Sunday, August 16, 2009

Italian Apple Tart with Ice Cream and Balsamic Vinegar

We just got home from a vacation in Europe in which we spent 4 days in Paris, and then nearly 2 weeks traveling from Venice to Florence to Naples & Pompeii to Positano to Rome. One of the highlights was a day trip we took from Florence into the Chianti wine country which lies between Florence and Siena. On that trip, we visited the Montagliari vinyard, a family-owned and operated business that produces primarily Chianti Classico, in addition to Grappa and balsamic vinegar.

There's a restaurant at the vinyard, and the septegenarian matriarch of Montagliari is the chef. Her cooking was the most delicious and comforting we had in Italy. We had a glorious meal on a shaded terrace overlooking the vinyards and the long valley of the Chianti Classico denomination. Our lunch culminated with a warm apple tart topped with vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. It was pure heaven...we devoured it.

When we got home, I was determined to reproduce it. This is my's not identical, but it's pretty close. Ahhh, Italia!

A note on balsamic vinegar: This queen of vinegars can range from cheap, watery and sour to syrupy, gloriously sweet-sour and complex. Skip the's not worth buying. The latter form, however, is truly a revelation, and is worth its hefty price - I've paid as much as $30 or $40 for a few ounces of good balsamico. When you get the really good stuff, save it for special dishes like this, use a few drops at a time, and savor its completely unique character with meats, over heirloom tomato wedges, fruits and desserts. Even a small bottle will last a long time.

Italian Apple Tart
(Serves 8)
3 eggs, separated
1/2 c. plus 1 T caster sugar (also called superfine, or baker's sugar)
1/2 tsp. vanilla
3 T softened unsalted butter (I use Lurpak imported Danish butter for fine baking)
pinch of salt
pinch of freshly-ground nutmeg
1/4 c. flour
1/4 c. corn starch
1 c. apple puree (see below)

Preheat oven to 375. Cut circles of parchment paper to fit in the bottoms of 8 6-oz. ramekins. Place the circles into each of the ramekins, and using 1T of the butter, grease the exposed face of the parchment, plus the sides of the ramekins. Arrange on a baking sheet.

In a medium bowl, whisk together egg yolks, sugar and vanilla until very creamy. Whisk in the remaining 2T of soft butter. Whisk in the nutmeg. In a separate bowl with a clean whisk, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff (the tiniest bit of yolk will keep whites from stiffening). Fold into the sugar mixture. Sprinkle the flour and corn starch over the batter and fold in, working out any lumps. Fold in the apple puree.

Fill the molds 1/2 way, and bake until just brown on the top and edges and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Rotate the pan half way through baking for evenness.

To serve: unmold while still warm (hold the hot ramekins with a towl) onto warm plates, upside down, by running a thin knife around the sides of the ramekin, then gently prying loose. Remove parchment paper rounds. Top with a smallish scoop of premium vanilla ice cream that is slightly softened, and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar (about a teaspoon per serving). Dust everything and the plate around it with powdered sugar. Elegant comfort food!

Apple Puree
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and diced
1 Braeburn apple, peeled, cored and diced

Place the apples and 2 T of water into a saucepan, cover tightly, and place over medium-low heat. Cook until very soft, about 25 minutes. Cool. Mash with a fork, not a food processor. It's better with a little texture, rather than baby-food smoothness.

This is also the way I make applesauce. You can use whatever varieties of apples you like best.

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