Dewberry & Apple Tarts
This recipe is part of a feature on forgotten and underappreciated apple varieties. For more on that, scroll down below the recipe notes or click here to read about it and to see other recipes and varieties.
When it comes to really enjoying your food, nothing will have an impact like flavour. I think it’s safe to say that’s a pretty universal (and obvious) truth. But sometimes knowing the story of your food can add a greater appreciation. For me, food is made better and more enjoyable when it is accompanied by story, culture, artistry, and history. These simple little tarts are an example of what I mean.
On the face of it, these are a very simple little dessert or tea-time snack. Some fruit and sugar on a curled-up puff pastry square. And truth be told, they were very simple to make. But they were a joy to make, in no small part thanks to the meaningful relationships I’d developed with the ingredients and the stories behind them.
Let’s start with dewberries. Specifically, let’s start with what the heck a dewberry is. Here on the West Coast of Canada we have three blackberry species: the ubiquitous Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus), armed with giant spine-covered canes; the Cutleaf/Evergreen Blackberry (Rubus laciniatus), whose leaves are very distinctively lobed/forked; and the vine-like Trailing/Pacific blackberry (Rubus ursinus), also called the Pacific dewberry. The first two species are VERY common here, to the point that any empty lot in the Vancouver area will likely be overrun by them given enough time. The third species however, is a small, easily-overlooked native species. Its long, thin canes (the term for blackberry branches) grow across the ground, often down slopes. Some time ago, I discovered a little patch of them while on a walk with my oldest son, who was about 3 at the time. We picked as many of the small, sweet dewberries as we could, eating plenty of them before we could get home. We froze the rest, and I vowed to come up with something special to showcase the incredible little fruits. Dewberries are blackberries, and they taste they way you’d expect. However, much like small wild strawberries, there’s a wonderful sweetness and depth of flavour in them that you just don’t get with the big introduced species (and certainly not with the enormous clam-shell packed berries, which are frequently overly sour). As I defrosted the handful of berries, I was reminded of scrambling up and down the slope leading to abandoned railroad tracks with an eager little toddler, looking for fruit and trying to keep our feet from getting tangled in thorny vines.
The dewberries provide tart-sweetness and colour, but what about the apples? We used to pick wild apples of anonymous parentage just down the path from our dewberry patch, but I didn’t have any of those to work with this year. What I did have was a small bag of the most incredible little apple I think I’ve ever tried – a 300 year old English heirloom variety called Ashmead’s Kernel. It’s a crisp, sweet-tart apple, with a wonderful texture and slightly floral scent. To be clear, I’m not trying to be hyperbolic in my praise – I really do think that this might be the tastiest apple I’ve ever had. Given my glowing endorsement, I’ve already had a few friends ask why they’ve never seen them for sale. For more on that, check out the section below on Apple Diversity, and/or head over to the post on apple varieties that gave rise to this recipe and others. While you won’t find them in most grocery stores, I happily grabbed mine at the Trout Lake (Vancouver) Farmer’s Market, once again with my family in tow. Both kids were eager to try as many heirloom apples as they could get their hands on, and I think I would have brought home a lot more if they’d had their way.
Now puff pastry is one of those things I can get a little persnickety about. It’s pretty easy to find in the freezer section of any grocery store, but most of what’s readily available is… underwhelming. A few of the big-name companies have bowed to pressure in recent years and are trying to simplify their ingredient lists, but most still rely on vegetable oils/shortening in place of butter. Completely putting aside issues related to palm oil and environmental degredation (because that’s a subject for a whole other day), vegetable shortenings just don’t taste the same. I wanted REAL butter puff pastry. And, uh, I didn’t want to make it. Because as much as I love a food project, that was a little bit more than I could handle on a busy day. Fortunately, beyond the frozen shelves of your local grocery store, there’s a good chance that a hardworking local baker is itching to sell you some great puff-pastry. Here in Vancouver, I was able to get La Baguette et L’Échallote‘s incredible puff pastry at a Whole Foods location. And yes, I once again dragged my family along for the ride. Croissants were had. All was well. Be warned though – you’re getting to some serious gateway pastry when you eat this stuff. You can’t go back to the shortening stuff after having something this good.
The fruit and the puff pastry were carefully considered, sought out, and tied into various fun family shenanigans, but even the remaining two ingredients had personal connections. The rosemary came from my garden, where it’s consistently trying to outperform all my other herbs. Even the beautiful, golden yellow cane sugar came from a family trip to Maui. Honestly, I just wandered back and forth between the kitchen, garden, and pantry, smiling to myself as the whole thing came together. Best of all, once they were finished – in all their slightly messy, juicy glory – I piled them onto a plate and drove them downtown where they were promptly devoured by my extended family. And really, what could possibly be better?
They’re not exactly my prettiest dessert ever, but they’re simple, dainty, tasty little treats. They’re also not overly sweet, which makes them perfect for tea, kids, or just eating whenever. I realize that you might not be able to track down wild Pacific blackberries and rare heirloom apples at the same time, but don’t worry – you can tweak this in all kinds of ways in order to customize it to your tastes and the ingredients you have on hand.
As I mentioned above, I’m a HUGE believer in real butter puff pastry. If you’re inclined to make your own (good for you), check out this recipe from fellow Canadian (and wildly talented scientist-turned-baked) Janice at Kitchen Heals Soul. Her site is stuffed with amazing and educational guides to help you become a better baker, not to mention incredible recipes. Janice gave me a few tips to pass on, and they’ll help you whether you make your own puff pastry or work with premade:
- Work with chilled dough. If it’s gooey and melting, you’re going to be in trouble.
- A solid wood rolling pin is a nice touch, as it lets you bash the heck out of the pastry in order to get it rolling out and moving a little.
So what can you do if you want the good stuff but you don’t have the time to make it? I’m sure many a home baking enthusiast has found themselves in this predicament, so let me encourage you to do a bit of research into wholesale bakers wherever you live. There’s a decent chance that if you’re in a big enough city there’s a bakery that will sell real butter puff pastry (frozen) either directly to you or to a retail operation. As I mentioned above, I bought mine from a local bakery that happens to be available at Whole Foods (as well as directly from their bakery headquarters). Try looking at organic/high-end grocery stores, or do a bit of googling to find a good pastry/bakery wholesaler in your area. You might have to go a wee bit further for it, but you get a better product while supporting a local business. Win win.
Given that I waxed poetic about my personal connection to this dish and it’s semi-obscure ingredients, I think it would be silly to try to replicate it exactly. Good blackberries and good semi-sweet apples will make a great tart. I wouldn’t personally go with Granny Smiths on their own, as they’re simply too sour (especially given the small quantity of added sugar). Any good sweet/tart apple would work, as would a combination of sweet, firm apples and tart ones. Off the top of my head, I think an Ambrosia and a Granny Smith would work nicely together.
That being said, this is a simple concept, and any number of fruit pairings would work very nicely. Peach and raspberry, black currant and pear – even mango and kiwi. If you’ve got something delicious and seasonal to work with, go for it. This isn’t complicated baking, and it’s a pretty forgiving concept.
These are designed with the baking novice in mind. Nothing complicated, and pretty tough to mess up.
Some puff pastry is sold pre-rolled, but in general you’ll need to thaw it and roll it out into a nice even sheet. Use gentle, even pressure, make sure it doesn’t get too warm, and try not to over-work it. Keep some flour on hand to dust your rolling pin and the work surface. I folded up the corners of my little squares to create little fruit-wells in the center and… well, it kind of worked. To be honest, I wasn’t overly concerned with appearances here. If you’re looking for a more polished presentation, trying folding the edges up and pressing them together (sort of like a hamentaschen), or pinch the bundles together at the top. Just make sure you don’t completely encapsulate the filling, as it will come spilling out through any crack and make a big mess.
The filling is simple to make, and the details are laid out below. Don’t overcook your apples, and make sure to strain out that gorgeous purple juice in order to make the finishing syrup. When it comes to putting that filling into the pastry, less is more. Don’t try to put too much into one pastry pocket, as it will spill all over and further diminish any attempts to get the corners of the pastry to stick up (trust me).
The syrup is a must, and don’t be concerned by the extra steps – it’s really simple. You’re just taking those gorgeous, just-cooked fruit juices, adding a bit of sugar, and letting the fresh rosemary infuse. Rosemary and blackberry go together incredibly well, so if you’re finding herbs in your dessert a little odd, trust me and give it a shot. You’ll notice that very little sugar is used here, and that’s intentional. I wanted these to be rich and sweet-tart, not cloying and sugary. That being said, adjust the syrup to your personal tastes, and add sugar as you see fit.
This recipe is part of a series highlighting the flavour and versatility of little-known and underappreciated apple varieties.
There has been a growing interest in rediscovering forgotten heirloom apples, as well as a resurgent interest in growing and marketing new hybrid varieties. Apples were once once of the most important and varied fruits in both North America and Europe, but large-scale commercialization favoured a handful of attractive, easy-to-grow apples with long shelf lives. But the longest lasting apples aren’t necessarily the best or most interesting ones, and chefs, farmers, and apple enthusiasts around the world are working to give some of these forgotten apples the exposure they deserve. This little feature is my contribution to that worthy cause.
This recipe features an English heirloom apple called Ashmead’s Kernel. This spectacular little apple, pictured below, has become one of my absolute favourite apple varieties. They’ve got a marvelous and highly fragrant sweet/tart flavour with a good crunch. So the $64K questions is: If they’re so good, why aren’t they on store shelves everywhere? In essence, they’re a perfect example of how our taste in apples shifted away from… well, taste. They’re small, which means they’re more work to peel or core, making them less attractive for baking or cooking with. And speaking of attractive, while they have a beautiful crisp white flesh (as you can see below), they’re not particularly attractive on the outside – at least by contemporary apple standards. Yellow and/or green apples are already a tough sell in grocery stores, and Ashmead’s Kernel has the added problem of being a russet apple, meaning that its skin is either entirely or partly mottled brown. While russet skin has absolutely no bearing on flavour, it’s a trait that has become rather unappealing to modern apple consumers. I can’t stress enough how much I’d like to see this change, as there are some truly spectacular apples out there with dull or mottled looking skins, and they’re languishing out of the spotlight. To top it all off, the trees themselves are somewhat more susceptible to bitter pit (a cosmetic and quality-affecting disease caused by low calcium levels) and fire blight (a bacterial infection that affects and can kill plants in the rose family). These growing factors are found in many apple varieties, and while it doesn’t mean that the trees are delicate (after all, they’ve survived just fine for over 300 years), it does make them less attractive to commercial apple growers. In essence, Ashmead’s Kernel is the polar opposite of a shiny Red Delicious apple, which is big, beautiful, and easy-to-grow, but frankly insipid and mealy. I think you can guess which one I would choose pretty easily.
This recipe is the first post in the series, so stay tuned for further installments featuring different apples, as they’ll be up over the next few weeks. To see the other recipes and apple varieties being featured, click here.
NOTE: The nutritional info shown assumes that you make 16 small tarts, and that you use a butter-based puff pastry.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe, but it is part of a series on unique apples.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
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