Rhubarb custard tart

Does form follow function ?

Rhubarb custard tart

What’s more important : how your food looks, or how it tastes ? Any professional chef, myself included, will tell you that both are essential. What your dish looks like whets your appetite, and makes you want to take that first bite. But how food tastes is the most important, and it’s what keeps you going back for more. Or is it ?

A friend recently said, “We also eat with our eyes.” So true ! And right now is rhubarb season. I get excited when I see those bright red stalks at my market gardener’s stall at our twice-weekly outdoor market. Fresh produce glistens on the stands, and advice is given freely (sometimes in the form of an incontestable marching order) among both vendors and merchants.

To peel or not to peel

Of course, my country-living friends grow their own rhubarb, and a handy web site called Happy DIY Home tells you just how to harvest the plant.

But mine comes from the market, and when I get home, I love transforming that rhubarb into a beautiful red fluorescent green tart. Wait….what ? Why are some rhubarb tarts red, and others green, anyway ? What happened ? And why is rhubarb jam here green, and not red ? Il faut éplucher, ou pas ? To peel or not to peel – that is the question.

It turns out that it all goes back to an ages-long debate, one that’s also used in architecture : does form follow function ? Is the function of the building, or the flavor and texture of the tart, more important than the appearance of the finished work ? Is it better to have a red rhubarb tart, but with stringy fibers ? Or should you take the time to peel the rhubarb ?

Pork and Cognac

Back when I worked in fine-dining restaurants, each time foods would get plated and whisked out into the dining room for discerning customers, I’d exclaim : “Oh, c’est beau !” Once, another chef yelled out, “On s’en fout que ça soit beau – we don’t care if it’s beautiful ! We want it to taste good !” I couldn’t have agreed more, but I held my tongue (for once) before saying, “Yeah, but we don’t get to taste what’s on that plate.”

But we did actually taste most everything, before the food ever reached the plate. Tasting is a chef’s number-one most important job. When I taught cooking to teenagers at The European Center for Culinary Professions, I had students from all types of backgrounds, many of whom would refuse to taste a dish because it contained halouf, or pork. Or because we’d flambéed the dish with Cognac.

Superfluous ornament

I’d ask them how in the world they could imagine sending a dish out to a customer without checking it for seasoning, doneness, or knowing that everything was just right. They simply did that (French ? Or universal ?) teenagerly thing : they’d shrug their shoulders in nonchalance.

But what does that mean, “form follows function” ? Louis Sullivan was the first to say it in 1896. Functionalism in architecture means that superfluous ornament is banned – anything integrated into to a building’s structure should have a purpose. Functionalism also influenced some significant modern architects in the early part of last century, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier among them.

Stark and surprising

“Corbu” as he’s playfully known among architects here, was born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris in Switzerland in 1887. Paris is a great place to see his stark and surprising architecture. The Fondation Le Corbusier hosts tourists all year long in Le Corbusier’s own studio-apartment, along with the Jeanneret and La Roche houses in Paris. Villa Savoye in nearby Poissy, or even the Cité Radieuse (photo just below) in Marseille are also open for visits.

Rhubarb custard tart

But Le Corbusier wasn’t just an architect – he was a talented painter, sculptor, urban planner, theorist on modernity, and writer. And when you visit one of his houses, it’s quite clear just how talented and prolific the man was. At the La Roche house (see photo of interior, lower right), which I visited with David-Nicolas a couple of years ago, every detail of the house – including furniture, hinges on windows – was designed in a spirit of the complete work of art, or l’oeuvre total.

Rhubarb custard tart

Measures of Man

Le Corbusier wrote quite a few books, including Toward an Architecture, which I’ve had on my shelf for an embarrassingly long time without having actually read it – shame on me ! And in English no less. (I do read in French ! Newspapers, magazines, and comic books....) It’s firmly on my summer reading list, although I admit that lounging on a beach and reading Le Corbusier seem like two mutually exclusive activities.

But I’m actually more inspired to read it since my visit to a recent exhibit : fifty years after Le Corbusier’s death, Beaubourg (or the Pompidou Center) is celebrating his life’s work with Mesures de l’Homme, or the Measures of Man. If you’re in Paris right now, or you’re planning on being here this summer, you can find out more about Le Corbusier by visiting the exhibit (until August 3rd).

And as for the rhubarb ? Is peeling rhubarb really that important to the finished tart ? In a bit of culinary functionalism, I say yes – too bad if the tart isn’t red, although tant mieux – so much the better – if a few pinkish pieces creep in. You’ll find instructions for how to peel rhubarb in the recipe below, the inspiration for which came from the woman waiting in line right next to me at our market. And according to her orders, “Il faut éplucher !”— “Peel the rhubarb !”

Rhubarb custard tart

Rhubarb custard tart

This is a mid-spring recipe, still custardy and substantial enough to cut through the perma-chill here in Paris. (Just to give you an idea, on May 1st, we turned the heat back on. Brr.) You’ll find lighter, summery fruit tarts as the season (hopefully) warms up !

For this recipe, you’ll need a 10–inch (26-cm) diameter pie or tart pan. You’ll be blind-baking, or partially pre-baking the crust, so if you’ve never done this, I suggest watching this video. The only difference from the video I suggest is not to use foil (which can stick to the dough), but to crumple up a piece of parchment paper into a ball, then flatten it back out before using it in place of the foil.

The recipe for the almond pastry dough makes enough for two tart crusts – it’s tough to cut this recipe in half. So I make the recipe, cut the dough ball in half, and “crush” and wrap them in film separately, reserving one directly in the freezer for a rainy day. Voilà – it’s like money in the bank !

for the almond pastry dough :
- 2 cups (250g) all-purpose flour (or T65 organic French flour)
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
- 10 tablespoons (150g) very cold butter, cut into dice-sized cubes
- ¾ cup (95g) powdered sugar
- ⅓ (30g) almond flour
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 large egg

for the rhubarb custard filling :
- 7-10 large stalks (2.3 pounds or 1kg) fresh rhubarb
- ¾ cup (190g) raw sugar
- 2 whole eggs
- 2 egg yolks
- ⅓ cup + 1 tablespoon (95g) crème fraîche

how to make it :
1. The day before you want to serve the tart, make the pastry dough – it needs an overnight rest in the fridge. Also the day before, prepare the rhubarb – it needs an overnight “bath” or maceration in sugar, to remove the excess water.
2. In a food processor, combine the flour and salt. Process by pulsing 2 or 3 times, then add the cold butter, and process by pulsing just until the mix resembles very coarse sand. If there are some pea-sized bits, that’s fine.
3. Add all the other ingredients and process again, just until the mixture starts to stick together. If the mixture looks too dry to come together in a ball in the machine, add a tiny bit of water (1 teaspoon, for example).
4. Cut the dough ball in half, and shape each half into a ball, working quickly to avoid too much contact with warm hands. Flatten the balls slightly.
5. Wrap the pastry dough in plastic film and refrigerate overnight or for 24 hours. (Or freeze the second dough portion.)
6. To peel the rhubarb, start by cutting most of the way through the end of the stalk. Before you have fully cut through, grab that end and pull downwards – the red outer stringy fibers will peel away easily, going down the whole length of the stalk. Using a small knife, work this way all around the rhubarb stalks until they are peeled.
7. Then slice the rhubarb into ½-inch (1cm) pieces, and place them in a medium bowl. Sprinkle the raw sugar over the top and mix well. You’ll want to stir this mixture from time to time, and you’ll see that the rhubarb is giving off liquid. By the next day, your rhubarb should be sitting in lots of liquid, almost as much as there is rhubarb ! Save that liquid ! It will be used for the custard.
8. The next day, grease and flour the tart pan.
9. Remove the pastry dough from the refrigerator, and roll it out to about an inch (2.5cm) past the diameter of your tart pan.
10. Pre-heat the oven to 400°F (205°C).
11. Roll the pastry dough up onto the rolling pin, and gently lay it into the tart pan, pressing gently into the inside edges of the pan. Fold the extra dough into the inside of the tart, crimping as you go.
12. Refrigerate the pastry dough for at least 10-15 minutes while the oven is heating and you make the custard mix. This extra chilling is important to create the temperature “shock” and make the texture of the dough perfect.
13. Drain the rhubarb well, saving that liquid !
14. Blind bake the tart shell for about 15 minutes, or until the edges of the tart shell are beginning to turn a light golden color. Then lift the pie weights or beans out of the shell : the bottom of the dough should have begun drying out, but if there are still places where it’s not fully cooked, that’s fine. Continue baking the tart shell for about 5 more minutes and remove from the oven.
15. Lower the oven to 350°F (180°C).
16. Beat the eggs, egg yolks, and crème fraîche in a medium bowl using a fork (a whisk will make unwanted bubbles), and add the rhubarb liquid. Mix well.
17. Spread the rhubarb pieces in the tart shell, and add the custard.
18. Bake the tart in the lower third of the oven for about 35-40 minutes. The edges of your tart should have a deep golden color, and the custard should remain slightly jiggly in the middle, but not liquid.
19. Let the tart cool fully before eating. This tart is perfect about an hour after being removed from the oven, and is perfect for a 4 o’clock snack/tea time. Bon app’ !

makes enough pastry dough for two 10-inch (26-cm) pastry shells ; tart recipe makes 8 portions

Tags : Paris , Le Corbusier , rhubarb , functionalism , custard


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