by Betty Thompson

We gazed a long time in the window of a little French bakery, eyeing the choices. The greatest appeal was a tray of crisp little cookie-like tart shells. Each was filled with a spoonful of smooth sweet custard, a complimentary contrast to the tart fruit nestled on top. The artfully arranged red currants, black currants, strawberries and raspberries were glazed with apricot jam for a dazzling finish. A feast for the eyes and the taste buds.

Tarts are baked in all sizes and shapes, even free form. But a tray of small ones with a variety of fruit is so enticing and colorful and requires no messy portioning and cutting. Three-inch tart tins are inexpensive and available at cookware shops.

Fruit tarts are easy, especially with a reserve of baked frozen shells. They can be filled at the last minute for any number of guests. A jar of lemon curd, a carton of flavored cream cheese or creme fraiche (cultured cream) can be purchased along with fruit for quick preparation. Tarts are best if filled just two to three hours ahead of serving.

Tart pastry, unlike pie dough, is very workable. Egg and sugar give it strength so once the pastry is taken out of its mold the sides will not collapse. A spoonful can be pressed into smaller tins with the fingers.

For larger tart shells, roll dough about 1/8-inch thick then press into a buttered tart tin. Trim edges by rolling a rolling pin across the top. Prick dough of large shells with a fork before baking.

Most fruits go well with custard, lemon curd and cream cheese fillings. This layer helps hold the fruit in place and tastes good. Spread only a half-inch layer in large tart shells so the cream does not spill out when cutting.

Think of color contrasts when choosing and preparing fruit for a tray full of tarts. Fill a large tart shell with colorful concentric circles.

Use this month's recipes as guidelines to create whatever size tart you like with your choice of filling and fruit.

1/4 pound butter or margarine, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
13/4 cups all-purpose flour

Cream butter until fluffy. Gradually mix in sugar, beating until light. Add egg yolk, orange juice, vanilla and orange peel. Mix in flour. Press dough into greased tart tins. Cut off excess with heel of hand.

Bake 15 to 20 minutes at 350 degrees or until lightly browned. Cool in molds 10 minutes. Insert tip of knife between edge of crust and mold and invert crusts one at a time into your hand. Cool completely on racks. May be frozen. (Adapted from Sorosky's Cookery for Entertaining.)

Yield: 24 three-inch tart tins, 4 six- to seven-inch tart tins, 2 eight- to nine-inch tarts or pie pans, or a 12-inch tart pan.

12 baked tart shells (enough to serve 4 to 6)
2-3 cups fruit, such as sliced strawberries, drained canned diced pineapple or mandarin orange slices, seedless grapes, blueberries or sliced bananas

Cream filling (below)
1/2 cup apricot jam for glaze, warmed and sieved
Spread 2 teaspoons of custard in each shell. Fill each tart with desired fruit, one type of fruit per tart. Brush with apricot glaze. May be refrigerated up to 4 hours.
Pastry Cream Filling
1 cup milk
4 tablespoons sugar
11/2 tablespoons flour
11/2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla, lemon or almond extract

Heat milk in a pan. In a small bowl combine sugar, flour, cornstarch and egg yolks. Add a little of the hot milk to the mixture, stirring until smooth. Add the rest of the hot milk and stir. Place the mixture back in the pan and cook until thickened. Add vanilla. Place in a dish and butter the top to prevent a skin from forming. Cool.

Pastry cream will keep 3-4 days refrigerated.

5-6 kiwi fruits, peeled and sliced crosswise
Lemon curd (below)

1/2 cup apricot jam, warmed and sieved to remove skins, and thinned with 1 tablespoon triple sec liquor.

Place 2 teaspoons lemon filling in each tart shell. Overlap three kiwi slices on top. Brush fruit with apricot glaze. Yield: 12 three-inch tarts.

4 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup sugar
Grated rind of one lemon
1/2 cup lemon juice
2 eggs

Cream butter and sugar. Add lemon juice and lemon peel. Mix well with eggs. Cook in a double boiler stirring most of the time until mixture thickens. Mixture will thicken more as it cools. Do not boil.

Pour into a clean jar and refrigerate. Keeps for a week.

1/2 pound red rhubarb, diced in 1/2-inch pieces
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon finely minced fresh ginger (optional)
11/2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water
Cream cheese filling (below)

Mix rhubarb, sugar and ginger in a small pan. Let stand 20 minutes till juices run. Cover and cook on low heat 2-3 minutes until tender. Thicken with cornstarch. Cool.

Fill tart shells with cream cheese and a spoon of rhubarb. Yield: 12 three-inch tarts.

6 ounces cream cheese
1/4 cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoons fresh orange juice
1 teaspoon grated orange peel

Mix cheese and sugar until smooth. Add orange juice and peel. Or, flavor cheese with a spoonful of jam or drained crushed pineapple.

Betty Thompson has taught cooking locally since 1974.

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