Editor's note: Living in the Colorado high country is pure joy. Baking in it isn't. High altitude makes cookies spread in the pan, cakes fall, and few baked goods turn out as they do at sea level. This twice-monthly column presents recipes and tips to make baking in the mountains successful.
Light, subtle in taste and smooth in texture, this tart and variations of it are commonplace in the region of France where walnuts are grown. It features sweet custard flavored by ground walnuts and walnut liqueur, complemented by a little semisweet chocolate, and cradled in a tender shortbread crust. That's it ... nothing dazzling or decadent. It is clearly an understated dessert, but, when made with fresh, flavorful walnuts and high-quality chocolate, it can be elegant, sophisticated and very pleasing.
The secret to its success? The best and freshest ingredients and a gentle approach. Don't overwork the tart dough or over-beat the filling mixture.
If you have a favorite tart crust recipe, feel free to substitute it. However, I wouldn't use a crumb crust with this filling.
French Walnut Tart
Make in a 9 1/2 inch tart pan with a removable bottom
2 cups of bleached all-purpose flour (spoon and level)
1/2 cup of confectioner's sugar
A pinch of salt
1 generous teaspoon of vanilla
1 cup (two sticks) of unsalted butter, cold
1 ounce of good semisweet chocolate, chopped
1 ounce of good semisweet chocolate, chopped
1 cup of walnuts (whole or pieces), preferably toasted
1 cup of confectioner's sugar
1 cup of heavy whipping cream
1 large egg
1 tablespoon of walnut liqueur or vanilla
1/2 teaspoon of canola oil
10-12 (10 to 12) whole walnut halves
Make the tart crust: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees, with a rack in the center position. Place the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine. Cut the cold butter into small pieces and add them, with the vanilla, to the processor. Pulse to mix and then process ONLY until the dough starts to form a ball on top of the processor's blade. Remove the dough and use it immediately or, if it is too soft to work with, pat it into a disc and refrigerate or freeze it until it is easy to handle. Roll into an eleven-inch circle and transfer it to the pan, pressing it up the sides and leveling the top. Freeze or refrigerate the pan until the dough is quite firm (10-15 minutes in freezer). Gently press a piece of non-stick foil or lightly greased regular foil against the cold dough, (non-stick or greased side against the dough), lining it completely. Fill with pie weights or dried beans. Place the pan on a cookie sheet and bake until the dough is firm. Start checking after about 20 minutes. Gently remove the pie weights and foil liner, return the pan to the oven and continue baking until the shell is lightly golden and set. Remove to a cooling rack and cool completely.
Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Melt one tablespoon of semisweet chocolate and brush it gently over the bottom of the baked and cooled tart shell, making a thin layer. Set the shell aside until the chocolate has cooled completely and is set. (The chocolate layer forms a barrier between the tart filling and the baked tart shell, thus preventing the shell from getting overly moist and softening.)
Make the filling: Put the one cup of walnuts and the confectioner's sugar in a food processor and pulse/process until the nuts are finely ground and the mixture is powdery. Dump the mixture into a large bowl, add the cup of heavy cream, the egg, and the walnut liqueur or vanilla and whisk gently until blended. Pour the filling into the prepared tart shell, place the pan on a cookie sheet in case there are any leaks, and bake until the custard is set (it should no longer be wet on top, puff slightly, and barely move when you jiggle the pan). This takes about half an hour in my oven. Remove the baked tart to a cooling rack and cool it completely.
When the tart is cool, melt the second ounce of chopped semisweet chocolate, add the half-teaspoon of canola oil and stir to combine. Scrape the mixture into a small plastic bag, seal the top, and cool slightly. Snip one corner of the plastic bag to make a one-eighth of an inch opening. Drizzle the chocolate attractively over the tart. While the chocolate is still tacky, place the whole walnut halves around the tart's edge, spacing them equally. (The chocolate will secure them in place when it sets up.) When the chocolate is firm, the tart can be loosely covered and refrigerated or removed from the band of the tart pan and served. We prefer it chilled, but some like it best at room temperature. Softly whipped sweetened cream, flavored with walnut liqueur or vanilla, is a nice accompaniment.
Vera Dawson, a chef instructor with CMC's Culinary Institute, lives in Summit County, where she bakes almost every day. Her recipes have been tested in her home kitchen and, whenever necessary, altered until they work at our altitude. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.