I’ve been on an obsessive, rabid ferret-like hunt for genius desserts lately (I’ll get to that in a bit) and, in my sniffing, I found what might be my favorite dessert of all time—for many reasons. Let’s start there.
Ever since I sent myself a cryptic email at a book event last fall, no doubt mid-conversation with one of Food52’s smart community members, I’ve had “Alice waters almond tart Lindsay price” [sic—I blame autocorrect] sitting in my “Genius to Test” Google doc. But that doc is 14 pages long and organized, let’s say, “casually”—so until now, I hadn’t had occasion to dig deeper.
Fast forward to my ferret quest: Following up on that poorly-documented lead, I googled my way onto David Lebovitz’ blog post about the almond tart, which was developed by Chez Panisse’s brilliant executive pastry chef Lindsey Shere forty-some years ago. As he writes, “Her Almond Tart was the most infamous dessert at Chez Panisse for decades until too many customers apparently had a hard time eating it with a fork, so off the menu it went. I lobbied—hard—to keep it there,” adding, “It’s the most delicious thing I’ve probably ever had.”
Lebovitz described the tart as difficult, almost maddening, to make—while all but begging his readers to make it. As Shere wrote in the recipe in 1985, "It immediately became identified, for better or worse, as the house specialty of Chez Panisse." This all felt like a dare—I had to know for myself!
I’ve since learned that there are inspired riffs on Shere’s recipe in the great pastry books of the 1980s and '90s. It’s so influential that when baking icon Nancy Silverton came through our studio for a Facebook Live, she recognized the tart on sight.
And you know what? It’s truly not hard to make. There are a few ways you can tumble off track, but Shere’s recipe gives you the tools to glide through, if you pay attention. Yes, your filling could bubble up over the edges, but she warns you to put a foil catch-all underneath, just in case. Your tart could stick fiercely to the bottom of the pan, but she recommends loosening it while it’s still warm. With her help, I calmly navigated every pothole.
The only place I struggled (the first time) was in pressing in the infamously sticky tart dough, but anytime it got too messy, I popped it in the fridge for a few minutes, which firmed it up enough to smush into place without sticking to my hands.
But even better, I actually found Shere’s technique to have several hidden benefits and shortcuts. You don’t have to line and fill the crust with baking beans—straight from the freezer, it blind bakes without fuss, and without collapsing or deforming. (And I’m learning this might be generally true of blind-baking—shock!—stay tuned.) You don’t even have to make a caramel—you simply bring the sugary mix to a boil to combine it and then, after soaking it with the almonds for 15 minutes, it all bubbles down into a chewy caramel in the oven on its own.
In a particular holiday boon, once baked, the tart is almost indestructible. The caramel and almonds fuse, and the crust is sturdy enough that you can tote it to any party, or ship it to any far-off place, and it won’t crumble on you.
In my book, this tart has it all: taste, texture, looks, personality, durability, relative ease, surprise, and story. And I’m going to need a lot more desserts like it, because I’m working on Genius Desserts (the newest sibling to my firstborn, the Genius Recipes cookbook), which is slated to come out Fall 2018—and this is where you come in.
Just like I wouldn’t have known to ferret out my new favorite tart were it not for that generous community member at that book event (I wish I knew who it was! Was it you?), I won’t be able to produce the very best, most timeless, useful, delicious collection of dessert gems without your collective baking experience and expertise.
If you’re not sure if it’s a genius dessert, here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- Do you return to this recipe over and over? Do people demand that you bring it to parties?
- Or, the morning after you made it, did you feel the need to tell a coworker or call a family member about it?
- Does it call for relatively accessible ingredients and equipment for home cooks?
- Does it defy conventional baking wisdom, perhaps by using a surprising ingredient or sidestepping some of the normal protocol?
- When making it, did you ever think—this isn’t going to work—and then it totally did?
If you answered yes to any number of these, I want to hear about it! Either in the comments below or in an email at the usual place: [email protected]. Thank you from the bottom of my buttered, sugared, spreadsheet-papered heart. Let’s make this book!
For the tart:
- 1 9-inch unbaked short crust tart shell (see below)
- 1 piece tart pastry for patching (see note in step 2)
- 3/4 cup whipping cream
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon Grand Marnier
- 2 drops almond extract (3 for stronger flavor)
- 1 cup (3 oz./85 g) sliced almonds (blanched or unblanched)
For the short crust pastry:
- 1 cup (140 g) all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup (115 grams) unsalted butter, not too cold
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3 drops almond extract
Photos by James Ransom