My first Chinese dessert, once I had progressed beyond the fortune cookie years, was a plump, almond-stuffed mooncake bought en route to a samurai film in New York City’s Chinatown. (A mooncake is a deceptively pretty, crust-enclosed pastry baked especially in celebration of the Chinese Moon Festival.) Somewhere between the lopping off of the enemies’ heads and the spearing of them on long poles in a triumphant parade, I downed a bite of the mooncake. (Shamefacedly, I confess ravenous hunger in times of terror.) The doughy crust and the paralyzingly sweet filling were infinitely more shocking than the movie, to one brought up tenderly in the land of Jewish pastry.
Add the flour, salt, and sugar to the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife. Process with 1–2 turns to combine. Distribute the butter evenly on top of the flour mixture, sprinkle the water and vanilla on top, then process just until the mixture masses around the side of the work bowl and stop the machine promptly. Do not wait for the dough to form a ball around the blade.
If you do not have a food processor, blend the ingredients in a mixer or by hand, until crumbly and well combined.
Press the dough into a compact ball. At this point, it may be refrigerated or frozen, wrapped in wax paper, then sealed airtight in a plastic bag. Bring to room temperature before shaping.
Reserving 2 teaspoons dough, press the soft dough into a 9-inch removable-bottom tart pan. Then chill the crust in the freezer, loosely covered, for a full 30 minutes before baking. For longer freezing, seal airtight once firm, then bake directly from the freezer without defrosting.
Bake the crust on the middle level of a
Remove the pan to a rack and let the crust cool completely in the pan. Cooled, it may be left at room temperature for several hours. Use the reserved dough to patch any cracks, lest the tart caramelize to the pan.
Anywhere from 2–12 hours in advance of serving, make the filling and bake the tart.
Warm the cream in a small heavy pot over low heat until warm to the touch. Combine the cream, sugar, salt, Grand Marnier, and almond extract, stirring gently to combine. Carefully fold in the almonds, so they do not break. Set the mixture aside in a warm spot, uncovered, for 30 minutes to thicken slightly. Do not put it in a hot place; an oven with a lit pilot is sufficient.
Carefully stir up the filling to redistribute the almonds, then pour it into the cool pastry shell. Smooth gently with a spatula or the back of a spoon to distribute the almonds evenly.
Bake the tart for 30–40 minutes, until evenly caramelized and a dark, glossy brown. Rotate the tart after 15 minutes to insure even cooking, and thereafter as necessary to insure even caramelization, covering any prematurely browned portions with foil. Watch the tart like a hawk (says Margaret) in the final minutes of cooking. Several minutes too long in the oven will turn it from the desired deep, dark brown to an overcooked black.
Remove the tart from the oven, then promptly disengage the sides of the pan by centering the tart on a mitted hand or the top of a large heavy can. If the caramelized sugar has bound portions of the pastry wall to the pan, then use the point of a small knife to carefully separate them. Transfer the tart to a rack to cool, still on its metal base.
Serve the tart at room temperature when it will be firm and crunchy, or while it is still slightly warm and soft. Transfer it still on the base to a serving plate, lined with a doily if you like.
Leftovers may be covered and stored at room temperature. They will be softer but still good a day after baking.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.