April can be such a tease. The sun is out for a minute and then the sky is dumping rain. The air is warm until you step into a shadow and immediately wish for a scarf. Which is why this tart is so lovely. The filling is warm and dense enough to comfort on a rainy afternoon but the fresh herbs and crunchy cornmeal crust remind you that spring is in your backyard, whether you get to go outside and enjoy it or not.
We picked this recipe from John Ash’s From the Earth to the Table, a wine country cookbook focusing on seasonal ingredients. All of those things are nice, but what really drew me in was the promise of a “can’t screw it up” crust. I’ve always been intimidated by crusts – they are a crucial base for so many desserts and yet so fickle! – so when it really counts, I’ve gone store bought. But, I figured, no time like the present to start practicing for the real deal.
So it turns out Mr. Ash knows what he is talking about – this crust is easy to do. A standing mixer with a paddle attachment did the heavy lifting for me as I mixed the butter, sugar, cornmeal and eggs together. Once I started to add in the flour I switched to mixing by hand with a silicone spatula. (Does anyone else swear by these? Wooden spoons are a thing of the past!) Once it took on a sticky consistency, I worked it into a ball, plopped it into saran wrap and shoved it into the refrigerator for an hour.
While the dough is chillaxing, I moved on to the filling which starts off with a beurre blanc (butter, cream, wine and shallots, but I used spring onions from the DuPont farmers’ market) with a dash of white pepper. Once this has simmered and reduced by half, I removed it from the heat to let it cool, which I accomplished handily by ignoring the food altogether and catching up on Real Housewives of NYC on DVR. (That Kelly chick is crazycakes!)
Back in the kitchen, I mixed in the ricotta, eggs and herbs (thyme and rosemary) into the now-cooled filling and set it aside. Time to tackle the cornmeal crust. It rolled out reasonably well, though we did have some tense moments in the beginning when I worried it didn’t have enough “stick” to it and soon I was wrestling it off the counter and onto the tart pan. I think this single action is probably one of the most harrowing moments of baking. After that we were on easy street. I poured the filling into the tart pan and into the oven it went for about 35 minutes, until the top was just turning brown and the center barely set. We couldn’t wait to dig in.
This is a tart in quiche clothing – it has all the appearance of being a paler version of its egg-based cousin but the ricotta and beurre blanc add creaminess and depth to the flavors and the herbs jumped out as springtime itself. If I came up with this recipe on my own, I don’t think I would have thought of a cornmeal crust but it was ideal. The earthy crust with tiny flecks of corn texture kept the baked cheese grounded – a light traditional pastry crust would have resulted in too much lightness and air. This keeps the dish down to earth. This is an ideal dish to make for or bring to a brunch – the flavors intensify as the tart cools and the crunchy crust is an unexpected ally to the whipped, silky filling. It is a rich dish. I recommend balancing it with a light salad and maybe some citrus. We served it along side a salad of Loudon lettuce (also from the DuPont Market), daikon radishes, apples and a vanilla-fig olive oil from the Temecula Olive Oil Company.
Ricotta cheese-thyme tart with sweet cornmeal crust John Ash’s From the Earth to the Table
serves 8-12 (it’s rich! Small slices are advised.)
1/2 cup unsalted butter (room temperature)
2 Tb sugar
1 cup yellow cornmeal
2 large eggs (room temperature)
1 ts kosher or sea salt
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
Using an exlectric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or by hand, in a large bowl beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the cornmeal, eggs, and salt and beat until well combined. Add the flour and mix until the dough forms a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour (or overnight). Lightly butter a 9-inch tart pan and dust with cornmeal. On a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough into a circle 11 inches in diameter. Roll the dough up onto the rolling pin and transfer to the tart pan, eveninly pressing the dough into the sides. Trim excess dough. Prick with a fork several times and bake for 8 minutes. [Ed note: I completely overlooked this step and didn’t pre-bake the crust. It seemed to turn out okay anyway.]
1 tb unsalted butter
4 tb minced shallots or green onions, white part only
2/3 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 ts kosher or sea salt
1/4 ts ground white pepper
12 oz whole-milk ricotta cheese
3 large eggs, beaten
1 1/2 Tb savory herbs
Preheat the oven to 350F. In a small saucepan, melt the butter and saute the shallots until soft but not brown. Add the cream, wine, salt, and white pepper and cook over medium heat until reduced by half. Cool. Add the ricotta cheese, eggs, and thyme and beat until smooth. Pour into the prepared tart shell.
Bake for 35 minutes or until the filling is just set and slightly browned.