Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Strawberry Breakfast Tarts

Michael Pollan is one of my favorite food writers.  He’s incredibly smart, when it comes to food, but also practical and not the least bit elitist–I have no patience for people who want to argue about the “true” way to make a cassoulet, or who will spend $5 on a single designer cupcake. Michael Pollan is not one of those people.  His most famous food rule is “Eat food.  Mostly Plants.  Not too much.”  Whenever the Foodie children complain that there’s no food in the house, I point out that there is only food in the house.  Prepared meals are full of ingredients that can be called “food” only in the broadest sense of the word–meaning that they’re edible.  I’m not above buying them, for the sake of convenience, but I try to keep them to a minimum.

In an interview with The New York Times last year, Michael Pollan had this to say about the various kinds of junk food we eat:

I love French fries, and I also know if I ate French fries every day it would not be a good thing. One of our problems is that foods that are labor or money intensive have gotten very cheap and easy to procure. French fries are a great example. They are a tremendous pain to make. Wash the potatoes, fry potatoes, get rid of the oil, clean up the mess. If you made them yourself you’d have them about once a month, and that’s probably about right. The fact that labor has been removed from special occasion food has made us treat it as everyday food. One way to curb that and still enjoy those foods is to make them. Try to make your own Twinkie. I don’t even know if you can. I imagine it would be pretty difficult.

I worked at McDonald’s throughout my high school years, and I can testify with some degree of authority to the mess involved with making French fries, even excluding all the washing and peeling and cutting of potatoes, which is done long before the fries arrive at your favorite McD’s location.  If I had to make my own fries, I would never, ever eat them.  And although they’re one of Mr. Picky’s favorite treats, I suspect he would find another favorite if he were in charge of making them.  I’m confident that’s one of the reasons we have a problem with obesity in the United States:  we’re just too far removed from the making of our own food.  And mass processing–which becomes necessary when people won’t or can’t cook for themselves–is what makes good food go bad.

So, this morning, I decided to find out if another Foodie children favorite–the humble Pop Tart–also followed this general rule, hereafter known as the I-Wouldn’t-Make-This-Very-Often Rule.  I looked up a few recipes, none of which looked terribly difficult, since I have some practice making pie crust.  I envisioned a blog post in which I might actually explain how easy it is to make your own breakfast tarts and impress your family–as a sometimes treat, of course, since they do include a lot of butter.


As it turns out, Pop Tarts most definitely follow the IWMTVO Rule.  Though the pastry is similar to pie crust, it has to be rolled very thin–most of the recipes I found claimed to produce 8 or 9 breakfast tarts, but I came out with 6 after getting the dough as thin as I could (even using a chilled marble rolling pin, to keep the dough from sticking.)  The crust is definitely flaky and delicious, much better than what you’ll get from a store-bought Pop Tart.  But if I were to make these again, lacking a Pop Tart cutting machine, I’d follow a simpler process.  For instance:  cutting the dough into rounds and folding them into crescents.  Much easier than trying to match up symmetrical pieces of dough, and just as tasty.

These would be really cute to serve at a celebratory brunch, in whatever shape you choose.  Rather than using fruit filling, you could easily fill them with chocolate chips and approximate pain au chocolat; you could also leave the sugar out of the dough (and the topping) and make savory tarts fillied with pesto and Parmesan cheese, or anything else that tickles your fancy.

The bottom line, though:  Breakfast Tarts are a sometimes food.  Thus, Pop Tarts should be too.  The strawberry jam filling, on the other hand, is fairly low in sugar and much better tasting than what you’ll get from the store.  Try the Michael Pollan test and see if your favorite jam has more than five ingredients.  I’ll bet it does.  Then give this jam a try and see if you aren’t surprised by how easy it is to make.  (To use the jam in this recipe, you’ll need to make it a day ahead and let it chill completely overnight.)


Strawberry Breakfast Tarts


For the strawberry jam filling:

3 cups sliced strawberries
1 cup sugar
Juice of one lemon (and 2 T.)

For the tart crust:

2 cups flour
1 T. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 sticks of butter, cut into pieces
2 eggs, divided use
2 T. milk
More sugar, for sprinkling


For the jam:

Before you get started making the jam, put a small plate in your freezer. You'll need this to test the consistency of your jam in about 10 minutes.

Stir together the strawberries, sugar and lemon juice in a large saucepan. Turn the heat to high and continue stirring until the strawberries begin to give up some of their juice and the sugar dissolves. When the liquid comes to a boil, turn the heat down to medium. Allow this mixture to keep cooking for 10 minutes, then remove it from the heat. Stir until any foam that has accumulated on top is re-incorporated into the liquid (or skim the foam off the top, your choice.)

Now, grab your small plate from the freezer. Test your jam by placing a small drop of the liquid on the cold plate and letting it sit for a minute, then tipping the plate to the side. Your jam should be mostly stable or run slowly to the side. If it's still very thin, return the plate to the freezer and the saucepan to medium heat for another two minutes, then test it again.

When the jam is finished, allow it to cool to room temperature before pouring it into a glass jar and placing it in the refrigerator. This jam is not shelf-stable and must be kept cold to prevent bacteria from developing. Let it chill overnight before using it as a filling for the breakfast tarts.

For the tarts:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Use a fork or pastry cutter to work the butter into the dry ingredients until the butter is in pea-sized pieces. Then add one egg and the milk, stirring with a large wooden spoon until the wet ingredients are incorporated. At this point you should have a dough that packs together easily; if not, add another tablespoon of milk.

Divide the dough in half. Wrap one half in plastic and keep it in the refrigerator (to prevent it from getting too soft) while you work with the other half. Roll the dough as thin as you can get it, then use a large, sharp knife to cut the dough into an even rectangle. Save the edge scraps for later use. Cut the rectangle in half lengthwise, then crosswise, making smaller rectangles of relatively equal size. (Of course, you can get very precise and measure your dough as you go along. But measurement is not, as you know, a strength of the Foodie kitchen, so I just eyeballed everything.)

Beat the remaining egg and add a tablespoon of water. Brush the beaten egg over all the rectangles. Place about a tablespoon of jam in a strip down the center of one rectangle, then cover with another piece of dough (egg-side down.) Use a fork to crimp the edges tightly. Brush the top with more beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar. Then use a fork or toothpick to poke several holes in the top of each tart, which will allow steam to escape during baking so the tarts will stay nice and flat.

Place the completed tart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and repeat this process until you're out of dough rectangles. (At this point I used the edge scraps to make round tarts that I folded into crescent shapes. They're just as tasty as their rectangular counterparts and, frankly, much easier to make.)

When you've worked through this half of the dough, place the completed tarts in the refrigerator while you work with the other half. Allowing the tarts to chill ensures that the dough is firm when it goes into the oven, so the tarts hold their shape and don't spread out too much.

Place the second tray of tarts in the refrigerator to chill while the first batch bakes for about 25 minutes, until they're golden brown. Allow the tarts to cool briefly on the cookie sheet before removing them to a cooling rack.


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