One of the seminal stops in my culinary career was a 6-month stint I did in a high-volume, fairly high priced restaurant in Chicago. I was the only female member of a kitchen staff (pretty common in the ‘80s) that was headed up by a young Greek-American chef, doing Northern Italian cuisine, with a line cooking staff that was primarily Mexican. There were a couple of Puerto Rican cooks, too, and the pastry chef was Irish. Ah, America!Since the kitchen brigade spoke primarily Spanish, I was treated with regular doses of “Ay, Susanna, mi novia, mi corazon…” in addition to learning the more, um, colorful aspects of Mexican slang. It helped to have a thick hide and a good work ethic because that kitchen staff was one of the most productive groups I’ve ever been around.
I was in charge of receiving and prep, and every cigar-chewing veteran driver in town took their turn trying to short me on weights, especially when it came to the meat delivery. They’d bring a hand truck full of cases of veal racks, which weighed about 46 pounds apiece. They’d roll up and put them on the loading dock, next to (not on) the receiving scale. They figured a woman wasn’t going to bother to lift them up there to check the weights.
They were wrong. I’d grab the cases and throw them on the scale without breaking eye contact (or a sweat). The cases were always short of the weights on the invoice. It took a month of deducting about $30 to $60 off every invoice before they stopped trying to mess with me.
I blanched, peeled, and seeded 300 pounds of tomatoes every day before 6 am. Our tomato sauces were from scratch, obviously. We also ran a very popular cold tomato basil soup in the summer months. I used the pasta machine to dunk 15 to 20 pounds of fruit at a time in boiling water, before pouring the load into a bowl the size of a semi truck tire and shoveling ice over them. Peeling the tomatoes one by one was accomplished using the same hand motion as a pitcher on the mound chafing a baseball.
My prep list was 30 items long, and not everything needed prepping every day, but the receiving buzzer was my master as well. On Wednesdays, the dry goods came in. Bundles and bundles of heavy table linens, 5-gallon buckets of soap for the dishwashing machine, cases of soap and toilet paper for the bathrooms, all of the staff’s uniforms, all on top of the produce, groceries, fish, and meat that arrived every day. Wednesday nights I would stumble home to my apartment which blessedly had a 5’ long clawfoot bathtub. I’d run it full with screaming hot water, pour myself a double bourbon, and crawl in. I’d hear a strange whimpering after a few minutes, and it usually took a few beats for me to realize, “Oh. That’s me.”
I worked harder for less money than I ever had, but I got so much out of the experience! I’d applied to the Culinary Institute of America but had been accepted conditionally: the condition being that I got 6 months of restaurant experience under my belt before appearing in Hyde Park. That’s how I ended up at Avanzare. The most valuable compensation I received from those months was the imprinted hustle, the determination to deliver more and better than what was expected. I learned to push myself every day to take on a new skill, find a better way, capture a better sense of what moved me as a cook and perhaps, someday, as a chef.
One other benefit of my time at Avanzare was the chance to work with Tom, a self-taught pastry chef who cranked out some truly fabulous desserts. I have been using his tart dough ever since. Unlike so many others, it was both sturdy (it held its shape after coming out of the pan, and any filling you cared to put in it) and incredibly tender and flavorful. I’d make big wheels of it, that weighed almost 10 pounds apiece. That’s when I learned another truk of the trade: when making a tart (this works for pie doughs, too), you need an ounce of dough for every inch of the pan’s diameter. Depending on the height of the pan’s side, you need another 2 to 4 ounces. A tart pan that’s 8” in diameter with a ¾” tall rim needed 10 ounces of dough. A 12” tart with sides 1 ½” high needed a pound of dough.
I would form the batch in to a log at least 6” in diameter. To use it, we’d slice off a disk and weigh it; the formula I just outlined told us if we’d need more or less. Roll it out, blind bake it, and then the fun started.
Filled with bananas, pastry cream and covered with a layer of chocolate, it was delicious. Flavored mascarpone, Amareno cherries, and chocolate shavings? Sure. Lemon curd, topped with supremes of citrus? Bring it. Hazelnut ganache with caramel sauce drizzled over it? I’m there.
Today’s tart iteration is one I came up with for The Baking Sheet some years ago. I heard from a woman who liked it so much she made a dozen of them and served it at her wedding instead of wedding cake. When local strawberries make their appearance, this is a great way to show them off.
Later in the season, fresh raspberries and blueberries would do nicely on top for a 4th of July tart. Cherries, peaches, or apricots would work, and in the winter, supremes of Cava Cava or blood oranges would do.
Fresh Berry Tart
Citrus-Scented Tart Dough
4 1/4 cups (1 pound, 1 3/4 ounces, 503g) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces, 50g) sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon (1 lemon) grated fresh lemon peel
1 tablespoon (1/2 orange) grated fresh orange peel
2 1/3 cups (10 1/2 ounces, 298g) cold unsalted butter, cut in chunks
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons (1 ounce,28g) cold water
Put the flour, sugar, salt, and lemon zest into the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle. Add the butter in 1 tablespoon chunks, running the mixer at low speed until the mixture looks like oatmeal. Add the egg, yolks, and water, let the paddle go around 3 times, then knead the dough by hand until it comes together. Pat the dough and form into a log 4” in diameter. Wrap the dough and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
To portion, cut 1 ounce of dough for every inch of your tart pan’s diameter, plus another 1 to 2 ounces for the sides. (an 8" would only need 1 ounce; a 13"pan would need 2. For an 11" pan, use 13 ounces of dough.). Cut a slice of dough off the log (it will already be flat and round), and roll it to fit the tart pan.
Place the dough in the pan, dock it, and line it with foil and your choice of weights. Lately, thanks to Stella Parks, I’ve been using sugar as my weight, in order to create a stash of toasted sugar for other baked delights. Bake in a preheated 450°F oven for 13 to 14 minutes, until the bottom is set. Remove from the oven, take out the foil and beans, and turn the oven down to 350°F. Return to the oven and bake for another 5 minutes, until the shell is golden brown. Dough weight per batch: 33 ounces (3 tart shells).
Make sure the cream cheese is at room temperature before starting. You can change the flavor of this filling by substituting lime, orange or grapefruit juice and zest for the lemon. This amount of filling is just right for a ½” layer inside an 11” tart.
1 cup (8 ounces, 227g) cream cheese, at room temperature
1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) sugar
1/4 cup (2 ounces, 57g) sour cream
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
Place the cream cheese and sugar in the large bowl and beat at low speed until smooth.
Add the sour cream, lemon juice and zest and beat until creamy and smooth.
Cover with plastic wrap and keep chilled until ready to use. Yield: 1 cup.
1/2 cup (6 ounces, 170g) apricot preserves
3 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces, 43g) water or orange juice
Heat the jam and water or juice together either in a small pan on the stove or in the microwave. At this point you have a choice: you can push the preserves through a strainer for a more translucent glaze, or puree the mixture with a blender then strain it. Use warm to coat the top of the tart.
Let's put it all together: Fresh Strawberry Tart
1 blind-baked tart shell
1 batch Tart Filling
2 quarts fresh strawberries, washed and drained
1/2 cup (6 ounces) apricot glaze
Spread the filling in the cooled tart shell with an offset spatula, leveling the top. Trim the stem end of the berries to be flat, and if you’re being really particular about looks, make all the berries the same height. Place the berries, points up, or tumble them around as you like to cover the filling. Seal the top of the tart by brushing all the surfaces with apricot glaze. Yield: 1 tart, 16 servings.