The best recipes are often deceptively simple as is the case with so many nostalgic foods that we cook and share at this time of year. From American Thanksgiving pies or stuffings for a golden roast turkey to Christmas family favorites, we remember them best from the distance of a year and after many years. But be careful! Trying to recreate the taste of childhood is a slippery slope fraught with our adult expectations.
In my case, I have one such mythic recipe, from my first attempts to cook outside of my own family’s comfort zone. I was in my late twenties and had recently moved to California to live with my partner, an expat Englishman, who by way of his travels and birthplace brought a certain dashing roguish charm to my life. He also exposed me to a raft of culinary ideas I had not yet experienced, including the British notion of French food via the Cordon Bleu Cookbook series. The first and most memorable attempt came from one of these slim volumes.
It was a California Christmas, sunny, warm, and filled with nearby citrus, dates and seafood. But these Walnut and Roquefort Tartlets (was it Blue Cheese? Stilton? Roquefort? ) came straight from the Old World. I’m not even sure I had eaten blue cheese other than in a bottled salad dressing and certainly not real Stilton or real Roquefort. And while we lived on the edge of a walnut grove, I had little understanding of seasonal food. A nut was a nut all year round, right?
Over the years, these tartlets became infamous. I might have made them only once near Christmas that first romantic year but they were credited over a decade with nostalgic portent of memorable meals to come. Since then I preferred to let them simmer, alongside that relationship, in the nostalgic stew of “Remember when we … ?”
Today, I have freed these little French versions of Roquefort (real Roquefort) and Walnut tartlets from their past and together with an additional benediction of seasonal pears, I offer them as a great holiday treat- before or after a festive meal. They are not perfect yet, but I have now remade them a half dozen times in this run up to the Holidays. While each batch has been different and delicious, I have yet to find that Proustian moment of gastronomic memory. First, I realized that my proportions were off for both the pastry crust to filling and the amount of cream to cheese. I tried the first attempts as a large tart to share as seen in these pictures. While showy and delicious, my memory said "Too much filling!” I only wanted a couple bites; instead I had mouthful after mouthful.
A small tartlet has a special place in our repertoire. More fidgety than making one larger tart or pie, these small tartlets are meant to be eaten in one or two bites. That means two very important things. One- the amount of tender buttery crisp pastry to creamy, soft and melting filling is about one to one. Each bite is a perfect storm of texture and flavors- sweet to savory, and soft to crisp. And Two- a tartlet should be small enough that it is eaten in 2 or 3 delicate bites. Much more and the rich filling will dull the appetite for what comes next. In a fog of souvenirs, I remember eating these alongside some kind of creamed oyster dish, made with bottled oysters (who could find fresh oysters then in California’s Central Valley?) alongside a 1970’s California Cabernet. Those were the days…
On Roquefort. Time and distance change many things—memory, experiences, knowledge. Since those early blue cheese California days, I traveled widely and learned to cook with local ingredients at hand. Within a decade I had moved to Europe and learned to eat many different blue cheeses. While Stilton is nutty, Gorgonzola is creamy, and Bleu de Causse can be both. The very creamiest ewe’s milk cheese from nearby* Roquefort-sur-Soulzon has a rich mouthfeel that melts away in your mouth. The best of all of these are small artisan producers making cheese with their own milk in limited quantity. I usually buy Carles Roquefort, a small producer that still makes their own penicillium roqueforti on rye bread for the bleu mold. This creamy ivory and blue wedge is a sublime cheese that stands alone after a meal served with sweet butter and rye bread, grapes or pears. By adding the pear slices to the tartlets, this aperitif savory bite becomes a complex cheese course, worthy of serving on its own or as a precursor to a sweet dessert.
While Roquefort is the prime flavor component in the simple recipe, frankly each element must be the best and elevates the dish to beyond memorable. Why bother with mediocre ingredients? Buy the thickest cream, tangy rich crème fraîche, freshest farm eggs, this season’s walnuts, and of course, juicy ripe pears. If each ingredient is so good, and you combine them in a careful way, then the final results will be magical. That’s why this is a perfect Winter holiday recipe- each of these ingredients are at their peak now.
This is just the basic recipe. I’m not 100% finished but I had so many requests, I am offering what I have to date. I will continue to tweak it, changing the way I present it and playing with textures. I think the nuts should be added last perhaps so that they toast on the top, but then the temperature might need adjusting so they don’t burn. Maybe I’ll leave the pears off and just serve them along side bite for bite. Whatever way, the basics remain the same and you are free to play around with this memory in the making.
Whatever you do, don’t leave these out on the counter as they will disappear as fast as they are made!
*Although there is a small village called Roquefort just a few kilometers from Camont, the ‘real one’ is over three hours away. The famous blue cheese made from sheep’s milk is aged in caves along Soulzon River here.
Recipe for a Tarte aux Roquefort, Poire et Noix
Makes 2 dozen tartlets or one large tart
I used an amazing creamy Roquefort that wasn’t too salty. consider adding a drizzle of honey if your is too salty.
one pastry crust (ready made or follow my easy all butter Pâte Brisée here)
150 grams good Artisanal Roquefort cheese
150 ml crème frâiche
50 ml fresh cream
2 fresh eggs
2 ripe pears
120 g/4 oz shelled walnuts, halves or in pieces
A few tablespoons of raw or coarse brown or white sugar
Combine the cheese, crème frâiche, cream, and eggs; leave it lumpy. The Roquefort can remain in some chunks.
Next, pour into the pastry-lined tart pan (no need to blind bake). Slice the pears and arrange on top along with the walnuts. Sprinkle generously with coarse sugar.
Bake in a hot oven (200’C/ 400’F) for 25-30 minutes or more until the crust is completely cooked on the bottom and the egg/cheese/cream mixture is firm. For larger tarts, if I’m not sure about the bottom being done enough, place the tart pan on the bottom of the oven for an extra 10 minutes.
Serve room temperature or just slightly warm as a dessert or even as a starter with a glass of Floc or fruity Côte de Gascogne wine.