The days are getting longer, the air is getting warmer and the daffodils have poked through the dirt in my yard. It definitely feels like the right time to put away the gingerbread and molten chocolate cake recipes and bust out some fruit desserts.
There's only one problem. The fruit selection at the supermarket is similar to what it was in the middle of February, dominated by mangoes from Mexico and grapes from California, with some shriveled Spanish clementines and a few bins of New York State apples left over from the fall. It's not a crime to make a pie with peaches imported from Chile, although they won't be as fragrant as farm stand peaches in August. Frozen fruit is another option, but frozen fruit just doesn't have the romance of fresh seasonal fruit at its peak. Instead, think about using a jar of jam to make a shockingly easy and satisfyingly fruity tart. Choose Long Island preserves from Miss Amy's, Paumonok or A Taste of the North Fork, and you can even claim locavore cred when you bring your tart to the table.
With jam, there's no peeling, no slicing, no cooking, no cleanup. Simply twist off the top, measure 1 1/4 cup of your favorite flavor and spread it over your tart shell. Unlike canned pie filling, which contains ingredients many of us would like to avoid -- such as modified food starch, food coloring and high fructose corn syrup -- high-quality jams and fruit preserves are made with nothing more than fruit, sugar and natural fruit pectin.
When my filling is coming from a jar, I don't want to kill myself making a complicated pastry crust. A simple shortbread dough doesn't require a rolling pin or even an electric mixer. Combine some ground nuts, flour, sugar and cornmeal with melted butter, and mush everything together with your hands (you can use a spatula if you don't like getting your hands dirty) until large crumbs form. Then press some of the mixture into the bottom of the pan, spread the jam on top and sprinkle the remaining crumbs over the jam. The cornmeal and nuts give the crust some flavor and character. The tart itself is cakey but sturdy, a great choice if you have to bring dessert to a friend's house and want something that won't fall apart in transit.
If you don't already have one, consider making a modest investment of between $10 and $15 in a tart pan with a removable bottom. In addition to jam tarts, you will be able to make a variety of sweet and savory tarts, all with the professional look that comes from the pretty fluted edge. I prefer a pan with a traditional shiny metal finish to a dark, nonstick pan, since crusts tend to overbrown in darker pans.
Here's a trick for removing the tart from the pan sides. Don't try to balance the bottom on the palm of your hand. Chances are, the tart will wind up on the floor. Instead, place a large (24-ounce) can of beans or tomatoes on the countertop. Set the tart pan on top of the can, letting the ring fall to the counter. Then, carefully lift the tart from the can and place it on a serving platter.
JAM TART WITH CORNMEAL-ALMOND CRUST
A preheated rimmed baking sheet helps crisp up the bottom of the crust and catches any drips as the tart bakes.
1 1/2 cups whole almonds
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
1 1/4 cup best-quality jam
1. Place a rimmed baking sheet on middle rack of oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 10-inch tart pan with removable bottom with nonstick cooking spray.
2. Place almonds in bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse several times to grind. Do not overprocess.
3. Combine ground nuts, flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl and whisk to blend. Pour in melted butter and almond extract. Pick up handfuls of mixture and rub between your palms until all the ingredients are moistened and the mixture forms large crumbs.
4. Spoon 3/4 of the mixture into the prepared pan and pat firmly into an even layer across bottom and up the sides. Use a small metal spatula to spread jam over the bottom crust, about 1/2 inch from the edge all around. Scatter remaining crumbs over jam. Press lightly on them so they stick to the jam.
5. Bake until tart is golden, about 30 minutes. Transfer tart pan to a wire rack and let cool completely. When cool, remove the sides of pan (see tip above), cut into wedges and serve.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.