Intro to Tart Fillings | Panna Cotta with Seasonal Fruit
This is part B of the introduction - if you want to catch up on part A, an overview tart shells + recipe for chocolate pastry crust, you can read it here.
The nudge to make a tart or pie usually reaches me in the form of abundantly ripe fruit. Peaches so juicy they're heavy as pool balls. Blueberries overflowing from wobbly cardboard cartons. Often a tart's highest service is to feature produce from each season as its rotating leading ladies. With any fruit, in any season, or even if you have no fruit at all, you can make some kind of bang-up delicious tart with filling from one of the following categories. I'm quite sure that this list is not totally comprehensive, but it does include the kinds of tarts that I personally want in my tool belt. The main rule with tart fillings is that whatever it is needs some kind of binder to hold disparate ingredients together with a firm enough set so it can be cut or bitten into without a liquidy mess gushing out. All of these options below conform to that rule in their own way.
- Custard, [Baked]
- Binder: Egg
- All custards will be cooked in the end, but some of them will do that cooking in the oven. The reasons for the two methods (as far as I can tell) are as follows: first, a firm set that doesn't depend on hours in the fridge to chill. Second, especially for a non-fruit tart or pie, the finished look of baked filling top - think classic custard tart with the attractive browning on its surface. Third, you might want the fruits involved to be cooked and edging on jammy, or the nut topping to be toasted. In the seasonal fruit spectrum, a baked custard often feels more fall-wintry to me. The exception might be quiche. Quiche is a perfect food all year.
- Examples: a classic Custard Tart or Pie, Tarte au Citron/Citrus Curd Tart, Quiche, Frangipan Tart, Pumpkin Pie, Pecan Pie, Cheesecake, Clafoutis
- Custard, [Unbaked]
- Binder: Egg
- Pastry cream, or crème pâtissière, is a simple custard with enough body to hold its shape well as a filling in many kinds of pastries. When used for tarts or pies it is cooked completely on the stovetop, then added to a fully cooked shell. Pastry cream provides an especially friendly accommodation for fresh fruit that you want to keep uncooked; a filling of cream provides a perfect pillowy bed on which to nestle any assortment of fresh, beautiful fruit. Other varieties of a cooked custard filling might use alternate milks, additional flavoring ingredients, or fold in whipped heavy cream for an airier texture.
- Examples: Classic Fresh Fruit Tart, Lemon Cream Tart, any Cream Pie (banana, coconut, chocolate), Bavarian Cream Tart
- Panna Cotta, [Unbaked]
- Binder: Gelatin
- Panna Cotta, or "cooked cream," is a pudding with only two essential ingredients: cream and gelatin - though sugar is usually also in the mix. It originated in Northern Italy and is one of the cleanest backdrops you could ever ask for - excellent as a stand-alone dessert and excellent as a tart filling, because a crispy, buttery counterpart is just what it wants. Panna cotta also welcomes a light fruit puree or handily surrounds larger chunks of fruit, suspending either once the gelatin has set.
- Produce Mix, [Baked]
- Binder: Cornstarch and/or flour and/or cooked sugars
- The basic theory behind this one is fruits + thickener. Sometimes the produce thickens itself, if you bake long enough. But usually, to avoid a sloppy mess and/or to keep your shell from getting soggy, you want some kind of thickening agent to absorb the excess moisture that weeps out of fresh fruit during baking. Either flour or cornstarch often serve to thicken the syrup that forms from sugar mixing with the fruit juices. The general idea is very simple, but the possibilities of fruit variety, combination, and flavoring are endless. Ask ten people to bring an apple pie to a party, and every pie will be a bit different.
- Examples: Fruit Pie, Fruit Galette, Tomato Tart or Pie, Hand Pie
Probably the most wonderful thing about panna cotta is just how easy it is. I consider it custard training wheels. It's not a custard; there is no egg. But no egg means no chance of curdling or scrambling or separating, so for a novice or just anyone in a hurry, it is an excellent place to start. All recipes for panna cotta are extremely similar, but I adapted this one from Local Milk and have had great success with the ratios in it.
- 3 cups heavy cream
- 1 packet unflavored gelatin (2 teaspoons)
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Seasonal fruit element: fresh cherries, halved and pitted
- Variation A: 1 tablespoon dried lavender
- Variation B: 1/4 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia (notes of vanilla and orange blossom)
- Variation C: 1/2 oz. high quality dark chocolate
- Pour one cup of cream into a small saucepan, and sprinkle the gelatin over it. This allows the gelatin to "bloom" and absorb some of the liquid.
- Wait five minutes, and heat on low, stirring gently until the gelatin dissolves.
- Add the remainder of the cream, sugar, vanilla, and aromatic. If Variation A, try putting the lavender in a loose tea ball. No chocolate just yet.
- Turn the heat to medium, and cook until you see the first bubble.
- Remove from heat and if Variation A, let steep for 30 minutes for the lavender flavor to develop. You can skip the steeping for Variation B.
- Halve and pit the cherries, and arrange your prepared, fully-baked tart shell on a baking sheet in case of overflow or leakage.
- Transfer cream mixture into something with a spout - small pitcher, large measuring cup, etc. I've found that it's a lot easier to pour in the filling with the shell already resting safely on a shelf in the refrigerator than it is to try to relocated a filled shell without sloshing. If any lavender escapes, filter the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve.
- Pour into shell, dotting with halved cherries. Fill as close to the top as you can, as the panna cotta will slightly shrink as it cools. If you're making individual tarts, this amount will fill 9-12. It will fill one rectangular 4"x14" or round 10" with a bit left over that you can pour into small bowls or round-bottomed teacups to be enjoyed separately.
- If Variation A, sprinkle with new lavender blossoms. If Variation C, reserve 1/4 cup of cream mixture to pour over finely chopped dark chocolate. Stir to melt and incorporate, then add that in over the top in small pours. You can get as fancy with these kind of shenanigan as you wish, because as the panna cotta sets, you can start to make patterns of different colors with reserved chocolate or vanilla. The photos directly below illustrate.
- Chill for at least 4 hours, or overnight.