Orange ginger mascarpone tart
One of the odd bits of literature that sticks in my mind is from “The Tale of the Body Thief” by Anne Rice, where the vampire Lestat reflects that the sweet-tart taste and sunny color of basic orange juice elevate it into a transcendent experience “like drinking liquid light.” Taken with other references (Rice, like me, favors the verbose, copious style), I read it as a reflection on modernity and globalization. While oranges are a novelty for the preindustrial vampire, they’re taken for granted, now. Orange juice is a staple of the American breakfast table, common as dirt, which is remarkable for a largely non-tropical nation. It is only within recent memory that fresh, sweet oranges could be made available regardless of season or location, thanks to significant global production in Brazil, China, and India and domestically in California, Florida and Texas. In celebration of this availability, I cooked up this orange ginger mascarpone tart to bring some tropical flavor to the season.
The sweet orange, citrus sinensis, and the bitter orange, citrus aurantium, are both hybrids resulting from crossbreeding between the pomelo and the mandarin over multiple generations. Highly cultivated species, they have no wild counterparts and reproduce asexually through nucellar embryony, producing seeds that are genetic clones of the parent tree. Commercially, they are propagated via grafting, with bitter oranges often serving as rootstock for sweet orange budwood. Thought to originate in southern China or northern India, oranges were cultivated in China around 2500 B.C. Europeans were familiar only with the bitter variety, known by the Sanskrit name of naranga. This became the Arabic naranj, the Old Provencal auranja, the Old French orenge, and finally orange. The fruit was known prior to the use of the word for color, first recorded in 1512.
Somewhat apocryphally, the introduction of the sweet orange to Europe in the late 1400s is credited to Portuguese sailors, resulting in names like portokall in Albanian, portocala in Romanian, bourtouqal in Arabic, and portogallo in Neapolitan. Sweet oranges became a luxury item, grown for European nobility in specialized conservatories known as orangeries. The relatively stable shelf life of unpeeled oranges and their high vitamin C content lead them to propagate into cargo holds and across trade routes into the Americas as a means of preventing scurvy. Bitter oranges are now used primarily for perfumery and the making of marmalade, as their thicker skins yield more pectin for surer gel, while sweet oranges are more likely to be eaten fresh or made into juice. The sweetest varieties, including so-called “acidless oranges” must be eaten fresh, because the acidity acts to inhibit spoilage. Navel oranges, the variety of sweet orange I chose for this recipe, are noted for comparative dryness (as in lack of juice) and bitterness, which makes them a perfect choice for baking.
Searching for orange tarts yields plenty of results (most of them French) for recipes based on orange curd, mixing butter, egg yolks, sugar, and fresh orange juice and zest over a double boiler (often calling for an additional straining step). This yields flawless, uniform color and consistency, but also is fairly fiddly and time consuming. Since I planned to cover the top with sliced oranges, anyway, I went for a more rustic combination of mascarpone cheese and egg yolks, which requires neither double boiling, tempering, nor straining. The creamy mascarpone makes an excellent stand-in for custardy citrus curd and a hint of fresh ginger root adds extra zing. Using orange liqueur in the pie crust adds flavor, but even more importantly contributes to a flakier crust. Adding water to pie crust activates gluten proteins in the flour, which can cause it be tougher and more cohesive, whereas alcohol hydrates the dough but contributes to less gluten formation. The alcohol will be cooked away during baking but, if you must, using ice water should be alright.
Tough, fibrous fresh ginger root can be difficult to grate. I keep large sections of it pre-peeled and sealed in plastic wrap in the freezer, which then grates easily into perfect ginger snow over a microplane. Serves 6-8.
For the crust:
1 cup all-purpose flour (plus more for dusting)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, finely ground
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, diced and chilled
3 tablespoons orange liqueur (Grand Marnier or Cointreau or Triple Sec)
For the filling:
8 ounces mascarpone cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
Fresh zest from 2 oranges
1 tablespoon fresh ginger root, finely grated
3 egg yolks
For the topping:
1 small navel orange
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together into a large bowl. Scatter the butter on top and cut in with a pastry cutter until it forms pea-sized crumbs. Sprinkle with the orange liqueur, one tablespoon at a time, tossing to combine after each addition.
Turn the dough out onto floured parchment and press together with your hands until the dough just comes together. Pat into a disc, wrap closely with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Turn out the dough on a floured surface and roll out to roughly 11” across and 1/4″ inch thick. Drape into a 9″ tart pan with a removable bottom, pat into shape, and refrigerate again for at least 15 minutes.
Preheat an oven to 375 F and line the crust with aluminum foil weighted down with pie weights or dried beans. Bale for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and bake 5 minutes more. Cool a few minutes on a wire rack.
Whisk together the filling ingredients and pour into the prepared crust, smoothing the top.
Slice the bottom and top off the orange, then rotate, cutting away strips of the peel and bitter white pith. Thinly slice the peeled orange and arrange the slices on top of the filling. Sprinkle with sugar and bake at 375 F for 25-30 minutes, until the filling is set and the orange slices begin to blister.