Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tarte Grenobloise / Chocolate Caramel Pecan Tart

I like to bake for special occasions. When a dear coworker announced his departure to start a new career with the government (the suit-wearing, sunglasses-donning, UFO-investigating type), I wanted to leave him with something sweet to remember us by.

I found this recipe for Tarte Grenobloise in Pierre Hermé's Chocolate Desserts book. Traditionally, this is a double-crusted tart filled with an assortment of nuts. Pierre Hermé's version uses pecans (!), a big novelty for the French, and tucks in a layer of smooth chocolate ganache on the bottom. It's kind of like a chocolate pecan pie, Parisian style.

Part I: Tart Shell 

The original recipe called for a tart shell made with chocolate-almond pastry. I wanted something buttery and simple to set off the deep, dark Valrhona ganache, so I use the standard non-chocolate sweet tart dough from Paris Sweets.

The tart dough is a cinch to make in the food processor. Process butter and confectioner's sugar until creamy, then add ground almonds, salt, vanilla, eggs, and flour. Stop when it's all mixed together. It's a lovely sandy dough that looks like cookie dough (it is).

Divide the dough into three parts, wrap them in plastic, and put aside two parts for later use. They'll keep up to a month in the freezer. Chill the dough you're going to use for at least 4 hours before rolling it out.

Roll out the tart dough between two pieces of plastic wrap (there's a longer discussion on the virtues of plastic wrap here) until it's large enough to cover a 9 inch tart pan. Carefully drop the dough disk into the tart pan. (Warning: If it's too cold, the dough will break around the edges and you'll have a panic attack. Thankfully pâte sucrée is very forgiving, and you can just patch it together with your fingers.)

Chill for 30 minutes (the work-chill-work-chill pattern's becoming second-nature by now), then blind bake the tart crust. Blind baking involves covering the dough in foil, weighing it down with beans or rice or fancy "pie weights", then baking at 350F for around 30 minutes. Uncover the foil for the last 5 minutes to brown the top.

I had enough dough left over to make a second 6-inch tart. The weird pattern on the bottom of the tart came from the large cannelloni beans I used as pie weights. 


Part II: Chocolate Ganache

Chocolate ganache is simplicity itself. Chop 8 oz of your precious, carefully-hoarded chocolate, pour in a cup of hot cream, and stir.

Once that's cooled to about room temperature, stir in half a stick of butter, chopped. I read that the chocolate-cream mixture needs to be cooled first, otherwise the heat will cause the butter to separate and the ganache won't benefit from it's creamy texture.

Pour the still-warm ganache into the pre-baked tart crusts and chill for 30 minutes to set the ganache. 

Part III: Caramel-Pecan Topping

To make the caramel, melt 150 grams of sugar in a tall-ish pot. In another pot, heat a cup of cream. Pierre Hermé had the very useful tip of adding only a few tablespoons of sugar to the pan at a time. It ensures that the sugar melts evenly and gives the cook a better sense of accomplishment since the sugar melts much more quickly : )

Once the sugar's melted, keep on cooking until it reaches the desired stage of caramelization. I like my caramel with character and depth*, so I wait until right before it starts to bubble up. By that stage the caramel is a nice even brown and the kitchen smells sweet and smokey like impending-burnt sugar (as opposed to the acrid smell of actual burnt sugar). 

When the caramel is to your liking, turn off the heat. Then gather your courage, stand back, and pour in the heated cream. It will bubble up angrily and try to sputter everywhere (this is when a tall-ish pot comes in handy). Be strong, the madness will subside soon.

Stir in 200 grams/7 oz of pecans. I got toasted pecan pieces from Trader Joes' and generously salted them before adding them to the caramel. Chocolate, caramel, and pecans all taste better with salt. It took great self control not to eat the entire pot of nutty caramel goodness on the spot.


Top the tarts with the caramel-pecan mixture. Wait until the caramel is cooled before slicing.

I saved the big tart to bring to work, but the small tart was not so lucky.

Pierre Hermé is a master of balance and contrast. The crisp cookie crust matched beautifully with the creamy chocolate ganache, crunchy pecans, and slightly chewy caramel. Flavor-wise, every component came through. The caramel was intense and smokey, but it was balanced by the richness of the pecans. The chocolate was strong but not overwhelming, and it really played off the buttery richness of the tart crust. All it needed was a crunchy scattering of sea salt on top : ) 

* I could write a whole article about the sad misrepresentation of "caramel" in North America. Golden tooth-achingly sweet corn syrup goo is not caramel. Real caramel is smoky and intense and bitter and interesting.

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