Spring is here and this tart wants to make sure you don’t forget it and accidentally make another apple pie. It’s bright and nutty and subtly sweet (and vegan and gluten-free) and really lovely to look at, with that particular brand of crust that’s flaked with the textures and shades of brown that you only get when you force seeds, nuts and grains to behave like flour and butter.
The shell is made of oats, flax seed and almonds, the lemon curd of coconut milk and maple syrup, the berries are berries and there are four beautiful varieties of them. They feel extra precious at the beginning of these warmer spring months.
It’s hard to ignore, however, that berries aren’t cheap. And when you’re making a tart like this, you need a lot of berries and they need to look fresh and lively (a.k.a. not frozen). Learning what’s behind a carton of berries made me much more accepting of their price tag and, along the way, much more respecting of these delicate little flavor bombs.
The life of a berry is touch and go from seed to mouth. Berries are one of the most perishable crops, largely due to their comparatively high water content (between 85% and 92%), paired with their very delicate, relatively unprotective skin. Berries, like many fruits and vegetables (for example, avocados and bananas), will continue to ripen even after harvesting through the production of a naturally formed chemical called ethylene – a ‘fruit ripening gas’ – which is responsible for them going from ripe to spoiled within hours. Ethylene is also known as the ‘aging hormone’ in plants. Produced by a plant when it is sick or injured, it’s the same chemical that causes them to die.
Let’s back up even further. What’s taken place in the life of a berry before the moment you hand over your cash at the market to bring it home where it will continue it’s ripening stroke rotting process on your kitchen counter?
Great care and attention is required in the cultivation of berries. Their growing requirements are extremely sensitive and their behavior unpredictable. Mild rain or extreme heat will destroy them, especially when ripe and even when covered by protective tents. As harvest approaches, growers will keep close watch on the weather and if skies suggest rain, they will pick the berries immediately to save the crop. Too delicate to be harvested by a machine, each berry must be picked by hand. Growers wear heavy gear in hot summer temperatures to protect themselves from stings from bees and raspberries alike.
Once picked, berries can survive for about one day at room temperature, so must be transported quickly, yet often across far distances. National Geographic followed the journey of a strawberry 3,200 miles from the west to the east coast, with fuel bills in the several thousands of dollars and truckers paid by the mile, all racing against the biological berry clock while the little guys sat carefully tucked inside the refrigerated trailer of a truck, suffocating from their own aging gas. This all brings us back to you handing over your cash where we started above
Some foods, it seems, are naturally resistant to the artificial rhythms of industrialized agriculture. Berries, brightly colored compared to the leafy background against which they grow, are meant to stand out and be visible in their natural environments – a pretty intelligent evolutionary mechanism for getting animals to eat and spread their seeds (in biological terms, this is called ‘dispersal’). Given their rapid deterioration once removed from their place of growth, it’s fair to conclude they are intended to be eaten at the source, probably somewhat immediately rather than trucked across the country.
As with everything, your local farmer’s market will have the freshest, least-traveled and least-aged berries. If you sense your berries have started to go off, the berry experts out there suggest a hot water or diluted vinegar rinse to revive them.
As much as the berries take the tart here, the crust is also a treasure for any baking repertoire that seeks healthy alternatives. The recipe is extremely versatile and lends itself to experimentation. I’ve had success with ground pecans and rice flour, also with butter in place of oil for a non-vegan crowd. It presses beautifully into whatever form and crisps up quickly in the oven.
The coconut lemon curd is also a really simple go-to. At first I was inclined to use honey for sweetness, but the maple syrup mellows out the tartness of the mixture, along with the creamy coconut milk. You can put this in/on everything: spread it onto a layer cake, bake it into a loaf, fry it into doughnuts, fold it into greek yogurt or just eat it on its own with some whipped cream (and berries) on top.
1 cup raw almonds
2 1/3 cups gluten-free oat flour
2 tbsp ground flax seed
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
3 tbsp dark brown sugar
1/3 cup coconut oil, softened
3 tbsp maple syrup, plus 1 tablespoon
1-2 tbsp water, as needed
1 tablespoon almond milk (or soy)
Preheat oven to 375° F. Oil a 10-inch tart pan with a removable base (8-inch will work fine, but you may have leftover dough from this recipe) and line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper.
Grind almonds in a food processor until crumbed into coarse, small pieces. Then add oat flour, cinnamon, flax and salt, and continue to pulse until incorporated. Add coconut oil, maple syrup and 1 tablespoon of water, and continue to pulse. You should have a crumbly mess of damp pieces of dough, which should stick together when pressed between your fingers. If it doesn’t, add 1 more tablespoon of water and continue to mix thoroughly.
Pour the dough evenly over the base of the pan and begin pressing down with your fingers from the center of the pan towards the edges and up the sides, ensuring as much as possible that you are forming an even layer of dough. With the pad of your pointer finger, lightly press the lip of the crust into each flute of the tart pan so that your dough mimics the shape of the pan. Using a fork, poke the base of the tart several times to allow air to escape during baking.
Whisk together the almond milk and remaining maple syrup in a bowl. Carefully brush the mixture over the top edges of the crust (this will help the exposed crust get golden and shiny).
Bake for 12-14 minutes until dried out and slightly darker in color. Don’t worry if it feels soft to the touch, it will continue to firm up as it cools.
COCONUT LEMON CREAM FILLING
1 cup canned coconut milk
1/3 cup maple syrup
juice and zest of 2 lemons
1 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp vanilla extract
Whisk coconut milk, maple syrup and lemon juice and zest in a large saucepan. Turn heat to medium-high and once warmed throughout, stir in sugar. Then add cornstarch and still constantly for 4-6 minutes while the mixture thickens. If you don’t continue to stir, you will end up with clumps of cornstarch. Once the mixture has thickened to a creamy, thick yogurt consistency, remove from heat and stir in vanilla extract.
Allow to cool for 10 minutes or so before applying to tart shell. The mixture can be made several days ahead and stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator. It will firm up once cooled, so when you’re ready to use it, let it fully come to room temperature and then whisk it until it returns to a creamy consistency.
4 cups fresh mixed berries, rinsed and drained (1 carton of each will do)
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Place your tart shell on a serving platter. Spoon the lemon curd into the center and using the back of a spoon spread it out in even circles to the edge of the tart. Continue to smooth until you have a flat surface.
Arrange berries on top of the filling, either randomly as shown above or patterned. I like to fill in any blank spaces so the tart feels full to the brim with fruit.
Whisk together honey, lemon and water in a bowl. Using a pastry brush, paint the mixture onto the top of the berries, covering all surfaces until shiny.