutes, then remove the pan from the heat and scrape the pastry cream into a bowl. Discard the vanilla bean. 4 Stir the butter into the hot pastry cream, continuing to stir until the butter is melted. Seal the surface of the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2-3 hours before use.

SLICED STRAWBERRY TOPPING

1 box of strawberries 1 tbsp strawberry jam thinned with 1/2 tbsp of hot water Crushed pistachios or mint leaves for garnish 1 Slice the strawberries lengthwise, and arrange them concentrically on the creamfilled tart, starting from outside inwards. 2 Brush them with the jam mixture for a shiny glaze. 3 Garnish with the pistachios or mint leaves.

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