- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 7, 2004

My husband and I spent several weeks in Paris this summer in a rented apartment. He spent his days in libraries and bookstores gathering notes for his courses on French culture while I roamed the city in search of inspiration for this column and my classes.

I inspected the glorious fruits and vegetables at the open-air food markets and visited the fromageries to learn about the country’s cheeses. Sampling treats from the local pastry shops and buying warm, crusty breads from neighborhood bakeries are all part of my so-called research.

It’s not just the markets and shops that provide stimulation; it seems that everyone in Paris is interested in food and ready to share that passion.

Take, for example, a neighbor in our apartment building. One day, she appeared at our door around noon with a beautiful warm tart to share. The savory pie, with its flaky dark brown crust and creamy filling of sliced potatoes, Camembert and creme fraiche, tasted as good as it looked. After one bite, I begged for the recipe.

“Tres simple,” the woman replied. She explained that for the crust, she had used store-bought puff pastry, which she molded into a tart pan. For the filling, she placed sliced boiled potatoes into the pie shell. Next, she removed the skin from a small wheel of Camembert, then sliced the cheese and arranged the pieces over the potato layer. Then she spread creme fraiche over the filling and popped the tart into the oven.

I made the delectable tart myself and served it with a salad of mixed greens, tomatoes and avocados. It made a delicious light supper, but this versatile tart can be used in other ways, especially when entertaining.

I might offer it as a first course to open a dinner or include it as a side dish to grilled steaks or chops at a backyard cookout. Accompanied by a soup or salad, this creation could be an ideal centerpiece for lunch for weekend company. Good warm or at room temperature, the tart could complete a brunch buffet, or it could be packed into a basket and transported to a picnic site.

Camembert and potato tart

This tart is best served warm or at room temperature; however, you can bake it 8 hours ahead; refrigerate it; then reheat it in a preheated 425-degree oven until hot, about 15 minutes.

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

1 pound small brown or redskin potatoes (1½ to 2 inches in diameter)

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 8-ounce wheel Camembert cheese, chilled

1 cup creme fraiche (see note)

2 tablespoons chopped chives or flat-leaf parsley

Roll puff-pastry sheet into a thin 10-inch circle. Place dough in 9-inch (and 1-inch-tall) tart pan with a removable bottom; press it against bottom and up sides. (The dough should rise no more than 1/4 inch above the sides of the pan.) Prick the bottom all over with the tines of a fork. Refrigerate tart shell while you prepare the filling.

Bring 2½ quarts water to a boil and add potatoes and 2 teaspoons salt. Boil until potatoes are tender but not mushy when pierced with a knife, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and, when they’re cool enough to handle, peel potatoes and then cut them into 1/8-inch-thick slices. Fill tart shell with potatoes and season to taste with salt and pepper.

With a sharp knife, cut off and discard skin from the wheel of Camembert. Cut cheese into 1/4-inch-thick slices and arrange over potatoes.

With a spatula, spread creme fraiche over the filling. Then bake tart on center rack of preheated 425-degree oven until crust is a rich golden brown and top of filling is golden, about 25 minutes. Remove tart from oven; cool 10 minutes before serving.

To serve, remove tart from pan and arrange on a platter. Sprinkle with chives or parsley. Serves 6 to 8.

Note: A 17.3-ounce package of Pepperidge Farm puff pastry contains two 9-inch-square sheets. Creme fraiche, a slightly tart cream used in France, is sold in many groceries. If unavailable, it is easy to make. Whisk together 1 cup heavy cream with 1/3 cup sour cream in a nonreactive bowl. Leave in a warm place in the kitchen until very thick, 6 hours or overnight. Creme fraiche can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.


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