In a skyscraper town like New York, perhaps it was inevitable that even something as fleeting as dessert would follow suit: A towering pastiche of delicate sweets has ended many a meal in tony restaurants.
Yet while everyone around builds higher, pastry chef Maury Rubin's signature desserts remain decidedly flat.
And flat is beautiful: Every four-inch tart is a perfect round of pastry, circling fillings such as chocolate custard, cranberries and almonds, and passion-fruit cream. Adornment is a mere chocolate thread or bead applied with a steady hand. If an urban aesthetic can be expressed in a dessert, Mr. Rubin has done just that.
Declaring a love for geometric designs and simplicity, Rubin is bucking the trends and establishing a minimalist style. Restaurant "architectural" desserts aside, his bakery's signature tarts are a reaction against what the chef sees as a staleness in American pastry design. "Perhaps," he muses in his "Book of Tarts," "if the neighborhood American bakery had some creative verve, it would not have become nearly extinct."
Overdecorated cakes and mountains of frosting are anathema to his less-is-more sensibility. Even the eye-catching, shiny glaze that frequently adorns bakery fruit tarts is eschewed. "Let the beauty and flavor of fresh fruit stand on their own," Rubin suggests in a recipe.
At Rubin's City Bakery, with its high white walls and stainless steel countertops, the atmosphere is not what you'd call homey and inviting, but it is distinct and catching on. Austerity is acquiring a hipness in commercial design around town. Among his own inspirations Rubin includes architect Frank Lloyd Wright; his taste in music leans toward jazz.
But Rubin understands that his vision of what's "original and revelatory" will not be to everyone's taste. And in the starkness of his visual approach, Rubin hopes customers don't miss out on his sense of fun. "There is something about this," Rubin says as he scans the bakery, greeting regulars with a hello, "that makes people think it's got to be serious." He points out the honeycombed paper fruit that hang above a cash register as evidence of whimsy. "An important part of design here - for the pastry, for the bakery - is fun."
For Rubin, fun extends to trademarking the name of one tart in his repertoire, the "World's First Stuffed Raspberry Tart." "It represents how my work is different. It's not just pretty things on top of each other - that's just building. But putting chocolate inside a raspberry, that's architecture." He adds, "My next-door neighbor is a patent attorney. Maybe that's where the inspiration came from."
And while he didn't set out to make the popular four-inch tarts his signature, they did "lend themselves to being singled out," Rubin says. "I like the idea of individual desserts. It's a little bit indulgent, but I think dessert should be."
Building a thriving business around indulgence requires that an American sense of practicality be present, even in the recipes. The home baker who shies away from tarts and pastry because they are difficult to master should try Rubin's way: The basic pastry dough is forgivingly designed to be repeatedly worked - heresy in traditional French formulas. "I wasn't experienced enough to buy all the standard assumptions," he says.
One in a line of food professionals who are practicing second careers, Rubin's own resume includes a stint with Howard Cosell producing TV sports. Initiating his education in food with zealous, dedicated reading, Rubin then apprenticed in the patisseries of Paris. He returned home to the United States to discover that truly high quality was hard to find. And he wanted to apply the new American restaurateur's ethic of fresh, local, seasonal ingredients to the operation of a bakery. His tarts contain this philosophy in being made of organic flour, farm-fresh cream, and fresh berries only when they flourish in the summer.
Steps from City Bakery, the Union Square farmers' market dictates the menu year round. So in winter and earliest spring, apple and pear, chocolate and lemon creations dominate the offerings at the bakery. In the summer, Rubin says shopping the Greenmarket "is a totally exciting experience every time." More inspiring produce begets more colorful tarts.
Talk turns to a recent Mondrian show he's viewed, and it's clear Rubin's observations about art and design are inextricably linked to his work. Acknowledging a connection between his urban sensibilities and his style, Rubin says, "somehow all of that feeds into me and these lines and dots come out."
Fruit Tarts With Lemon Cream
1 cup granulated sugar
Grated zest of 1 lemon (see first step)
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
4 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces
8 tart shells (recipe follows)
2 cups cut-up assorted seasonal fruits and/or whole berries
Place the sugar in a medium bowl and grate the zest of 1 lemon into it. Rub the sugar and zest together between the palms of your hands.
Strain the juice into a medium nonreactive saucepan. Add the eggs, egg yolk, butter, and the zested sugar, and whisk to combine. Set the pan over medium heat and cook, whisking constantly, for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the mixture begins to thicken. Be sure to whisk all over the bottom of the pan, especially the edges. At the first sign of a boil, remove from the heat and strain through a sieve into a bowl.
With a ladle or a large spoon, fill each tart shell nearly to the top with the lemon cream; refrigerate leftover. Refrigerate tarts for 30 minutes or until set. Arrange the fruit in free-form patterns on the tops of the tarts. Serves 8.
This makes eight 4-inch tart shells, and can also be adapted for one large tart shell. Rubin suggests using 4-inch flan rings. They are easy-to-use, bottomless molds that can be set on a baking sheet.
13 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 13 pieces
1/3 cup confectioners' sugar
1 large egg yolk
1-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon heavy cream
Let the butter sit at room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes. It should be malleable but still cool.
Cream sugar and butter at medium speed until sugar is no longer visible. Add egg yolk and beat until well blended. Add half of the flour and beat until dough becomes crumbly. Add remaining flour and then the cream, and beat until the dough forms a sticky mass.
Shape the dough into a disk, and wrap well in plastic. Refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours.
Dust a work surface with flour. To work the dough, cut into 1-inch pieces. Using the heel of your hand, thoroughly knead the pieces and work back into one smooth disk. Use a dough scraper or knife to free the dough from the surface if necessary. Keeping the surface well-dusted, roll up the disk into a 12-inch log. Cut the log into 8 equal pieces. Wrap and refrigerate for 5 minutes.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set the 8 flan rings on it. Dust the work surface and a rolling pin with flour. Using your fist, flatten one piece of dough into a 2- to-3-inch round. Lift it up off the work surface to dust underneath with flour. Roll the dough into a 5-1/2-inch round, about 1/8-inch thick. Prick holes all over the dough with a fork. (If the dough is too soft to handle, use a dough scraper to move it to a small baking sheet and refrigerate for 2 to 3 minutes.)
Center the round of dough over a flan ring. With your thumbs on the inside and the tips of your fingers outside, run your hands around the ring or pan several times, easing the dough down into it. Speed does not matter, finesse does. Lower your thumbs to the inside bottom of the ring and press to form a right angle between the bottom and sides of the dough. Keeping your thumbs on the inside of the ring, again circle around it, applying light pressure to the sides; if you move the ring or pan around through your hands, the process will be easier. There should be at least a 1/2-inch rim of excess dough extending above the top edge. With a small knife tilted upwards, trim the excess dough flush with the top of the ring. Repeat this process with the remaining dough. (Refrigerate the scraps as you work, then combine them and refrigerate or freeze for another use.)
Place the tart shells in the freezer for 30 minutes. Position a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat to 375 degrees F. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove the rings and, using a wide spatula, transfer the shells to a wire rack to cool.
-- Adapted from "Book of Tarts," by Maury Rubin (William Morrow, 1995)