There I was, caramelizing onions at midnight on a Thursday night. At seven the next morning, in between dressing for work and putting on my makeup, I found myself rolling out tart pastry, organizing anchovies, putting things in and pulling them out of a hot oven. My morning workout? Not happening.
It didn't seem completely batty to offer to bring a pissaladière -- a Southern French caramelized onion-and-anchovy tart -- to dinner at my friends' house on a Friday night when the event was a couple weeks off in the future. No problem, I thought, as I normally I work from home on Fridays. But as I stared down my schedule the Wednesday before, I found myself with back-to-back-to-back meetings at the paper downtown. Working from home was not in the stars. The dinner was a Francophile dinner party at our friends Keven and George's place (also downtown); the theme was Provence. Georges had bouillabaisse on the menu as the main course. So how to manage the promised pissaladière?
No worries -- I'd prepare the ingredients on Thursday evening, assemble and bake it in the morning, drive it (gingerly!) downtown, and let it cool its heels in my car all day while I did my thing at the paper. A quick turn in Georges' oven, and we should be great to go.
Crazy? Perhaps, given all I have on my plate at the moment. But making this classic dish is much easier it would appear, and making the tart actually turned out to be a high point in a stressful week. Have I mentioned that I'm happiest in the kitchen?
More often than not, a pissaladière made with bread dough, but I learned to make it from an old friend, Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch, who makes hers using pâte briseé -- a savory tart crust. We could argue about bread vs. pâte briseé all day long, and Danièle is not from Nice (from whence the dish comes), but rather Dordogne. But I think she has it right: The flavor of sweet, deep onions with salty anchovies melting into them show more deliciously on a flaky crust.
Interesting side note: Danièle was a home cook, queen of the hearth oven in the kitchen of her family's 500-year-old stone farmhouse, when François Mitterand -- who was president of France at the time -- tapped her to be his private chef at the Élysée Palace. They made a movie about her a few years ago called Haute Cuisine; Catherine Frot did a wonderful job portraying Danièle. Here's an interview Epicurious did with Danièle when the movie was released in the U.S. In any case, she's a wonderful cook, and an amazing spirit. A true cook without borders if ever there was one.
But back to our regularly scheduled tart.
So, the first thing to do is caramelize onions -- a lot of them. It's a slow caramelization, and I'm completely opposed (morally, gastronomically and vehemently) to adding sugar to speed the caramelization. Required: a sharp knife, a low flame and patience.
Slice thin about three pounds of yellow onions in a little olive oil (or better yet duck fat, if you have some) and let them cook very slowly for more than two hours, till they're deep golden and sweet. Then you drain them. While the onions caramelize, make your pâte briseé. Give flour and salt a whirl in the food processor, toss in bits of chilled butter, pulse till it has the texture of coarse meal, add an egg lightly beaten with a dollop of milk, let the motor run till it clumps together. Honestly, it's that simple.
Let the dough rest in the fridge half an hour, roll it out, fit it into a tart pan with a removable bottom, pour in the onions, smush them in nicely, garnish the top with anchovies, niçoise olives and bits of fresh thyme, pop it in the oven, and in 35 minutes, you have a gorgeous pissaladière. Click on the black bar below for the recipe.
Place in shopping bag, drive to the office, spend the day getting things done, arrive at K and G's, present tart, demand Ricard. (That's is the beloved anisette aperitif of Southern France.)
Note to self: Next time I make this, do it on a weekend!