Even the best ingredients treat you only as well as you treat them. That’s why we all know to take extra care when working with perfectly ripe market peaches or a plump heritage bird. But what about when your stuff is less than top-tier? I’d argue that that’s just when you need to bring all your chops to the kitchen.
Find yourself stuck with flavorless out-of-season berries? Whip out one of Stella’s tricks, and roast them with aromatics and sugar to fool even the most discerning of palates. Daniel brings a bit of summer to the dreariest winter day by roasting canned tomatoes to concentrate their flavor.
And here’s a quick tip of my own: When I'm stuck with nothing but Eggo waffles for brunch, I always double-toast them, for that fresh-from-the-iron flavor.
A prominent theme comes up when you're trying to wring flavor out of an ingredient that’s seemingly run dry—heat. Heat does magical things: Excess moisture is driven out, textures change, the gears of caramelization and the Maillard reaction start turning, new flavors are born.
Heat is the secret to making the most out of frozen puff pastry. Don’t get me wrong; nothing turns me on more than the demands of making puff pastry from scratch. But when I’m not interested in turning dinner prep into a full-day affair, I defrost a shortcut.
This eggplant tart uses premade, frozen puff pastry for its crust, which allows you to throw it together in a flash. When adequately baked until golden and crisp, frozen puff pastry is a powerhouse ingredient, offering a quick foundation for snacks, appetizers, and dessert.
However, adequately baked is the key phrase. Undercooked puff pastry is gummy, bland, and one of my biggest pet peeves. Unfortunately, undercooked puff pastry is a culinary epidemic, knocking out even the best cooks. And “Big Puff Pastry” is partially to blame, with bake times as low as just 15 minutes on the back of many boxes.
In fact, frozen puff pastry needs to be baked until bien cuit, which means “well done” and refers to the deep, dark color on the crust of an adequately baked bread or pastry. Stella blind-bakes her pie crust for up to 75 minutes, so that it stays shatteringly crisp even under the juiciest filling. Frozen puff pastry is no different, requiring longer than you’d expect to bake through, drive off moisture, and fully express all its flaky layers.
How to Make an Eggplant, Cheese, and Honey Tart
Here, I’ll show you how to make a quick and easy tart with boxed puff pastry. By blind-baking the pastry, I can make sure that it stays crisp regardless of what’s spread on top. The tart is then finished with a blast of high heat to deeply brown it, becoming toasty and flavorful—and no one will know that you didn’t start out with the best.
For the topping on my tart, I drew inspiration from the classic Spanish combination of eggplant and honey, but any number of vegetables, meats, or cheeses could work well. I like to think of these simple tarts as a way to clean out the fridge. As long as you stick to either fully cooked or quick-cooking ingredients, just as you might for a pizza, they'll bake up just fine.
I start by thinly slicing the eggplant using a sharp knife, though a mandoline is also an excellent tool for making picture-perfect rounds. By keeping the slices thin, I can evenly distribute them across the pastry, allowing me to cut clean and even portions later.
I then place the eggplant slices in a colander and toss them with a generous tablespoon of kosher salt. Salting not only draws out moisture, resulting in a meatier texture once the eggplant is cooked, but also removes the bitter flavors often associated with eggplant that's past its prime. Just 30 minutes is enough time for the slices to release a significant amount of liquid.
I next rinse the slices and pat them dry.
Meanwhile, I turn my attention to the pastry. Always thoroughly thaw puff pastry before unfolding it; otherwise the sheets can crack and break. I find it’s easiest to take the passive approach by thawing it overnight in the fridge. When I’m in a bind, a couple of hours at room temperature can also do the trick.
Once it's thawed, I stack two sheets of puff pastry on top of one another on a surface that’s lightly dusted with flour. Using a rolling pin, I then roll out the pastry so it just fits a rimmed half-sheet tray—a rectangle about 11 by 15 inches. When undocked and left to its own devices, puff pastry bakes up thick and unruly, quickly overwhelming the toppings. By rolling the pastry out thin, I get a better ratio of toppings to crust.
I then lay out the rinsed and dried eggplant slices across a parchment paper–lined rimmed baking sheet, seasoning them with kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, and extra-virgin olive oil. Both the eggplant slices and the puff pastry base will be twice-baked.
For the blind bake, I top the rolled-out pastry with a sheet of parchment and weigh it down with one of the eggplant-lined baking sheets, allowing them to bake at the same time. When I want puff pastry crisped through and baked in a clean sheet—as I might for a mille-feuille or tart—I always bake it weighed down by either another rimmed baking sheet or a wire cooling rack. The baking sheet or rack transfers heat directly to the pastry, so it evenly cooks from the top and bottom, while staying flat.
After round one in the oven, the bottom of the pastry will be light golden brown, while the top will be dry and firm to the touch. The eggplant will grow tender, without developing any color or falling apart.
The last bit is the fun part: putting it all together. If I’m making this tart for a dinner party, it can be made up to this point and assembled a couple of days in advance, then baked just before serving.
I first spread tangy goat cheese evenly across the pastry, then sprinkle on nutty grated Gouda and aromatic nigella seeds. Nigella seeds are one of my favorite spices, and deserving of a permanent spot in your spice cabinet if they don't have one already. They're earthy in flavor, reminiscent of onion and oregano, with a slightly bitter finish. For a quick weeknight sauté, when I’m too lazy to peel and chop an onion, a pinch of nigella can offer up a similar aromatic quality and save a heck of a lot of time.
Next, I shingle the tender eggplant slices on top of the cheese and drizzle them with a touch of honey. The tart then heads into the oven for round two, where the pastry grows golden brown, the eggplant softens fully, and the goat cheese and Gouda melt together.
I finish the tart with an extra drizzle of sticky honey and some fresh herbs for color. Here, I’ve used some micro basil and scallion that I picked up from the market, but a few snips of chives or the delicate tips of thyme can also add a bright pop.
If I’m serving the tart as an hors d'oeuvre, I’ll slice it up into bite-size squares or diamonds, but for an appetizer, I prefer to go with larger portions. Because I’ve taken the time to adequately bake the puff pastry, it’ll be crispy even in the center, and each piece will be as good as the last.