Friday, October 8, 2010

Pecan-less Pie and Lunch with Michel Richard

I first met Michel Richard, the great French chef who is the proprietor of Citronelle and many other fine restaurants in the U.S., in 1993. I was editor of Chocolatier magazine then, and we had recently named Chef Richard one of the Ten Best Pastry Chefs in America. To honor the chefs, we were holding an awards ceremony hosted by Robin Leach (remember him? You know, Mr. Lifestyles-of-the-Temporarily-Rich-and-Famous?). The event was to be held at Tatoo, a splashy restaurant in New York, and I was assigned the 

task of picking Chef Richard up from Newark airport and dropping him at his hotel, The Essex House in New York. I found him--he was hard to miss with his full frame, bushy beard and smiling eyes—and we jumped into my rundown Saab and headed toward the city. We chatted about all sorts of things along the way, mostly food, and when we reached his hotel, he invited me along to a pre-arranged lunch with Andre Renard, Pastry Chef of The Essex House, an adorable and wonderful man who was also one of our 

Ten Best Pastry Chefs. The three of us had a very pleasant, occasionally hilarious, somewhat drunken lunch at Rene Pujol, an old-time French bistro in the Theatre District with a 60-and-over customer age demographic. (It has since closed, sadly—I always feel a pang of regret when these classic restaurant dinosaurs fall prey to a tough economy. I guess I just don’t like change, in general.) Anyhow, since that day I’ve been a huge fan of M. Richard. He is one of the few great chefs who was originally a 

pastry chef and, consequently, he has mastered the precision and technique of the unforgiving discipline of pastry as well as the shoot-from-the-hip, unfettered creativity of the savory side. He moves seamlessy between the worlds of sweet and savory. His book Happy in the Kitchen, which came out in 2006, is one of my favorites—it is pure genius. Over-sized and full of page after page of lush photos, Happy in the Kitchen is also full of wonderful recipes, the kind that you’ll turn to time and time again. Among my 

favorites are his Crisp and Creamy Bacon-Onion Tart made with crepe batter, and his vegetarian take on Steak Tartare, Leek Tartare. Another is a macadamia tart made in the style of a pecan pie, but with maple syrup instead of corn syrup, and a little bit of almond meal to add another dimension to its nutty profile. Chef Richard calls it Pecan-less Pie. I call it perfection. Serve it with a nice scoop of vanilla ice cream or some whipped cream on top—it’s a certified winner. Just like Chef Michel Richard.

Pecan-less Pie

Adapted from Happy in the Kitchen (Artisan Books, 2006) by Michel Richard

Makes 4 tartlets
Special Equipment: four 4-inch diameter individual tartlet pans with removable bottoms

Note: Chef Richard’s original recipe calls for 2 cups of maple syrup, which you reduce down to 1 cup. Since this take a long time (over an hour), and since maple syrup is expensive, and since it’s an inherently tricky process, I changed the syrup to a mixture of Lyle’s and maple syrup. I also used salted macadamia nuts, because I love the sweet-salty flavor profile. And, lastly, I did not chop the nuts, because I love the way they look whole.

Pâte Sucré:
10 tablespoons (5 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons finely ground almonds (almond meal)
Pinch of fine sea salt
1 large egg
1 ¾ cups plus 2 tablespoons Wondra (instant) flour

3/4 cup Lyle’s Golden Syrup
¼ cup maple syrup
4 tablespoons (2 oz) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
¼ cup almond meal or very finely ground almonds, sifted if there are lumps
Pinch of fine sea salt
7 ounces (1 ½ cups) salted macadamia nuts, lightly toasted

Make the Pâte Sucrée:
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter, sugar, almond meal and salt and mix on medium speed, scraping down the sides as necessary. When the dough is thoroughly combined, add the egg. Add about one-third of the flour and pulse just to combine; do not overmix. (If necessary, the dough can be brought together by hand after it is removed from the bowl.)
2. Place a large sheet of plastic wrap on the work surface. Turn the dough out onto the plastic and, if necessary, bring it together by hand. Pat into a rectangle about 1 inch thick. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm enough to roll out, at least 1 hour, or up to 3 days. The dough can also be frozen, well wrapped, for up to 2 weeks.
3. Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.
4. On a floured board, roll the dough into a square at least 12 inches across and about 3/8 inch thick. Using a plate or lid as a guide, cut four disks that are about 6 inches in diameter. Lay the disks on one of the prepared pans and refrigerate the dough for at least 15 minutes to rest and firm, making it easier to work with.

Make the filling and bake the tartlets:
5. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Place flour 4-inch individual tartlet pans with removable bottoms on the second lined baking sheet.
6. Remove the pastry from the refrigerator and place a round into each tart pan, gently lifting the edges to ease the dough into the corners of the pan. Then lightly press the dough into the corners and up the sides. Use a knife to trim the dough level against the top of each pan. Patch any holes with scraps of dough.
7. Whisk the butter, eggs, almond meal and salt into the Lyle’s and maple syrup. Divide the macadamia nuts evenly among the tart pans. The pans will be quite full. Slowly spoon the filling over the nuts, allowing time for it to fill in the gaps. The filling should come to the top; there may be a small amount of filling left over.
8. Carefully place the sheet of tarts into the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the filling is just set around the edges. Do not overcook. The tarts may appear to be slightly underdone in the center, but the filling will firm as it cools. Lift the pans with a wide spatula, place on a cooling rack, and let cool for about 10 to 15 minutes.
9. Remove the rings from the tarts and let cool completely on the rack.