Tarte à l’Oignon
In two very short weeks we will have another addition to our family (unless you ask the gate attendants of the flight I am currently on, in which case we have six weeks to go). Having a third child has a lot of repercussions. It means I can’t fit all the kids in my Mini Cooper anymore. I can no longer hold one child with each hand when we are in a crowd. We don’t get to have one-on-one travel buddies when we fly. The end of pregnancy itself has its own issues as well; after the baby arrives there will be no more elastic waistband jeans and no more leggings … well, those might stay. I have to start working out again. No more naps in the middle of the day. No more leisurely baths in the morning while my four and six year old get themselves dressed for school. No more pizza trifectas while claiming the benefits of protein intake. No more NCIS marathons (WILL Tony and Ziva ever get together?!? HOW WILL I KNOW?!?). On a positive note, I will be able to sit at my computer again. I will be able to drink margaritas again. I will be able to lay on my back again, and I’ll be able to stop gobbling Tums. And in a few months it will feel like Christmas as I break out all of the clothes I haven’t been able to wear in months and months.
So maybe it’s this feeling of moving on that has also triggered a nostalgia for my past. Specifically romantic memories of my time in New York City from 24 to 30 years old. Recollections of my 400 sq foot studio in the East Village. Fast and outstanding Chinese takeout. The weather. The coats. The boots. The airport with international (imagine!) connections. And of course, my time at The International Culinary Center (ICC).
When I attended ICC, Chef Andre Soltner, of Lutéce fame, was one of the esteemed deans (he still is). To the best of my recollection we had to meet with the deans a few times during our 9-months there. It was a pretty cool “requirement.” You were assigned to Jacques Pepin, Alain Saillac, Andre Soltner, or Jacques Torres (for pastry peeps). This may not mean anything to you but trust me, this is like the having access to the Mother Sauces of French chefs.
My assigned chef, Chef Soltner, was great. He read my reports and gave me feedback based on what he was told by my instructors. He didn’t really know me from the next student, but he really did his best to engage. At the end of one our sessions, he asked if there was anything I needed … “Um, yes, actually.” I answered, much to his surprise, “Is there any chance you have a copy of your famous Onion Tart recipe from Lutéce?” He looked at me for a second. A long second. Then he rolled over to an ancient filing cabinet, flipped a few folders back and handed me a copy of his recipe. I’ve treasured it since that day.
So here I am with all these thoughts of ICC and NYC and other abbreviations hanging around in my head including a longing for Chef Soltner’s Tarte a l’Oignon when lo and behold Cooks Illustrated published a “foolproof pie dough” recipe. Their trick is to use vodka instead of water because the vodka acts as a liquid, making the dough easy to work with, but the alcohol doesn’t toughen the gluten, like water. In their usual methodical form they tested the recipe 3,450,322 times and they swear this is the next big thing.
Interesting pie dough + desire to make onion tart = Onion Tart Extravaganza! I decided that I needed to, immediately, bake two tarts. One following Soltner’s recipe nearly exactly and another using the Cook’s Illustrated dough and maybe a few personal edits for the filler.
In the end Soltner’s recipe was sweeter and richer. It was just the type of thing you’d serve a thin slice of as a cozy amuse bouche. Just as he intended.
My recipe was more substantial. Saltier. More American. The kind of thing you’d serve a thick slice of with a green salad for brunch, with a cool glass of crisp white wine. As I mentioned, I used the Cook’s Illustrated recipe for pie dough which I found, um, interesting. The dough was super duper wet — almost like drop biscuit dough for those of you below the Mason Dixon line, and I had to add a tremendous amount more flour than they called for in the recipe. I also didn’t like the raw flavor although I think that by the time I baked it the bitterness from the vodka was all gone. I can’t be sure because I couldn’t stop thinking about the vodka flavor. I’m pregnant too, remember, so I’m a little bit crazy.
I’ve written the Cooks Illustrated pie dough below without adaptation (and linked to it here for those of you with Cooks Illustrated accounts) so that you can make it and make your decision. I will say this – regardless of the extra flour I added and extra handling it needed, it was still flaky, as promised.
In the end, I preferred Soltner’s original to my Americanized-Cooks Illustrated-bastardized version. It was slightly richer and I enjoyed the sweet cream flavor. To be honest, though, I am sure that I will make both in the future. Mine for brunch, his for a surprising starter.
**A few notes added after first posting this recipe**
The ingredients and method for making Chef Soltner’s dough are included in his recipe. The photos shown are only of Chef Soltner’s recipe.
The Cooks Illustrated pie dough may take at least another cup of flour but wait and see after you add the vodka and water. Keep in mind that it is supposed to be very, very easy to work with – so you are looking for a finished product that is roughly the consistency of brand new Play-Doh.
As indicated in the recipes I opted not to use lard but to use bacon fat instead in both recipes.
- 2 cups (250 g) all purpose flour, sifted
- 8 tablespoons (115 g) unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons (30 g) lard
- 1 lb (.5 k) onions, peeled and chopped
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup (120 ml) heavy cream
- fresh ground grated nutmeg
- With the fingers, combine into dough the flour, butter 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and 1/2 cup of cold water. Do not work the dough too much. Let the dough rest for at least 30 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 375°/190°
- Heat the lard in a skillet, and saute the onions until they are slightly browned and tender. Remove the skillet from the heat.
- In a small bowl, beat the egg and cream together. Add this to the onions. Add salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste.
- Roll out the dough, and line a 10-inch pie tin or tart pan with it. Fill with the onion mixture.
- Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes, and serve very hot.
- This is, word for word, Chef Soltner's recipe for Tarte a l'Oignon. When I made it, however, I used 2 tablespoons of bacon fat instead of lard and crumbled the bacon I used to render the bacon fat into the onions.
- 1 recipe Cooks Ilustrated "Fool Proof Pie Dough"
- 8 tablespoons (115 g) unsalted butter
- 6 strips of bacon (American style "streaky" bacon)
- 1 1/2 lbs (.7 k) onions (about 3) peeled and chopped
- 2 eggs
- 3/4 cup (180 ml) heavy cream
- 1/2 teaspoon (4 g) fresh ground nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon (8 g) salt
- 1/2 teaspoon (4 g)fresh ground pepper
- Preheat the oven to 375°F / 190°C
- Roll out the Cooks Illustrated Pie Dough and press into a 10-inch tart pan. Set aside.
- Warm a sauté pan on medium/medium high heat on the stove. Add the 6 bacon strips. Cook until the bacon is almost crispy. Drain the bacon on paper towels and set aside. Measure out 3 tablespoons of the rendered bacon fat and discard the rest. Return the 3 tablespoons of bacon fat to the sauté pan.
- With the sauté pan still on medium add the onions and sauté until the onions are slightly browned and tender. About 7 minutes. Turn off the heat, crumble the bacon and add to the onions. Pour the bacon and onion mixture into a prepared tart pan.
- In a medium sized bowl beat the egg, cream, salt, pepper and nutmeg together. Pour over onion mixture.
- Bake in the preheated oven for 40 minutes and serve hot.
- This recipe was inspired by an onion tart served by Chef Andre Soltner's at the venerable Lutece. This one is slightly more substantial than the one served at Lutece and makes a great brunch dish. Pair it with a green salad with a light vinaigrette and a crisp white wine, like a Sauvignon Blanc or an Reisling or Pinot Blanc from Alsace.
- 2 1/2 cups (300 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon (8 g) table salt
- 2 tablespoons (30 g) sugar
- 12 tablespoons (170 g) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch slices
- 1/2 cup chilled solid vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces
- 1/4 cup vodka, (60 ml) cold
- 1/4 cup (60 ml) cold water
- Process 1 1/2 cups (200 g) flour, salt, and sugar in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogenous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds and there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.
- Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.
- FOR ONE 9-INCH DOUBLE-CRUST PIE
- Vodka is essential to the texture of the crust and imparts no flavor—do not substitute. This dough will be moister and more supple than most standard pie doughs and will require more flour to roll out (1/4 cup (30 g) must be used to prevent the dough from sticking to the counter).