Ali Martell: From Hemlines to Heels


Making Brown Butter Maple Tarts With Chef Michael Smith

And how to pack for a short 2-day trip

baking with Chef Michael Smith

Last week I was invited by Cascade Platinum to join in on a whirlwind trip to Charlottetown and Fortune, PEI to cook and eat lunch with the amazing Chef Michael Smith.

Now, PEI is one of my most favorite places on earth, a place I fell head-over-heels in love with when I was there almost exactly two summers ago. So obviously, I jumped at the chance to go. Also, Michael told us that he had just gotten married the weekend before we arrived, so how could I pass up the chance to spend his honeymoon with him?

The first challenge, of course, was to figure out how to only pack for two days.

I'm a what-if packer. What if it's cold? I need a cardigan (or two) and a sweater (or two). What if it's hot? I need a pair of shorts I'll never wear because no matter how hard I try, I'll never make shorts happen. What if there's a pool? I need a swimsuit. What if I want to wear my hair curly..or straight? I'll need both my hair dryer and my curling iron. What if it rains? Raincoat. What if it snows? Parka. What if everyone is dressed up? Dress. What if everyone is casual? Jeans.

I don't even know how this happened, but I ended up packing in a carry-on for the first time in my 35 years on this earth. I wore my strangely Debra Morgan-esque outfit on the plane: cami, denim shirt, black skinny pants, black flats.

Inside, I packed:

Flannel pj pants, t-shirt, hoodie, socks, for sleeping.

Dress #1, for the evening.

Dress #2 + cardigan, for the day and the flight home.

2 pairs of underpants.

One curling iron.

One bag of toiletries.

One bag of make-up.

One paddle brush, one curling brush.

One pair of silver flats.

One necklace.

That's it.

Look, I'm still in shock too.

Almost as shocked as how miniscule I look standing beside Chef Michael Smith.

Now lately, I have been having a bit of trouble in the kitchen.

I almost always default to my chef husband, because he's a chef—that's really a no-brainer right there. But between my peanut, tree nut, avocado, and certain raw fruit allergies and my ethical problems with meat of late, I have been a wee bit afraid to get down and dirty in the kitchen. I have been afraid of somehow cooking with something that contains one of my many allergens. I have been afraid to cook with any sort of meat—chicken, beef, lamb, veal. I get squicky just thinking about meat we get from the grocery store; how were the animals treated, what sort of truck did this meat sit on, how long will it take for my meat to get from farm to table (and how many time will it change hands), what are the chances of food-borne illness.

See? I'm a worry wart.

So, here's the interesting thing.

Chef Michael Smith? He knows this. He gets it. He knows that we are afraid of things in the kitchen. I'm afraid of allergies and animals. Some people are afraid of other things—making a mess, not being able to recreate the exactness of a dessert recipe (baking is exact, kids!), not being able to recreate the non-exactness of a main dish recipe (cooking is non-exact—splash of this! Pinch of this! This needs more xx! This needs less xx!), not being able to do it THE BEST, not being able to bake THE PERFECT chocolate chip cookie. His new cookbook is all about ignoring words like perfect and best, and just going out there and cooking good food, and baking good desserts. He's a dad of three—he knows what our lives are like, he lives it too. He cooks for his family, he shops for the food, he plans meals, he takes out the garbage, he cleans.

He wants to inspire us to cook.

Chef Michael got us into his test kitchen to try a few new things from his cookbook—an amazingly fresh quinoa salad (he made mine without the pine nuts!) and this amazing one-dish chicken dish with sweet potatoes and apples that my family had for dinner tonight because I am a huge fan of words like easy, good, one-dish, and delicious.

And then we made butter tarts.

We put all of our fears aside, and got down and dirty in the test kitchen.

We rolled the dough, we got excited about butter, we pinched and filled the trays, we baked.

We discussed raisins. I'm firmly in the anti-raisin camp for any and all baked goods, especially for butter tarts.

We discussed maple syrup instead of corn syrup—Chef Michael Smith AND I! believe that corn syrup belongs exactly nowhere in cooking or baking. But according to him, "It takes balls to monkey with butter tarts in Canada!" and he already fears the people believing that the addition of maple syrup might be blasphemous.

We ate.

We ate some more.

And then we took some home to eat them some more. I mean to share them with our loved ones.

And now I get to share the recipe with you all.

Bake them. Don't be afraid.

Brown Butter Maple Tarts

From Back to Basics © Chef Michael Smith 2013


For the pastry
3 cups of all-purpose flour
1 cup of sugar
1 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1 cup (250 mL) of rock-hard frozen butter
1/2 cup of ice water
For the filling
2 cups (500 mL) of butter
1 cup of real maple syrup
1 cup of brown sugar
4 teaspoons (20 mL) of vanilla extract
4 eggs
1/4 cup of all-purpose flour

Preheat your oven to 450°F and turn on your convection fan if you have one. Lightly oil a standard muffin pan.

First make the pastry. In a large bowl whisk together the flour, sugar, nutmeg, and salt, evenly distributing the finer powders amidst the coarser ones. Grasp the butter and firmly grate it through the large holes of a box grater into the flour below. Working quickly, toss the flour and butter shards together with your fingers until the fat is evenly distributed throughout the flour. The cold, separate pieces will yield dividends in flavor and texture as the butter creates flaky layers of pastry.

Sprinkle the ice water into the works and stir into a dough mass with the handle of a wooden spoon. Working quickly so the heat of your hands doesn’t begin to melt the butter, knead the works a few times until the dough gathers up all the flour in the bowl. Fold it over a few more times to add a bit more strength to the dough and a few more flaky layers to the pastry.

Flour your hands, the dough, the work surface, and a rolling pin. Roll the pastry out into a circle about 15 inches (38 cm) wide and 1/4 inch (5 mm) thick. Using a 3-1/2-inch (9 cm) cookie cutter (or an empty 19-ounce/540 ml can with both ends removed, or the ring from a wide-mouth canning jar), cut circles from the pastry, as many as you can. Form a pleat along one side and fit the pastry into the muffin cups, evenly filling each cup right to the rim. Gather up the remaining dough, roll out, and repeat.

Now craft the filling. Brown the butter by melting it in a saucepan, then keep on cooking it, swirling gently. Eventually the moisture in the butter will heat, steam, foam, and evaporate away. Once that moisture is gone, the butter fat left behind can rise in temperature—past the boiling point of water—into the browning, flavoring zone. Take it as far as you dare—the deeper the color, the deeper the flavor—but be ready. The line between brown and burnt black is crossed quickly, and turning off the heat to stop the cooking isn’t enough. Pouring in the maple syrup will do the trick, though. Cool for 10 minutes. Whisk together the brown sugar, vanilla, and eggs then whisk into the butter as well. Lastly, stir in the flour.

Evenly divide the filling among the pastry shells. Bake until the pastry is beautifully browned and the filling partially sets but stays a bit runny, about 12 minutes. Cool slightly until you can remove the tarts from the pan. Serve and share!

Makes 24 tarts.

Note: My travel and accomodations were paid for, but I was not paid for my stories or my editorial, and as always, all opinions are 1000% my own. As for the experience of spending the day with Chef Michael Smith at his home in Fortune, PEI? That was priceless. And he certainly inspired me to cook—tomorrow I'll be making these butter tarts with my kids, and I'm not sure I'll be sharing this time.

Check out the Cascade and Dawn Facebook page for more kitchen tips from Chef Michael Smith!