A fabulous strawberry and ricotta tart

The strawberry ricotta tart was worth it. I can't say this about every dessert I make (or eat). In fact, I can't say this about most of them. But Sunday's strawberry wonder was worth every calorie.

It began with a basket of just-picked berries from Lyon Farms. Strawberries were being unloaded from the truck when I walked through the Durham Farmer's Market early Saturday morning, and though my bags were already overflowing with produce, I couldn't help myself. A heaping basket made its way into the fold.

My dinner menu: cream of turnip soup, grilled leg of lamb with rosemary and garlic, sauteed asparagus with pancetta and lemon, Bibb lettuce with radishes and sherry vinaigrette, and the aforementioned, absolutely fabulous strawberry ricotta tart. Everything was delicious, but the tart drew raves. I had seconds that night, a sliver the following morning, another sliver for a snack Monday afternoon, and a full-size serving for dessert. I think a lot of undressed salads and extra-long dog walks are in my future, but I don't regret it. The tart is just that good.

The crisp short dough crust breaks when pierced with a fork, scattering flavorful crumbs among juicy berries and creamy ricotta-cream cheese interior. The recipe, adapted from Cory Schreiber and Julie Richardson's Rustic Fruit Desserts, is time-consuming but not at all difficult. It's one that requires a bit of planning, but you can streamline things by making the dough ahead of time. I plan to use other berries as they come into season — I've got my eye on one particular blackberry bush near my house.

Strawberry and Ricotta Tart
Adapted from Rustic Fruit Desserts
Makes 8-12 servings

1 recipe Short Dough, baked and cooled in a 10-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom (recipe follows)

1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
2/3 cup room temperature cream cheese
3/4 cup sugar
seeds scraped from 1/2 vanilla bean
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 pints (about 6 cups) fresh strawberries, hulled; halved if large
1/2 cup strawberry jam

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Combine the ricotta, cream cheese, sugar, vanilla bean seeds, salt and nutmeg with a mixer (handheld or standing) on medium speed. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl to be sure each is fully incorporated. Add the vanilla and stir.

Pour the filling into the baked tart shell and place in the center of the preheated oven. Bake for 30 minutes, until the edges are puffy but the center of the tart is still a little shaky. Cool to room temperature on a wire rack, then chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour.

Immediately before serving, heat the strawberry jam in a small saucepan over low heat, being careful not to let it burn. Pour it over the fresh berries, being sure to strain the jam if it contains seeds. Toss the berries to coat evenly, then place on top of the tart. You could skip the jam altogether and simply serve fresh strawberries alongside the tart.

Leftovers will keep, covered and refrigerated, for 2 to 3 days.

Short Dough
Makes one 10-inch tart shell

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter, cubed
2 tablespoons half and half or heavy cream
1 egg yolk

Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a bowl. Cut in the cold butter with a pastry blender or two forks. Alternatively, combine the dry ingredients in the base of a food processor, add the butter cubes, and pulse a few times. The mixture should resemble a rough cornmeal or very small peas.

Whisk the cream and egg yolk, then stir into the flour mixture with a fork (or pulse very briefly in a food processor). Don't over process — the dough should just come together into a shaggy mass. Press the dough into a 6-inch disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and allow to rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and roll it on a lightly floured surface. Work from the center to the edges, turning the dough occasionally to create a (somewhat) even circle. Roll until the circle is 12 inches in diameter, about 1/8-inch thick.

Place a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom onto a baking sheet. Gently press the dough into the pan, tucking it into the bottom and sides. Line it with a piece of parchment paper or aluminum foil and fill with uncooked rice, dried beans, or commercial pie weights, and bake in the center of the oven for 35-40 minutes.

Take the crust from the oven and carefully remove the pie weights (lift the parchment paper or other liner). Return the crust to the oven and cook for 10-15 minutes, until lightly golden.

Cool the crust on a wire rack, checking for cracks. Repair cracks with leftover pie dough, then pour the filling into the crust and proceed with the recipe above. This short dough crust can be prebaked one day in advance and stored at room temperature, carefully covered with plastic wrap.

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