Rose-Scented Apple Custard Tart
This is the first thing I’ve baked for a month. The first thing I’ve baked since this dessert, which, despite its simplicity, I’d put on my “top 5” list if I had one. It’s the first thing that I’ve baked since I tried to bridge the gap with that crisp and since fall rushed in without warning.
This space is such an incomplete collection of the things that I cook. Just because it is silent doesn’t mean that I am not in the kitchen. But this time, I haven’t even baked anything that has gone undocumented.
And though I was spending many of these days singing the gospel of “it’s still summer,” it somehow became October. And I was walking. It was sunny, and my face naturally turned to the sun to capture its warmth. On the way up my green eyes spotted a tree—and it did not match my eyes. It was a tree of fire in a row of green. I almost tripped. Was it fall?
Yes it was fall, because it was October, and I know that October means fall. But the spotting felt particularly jarring because I live in the Eastern part of the state—the area that sees warm hues last. But there it was—this brilliant, burning red. I guess it was fall. Despising anything pumpkin spiced that doesn’t make sense, I had nothing to mark its arrival, especially since I was spending most of my time convincing people that it wouldn’t arrive for some time.
Based on the above, you’d be surprised to know that Fall is my favorite season. The season for adventure and beauty in my corner of the country. It’s a time when we wind through roped-off sections of orchards pretending to be foragers. It’s a time for climbing, and cooking, and running, and breathing; there’s this great feeling of purity and cleanness as the air changes to crisp. And I treat it like it’s my new year; I make all of my resolutions in the fall. I always feel dirty in my inadequacy next to the cool wind’s inherent cleanness. I wash and I repair, and I move on.
The question, then, is why am I trying so hard to push off what’s already come this year? I’d love to say something eloquent, but I don’t know. I have a fear, an uneasiness, a gut feeling that fall just should not come. And it’s not the fear of impending winter (as much as I hate that season post-holidays).
Though I have done my share of sitting around, wasting hours trying to figure out what’s wrong while eating all of the tomatoes (they’re still delicious) I can, I finally found the urge to bake with those fall apples that I feel like I was castigating just yesterday. But I’d start by treading lightly. I’d highlight the season’s apples’ more delicate side, playing on their crisp flesh and bright, honeyed juice. I’d bring out the summer in them.
I love fall desserts but find their scope to be narrow. I do believe that every season has a taste. Close your eyes, breath in summer, and you’ll smell honey (that’s the nectar of juicy fruits) and taste clean cucumber on your tongue. Take a whiff of winter. What do you get? I get ginger and tea, the savory smell of roasted meats, and the sweet vegetal scent of sautéed aromatics. Fall rolls in with the tart-sweet first apples and then the cinnamon-spiked everything. But before I curl myself around that mug of warm cider or burn my fingers on my first cooked fruit–filled pie, I needed to warm up to fall’s ingredients. Because figs and grapes and apples have flavors on their own. I like the spice, but I don’t want to smother them. I want to warm up to those flavors. Yes, I need to tread lightly.
This tart was a brilliant introduction that didn’t take me too far out of my summer comfort zone. Inside that almond-enhanced sweet tart shell is a simple vanilla bean custard (fun fact: custard of any kind is the ultimate comfort food to me). It bakes. It cools. And it’s topped with a bouquet of apples. But they’re not sautéed in butter or cloaked in the contents of the spice cabinet. Mandoline-cut slices are poached—ligthly poached so that they retain some bite in liquid spiked with just enough rosewater to bring out the apples’ floral notes, but not so much to make the slices taste like your grandmother’s eau de parfum. Despite my Persian background, too much rosewater gives me a trippy headache. A little can be magical.
The combination may seem exotic—like some poor attempt at a Middle-Eastern-French fusion dessert. But rosewater-scented apple pie is a thing—a very American thing that dates back to the Colonial period. And it’s a very good thing too. The crisp-tender cooked apples are cushioned by that luscious custard and complemented by the almond flavor of the crust. And the petal formation on top is as light and fresh as the pink flowers of summer that paint one of my favorite silk dresses. There can still be roses in October. And what’s better than an edible rose?
Rose-Scented Apple Custard Tart
Reducing the poaching liquid and glazing the tart are optional and you can choose to do so according to your taste and appearance preferences. I used Dorie Greenspan’s Sweet Tart Dough with Nuts for the tart crust and used almonds. You can use your favorite recipe, but I highly recommend substituting about 1/6 of the flour in the recipe with the same weight of finely ground almonds (not almond flour because you want the earthy flavor of the skins). Use an assortment of both sweet and sweet-tart firm apples for the best appearance (I love the different skin colors) and texture. Do not use tart apples like Granny Smiths. I used a Mutsu, a Gala, a Spencer, a Cortland, and a Ginger Gold. I highly recommend all except for the Ginger Gold. The easiest and neatest way to slice the apples is with a mandoline
288 grams (11/4 cups) heavy cream
115 grams (1/2 cup) whole milk
66 grams (about 1/3 cup) sugar
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 vanilla bean
3 egg yolks plus 1 whole egg
1 teaspoon cornstarch
Your favorite tart crust (preferably with almonds), partially baked
920 grams (1 quart) water
250 grams (11/4 cups) sugar
4 teaspoons rosewater
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 pounds apples, unpeeled, and sliced 3/16 inch thick
For the tart: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Bring cream, 2 tablespoons milk, sugar, vanilla bean pod and seeds, and salt just to boil in small saucepan over medium heat, whisking to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat, cover, and let infuse for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 hour. Meanwhile, gently whisk eggs together in bowl until combined, trying to incorporate as little air as possible. Whisk milk and cornstarch together in bowl.
Slowly pour about one-quarter of warm cream mixture into eggs, whisking constantly, trying not to incorporate a lot of air. Slowly whisk remaining cream mixture into egg mixture. Strain mixture through fine-mesh strainer into milk-cornstarch mixture and whisk to combine. Place parbaked tart crust in pan on rimmed baking sheet, place in oven, and pour custard into crust. Bake tart for about 30 minutes or until the edges are set, the center still jiggles, and custard registers 175 degrees. Transfer tart to wire rack and let cool for 1 hour. Transfer to refrigerator to chill while preparing topping. (Tart can be made and refrigerated 8 hours in advance of topping—any longer and crust will begin to suffer.)
For the apple topping: Cut a round of parchment to fit inside large saucepan and cut 11/2-inch whole in center of circle. Bring water, sugar, rosewater, and lemon juice to simmer in saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve sugar. Add apples, cover with parchment round, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer until apples are crisp-tender (slices should be just starting to turn translucent around edges and be able to be bended in half completely without breaking), stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Drain apple slices and lay on paper towels. Cover with more paper towels and let dry.
Discard all but 2 cups poaching liquid. Bring to boil over medium-high heat and reduce to thick, glazelike consistency.
Starting from edge of tart, place apples, overlapping, on top of cooled custard in flower pattern. For the center, roll an apple slice to fit in space. Brush apples with reduced poaching liquid, if desired. Serve or transfer to refrigerator before serving.