Savory pies like chicken or beef pot pies, mincemeat and quiches have traditionally served as the main dish for a meal. Between prep time and ingredients used, they serve that role quite well. But let’s just consider how useful that pie is in the first place. Pie shells keep loose fillings in one place; seasoned pastry adds a dimension of flavor to the dish; and the crust provides a satisfying starch without an additional side. If we shrink all these attributes down to sidedish proportions, we end up with the perfect accompaniment to almost any piece of protein being used as the main dish. From the delectably delicious sweet potato tartlet as a side to grilled pork tenderloin, to the tangy cream cheese, cranberry and peach chutney tartlet nestled among slices of roast turkey breast, to the blue cheese and walnut tartlet featured below, that would pair perfectly with a seared tuna steak or ribeye, the tartlet is the perfect choice for a clean and delicious side.
Pastry shells are the most difficult and significant part of any tartlet or pie. Overworking the dough gives you tough or chewy crusts that are unpleasant at best, and downright inedible at worst. Some crusts, like the cheese tartlets of a couple months ago, are more like a cookie and less susceptible to the problems that plague traditional pastry crusts. The crust for our blue cheese and walnut tartlets unfortunately is susceptible to overworking, so a few attempts at getting the crust perfect might be in order. If you’re an accomplished pie baker, this crust should be a snap to make.
The key of course, is to keep everything as cold as possible and work the dough as little as is necessary. Using a food processor to bring this dough together will help with time, but the spinning blades create friction and heat, and a crust can go from perfect to ruined in no time at all. A mixer is unsuitable for this task. With the amount of liquid used and the speeds necessary to incorporate the ingredients properly, the vast majority of your flour would end up coating every surface of your kitchen rather than staying in the mixing bowl. So it’s either a pastry knife and hands or the food processor.
We’ll also be using leeks in this recipe. Leeks are grown in mud and sand, and every single leek we’ve handled has been filled with mud inside the layers. Leeks are variety of green onion, but unlike their younger and smaller brethren, the leek greens are too woody and coarse to use, so choose leeks that have a long white, and much shorter green. Otherwise you’re paying for compost. Cut off the root and nearly all the green off the leek and then slice the leek evenly in half down the long axis. Rinse each half under running water being sure to separate the layers to remove any dirt and sand from within.
The other potential problem ingredient in our tartlets is celery. What’s the problem with celery, you ask. You already know the answer: the strings. Those undigestible fibers run the entire length of the celery stalk and require long cooking times to soften. So we’ll eliminate that problem by peeling the celery first before cutting it up. Run a vegetable peeler down the outside of the rib to remove the ridges, those fibrous strings, without peeling the entire outside skin off. You can use this technique when serving raw celery sticks on a relish tray. Believe me, it’ll be appreciated.
Feeling confident enough to give this tartlet a try? Break out the food processor and let’s get started.
Blue Cheese and Walnut Tartlets
For the pastry
- 1¾ cups all purpose flour
- pinch of celery salt
- 7 tablespoons of lightly salted, cold butter, cubed
- ¼ chopped walnut halves
- ice water
For the filling
- 2 tablespoons lightly salted butter
- 2 large celery ribs, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 large leek, green removed, halved and finely chopped
- 8 ounces blue cheese, crumbled
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 3 egg yolks
- salt and pepper to taste
Lightly spray 12, 3-inch tartlet pans with cooking spray and place them on a baking sheet. In the large workbowl of a food processor, pulse the flour and celery salt to incorporate. Add the butter cubes and pulse until the mixture resembles bread crumbs. Add the walnuts and pulse to incorporate. Add 3 tablespoons of ice water and pulse to incorporate. Add additional water, a tablespoon at a time pulsing until most of the dough just comes together. Turn the dough out onto a dry, smooth surface and press any loose crumbs into the dough ball. Do not knead the dough. Dust your work surface with flour. Place the dough in the middle and sprinkle the surface with flour. Roll out the dough to an ⅛-inch thickness using a bakers pin fitted with the ⅛-inch guides. Cut 12, 4-inch circles from the dough. A Ziplock Twist-n-Lock canister is the perfect size for this task. Re-roll any scraps, but use as little flour as possible. Ease each circle into a tartlet pan and press to the sides.
Place a Reynolds baking cup in each tartlet shell and fill using either pie weights or dried navy beans (the beans cannot be eaten after this, but they can be reused several times as pie weights). Place the tartlet shells in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 400°F and turn on the convection fan if you have it.
Prepare the filling while the shells chill. Melt the butter in a nonstick skillet and sautee the leeks and celery until they are tender, but not brown. Meanwhile, heat the heavy cream to simmering, but do not boil. Once the vegetables are tender, add 2 tablespoons of the cream and the blue cheese to the skillet and stir to incorporate, allowing the cheese to melt. Temper the egg yolks in a large mixing bowl by slowly pouring the hot cream over them whisking continuously. Once they are tempered, add the leek mixture to the mixing bowl and stir to incorporate. Set this aside.
Bake the chilled tartlet shells for 10 minutes. Carefully remove the baking cups and weights or beans. Divide the filling evenly between the 12 tartlets. They will be full. Bake the tartlets at 400°F for 15 minutes. Rotate the pan halfway through if you do not have a convection oven. Serve immediately or at room temperature. Leftovers can be refrigerated, but should be warmed before eating. The cold pastry crust will be tough. Reheat in the microwave for 30 seconds on high, or on a light toast setting in the toaster oven. No pan is needed.