It takes a certain type of person to contemplate baking when the “real feel” temps outside are hovering in the triple digits. I’m that person, turning the oven to 400 degrees with one hand and replenishing my iced coffee with the other. No stranger to heat and humidity playing on repeat, I remind myself of the alternative; we could be in the midst of a polar vortex.
As eternal as the oven-burn scars embellishing my arms, summer kitchen memories never fade completely. Heat advisories in a commercial kitchen are redundant. When your job entails open flames, double-stack convection ovens, or the dreaded over-sized Sunday brunch griddle, you’re already playing with fire. And as individuals working in food service know, any number of unforeseen crises will enhance the quality of your workday (or night shift). With little notice, you might find yourself frantically emptying the contents of the walk-in to an already full single-door fridge, because the compressor finally surrenders. It could be something as stressful as a 3-tiered buttercream cake, listing precariously to the side, needing transport to a quaint barn venue without A/C. Expensive perishables will spoil, tempers will flare and someone will call out sick or simply melt into a puddle while working the line. These are all reasons to be kind and patient the next time you slip into a pleasantly cooled eatery and order an icy glass of heat distraction.
Early morning or late at night is obviously the best time for summer baking. As fond as I am of ice-box desserts, fresh fruit offerings are ridiculously tempting right now. Fruit wrapped in pie dough requires an oven, but doesn’t need much in the way of peeling or slicing. Peaches and nectarines need a quick surgical pit removal but little more. Fill the crevice with a hint of brown sugar or honey, a touch of spice (or not), and factor in some time for the assembled dumpling to chill before baking. One recipe for a 9” double crust pie yields enough dough to wrap six peaches, each about 3” in diameter. (While the oven is on, you can sneak in a pan of vegetables that will happily roast on the top shelf at the same high heat required of the dumplings.) Summer is notoriously hot, much in the same inconvenient way that winter is bitterly cold. Enjoy wearing those white shoes now because in a flash we’ll be scraping ice from windshields, our nostrils will burn from the onslaught of pumpkin spice and we’ll be pining for peaches.
July affords bakers an embarrassment of fresh fruit riches. Consider capturing the over abundance of jewel-like berries available from the weekly farmers’ market in a classic tart.
I plead guilty to amassing more tart pans than my kitchen drawer can comfortably accommodate. Plenty of options await the cookie-like French tart dough, pâte sucrée. Rounds, rectangles, squares, 4-inch and 2¼-inch options, some with removable bottoms, others without. Having personally experienced the fruit tart mania of the 1980s and ‘90s from the vantage point of a restaurant kitchen, memories of turning out massive quantities of the classic pastry never really fades. High stress/high volume tart creation is far less pleasurable than crafting them on a smaller scale, simply for the joy it brings. However, for anyone keen on playing with their food, there is no better summer kitchen craft project. And thankfully, we are no longer tethered to kiwi fruit as an integral part of the mix.
Summer berries are fragile and require minimal fuss; little more than stem/insect removal and a light misting with cool water. Allow the fruit a chance to (paper) towel dry before placing them atop your favorite tart filling. There are many choices in the offing, but my leaning is towards a classic pastry cream, "crème patisserie" found in any number of cookbooks. Turn to Julia or Jacques or Pierre for guidance and use the very best vanilla. And though a slick of apricot glaze is traditional, when the berries are positively gorgeous, they need little more than careful placement atop the tart before you simply step away and grab a cake fork.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm