Cooking without recipes – understanding the tart

A fruit tart is simple, yet delicious, and lets us eat all kinds of lovely fruit from strawberries to apples, through plums and blueberries. (I’ll leave aside the slightly different tarte au citron for now.)

What you have is a pastry base and fruit, with or without a binding agent of sorts. That’s it… but what more do you need?

Last week I bought Mirabelles, little yellow plums with rosy cheeks that are the size and shape of marbles and are sweet without sourness or bitterness. They are my favourite variety for that reason (but the blue, oblong Zwetschgen plums are my second favourites precisely because they are NOT too sweet and always a little sour – go figure!). Their season is very short, so I tend to overdose just a bit… Twice I already had to buy new Mirabelles because we had accidentally eaten them all before I actually made the cake. 

What you need for a quick sweet dough:

– about 250g of flour

– 50g of sugar

– 125g of butter

– a pinch of salt

– 1 egg (or an egg yolk)

optional: 30g of ground almonds or hazelnuts, or a pinch of powdered cinnamon or All-Spice

What to do:

  • Mix the dry ingredients.
  • Rub in the butter
  • Rub in the egg
  • Add a few drops of water, if necessary, to obtain the right texture, or a dash of flour
  • Bake at 180 – 200 C for anything between 30-60 minutes

What is the right texture? That’s a tough question. When it feels right? When it’s dry enough to not stick to your fingers but moist enough to form a ball…? It’s kind of intuititive. You get better at judging the right texture with experience. (For example, some eggs are bigger than others, so your dough can be a little drier or wetter and you have to adjust.)

Is this the only dough recipe to use? No! Sometimes I leave out the egg altogether and use more butter. Sometimes I use icing sugar for a smoother dough. Sometimes I use no sugar at all. Sometimes I make a yeast dough, like for brioche. Sometimes I use puff pastry. It just depends on what I have in the house and what suits me on the day.

You should refrigerate the dough to avoid it shrinking in the oven, but I always find the cold dough hard to work with. So what I do is roll out the dough (or fit it by simply pushing it down with my fingers) and put the whole baking tin in the fridge, dough, greaseproof paper and all. 

Depending on the juicyness of the fruit, I pre-bake (or blind bake) the dough for 10-15 minutes before adding the fruit. I do this to avoid the dough getting soggy. Sometimes I sprinkle a little ground almond on the bottom of the dough – or even a thin layer of toasted breadcrumbs – before laying on the fruit.


A tart can be lovely just with plain fruit on top, but you can add a kind of custard topping to hold the fruit and control the sweetness of your cake, too. (The tart in the photo is with cream topping.)

What you need for a generic topping:

– an egg (or egg yolk)

– some sugar (depending on how sweet your fruit is, 50g – 100g)

– a sachet or two of vanilla sugar, or a table spoon of Bird’s custard powder (or a proper vanilla pod, of course, but that is both expensive and more time consuming as you have to heat the milk with the vanilla and let it cool down again)

milk, cream, or a combination of both

Just mix it all with a whisk and pour over the fruit before you put the cake into the oven (try to avoid the cream pouring over the edge of your pastry crust – it’ll cause the pie to stick to the edges of its dish). 


Sometimes, I leave out the cream, but sprinkle a bit of crumble on top of the fruit. It gives the tart a nice little crunch.

To bake or not to bake? Fruit that I bake includes apples, pears, rhubarb, all sorts of plums, some berries… However, I don’t bake blueberries or blackberries as long as I would apples, and sometimes I don’t bake blueberries at all. I never bake strawberries or raspberries.

In France, strawberries, in particular, are usually associated with crème pâtissière, which is a kind of thick custard used for anything from éclairs to profiteroles; the basic type is vanilla-flavoured, but you can also add coffee extract or molten chocolate. To make a Tarte aux Fraises, I blind bake the pastry case until it’s through and a pretty light brown. Once cooled, I spread the custard on the base and arrange strawberries on top.

You can also just arrange red berries on the base and pipe freshly whipped cream all over the top. Only do this if you are going to serve it right away. Otherwise you’ll see the cream pack up and go, leaving your berry masterpiece in ruins…

In bakeries, you often see fruit pies that are very shiny – they are “painted” with apricot jelly to keep them moist and pretty, but I absolutely loathe this and never do it. I prefer a slightly rustic-looking cake that tastes nice to a pretty, shiny one that tastes bad.

In a nutshell, baking a fruit tart is easy, but not an exact science.

Once you have sorted out your dough, baking times depend on the type of fruit you choose. You need to keep an eye on it and judge by looking at the colour of the dough. If the fruit is getting a bit too dark, but the dough is not quite baked enough, cover the tart with a bit of tin foil.

How you handle the fruit is a matter of taste. If the fruit is ripe, use less sugar. If it’s a bit early in the season, add a bit more. You like cinnamon, All-Spice, or rhum-soaked sultanas? Trust your tastebuds! Hubby prefers “naked” fruit, without cream custard. I’m the opposite, so I alternate, for peace’s sake.

Rule of thumb: the more fragile the fruit, the less you cook it.

One of my all-time favourite desserts is apple tart still warm from the oven, topped with a small scoop of ice-cream. Go on! Invite a friend for Kaffee und Kuchen, like in Germany – coffee and cake – and spend a happy hour or more chatting, eating and smiling… one of the simpler pleasures in life.

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