Pistachio Caramel Tart + Cardamom Shortbread Crust

Pistachio Caramel Tart + Cardamom Shortbread Crust

Having a baby is an incredibly rewarding experience, but it can completely throw off any plans you've made.  Case in point - this tart.  Inspired by the tiny Nut Boxes at Boston's Tatte Bakery, I had been wanting to make this tart for weeks.  But between feeding, cleaning, and playing with my son, washing the three sets of clothes, blankets and burp clothes he goes through each day, doing the dishes, and trying to make dinner - Chinese take-out for the win - it was hard to find the time.  But when I finally got around to it last week, I pulled out some leftover pâte sucrée (sweet dough), a pound of pistachios, and got to work.

DISASTER!  The crust completely failed.  I was initially trying to make mini tarts, but the molds I used were too shallow, and the tarts couldn't hold any filling.  And though a flaky crust is usually desirable, the tarts kept shattering every time I tried to remove them from the molds.  Twice more I tried to use the same dough and molds in different ways, but each attempt ended in failure.  If you read my post about Tips for Success, you'll notice that I see failure as an opportunity to learn.  I'm sure you've heard that before, but it doesn't make it any less true.  And as frustrating as this failure was given the scarcity of my free time, it was a perfect example.  The pans were wrong for the job.  Had I used tall-sided, mini loaf pans like these, the pâte sucrée would have worked beautifully.  I also could have gotten away with using the same crust in a fluted tart pan.  But by my fourth attempt, I was sick of rolling out dough and wanted to try something different.

Enter the press-in shortbread crust!  As much as I do love using rolled pastry doughs (which you'll see in an upcoming post), this method was so much easier.  I just flavored the butter beforehand, then blended all of the ingredients in a food processor, dumped the crumbly mixture into my tart pan, and compacted it into a tart shell.  Et voilà, a sweet, buttery crust that held it's shape once baked!

The rest of the tart came together smoothly.  I whipped up a quick caramel, then coated the pistachios with it and pressed them into the shell.  Finally, briefly baking the filled tart allowed just enough of the caramel to pool at the bottom, essentially gluing the filling into the shell.

The finished tart is a Middle Eastern twist on a local favorite.  The honey and cardamom add floral notes to the rich, buttery caramel and crust.  And with the use of pistachios, the flavor is reminiscent of Turkish baklava.

If you're inspired by the idea of this tart but not necessarily the flavor profile, let your imagination run wild!  You can replace the pistachios with any nut or even a mixture of nuts and seeds.  And you can use corn syrup in place of the honey for a more neutral, classic caramel.  Feel free to flavor the butter with loose leaf tea, or just skip the steeping process all together.  Whatever you choose, a combination of shortbread, caramel, and nuts will be delicious.  Enjoy the process, and don't be afraid of failure!

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Pistachio Caramel Tart + Cardamom Shortbread Crust

Yields one 14x4 inch tart

Ingredients

Cardamom Crust (modified from Bon Appétit)
20 whole green cardamom pods
10 tablespoons (5 ounces) unsalted butter
3 large egg yolks, beaten
2 tablespoons water
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt

Caramel Pistachio Filling
3 tablespoons butter, room temperature
2 tablespoons heavy cream, room temperature
1/4 cup honey (or corn syrup; see Note 1)
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
1 lb (~3 cups) unsalted pistachios, shelled
1⁄2 cup sugar

Directions

Crust
Place the cardamom pods in a dry saucepan and toast on medium high heat while shaking frequently for 1-2 minutes, just until fragrant.  Then add the butter, melt, and just bring to a simmer.  Turn off the heat and allow the pods to steep in the butter for 15 minutes.  Then strain the butter through a sieve, and pour it into a plastic wrap-lined bowl.  Allow it to harden in the refrigerator before use.

After 30 minutes or so, remove the solidified butter from the plastic wrap, and cut it up into small cubes.  Some of it may have been dyed green by the cardamom - don’t worry, this is fine.  Next, beat the cold egg yolks with the water in a small bowl and set aside.  Then pulse the flour, powdered sugar, and salt in a food processor to combine.  Add the butter pieces and pulse repeatedly until the mixture looks like coarse sand with a few larger pebbly pieces still intact.  Then with the motor running on low speed, slowly pour in the egg mixture and process until a dough starts to form into small chunks.  Turn the motor off and squeeze some of the mixture between your fingers - if it sticks together like clay, it’s ready.

Dust your hands with flour and firmly press the dough into the sides of a 14x4 inch tart pan with a removable bottom.  Then press the remainder of the crust evenly onto the bottom of the pan. There will be just enough dough to fill the pan.  If there are gaps or thin spots, use any remaining crumbs to fill them in.  Freeze the dough in the pan until solid, for about 15 to 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Dock the bottom of the crust with a fork or toothpick, then cover it with aluminum foil and fill it with dried beans or pie weights.  Bake it for 15 minutes, then carefully remove the pie weights and foil and finish baking for another 10-15 minutes, until golden.  Remove and allow the crust to cool completely on a wire rack while still in the pan.

Filling
Because the sugar can burn quickly, gather all of your other ingredients first.  Measure the butter and place it next to the stove.  Then combine the cream, honey (see Note 1), and vanilla in a small bowl and set it next to the stove, as well.  Place the pistachios in a large mixing bowl next to your cooled tart crust (still in the pan).  Now you can start to make the caramel.

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the sugar on medium high heat with a splash of water (just to moisten it).  You can swirl the pan, but don’t stir the mixture.  If sugar crystals start to form on the pan’s sides, use a pastry brush dipped in water to wash them down.

Once the sugar has melted and begins to boil, watch it carefully.  It will take just a couple of minutes for it to begin changing color.  Once is starts caramelizing, the process speeds up exponentially.  When the color reaches a dark amber, immediately turn off the heat and whisk in the softened butter.  Be careful - it will bubble up violently because, while even at room temperature, the butter is still much colder than the sugar.  Keep whisking quickly until the sauce is smooth, then add the cream mixture and whisk again until smooth.

Immediately pour the caramel onto the shelled pistachios and stir well to coat.  It will cool as it’s stirred and become very sticky.  Evenly spoon the mixture into the tart shell, then gently press it down to slightly compact the nuts into a raised log.  Bake the tart at 350°F for only 5 minutes to allow some of the caramel to flow to the bottom of the crust and "glue" the filling in place.  Remove it from the oven, and allow the caramel to completely dry and stiffen for about an hour.

Once dry, carefully remove the tart from the tin by using one hand to hold the bottom of the pan in place and allowing the pan's side piece to drop away from it.  Then set the tart down on a serving tray and using a long, thin spatula or a cake lifter, carefully separate the bottom of the tart from the base of the pan and slide it away.  Cut the tart into slices using a large, sharp knife and enjoy!

Notes

  1. This recipe calls for honey, but you can use corn syrup instead.  The honey flavor will be delicious, but strong.  So if you would rather the caramel be more neutral and buttery, use corn syrup.
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