I will always have the greatest respect for the magic that a good pastry chef can weave. These guys are no ordinary chefs – the alchemy they create with butter, sugar, eggs and flour will always leave me in awe, and more than a little envious as well. Pastry chefs are often a cooking subculture unto themselves, being somewhat removed from us regular pan-rattlers. They often keep different hours to us; starting earlier while the kitchen is still cool, which is an inestimable aid to their art (Although I’ve often suspected it is the solitude they mainly crave). It is also said that good a pastry chef will always have cool hands (working with very short pastry is nothing but a nightmare when the shortening melts), and while this is true, I would go further and add the following traits to the list.

They must be creative – most chefs are at least a little creative in spirit, but now and again you will come across a cookie that really should have thought more carefully about becoming a mechanic instead. Very rarely however, will you find these passion-less cooks ending up as pastry chefs, who consistently possess an infective creative flair. They also need to be patient – sure, most savoury dishes can be flexible, and toying around with the recipe need not end up in disaster. On the other hand, pastry almost always demands an exact methodology, and for the rest of us mere mortals, this concise attention to detail will always remain a tiresome chore, or even just a mystery. Lastly, and most importantly, there is the undefinable element in a pastry chef’s makeup that makes all the difference. This certain something is close to impossible to pinpoint, but it is a magical and elusive element that is present in all the great pastry-rollers I know. Call it eccentricity, call it passion – whatever it is, if you don’t got it, you’ll never be the best.

With all this gushing admiration for the pâtissier’s art, you may well have guessed that I suck at pastry, and I mean I really suck. When I roll out shortcrust pastry, it always breaks on me. When I blind bake, my tart cases always shrink, leaving me with a scale model of an otherwise yummy dish. But in no area of pastry work do I suck as much as I do with puff pastry. Have you every tried to make puff pastry from scratch? Trust me, it’s really, really hard. Sure, a good pastry chef will tell you it is just a matter of paying attention, working quickly and methodically – adding butter, folding and rolling. Yeah, well they would say that wouldn’t they? My efforts always rose nicely on one side, but stayed flat on the other – or worse; they didn’t rise at all. So what do we warm-handed pastry no-hopers do when puff pastry is required? Well, pretty much the only option is to buy frozen commercial packs from the supermarket, but the big drawback here is this stuff generally wavers between the ordinary and the crap. They use cheap substitute margarine as shortening, rather than the flakier, and altogether more delicious butter. Mechanical folding of the pastry means that supermarket puff will always get a decent rise, but at the expense of the integrity and soul of a hand rolled puff pastry.

A great option would be to get a talented pastry chef to make the puff pastry for you, but yeah, like that’s gonna happen.

Well, before you dismiss this idea, lean in closer and I’ll whisper a little secret in your ear. You can get a qualified pastry chef to make your puff pastry for you, or just about any other pastry for that matter. All you need is a decent pastry or cake shop in your area. Choose the place that makes the best cakes, tarts and croissants. Ring them up, and ask if they will make up a batch that you can buy – you just might be pleasantly surprised. Keep three important things in mind however; always give them plenty of notice – at least 48 hours. Always order a fair sized amount, at least 1 kg (2 lb) (You can easily freeze any leftovers). And don’t go to a crappy chain store like Michel’s or Deli France – you will be wasting your time. What you need is a place where the guy with flour on his hands also owns the joint.

This Thursday just past, I got my hands on 1 kilogram of sensational puff pastry made by a small local cake shop. When I got it to work, I cut off a small square and cooked it by itself so I could have a little taste. Guess what? No surprises here – it far outshone anything I could buy at the supermarket – puffy, rich, buttery and flaky. Now the only task was to raid our fridges to see what I could put onto the lunch menu. We had witlof, we had goat’s cheese, and we had beetroot. Three sensationally flavour-packed ingredients that made the choice easy, a starter-sized savoury tart it would be. And here’s how it goes.

Witlof is a small, cigar-shaped, tight-leaved winter vegetable in the chicory family. It is a sub-variety of the species Chichorium intybus, better known as radicchio, and comes in green or red varieties. How different cultures refer to witlof has always been confusing, so let me have a shot at clearing it up a little. In France, Belgium, and so it seems Australia as well, it is known as witlof, or witloof. In the US, it is known as either endive, or Belgian endive, while in the UK it is sold as chicory. Like its close cousin, radicchio, it is full of flavour and just a little bitter as well – which adds enormously to its appeal. To reduce witlof’s forthright flavour just a tad in this recipe, I have chosen to quickly roast it with garlic, olive oil, wine vinegar and a little sugar, which leaves it meltingly tender and sweet, yet still with a slightly bitter, complex edge.

Onto discs of heavenly puff pastry is spread a little goat’s cheese, but feta, parmesan, or even fresh pecorino would work just as well. A cairn of cooked witlof is piled on top, and the little tarts are quickly roasted – just 8 or 9 minutes – until they are puffed up, golden and smell utterly irresistible. A little more goat’s cheese is piled on top, which will gently melt as it settles into the hot tart. A pile of delicate greens, such as mache (lamb's lettuce, or corn salad) is placed atop, and the whole lot is drizzled with a shockingly magenta, and gloriously sweet beetroot dressing. This tart looks just sensational, and it tastes every bit as good too.

I’ll have to come clean about the beetroot dressing – it looks divine on the plate, and has an earthy, yet naturally sweet flavour that is just perfect for this tart, but here’s the grabber. It requires you to cook some fresh beetroot that will not be used in this recipe at all (of course, use the cooked beetroot in another dish). All that is required is the vibrantly-hued cooking liquid that is then boiled down to a sticky and rich concentrate - essence of beetroot if you will. If you have the time and feel dedicated enough, make the dressing as it is simply wonderful and totally addictive. Having said that however, it is a lot of effort to go to just to make a dressing. I have litres of beetroot cooking liquid laying around at work at any given time, so it is no sweat for me to make. You should fell free to omit the beetroot, and simply make a vinegar based dressing if it saves you time. As well, if you couldn’t convince any pastry shop to make your puff, it really is no great drama, just use the supermarket stuff. The tarts will still be pretty damn sensational all the same.

OK, are you keen? Well here’s the low down.




Ingredients

Method

If you are making the beetroot essence, start with that. If the stalks and leaves are still attached to the beetroot, cut them to within about 5 cm of the beetroot. Discard the leaves, or even better, wash them and cook them up as a tasty leafy green vegetable that can be treated like silverbeet or spinach. Slice the beetroot lengthways into 5mm thick wedges, then place into a small saucepan and cover with cold water. Add some salt, pepper and a spoonful of garlic oil and place on high heat. As soon as the liquid boils, turn the heat down to a simmer and cook until the beetroot is tender – about 10 minutes or so. Drain the beetroot, reserving the liquid. Keep the beetroot itself for another dish. It will keep well, covered in the fridge for 3 or 4 days.

Rinse out the saucepan and strain 500 ml (2 cups) of the beetroot liquid through a fine sieve back into the pan. Set over high heat and boil until you have about 2 Tbs (30-40 ml, or 1 1/2 fl oz) of very red, very sticky liquid left. Be careful that it doesn’t burn. This is the beetroot essence. Pour into a small bowl and allow to cool, then add 1 Tbs of the wine vinegar, the extra virgin olive oil, and some salt and pepper. Stir well and set aside.

Pre-heat your oven to 220 °C (440 °F). Cut the witlof lengthways into 4 slices, each should be roughly half a centimetre thick, but there is no need to be exact. Take a baking tray (baking sheet) and line the bottom with non-stick silicone paper, or a silpat. Sprinkle evenly over the tray the following; 2 Tbs Garlic oil, 1 Tbs wine vinegar, the sugar, plus some salt and pepper. Place the cut witlof onto this mix and slide them around so the flavours seep right in. Place an equally sized piece of non-stick paper over the top, and press down so the witlof are fully covered. Place in the oven and cook for 15 minutes, or until they are nicely soft and starting to brown around the edges. Remove from the oven and set aside.

Cut 4 x 10cm discs out of the puff pastry. It is important that you use a very sharp knife, and cut in one smooth motion, because if the cut edge is crushed too much, it will squeeze the pastry layers together and inhibit its ability to puff up. The ideal solution is to use a sharp, 10 cm round pastry cutter if you have one.

Line the baking tray again with non-stick paper, and space the 4 discs of pastry evenly on the tray. Take half the goat’s cheese, and crumble it evenly on the base of the pastry discs, leaving a 5 mm border around the edges. Slice the roasted witlof into 5 cm lengths and arrange neatly on top of the cheese, again leaving a 5 mm border. Drizzle over a small amount of garlic oil on top of each tart and place in the oven. The accuracy of your oven's temperature will determine exactly how long they will take to cook. Check after 8 minutes, but they may take up to 13 or 14 minutes. They are ready when the pastry is puffed up and golden, and the topping is soft and bubbling.

Immediately place onto 4 plates and crumble over the remaining cheese, which will soften and dreamily melt into the tarts as you carry them to the table. Place a small handful of greens on top of each tart – not enough to obscure the tart itself, just enough to give a colour and textural counterpoint. Drizzle a little of the beetroot dressing directly onto the mache lettuce and the tarts themselves, then drizzle a little more dressing around the perimeter of the plate – the strong colours will really give the dish a vivid and alluring glow. Grind over some black pepper and serve forth at once.

If you have decided not to make the beetroot essence, then simply mix 60 ml (1/4 cup) of extra virgin olive oil with 20 ml (1 Tbs) of your favourite vinegar (balsamic would be perfect). Add some sea salt and pepper, stir well, and use this as your dressing.

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