One Terrific Tart

Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec's onion-and-anchovy tart, piping hot from the oven.

When I think tart or quiche, creamy egg- or cream-based fillings held within a framework of flaky pastry come to mind. So when my husband announced a couple of nights ago he was going to make an onion tart from the pages of La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion, 1961), I had some inkling of what we would be dining on last night.

Boy was I wrong.

Tarte aux oignons brestoise, or onion tart in the style of Brest—an unromantic industrial port and naval base in Brittany, in northwestern France—is like no tart I’ve ever had. (Note: A reader of this blog has pointed out that there is no such thing as a tarte in the style of Brest, however, and this recipe is a pie-size variation on the classic pissaladière of Nice, a sort of flat anchovy-and-onion pizza.) The pastry shell was in evidence,  of course, and it was perfectly flaky, even though, as my husband reported, he didn’t let it chill in the refrigerator before rolling it out. “I just let it sit covered on the counter for 30 minutes,” he said. “But it worked out fine.” (He is prone to blithely ignoring recipe directions that I believe to be carved in stone.) The filling lacked any traditional binding agent such as eggs or cream. Instead it held nothing more complicated than a thick layer of chopped onions that had been cooked in a bit of olive oil until they were meltingly soft. That’s it. The surprising fillip was the topping: a couple of dozen anchovy fillets carefully and decoratively arranged into a latticework.

Onion tart in the Brestoise style is earthy and rudely direct, without an ounce of artifice or gentility. It is unsentimental, unsophisticated, and far from pretty. It is the sort of thing you would eat with a tart frisée salad and a heavy tumbler of undistinguished but tasty white table wine. Could it have been concocted by a cook with few ingredients at hand but who was under pressure to serve something warmly filling in record time? Perhaps the dockworkers of Brest and their families have better things to do than fuss around a kitchen for very long. I’m just speculating, of course. But I am certain of two things—tarte aux oignons brestoise is a bracing, soulful dish that tastily combines two harvests, one of the sea and one of the garden. Eating it makes one feel like a sea captain come home to roost. And it tastes even better warmed up for breakfast, after the salty anchovies and buttery onions have married overnight.

Our young daughter’s reaction? “I don’t like onions or anchovies,” she said politely. “But the pastry was delicious.” At least Catherine gave it a shot. As she observed upon learning of the ingredients, with a sigh of resignation, “You get what you get and you don’t complain.”

TARTE AUX OIGNONS BRESTOISE

SOURCE: La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion, 1961)

INGREDIENTS

Tart pastry

2 pounds onions

4 tablespoons olive oil

3/12 ounces anchovy fillets

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

Make the pastry of your choice, and when it is rested, roll it out to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Line a tart or pie pan but do not bake.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Peel the onions and chop them very fine. Cook them gently in a covered skillet in 3 tablespoons of hot oil until tender. Do not let the onions brown.

Pour the onions into the unbaked tart shell.

Rinse the anchovy fillets to remove excess salt and with them make a lattice pattern over the surface of the onion-filled tart shell. Bake 15 to 20 minutes.

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A Farmhouse Tart

Cheese-and-onion tart and green beans on a circa-1880 English china dinner plate.

Who can resist cheese (the lactose-intolerant among you excluded, of course)? Every member of our family practically drools at the mention of cheese, whether it’s an undistinguished Cheddar intended for a grilled-cheese sandwich or a particularly ripe Époisses de Bourgogne, of which I have a very fond, very pungent memory from a long-ago tour of Burgundy. That includes the elder of our two dogs, Daisy, an elderly chow chow who spends her days in a largely catatonic state until she detects the aroma of Brie, for instance, or Emmenthaler.

With this family passion in mind, my industrious spouse decided last night to make Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec’s tarte aux oignons et fromage (that’s cheese-and-onion tart, fyi). Its spiritual warmth and elemental earthiness bore witness to the basic beauties of farmhouse cuisine, the luxury of sautéed onions suspended in a creamy golden matrix of baked eggs and Gruyère cheese. A glass of white wine plus a side dish of green beans cooked in butter with a dash of sea salt made it a worthy end-of-day repast.

TARTE AUX ONIONS ET FROMAGE

SOURCE: Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Cuisine de France (Orion Press, 1961)

SERVES 6 PEOPLE

INGREDIENTS

Tart pastry (go to this post for the easy recipe)

1 pound (4-5) medium onions

3 tablespoons butter

3 eggs

4 teaspoons flour

1-1/4 cup heavy cream

1 cup grated Gruyère cheese

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Peel and chop the onions very fine. Cook in boiling salted water for 15 minutes. Strain completely and sauté in the butter until golden.

Beat the eggs in a bowl with a fork and add the flour and the cream, beating continuously. Beat in the grated cheese and season with pepper. Do not add salt before tasting because the cheese may be salty enough. Finally stir in the onions.

Fill the tart with the mixture and bake 30 minutes until golden. Let cool for 10 minutes then serve.