I spent part of my sunny, cold Sunday morning making a dessert that reminds me of my years in Los Angeles. The early 1980s was when Wolfgang Puck opened his iconic restaurant Spago above the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. What Puck was doing then seems run-of-the-mill now, but in those days, wood-oven-fired designer pizzas were a revelation, and the place became a sensation. Few associate him with desserts, but he turned out some lovely ones; a nut, caramel and chocolate tart was among them.
Puck’s version calls for a double crust, enrobed in chocolate ganache, with the pecan-walnut-caramel filling hidden inside. I prefer it open-faced, with the silky ganache on top. It’s an idea I got from an Italian restaurant where I worked in those days, waiting cocktail tables at night while trying to get my journalism career going during the day. I’ve simplified the flavors here; I think the sweetness of pecans gets lost in the sharper walnut taste. So I choose one nut or the other. Today it’s walnuts.
Here is the finished product:
Caramel Walnut Chocolate Tart
1 1/2 c. all purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 c. (one stick, or 4 oz) unsalted butter, chilled, cut into small cubes
4 Tbsp (or more) icewater
2 1/2 c. sugar
1 1/4 c. water
1/2 c. whipping (heavy) cream
12 ounces walnut halves (plus 12 halves for decoration)
7 ounces unsalted butter
8 ounces chocolate, blend of semisweet and bittersweet
1 cup (8 ounces) heavy cream
This recipe is a basic pie dough recipe, though in greater volume, so there is enough to roll out a 14-inch circle for the 11-inch tart pan. You can use a patee sucree, too, I’m sure, and the sweetness wouldn’t be a bad idea. Whichever you use, make the dough: Cut up the butter into small cubes; chill thoroughly. Measure out cold water in a cup with a few ice cubes so it can get nice and cold. In a large bowl, combine the flour and salt. Cut in the butter, using two knives or a pastry cutter. Make sure you keep pea-sized chunks of butter; don’t cut them smaller. Drizzle a little icewater over the mixture, tossing lightly and quickly, and a little more, until you can squeeze bits of the dough and it hangs together. Gather it into a ball and squeeze it a bit, so all your dough sticks together. Form it into a disk, wrap it in wax paper and chill it at least 30 minutes.
Roll out the dough, line the tart pan with it, and prick in a half-dozen places or so with a fork. Then line it with a sheet of parchment paper and weight it with dry beans or whatever you like to use to weight a blind-baked crust. Bake for 20 minutes at 425, then remove the paper & beans and bake about 20 minutes longer, til you have a nice golden brown crust. Set it on a cooling rack.
Now to make the caramel. This process scared and mystified me the first 25 or so times I tried to do it. I am not kidding you; I got this sucker wrong more times than I care to remember (and some of them were on deadline, within an hour or two of having to bring a promised dessert to a dinner party). So I took step-by-step pictures for you, and I’ll share a few hard-won lessons as I go.
Combine your sugar and water in a heavy, good-quality saucepan. There is nothing wrong with cheap-nasty saucepans for lots of things, but please use a good heavy one here. (Hot sugar and water don’t like cheap. They get pissed off and burn in key places.) Bring the heat up under the sugar-water to about medium-low, just until your sugar dissolves and you have a relatively clear fluid. (This is lesson #1: don’t try to caramelize sugar when you can still see sugar grains.)
When the sugar has dissolved, bring your heat up to medium-high and attach a candy thermometer to the pan, making sure the tip is in the liquid, but not touching the bottom of the pan. Now here is lesson #2, for those of you who tilt toward a little obsessive-compulsive like me: Do not stir. I know it’s tempting; you have my empathy here. It used to take everything I had to keep my damn spoon out of the saucepan. Something about the look of it; you just want to stir. You feel you must stir. Don’t. Be a good girl: keep your hands to yourself and bring it to a boil.
Boil the sugar-water mixture until it reaches about 330 degrees. (Puck’s recipe said 334, but I got mine to 331 and it was giving off some scary brownish smoke, and I had to take my smoke alarm down to avoid freaking out the cat. So I decided to back off rather than set my kitchen on fire. And things worked out just fine.) Here’s how it looks as it’s turning a little golden:
And that brings me to lesson #3: don’t be shy about the heat. When I first started caramelizing sugar, I was too timid to turn the heat up as high as necessary. The result was that I just cooked off the water, leaving behind a prehistoric-looking coating of white sugar crust in the pan. So turn it up and get a good boil going. It takes awhile to do this: maybe 7 or 8 minutes of boiling, to raise the temperature enough and get the nice dark amber you want.
Here’s how it looked right as it got to the place I wanted it to be:
When the temperature reaches 330 or so, take the mixture off the heat, remove the candy thermometer and carefully pour in the heavy cream. You will get a vigorous bubbling. So be sure to have the saucepan in a safe, stable place, and for heaven’s sake, don’t stand too close. As the bubbling dies down,whisk the mixture, and add the butter, mixing well (some recipes call for vanilla, too). Pour into a metal bowl to cool down a bit. Stir in the walnuts.
While you’re letting your caramel cool to lukewarm, make your ganache. This is a cinch (especially compared to the harrowing experience of making caramel). Put your chopped chocolate in a bowl. Opt for a deeper, narrower bowl over a wider, shallower one. This will help when you pour hot cream over the chocolate; the cream needs to be deep enough to cover the chocolate. Heat the cream in a saucepan, bringing it almost to a boil. Pour it over the chocolate and let it sit there a couple minutes. Then whisk it until it’s smooth. Ta-da! Ganache is done. Now just let it sit there until it thickens slightly, so it doesn’t go all runny on you when you pour it over your tart.
While the ganache is cooling, pour your warm caramel filling into your baked and cooled tart crust.
Pour the cooled ganache over the top (don’t wait so long that it’s too thick to pour!) and decorate with walnut halves.
I sprinkled a little kosher sea salt over the tart; true, Wolfgang Puck wouldn’t have done this, since salted caramel and salted chocolate weren’t high on people’s radar then. But I think it’s going to add a nice little zing, so I tried it.