My partner, Grillmaster D, turned 49 at the end of January and I threw her a birthday party to celebrate the occasion. I know most people would have held out and had the more common “You are Turning 50!” celebration next year; if you know me, however, you know I can never do anything the normal way. In Tiffany World, an “Enjoy The Hell Out of the Last Year of Your 40s, Baby” party is much more fun.
It wasn’t a big party, but I was faced with creating a menu that needed to accommodate both kids and adults, in addition to people I know well paired with people with whom I am not that well acquainted. Cathy and I, as well as a few of my other friends, are adventurous about trying new foods—but for some of the others I know, including Grillmaster D? Well, not so much; they prefer to stick to what they know (“I don’t eat funky food,” quoth Grillmaster D).
This tomato-mozzarella tart is a perfect dish to serve at any party when you are serving a wide variety of people or if you are unsure of everyone’s taste. Kids and the non-adventurous like it because it reminds them of pizza; the daring like it because it adds a different twist and a touch of sophistication to something that is otherwise fairly ordinary. It also has the added bonus of accommodating any vegetarians in the crowd. The best part? It is marvelous served either warm or at room temperature, so you don’t have to take up part of a buffet warmer if you are short on serving space.
I fiddled with a Cook’s Illustrated recipe from 2003 in order to get this tart just the way I like it. The original recipe calls for fitting and rolling two pastry sheets together and cutting strips off the ends to create a raised edge and form a long rectangular tart; I found that needlessly fussy and greatly simplified the procedure by forming two simple square tarts. The amounts called for to make the garlic oil made too much—I hate waste—and was hard to spread evenly with the little bits of chopped garlic floating in the oil. I love the mellower and fuller taste of garlic simmered in oil, as well as the convenience of not having to distribute minuscule dots of garlic evenly over a tart, so I changed that procedure as well.
Also, Cook’s Illustrated calls for Pepperidge Farms commercial puff pastry sheets, but they are made with partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening, which I try to stay away from. I like Trader Joe’s and Dufour brands (Dufour can be found at Whole Foods), which are made with butter instead. Be extremely careful when pre-baking the shells as I needed to make some adjustments to the baking time to accommodate the change from shortening- to butter-based puff pastry, which browns and bakes faster—check yours frequently.
The trick of salting the tomatoes to draw out moisture is an old one and works well here to keep the crust from being soggy. Plum tomatoes have the least amount of moisture and work the best here, but that should not prevent you from trying out your favorite varieties (I love using heirlooms when I can find good ones).
Also, as much as I adore fresh mozzarella, you CANNOT use it in this recipe—fresh mozzarella contains too much liquid and will ruin your tart. Use good organic whole-milk brick mozzarella instead and shred it yourself. I added the trick of tossing the shredded cheese with a tablespoon of organic heavy cream—it will add a “fresh” taste to the mozzarella without compromising the texture of the finished product.
1 box frozen puff pastry, preferably made with butter, thawed in refrigerator overnight (if you use puff pastry made with vegetable shortening, you will have to increase your baking times)
1 large egg, beaten
1 cup freshly grated parmigiana cheese (step away from the green plastic cheese can!)
4 medium ripe plum tomatoes, cored and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 medium garlic clove, smashed
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper (ditto the plastic pepper can!)
2 cups shredded organic whole-milk mozzarella cheese
1 tablespoon organic heavy cream
2 tablespoons fresh basil, cut into chiffonade
Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 425°F.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and open a piece of puff pastry on each sheet (you will have two). Brush both sheets with most of the beaten egg, avoiding the very edges. Fold each side of the tart over and press it down to make a shallow “hem”; brush remaining beaten egg over the “hem.” Shallowly score each “hem” with a sharp knife in four or five places (this allows the edges to puff).
Sprinkle the parmigiana cheese evenly over each shell; using a fork, poke holes all over the bottom of the shells. Bake 5 to 7 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 350°F; continue to bake until golden brown and crisp, 5-10 minutes longer. Transfer to wire rack; increase oven temperature back to 425°F.
While shells bake, place tomato slices in single layer on a double layer of paper towels and sprinkle evenly with the salt; let stand for 30 minutes. Place a second double layer of paper towels on top of the tomatoes and press firmly until all extra moisture is absorbed.
While tomatoes are standing, combine the oil and garlic with a grind of fresh pepper in a small saucepan. Heat over low heat, watching carefully, until garlic turns golden. Discard garlic and set oil aside to cool.
Toss the mozzarella cheese and heavy cream in a small bowl until the cheese is evenly coated. Sprinkle evenly over warm baked shells. Shingle tomato slices on top of cheese; brush tomatoes with garlic oil.
Bake tarts until the shells are deep golden brown and cheese is melted, 10 to 15 minutes. Cool on wire racks for 5 minutes; sprinkle evenly with basil. Cut into pieces and serve warm or at room temperature.