Originally published April 28, 2002
By Greg Atkinson, former Taste contributor
IT MIGHT NOT be exactly mainstream, but Tarte Flambée, the Alsatian take on pizza, has been very visible lately.
The first time I saw the thing, a rustic round of dough covered with white cheese and bacon with slices of onion browned on top, I was lost in Paris. I was cold and confused about how to get back to the little apartment where my wife and I were staying, so I stepped into a bakeshop to ask directions.
As I approached the door, I was silently rehearsing my questions: “Can you tell me how to find the Quai Montebello? … Is it very far?” But as soon as I was inside the door, the whole idea of asking for directions went right out of my head.
Bathed in the breakfast-y aromas of bacon and fruit, butter and wood smoke, the air inside the shop was utterly different from the air outside. Outside it was cold, thin, gray; the world was black and white. Inside, from the red tile floor to the yellow, pressed-tin ceiling, it was Technicolor and warmth. The woman behind the counter wore one of those local costumes that would seem absurd anywhere else, and would in fact have seemed ridiculous even there, had I not been bewitched. There was a lace bodice, a full red skirt and some kind of elaborate black headdress.
Kugelhopfs, shaped like sand castles and promising dense, sweet goodness inside, were lined up here; custard tarts with apples were displayed over there. But I was drawn, by forces outside my control, to the bacon-and-cheese-covered things in the center. I knew I was supposed to buy them.
“Bonjour, Madame,” I said when the costumed woman said hello. “Deux de ceux, s’il vous plaît.” (Two of those, please.) It was as if I had come there intentionally, knowing what I wanted. And as the tarts were wrapped in that thin paper French food shops use, I came briefly to my senses and thought again of asking directions, but I felt shy and tongue-tied. So, instead, I paid for the tarts and went back onto the street.
I walked a few doors down and, from a green grocer, bought frisée, the pale-green, almost white endive that I knew would make a perfect, slightly bitter antidote to the rich goodness of the things in the bag. Then I walked without diverging from the road directly back to the apartment building; somehow, I knew exactly how to get back. There was the place I had coffee, there was the place I bought the Herald Tribune. How had I ever gotten lost? I ascended the three — or was it four? — flights of stairs, and my wife let me in. A bottle of Alsatian pinot gris was already chilled in the tiny refrigerator, and in minutes we had dressed the bitter greens with mustard and oil.
Ten years later, I still can recall the bits of crust that were burned almost black around the edges, the way the fragile things threatened to come undone when I moved them from the bag to the plates. But until recently, it had never occurred to me to try to re-create them.
Then, over the past year or so, I started seeing Tarte Flambée everywhere I turned. This winter, Daisley Gordon was offering it as part of a prix fixe menu at Café Campagne, and recipes for the tart showed up in three new cookbooks.
Tamasin Day-Lewis’ new book, “The Art of the Tart,” includes a recipe; so does Rob Feenie’s “Lumière” cookbook. In “Simple to Spectacular,” Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Mark Bittman include a basic recipe with several unorthodox variations. Vongerichten, who is Alsatian by birth, serves Tarte Flambée at his Mercer Kitchen in New York. “They’ll kill you if you use chives as a garnish there.” (His recipe includes chives as a garnish.)
For my version, I turned to “The Lutèce Cookbook” by André Soltner. His Tarte Flambée, known as Flammeküche in the old dialect, is, by my estimation, the most authoritative of them all: One bite, and I was back in the magical bakeshop.
Tarte Flambée (Alsatian Pizza)
Makes 4 small pizzas
1 cup flour, plus flour for rolling
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
3/8 cup warm water
½ teaspoon sugar
½ cup fromage blanc or cottage cheese
½ cup crème fraîche
1 tablespoon flour
¼ pound smoked bacon, cut crosswise into ¼-inch strips
1 small onion, peeled and sliced very thinly
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Put the flour and salt in a mixing bowl or in the work bowl of a food processor. In a measuring cup, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water, and stir in the sugar. Add to the flour all at once, and stir or motor until smooth. Be careful not to over-process. Cover the dough with plastic wrap, and allow it to rise, undisturbed, for 45 minutes.
2. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F, and rub two large baking sheets with a little vegetable oil. Divide the dough into four parts, and, on a well-floured surface, roll each part into an 8-inch round. Put the rounds on the oiled baking sheets, and set aside.
3. Combine the fromage blanc or cottage cheese, the crème fraîche and the 1 tablespoon of flour, and stir or process until smooth.
4. Cook the bacon in a skillet over medium heat until some of the fat is released, then add the sliced onion and cook 2 or 3 minutes, or until the onion is barely softened.
5. Distribute the cheese evenly between the rounds of dough, and spread it up to the edges. Sprinkle the bacon and onions on top. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Bake 12 to 15 minutes, or until the pastry is browned. Serve hot.
Adapted from “The Lutèce Cookbook”