So often when people plan Valentine's Day dinners, they want to finish with a big, elaborate dessert. I prefer to go in a different direction. To me, nothing expresses love better than a simple dish that is taken to a new level because you've taken extra care in its making.
A perfect example is the very simple custard tart called Pomme d'Amour that is made by Knead Patisserie in San Francisco. Technically, I suppose this should be called a croustade d'oeuf, since it's nothing more than a custard baked in a crust, but I like Knead's version enough to call it by its name.
There are only two elements — the crust and the pastry cream filling — but by making each as good as it can be, you wind up with a dish that, like all perfect pairings, is greater than the sum of its parts.
There are no special tools involved and it doesn't call for any exotic ingredients. Instead, what makes this dessert special is taking the appropriate care with each step.
Start with the crust. Instead of the usual short crust (pâte brisée), I prefer to use a slightly different dough called pâte à foncer, which is made with milk instead of water, giving it slightly more character and a little better browning.
One thing I've found that helps make this dough better is grating the chilled butter into the flour instead of cutting it in cubes. This allows the butter to be incorporated more evenly. Also, be sure to let the dough rest from time to time to relax the gluten, so it will retain its shape during baking.
The crust is filled with a simple pastry cream, but again, a little extra care makes a big difference in quality.
Heating a few coffee beans along with the vanilla in the milk helps round out the flavor but doesn't leave a trace of coffee flavor.
Make sure you whip the yolks and sugar until they are light and lemon-colored in order to have the lightest custard.
Cooling the custard to around 130 degrees before beating in the butter creates the best texture, binding the fat and dairy for a beautiful mouth feel. And chilling the custard overnight before filling the crust will noticeably deepen and round out the flavors.
Finally, a little flash never hurts, either. Caramelizing the top of the custard right before serving adds another layer of flavor and texture. Plus, it looks really cool when you're doing it.
It's easy, though: Sprinkle the top evenly with granulated sugar, then brown it with a small blowtorch. Be sure to keep the torch moving across the top of the tart so that the custard glazes evenly without scorching.
Just like in love, paying close attention to the small things yields a big reward in the end.