Summer began on Friday, around five in the afternoon, when I arrived at home. As soon as we got out of the car, I immediately felt the heat rising from the sun-baked stones. Grandma was outside, in the garden, hanging out the clothes on the drying rack, hidden in the shade of the bay tree, finally without the woollen cardigan she wears for at least eight months a year.
I hugged Noa, who was waiting for us at the gate, wagging her tail, tousled as usual, and I looked around, aware for the first time of where I was, of the season and the blinding light of an early summer afternoon. The grass had grown out of control, just like the rose bushes, that this year had elected June as their month. The brambles along the road were dotted with white flowers, as fleeting as this feeling of lightheartedness of the first days of summer.
In the last weeks, I’ve been completely absorbed by cooking classes, photo shootings and the preparation of a speech on Tuscan PDO and PGI products for BuyFood Toscana. If I am worried about something, I don’t even realize what’s going on outside my window. A public speech, in English, in front of so many people, certainly falls into the category of those tasks that make me slightly nervous. For days I roamed around the house holding the crumpled pages of my speech, trying to learn it by heart, forgetting everything else. I had not noticed that the most rainy, humid and cold spring of the last few years had finally given way to the new season.
On Friday, coming home after the event, elated for the speech and light as after an exam, I realised that summer had arrived.
And summer found me totally unprepared, with the duvet still on the bed and the plaid abandoned on the sofa in the living room, with my coasts hanging on the coat rack along with the woollen scarves, without my favourite teas for the scorching hot afternoons and with a couple of spring recipe still in draft here on the blog.
I looked at this strawberry tart and I told myself that, after all, it is always the right time to make it: a Sunday gathering with the family, an invitation to a friend’s house, but also one of those afternoon teas in the garden that then, lazily, turn into into a dinner. It could not wait there, in the archive, for another year, could it?
Strawberry tart with elderflower pastry cream
I’ve made this strawberry tart quite a few times in May, when the weather was cooler, when the elderflowers were still fragrant and immaculate, speckles of light along the country roads, and when the strawberries would steal the show from any other ingredient on the market stalls.
If you can’t find fresh elderflowers, you can replace them with lemon peel, with a vanilla bean or, if you prefer to keep a floral note, with some chamomile flowers.
As for strawberries, they are still in the peak of the season. However, as we are now quickly moving towards summer, try also cherries, pitting them first, or apricots, or make a summer fruit salad, mixing shapes and colours.
As the aromatic herbs are now living their most splendid season, you can rely on them to add a fresh and botanical note to the tart: thyme or lemon thyme with strawberries, lemon balm or verbena with cherries, rosemary with apricots.
Speaking of this Italian pastry dough, pasta frolla, work it quickly, and don’t skip the resting time in the fridge, it’s the only way to be able to use it when summer comes.
Strawberry tart with elderflower pastry cream
Ingredients for the shortcrust pastry
- 250 g (2 cups) all purpose flour
- 125 g (4.41 oz) salted butter, at room temperature
- 125 g (2/3 cups) sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 egg
Ingredients for the pastry cream
- 2 eggs
- 100 g (1/2 cup) sugar
- 20 g (1 tbsp) corn starch
- 20 g (1 tbsp) rice starch
- 500 ml (2 1/8 cups) whole milk
- 8 elderflowers
Ingredients for the strawberry decoration
- 800 g (1.7 lb) strawberries
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- Juice of ½ lemon
- The previous day, pour the milk in a saucepan and add the elderflowers. Cover with clingfilm and let them infuse in the fridge overnight.
- Make the shortcrust dough, too. In a large bowl, xix the flour with sugar and salt. Add the room temperature butter cut into cubes and rub it into the other ingredients using the tip of your fingers until you get fine crumbles, similar to grated Parmigiano Reggiano. You can also use a stand mixer with the paddle attachment.
- Add a beaten egg and work again quickly, until the dough comes together. Flatten the dough into a disc and wrap it in a plastic wrap, then stash it in the fridge for a few hours, or better until the next day.
- The next day, prepare the pastry cream. Bring the milk with the elderflowers to a simmer on low flame. When it starts to simmer, remove it from the heat.
- In a saucepan, mix the sugar with the eggs, cornstarch and rice starch. Strain the milk through a sieve and then gradually pour it over the eggs, stirring constantly.
- Bring it back on the stove and cook on the lowest flame, stirring continuously with a whisk, until the pastry cream thickens. Let it cool down completely, covered with a plastic wrap, before using it.
- Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F - gas mark 5).
- Remove the shortcrust dough from the fridge, break it up in chunks and work it again on a floured work surface, then roll it out in a disk with a thickness of about 8 mm.
- Grease with butter a 28 cm round tart pan with a removable bottom. Dust it with flour and line it with the shortcrust disc. Press it well on the bottom and all along the edges. Trim the excess dough. Prick the short pastry with the tines of a fork.
- Line the shortcrust shell with a sheet of parchment paper and pour in some weights, such as dried beans, or a smaller pan, to blind bake it.
- Bake the tart shell for about 15 minutes, then remove the beans and the parchment paper and bake for 10 more minutes, until golden.
- Remove the tart pan from the oven, let it cool down for about ten minutes, then gently remove the tart crust from the pan. Set it on a wire rack to cool down completely.
- Now prepare the strawberries. Wash them, remove the leaves and cut the larger ones into two or four parts. Collect them in a bowl and dress them with sugar and lemon juice. Also add the elderflowers. Marinate for about ten minutes.
- When the pastry shell is cold, fill it with the pastry cream, smooth the surface, then arrange the strawberries on top. Drizzle their juice to finish. Let the cake rest in the fridge for at least an hour before serving.
Summer tarts with fruit compote
I have recently rediscovered the pleasure of making shortcrust, our pasta frolla, during cooking classes: hands that smell of butter and lemon zest, slices of tart served at the end of a meal in vintage small plates found at a flea market, accompanied by a cup of espresso. After a winter and a spring of olive oil and chocolate cakes, of apple cakes, almond biscotti and zuppa inglese, now all I want is fruit tarts and crostate, and I propose them with studied persuasion.
As always, when the time of an ingredient or a recipe is coming to an end, I have never enough of it. In the next days, the sultry sticky summer heat will be back, which will make it difficult to work with shortcrust. So, during the last cooking classes, we had fun with pastry cream tarts and fresh compotes, made with strawberries or cherries and very little sugar.
So if you prefer to simplify today’s recipe, skip the pastry cream and replace it with a fresh fruit compote: strawberries, or cherries, but also apricots. Rinse the fruit and cut it into small pieces, then collect it in a saucepan with the juice of half a lemon and cook it over low heat, stirring often, until collapsing. Now add two tablespoons of sugar, stir and cook for a few more minutes. Cool the compote before pouring it on the tart shell – you don’t need to blind bake it – and bake it for about 30 minutes. Transfer the tart to a wire rack and let it cool completely.
I have the feeling that this year I will overturn all the rules and I’ll be making fruit tarts and pies all summer long.
Serve the strawberry tart with… a summer menu
We can finally work on a summe menu, one of those easy, lazy menus, to seal with a strawberry tart.
- Fried sage leaves. Fried sage leaves are probably the easiest appetizer you can serve to open a summer Tuscan meal.They are usually paired with other fried goodness, such as zucchini flowers or leftover slices of stale bread.
- Ricotta gnocchi with zucchini flowers. The best seasonal fresh herbs shine through these ricotta gnocchi: mint, basil and lemon balm add a fresh and green note enhanced by a bouquet of zucchini blossoms used an unusual seasoning. It’s like biting into an early summer evening, like a restoring nap among bushes of fresh herbs in the shade of a quiet garden.
- French bean salad. This dish debunks the myth that all salads are boring. It fills you up and has a heady basil smell. But above all, it is vibrant in its summer colours: the olives wink among the French beans and the eggs add substance. Do not omit the anchovies, they will make a difference.
- There’s a new episode of our podcast, Cooking with an Italian Accent, and it is all about Tuscan PDO and PGI products. How do you choose your products? Are you familiar with PDO and PGI products? How do you recognise the quality of the food you buy when you do not know the producer? If this is a subject that is interesting for you – an informed way to shop for local and sustainable products – let us know, as we might work on a series of episodes specifically dedicated to the different products, with interviews and recipes.
- Maida Heatter, Cookbook Writer and the ‘Queen of Cake,’ Dies at 102. I must confess I didn’t know Maida Heatter and her books, but when I read this, I knew I had to have one of her cookbooks. “A cookbook should be treated like a school textbook. When reading it, or cooking from it, keep a pencil handy for notations. Underline things you especially want to remember, make notes — just don’t be afraid to write in it. In the future,” she added, “you will find that your own notes have added to the book and made it more valuable to you.”
- More recipes with elderflowers here and here.
- There’s a new series on Netflix, The Chef Show, with Jon Favreau and Roy Choi, and I can’t wait to watch it.