When asked to name his favourite food memory, pastry chef Chris Edwards does not hesitate. “Without a doubt, eating fresh warm tarts that the French call 'conversations' has always stayed in my mind," he says.
The English chef, who made and tasted his first conversation 30 years ago while working at the Ritz Hotel in London, says the French tart is rarely seen in Australia. Commonly eaten at tea parties in France, conversations are delicate puff pastry tarts filled with frangipane and finished with a rich royal icing glaze.
“I loved them because they were so different from anything I'd had before,” says Edwards. “I loved the almond crème, the tartness of raspberry jam and the richness of the puff pastry. Then you have the slight crunch when you bite into the royal icing, it's just so different.”
After working in some of the world's finest pastry kitchens, including the Dorchester in London, the Four Seasons Hotel in Sydney and one of Sydney's former fine dining icons, Restaurant 41, Edwards moved to the central Victorian town of Castlemaine to set up his own nougat business.
Edwards now bakes artisan pastries, cakes and nougat for those lucky enough to live in the area. Recently he started baking the conversation tarts for the monthly Maldon market, knowing they would spark, well, conversations. And indeed, the tart has lived up to its name.
“At my first Maldon market a group of ladies crowded around the tarts, all asking questions and starting conversations with each other,” says Edwards. “I think what is special about conversations is that there is a story and history behind the tart.”
In the late 1770s the tart was created to coincide with the publication of a book by French writer Madame d'Epinary, called 'Emilie's Conversations'. Traditionally each tart had a small cross, and this was placed on the pastry to remind the original attendees at the book launch that they would be mingling with many a great mind and that they should freely have discussions and 'cross swords'.
Nowadays, Edwards says, he is liberal with how he decorates the top of the tart. “I like to put a few thin strips intersecting on the top,” he says. “It's almost like each of those strips create small rooms to invite conversation.”
The tarts are not as common as they once were in patisseries in France, although some chefs are finding new ways to enjoy them. Talented French pastry chef Philippe Conticini has replaced the frangipane with hazelnut crème, and places candied lemon instead of raspberry jam on a rough puff pastry base, delivering a modern twist on the tart.
Edwards says traditional conversation tarts are best enjoyed warm with a cup of tea. The allure is undeniable. A rich pastry with literary and historical appeal, and even for those of us not fluent in French, it is still possible to enjoy a conversation or two.
For rough puff pastry
400g plain flour
480g chilled butter
180g cold water
4 tsps castor sugar
2 tsps salt
Combine all the dry ingredients then add butter and rub in to form a rough crumble texture. Add water and mix till combined into a sticky dough. Do not over-mix. Press flat onto plastic wrap and chill in fridge for 2 hours.
For frangipane (crème d amandes)
125g almond meal
125g butter (room temperature)
125g castor sugar
20g plain flour
2 whole eggs
Cream butter and sugar lightly, add eggs and cream for a few more minutes. Then add almond meal and flour and mix well. Set aside. The frangipane can be prepared a day or two ahead.
For royal icing
455g sifted icing sugar
1 large egg white
15ml lemon juice
Lightly whisk egg white and lemon juice together in a bowl. Gradually add icing sugar, whisking until smooth and combined. Cover with damp cloth to stop drying out.
1. Preheat oven to 215°C.
2. Grease individual 80ml pastry moulds with butter or spray oil.
3. Roll out rough puff to 2mm thick, use 11cm cutter to cut approximately 32 circles out of puff pastry.
4. Line pastry mould with puff pastry and leave overlapping edges.
5. Add 1/4 teaspoon of raspberry jam into the base of the pastry.
6. Pipe in frangipane to just below the top of the case.
7. Roll out a set of pastry discs so that they are slightly larger than the case and place on top of mould, press down so the pastry joins.
8. Using a small palette knife trim the edge of the pastry case, trim all excess pastry.
9. Chill for 1 hour in the fridge, or freezer for 20-30 minutes. The tartlets can be prepared up to four days in advance.
10. Once chilled, spread a thin layer of royal icing across the top, clean around the edge of the mould so that no royal icing remains on the tartlet case.
11. With the trimmings of the rough puff cut thin strips to lay across the top of the royal icing in desired pattern.
12. Put tartlets in oven and reduce heat to 175°C then cook for 30 minutes or until golden brown. Ease tarts out of tins while still warm.
Makes 16 – 18 tarts