Welcome back to our new column at PEOPLE.com: the Tiny Test Kitchen. Here, we test recipes from the latest and greatest cookbooks and let you know how it went. Why Tiny Test Kitchen? Because we whip up these dishes in our very own (very tiny) New York City kitchens to show you just how easy or difficult, tasty or terrible the food turns out to be.
THE BOOK: Baking Chez Moi
THE DISH: Pear Tart with Crunchy Almond Topping
THE TESTER: Mark Marino, PEOPLE.com deputy editor, @mamarino
Paris is one of my favorite cities, and whenever I’m there, I tend to bypass the museums and historic sites and head straight to the patisseries. Macarons, eclairs and cannele? Oui, si vous plaît! So I smiled bigger than the Mona Lisa (maybe that’s a bad analogy) when I saw a copy of Dorie Greespan‘s Baking Chez Moi, a collection of classic dessert recipes that the French actually make at home. That means the recipes aren’t overly complicated and can be whipped up faster than you can say “Gerard Depardieu.”
I’ve attempted to make macarons in the past, with mixed results, so I thought I’d start with something different from Dorie’s book: a pear tart with crunchy almond topping. It looked fancy yet homey, just the kind of dessert I’d serve if I were having Marion Cotillard and Jean Dujardin over for café au lait.
First, I prepped the crust by combining confectioner’s sugar, all-purpose flour, hazelnut flour (suggested by Dorie but not required), sea salt, butter and an egg yolk in my 1980s La Machine food processor, which deserves a spot among the relics in the Louvre.
I then kneaded and rolled out the dough and chilled it for an hour. Since I was planning to make the filling the next day, I fit the dough into a tart pan and froze it overnight.
When I finally baked the dough, the edges started browning quickly, about 15 minutes into the 25-minute baking time. To prevent them from burning, I took the tart out of the oven and covered the edges with foil. The dough’s base had puffed a bit, so, per Dorie, I pressed it down with the back of a spoon before returning it to the oven. Ultimately, I baked the frozen tart shell for 25 minutes instead of the suggested 30 – 35 minutes, because I feared it would burn faster than Joan of Arc.
To make the filling, I peeled and cored five Anjou pears, chopped them into small chunks (the recipe says they should be ½-inch, but I’m not good at math), and tossed them into a pan of melted butter. While they browned, I prepped the topping, first combining egg whites and confectioners’ sugar (this must be the white paste mimes put on their faces), then adding slivered almonds.
Meanwhile, in the frying pan, the pears should have started caramelizing but instead were swimming in juices the size of the Seine. I kept on keeping on and added the suggested sugar and — mon Dieu! — that only created more liquid. Before the pears could start dividing themselves into Left and Right Banks, I took the pan off the heat, added a splash of brandy and, hesitantly, grabbed a match to flambé the whole thing.
This part scared me a bit, as I had visions of my whole kitchen exploding. I wondered if I should call my family first to say my goodbyes. I began thinking about all the things on my bucket list I’ve still yet to do. Death by flambéing was not on that list. But, alas, it was now or never, so I took a deep breath, dragged the match along the matchbox and … accidentally dropped it on the floor. I took another match — this time it lit! — and put it near the pan.
Nothing. The alcohol had already burned off or drowned.
Since the pears were now bobbing in juices, they never caramelized. Perhaps the fruit was too ripe. Regardless, I spooned the pears into the tart shell, careful not to include too much liquid. I then spread the almond topping over the mixture, and baked it for 25 minutes.
The result, I must say, was a mini masterpiece, worthy of a spot in the Musée d’Orsay! The pears may not have caramelized but they were bursting with flavor, like a really delicious pie filling. I also liked the extra nuttiness the hazelnut flour added to the buttery, shortbread-like crust.
While the recipe wasn’t as simple as I had hoped, it really is an impressive dessert that’s perfect for a special occasion — like coffee with Marion Cotillard and Jean Dujardin. I’d also invite Jerry Lewis, because the French reportedly love him and that, plus the tart, would blow Marion’s and Jean’s minds.
Pear Tart with Crunch Almond Topping
Makes 8 servings
For the Sweet Tart Dough crust:
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour (you can also use 1 1/4 cups, plus 1/4 cup almond or hazelnut flour)
½ cup confectioners’ sugar
¼ tsp. fine sea salt
9 tbsp. very cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg yolk
1. Put the flour, confectioners’ sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse a couple of times to blend. Scatter the pieces of butter over the dry ingredients and pulse until the butter is cut in coarsely — you’ll have some pieces the size of oatmeal flakes and some the size of peas. Stir the yolk just to break it up and add it a little at a time, pulsing after each addition. When the egg is incorporated, process in long pulses — about 10 seconds each — until the dough, which will look granular soon after the egg is added, forms clumps and curds. Just before you reach this clumpy stage, the sound of the machine working the dough will change — heads-up. Turn the dough out onto a work surface.
2. To incorporate the butter more evenly and to catch any dry ingredients that might have escaped mixing, separate small amounts of dough from the pile and use the heel of your hand to smear each piece a few inches across the counter.
3. Shape the dough into a disk and put it between two sheets of parchment or wax paper. Roll the dough out evenly, turning it over frequently and lifting the paper often so that it doesn’t roll into the dough and form creases. Aim for a circle that’s at least 3 inches larger than the base of your tart pan. The dough will be 1/8 to 1/16 inch thick, but it’s the diameter, not the thickness, that counts. Slide the rolled-out dough, still between the papers, onto a baking sheet or cutting board and refrigerate for 2 hours or freeze for 1 hour.
4. When the dough is thoroughly chilled, put it on the counter and let it rest for about 10 minutes or until it’s pliable enough to bend without breaking. Remove the dough from the paper, fit it into a buttered tart pan and trim the excess dough even with the edges of the pan. Prick the crust all over with a fork and freeze for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer, before baking.
5. When you’re ready to bake: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Butter the shiny side of a piece of aluminum foil (or use nonstick foil) and fit the foil snugly into the crust. If the crust is frozen, you can bake it as is; if not, fill it with dried beans or rice (which you can reuse as weights but won’t be able to cook after they’ve been used this way).
6. Bake the crust for 25 minutes, then carefully remove the foil (and weights). If the crust has puffed, press it down gently with the back of a spoon. Bake the crust for another 7 to 10 minutes, or until it is firm and golden brown. Transfer the crust to a cooling rack (keep it in its pan)
For the topping:
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
3 large egg whites
1½ cups sliced almonds (blanched or unblanched)
1 fully baked 9- to 9 ½-inch tart crust made from Sweet Tart Dough, cooled
For the filling:
3 tbsp. unsalted butter
5 ripe but firm pears, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
2½ tbsp. sugar
2 tbsp. brandy, rum or bourbon (optional)
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
1. To make the topping: Put the confectioners’ sugar in a wide bowl and pour the egg whites over it. Using your fingers (you can use a fork, but your hands really work best here), mix the sugar and whites together gently — don’t worry about lumps, just moisten the sugar with the whites. Add the almonds and toss until they are thoroughly coated with the sweet mixture. Leave the bowl on the counter while you get the filling ready.
2. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place the tart pan with the fully baked crust on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
3. To make the filling: Toss the butter into a medium skillet and put the pan over medium-high heat. When the butter is melted and bubbling, add the pears. Let the pears cook, turning them only a couple of times, until they are browned here and there and just starting to soften, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle over the sugar and continue to cook and stir (again, not a lot) until the fruit is lightly caramelized, about 2 minutes more. If you’re using the liquor, pour it over the fruit and allow it to warm, then turn off the heat, stand back, set a match to the pan and flame the alcohol. (If it looks like the alcohol has almost evaporated — something that can happen if your pan is really hot — skip the flaming.) Scrape the pears and whatever bit of liquid remains in the pan into the crust and jostle the pears to make a roughly even layer.
4. Turn the topping around a few more times in the bowl — the mixture will be thick and sticky — and then spoon it over the pears, patting it down gently into an even layer all the way to the edges of the crust.
5. Bake the tart until the topping is golden brown all over and the nuts are shiny, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer the tart to a rack and let cool until it is just warm or until it reaches room temperature.
6. Generously dust the tart with confectioners’ sugar before serving.