By Virginia Willis
Special to The Washington Post
There's something easy yet elegant about tarts. They are the little black dress of the pastry kitchen, the sophisticated city cousin of rustic, country-style pies.
And they make a fine alternative to the age-old Easter ham-or-lamb conundrum - although you'll still have to make choices, such as sweet or savory; main course or post-holiday buffet snack; regular or puff-pastry or gluten-free crust; fluted pan, pastry ring or free-form on a baking sheet.
Each of the five accompanying recipes can be made in advance. The tarts that need reheating will look just as nice as the day you made them. Present a few on a wooden cutting board with a big, beautiful salad, and lunch is served.
Willis is the author most recently of "Basic to Brilliant, Y'all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company."
Simple and Savory Sweet Potato Tart
Makes one 12-inch tart (12 servings)
This is an easy crust for baking novices because it's made in the food processor. Shortening does not melt as readily as butter does and makes for a more forgiving dough; here, a combination of the two is used. To save time, pre-made pie dough can be used, but the flavor - and satisfaction - just won't be the same; reduce the baking time to 20 minutes.
For a more attractive result, select a sweet potato whose diameter is If desired, top or pair the tart with tender spring arugula tossed in a light vinaigrette for a bit of fresh, peppery bite.
MAKE AHEAD: The tart dough needs to rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. The rolled-out tart dough needs to be refrigerated for 30 minutes. The tart can be made several hours in advance and kept at room temperature; reheat in a 350-degree oven for 5 to 7 minutes. From Georgia cookbook author and cooking instructor Virginia Willis.
For the crust
For the filling
For the crust: Combine the flour and salt in a food processor, then add the vegetable shortening and butter. Process for 8 to 10 seconds or just until the mixture resembles coarse meal.
Add the ice water 1 tablespoon at a time as you pulse, using just enough so the dough holds together without being sticky or crumbly; you might not use all of it. Transfer the dough to a work surface and shape into a disk 4 to 6 inches in diameter; wrap in plastic wrap. Chill until the dough is firm and evenly moist, about 30 minutes.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone liner.
Flour a clean work surface and a rolling pin. Place the dough disk in the center of the floured surface. Starting in the center of the dough, roll out to, but not over, the upper edge of the dough. Return to the center and roll down to, but not over, the edge closest to you. Lift the dough, giving it a quarter turn, and lay it on the work surface. Continue rolling, repeating the quarter turns, until you have a dough round that's about 12 inches wide.
Place on the lined baking sheet. Refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
For the filling: Peel the sweet potato and use a mandoline (preferred) or very sharp knife to cut it into thin slices, between 1/8 and 1/4 inch thick. Transfer to a medium bowl and drizzle with the oil, then add the orange zest. Season with salt and pepper to taste. (Be conservative with the salt; the blue cheese will be salty.) Toss to coat evenly, taking care not to break the slices.
If starting with cold syrup, heat it in the microwave on LOW just to room temperature, about 10 seconds. Brush all of the syrup on the chilled round of dough to within 1/2 inch of the edge. Scatter the blue cheese evenly over the syrup.
Starting at the outer edge, layer the sweet potato slices over the cheese, overlapping them in tight concentric circles and keeping in mind that they will shrink during baking. Bake until the crust is golden brown and the sweet potatoes are slightly curled and tender, 30 to 35 minutes.
Place the baking sheet on a wire rack to cool for at least 5 minutes before transferring the tart to a platter. Slice and serve warm or at room temperature.
NUTRITION Per serving: 180 calories, 3 g protein, 18 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 190 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar
Savory Ham and Cheese Empanada Tart
Makes one 11-inch tart (12 servings)
Inspiration to use empanada dough for this indulgent, free-form tart comes from Southern Latina cookbook author Sandra Gutierrez. It's flaky, easy to manipulate, buttery and tender. You can substitute two ready-to-use rounds of pie dough, for a super quick and easy ham and cheese tart. But the rich flavor of this empanada dough makes it worth the minimal amount of extra effort.
MAKE AHEAD: The disk of tart dough needs to rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes; the rolled-out dough needs to rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes; the assembled tart needs to be refrigerated for 30 minutes before it is baked. Reheat in a 350-degree oven for 5 to 7 minutes or until warmed through. From Georgia cookbook author and cooking instructor Virginia Willis.
Combine the flour and salt in a food processor. Pulse for 10 to 15 seconds, then add the cream cheese and butter; process by pulsing just until the mixture comes together to form a ball. Divide into two equal disks, wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
Line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.
Lightly flour a clean work surface and rolling pin. Starting in the center of the dough, roll out to, but not over, the upper edge of the dough. Return to the center, and roll down to, but not over, the edge closest to you. Lift the dough, giving it a quarter-turn, and lay it on the work surface. Continue rolling, repeating the quarter-turns, until you have a dough round that's about 12 inches across. (If you wish, use an inverted 11-inch dinner plate as a guide to trim the round of dough for a less rustic look.)
Transfer the dough to the lined baking sheet and refrigerate it while you prepare the second dough round. (If the dough seems too soft and sticky at any point during the recipes, stop and simply return it to the refrigerator until firm.)
Roll out the remaining disk of dough as directed above. Transfer to the remaining lined baking sheet. Use a 1-inch round cookie cutter to cut out a steam vent from the center of this dough round, which will become the top crust. (Discard the cut-out piece of dough). Refrigerate both rounds of dough on the baking sheets until firm, at least 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk together the egg and water until smooth.
Spread the mustard on the round of dough that does not have the steam-vent cutout, leaving a 1/2-inch border. Evenly and loosely cover with the ham, then sprinkle the cheese evenly over the ham. Season with pepper (to taste). Brush the egg mixture onto the edge of the dough.
Slip the steam-vent round of dough onto the ham-and-cheese filling, making sure to center it. Use your fingertips to press around the edges, sealing the top and bottom crusts, then use the tines of a fork to press around the sealed edge. Brush the egg wash evenly over the bare border of dough. Chill once again until firm, about 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake until deep golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer the tart to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes before placing it on a cutting board to slice into wedges. Serve warm.
NUTRITION Per serving: 240 calories, 10 g protein, 14 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 70 mg cholesterol, 330 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar