When the Modern Bakers Challenge got to the Sweet Tarts and Pies chapter, I knew exactly which recipe I wanted. Chocolate Caramel Pecan Tartlets please and thank you! For me, nothing gets me more excited about dessert than when chocolate and caramel are paired together. Add nuts to the mix and I can't even talk about it.
By way of background, we were invited to our friends' house for dinner. This particular friend is a lot like me, when he plans a dinner party, we're talking about a project that entails at least a week's worth of 'research'. Finding the perfect menu, reviewing numerous cookbooks for inspiration, and pulling a number of recipes, editing, combining and tweaking until you have the perfect multi-course meal that takes hours/days to prepare.
And so it wasn't without a great deal of conflict that I asked him if he would mind if I brought the dessert. I knew that it came at the risk of appearing as though I was hijacking his menu planning, but I also knew that he would be the perfect taster for these tartlets and I couldn't let the opportunity pass without at least asking. He agreed, albeit somewhat reluctantly, and being a fellow Type-A dinner-party-planner, I understood his hesitation. As it turned out, he ended up making his own dessert in addition to my offering, and so there was the added element of 'friendly competition'.
For the crust, I followed Nick's recipe to a T, however, I opted to use hazelnuts in lieu of almonds, as he noted that hazelnuts are a good substitute and they happen to be my favorite chocolate-nut-pairing. I toasted my hazelnuts in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes, to enhance their flavor before processing them in the food processor.
This tart dough came together perfectly, with absolutely no mishaps to report. Now, you'll just have to trust me when I say that this speaks volumes about the user-friendly-techniques in this book. Particularly since this was my first experience with tart dough and I have an annoying tendency, when trying something new, to learn the hard way.
I made eight 3 1/2 inch tartlets, baked them for 13 minutes, let them cool slightly, and then removed them from their tart pans while still slightly warm as per the instructions. They slid out easily.
The baked shells appeared perfect, slightly puffed, yet maintaining their shape. I baked these the night before assembling, despite the book saying to bake them on the same day as they were being filled. If you're like me and prefer to accomplish steps ahead of time, I assure you that their freshness was not compromised in the least by doing this.
Next up, the filling. I did take one liberty with Nick's recipe, I used milk chocolate instead of bittersweet. I'm the person who takes a bite out of a chocolate from a mixed box and puts it back if its insides are dark. There, I admit it. Barring that one deviation from the filling recipe, I followed the rest of the recipe 'almost' exactly as written, except I used hazelnuts once again in place of the pecans. This was noted as a good alternative by Nick so I didn't feel like I was compromising the integrity of the recipe, despite its title. Do I sound defensive? I don't mean to. Really.
So, I've had some experience with making caramel. Actually, I've had more experience with "burning" it than actually "making" it. I wasn't lying about learning things the hard way. But, given my track record, I felt confident that I would exercise good judgment when it came to knowing when to pull the melted sugar from the heat. Nick says to pull it prior to achieving the deep amber color, as the sugar's color continues to deepen from the residual heat in the pot. In keeping with tradition, my first attempt was about 20 seconds too late. It looked like this when I pulled it:
Cluelessly optimistic, I proceeded to add the cream and cooked it a further minute, resulting in this hot mess:
After I poured it into a heatproof bowl and added the milk I tasted it. It was awful. And bitter. Very much like my prior caramel-making experiences. Disgusted and disappointed, I began Round II. This time, I pulled the sugar when it looked just slightly darker than apple juice:
It most definitely continued to darken off the heat. This is what it looked like once I added the cream and cooked it a further minute:
It wasn't cool enough to taste until the milk was added, but I am happy to report that Round II was a success. I would encourage you to have extra cream and milk in case you follow in my footsteps and decide to learn the hard way. Taste it before you add your chocolate...throwing it away is much less painful when it's simply sugar, cream and milk going down the drain. Just a suggestion. I whisked in my melted milk chocolate,
and then folded in my hazelnuts. Magical.
Once I filled the baked tart shells with the chocolate caramel ganache, I sprinkled a few toasted hazelnuts on top and then kept them at room temperature. I would note, however, that I actually preferred mine served chilled. It just made the filling ever-so-slightly chewy. In a very good way.
To call these decadent would be an understatement. But they are sooo worth it.
The recipe calls for making them into much smaller tartlets, but I used the only tartlet pans I had, making them slightly larger than perhaps intended. A little goes a long way. Notwithstanding this fact, I have to tell you that my friend, the host of above-noted dinner party, the Type A planner who insisted on making an additional dessert, he ate two of them. By himself. He loved them. Then he shocked me and I almost fell out of my chair when he voluntarily admitted defeat in our friendly dessert war. Unprecedented. Never to be repeated, I'm sure. But this tart really did 'take the cake'. Ha. Pun intended.
So, if you don't have the book and feel the compulsion to try this recipe before buying it, ask me and I'll email it to you. From one friend to another. But out of respect to the author, Nick Malgieri, I can't publish it. Sorry. I will say that of the dozens and dozens of great books I own, The Modern Baker would easily be in my top 5 for recommendations.