- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 5, 2004

After spending a good amount of time in France the past few years, I’ve noticed that the French often take shortcuts when entertaining. They don’t fuss over fancy appetizers, but instead buy nuts, olives and salty crackers to serve with drinks.

For openers, they might pick up a pate or terrine from their local charcuterie (deli to us) and offer it with slices of crusty bread. Or they might purchase a juicy melon in season and garnish it with thinly sliced jambon de Parme (prosciutto from Parma, Italy, as we know it).

French hosts even opt for help when it comes to the main course. One New Year’s Eve when I complimented a Parisian friend on the delicious filling in her roasted guinea hen, she quickly confided that she had bought the stuffing from her butcher. And if dessert doesn’t come from the neighborhood pastry shop, then it is often a simple confection — a pudding, a mousse or a tart, the latter often fashioned with store-bought pastry dough.

I began planning an early fall dinner party modeled after these easily assembled menus. A bowl of toasted almonds and another of red and yellow cherry tomatoes will begin our meal. Pre-washed mixed greens (a definite timesaver) will be used in a first-course salad.

For the entree, there will be grilled lamb chops topped with a delicious chutney from my local supermarket. The chops will be served with quickly cooked couscous. Glistening plum tarts in golden, flaky shells (prepared with purchased puff pastry) will end the meal and the evening.

The tarts look as if they take far more effort than they do. For the filling, sliced plums are sauteed with sugar and cinnamon until the fruit is tender and the pan juices become thick and transparent.

For the tart shells, a sheet of puff pastry is cut into four equal squares and a border traced around the inside edge of each square. The filling is spooned into the center of the pastry squares, and when the tarts are baked, the borders rise miraculously to form the sides.

A topping of whipped cream flavored with honey and sour cream makes a perfect garnish for these crusty fruit tarts.

The pastry squares can be cut out and refrigerated several hours ahead, the filling can be cooked in advance, and the honey cream can be whipped as long as a day before, so that at serving time, you need only assemble the dessert.

Plum tarts with honeyed whipped cream

HONEYED WHIPPED CREAM:

cup heavy whipping cream

2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons sour cream

PLUM TARTS:

Butter for greasing baking sheet

11/4 to 1 pounds plums, ripe but not soft

1/4 cup sugar, plus more if needed

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, about 9 inches square and 1/8-inch thick, defrosted in the refrigerator (see note)

1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted (see note)

4 fresh mint sprigs for garnish, optional

To make honeyed whipped cream, whip the cream with an electric mixer on high speed until soft peaks form. Reduce speed and drizzle honey into the whipped cream. Continue whipping until stiff peaks form. With a wire whisk, fold in the sour cream. This will deflate the stiffly whipped cream slightly, giving it a yogurtlike consistency. The cream can be prepared 1 day ahead; cover and refrigerate.

To prepare the tarts, butter a baking sheet and set aside. Then rinse the plums and pat dry. Cut the plums in half lengthwise, remove pits and cut halves into 3/4-inch-thick wedges.

Place a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat for a few minutes until hot. Add the plums and sprinkle 1/4 cup sugar over.

Stir constantly until the sugar dissolves and forms a glaze and the plums are tender when pierced with a knife, as little as 3 minutes or as long as 6 to 10 minutes, depending on ripeness of plums. They should be tender but not mushy when pierced with a knife. Remove pan from heat, and stir in cinnamon.

Taste the plums; if they are too tart, add more sugar by teaspoonfuls. (Filling can be prepared 3 hours ahead; leave uncovered at cool room temperature.) Place pastry on a lightly floured work surface, then gently flatten the seams with a rolling pin.

Cut the sheet into four equal squares. With a sharp knife, gently cut a 3/4-inch border inside each pastry square, taking care not to cut all the way through the dough. (You simply want to trace a frame within each square, which will rise around the filling and form the sides of each tart.) Transfer squares to buttered baking sheet.

Divide plum mixture evenly and spoon filling inside the traced lines of each pastry square. Bake in preheated 400-degree oven 18 to 20 minutes, or until the sides have puffed and are golden brown and the filling is bubbling. Watch carefully.

To serve, top each tart with a sprinkle of almonds and a generous dollop of honeyed whipped cream and garnish with mint leaves, if desired. Makes 4 servings.

Note: A 17.3-ounce package of Pepperidge Farm puff pastry contains two 9-inch square sheets that are 1/8-inch thick. To toast almonds, spread on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven until golden, 4 to 5 minutes. Watch carefully. Remove and cool.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

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