Several years ago, I spent a few months in Madrid, living on exchange with a family whose oldest daughter had spent the summer with my family in Maine. For the most part, the cuisine of the Semperes' home was unlike anything I'd ever tasted: thick vegetable purees, meat warmed over a flaming stone, huge shallow pans of seafood paella.
But there was one dessert that brought back the comforts of home. The tarta de manzana that my host mother made—apple tart, to translate—invoked New England fall with its tart, crisp fruit slices and thick creamy filling. Her crust I could never figure out, though I suspect it involved some cornmeal and a great deal of pounding, thin as brittle it was against the bottom of the pan.
My exchange sister, Rocío, and I used to sit at the kitchen table evenings, slicing away at the pie until the missing slivers began to look incriminating. Then we would tuck it away quickly and return to our reading.
I have never since tasted a tart quite so good as that Lourdes made; fruit tarts I've purchased or recipes I've found have never quite measured up. I emailed the Madrileños the other day to ask for the recipe, but yesterday evening, with a basket of apples fresh from the market, I embarked still waiting for it on my first attempt to recreate the dish. I mixed flour and butter, milk, egg yolks, and sugar, and sliced tart fruit into tiny half moons. I turned on the oven, glazed custard and fruit with honey, and set it in to bake.
The result was delicious—still not Lourdes delicious—but delicious nonetheless. Crust crunches hard against thick, creamy custard, while tart apples cut the sweetness of filling and glaze. Until I hear back, this recipe will suffice to satisfy my memories of that sweet Spanish tart.
TARTA DE MANZANA
Makes one 9-inch tart
Make pie crust, rolling very thin and pressing well against edges. Pre-bake at 350 for 10 minutes or until crisp. Set aside to cool.
Over a medium flame, heat 1 cup milk. In the meantime, whisk together in a separate bowl 3 egg yolks, 1/2 cup sugar, and 3 tablespoons flour. When milk is steaming but not boiling, pour into egg mixture, whisking constantly. With pot back over flame, pour milk and eggs back in and continue whisking until mixture starts to thicken. Continue cooking and stirring 2-3 minutes with a plastic spatula to prevent bottoms and sides burning. Remove from heat and transfer into bowl. Press plastic wrap against the top of custard to prevent skin forming, and chill two hours or overnight.
Spoon the custard evenly into the pre-baked pie crust. Layer with thinly sliced apples and glaze with a heated mixture of 1 tablespoon honey and 1 tablespoon lemon juice (to prevent browning) using a pastry brush. Serve the same day.