Like the French, I am not ashamed to buy and use ready-made puff pastry. The quality is generally good and it can save precious time when tiredness stands between you and a freshly baked tart. I’m a big fan of open tarts because they can exert powers of resurrection over the tired stuff at the bottom of the fridge if you need to use it up. As always though, this will taste and look even better if your tomatoes are taut, herbs fresh and the cheese is the best you can afford. The fennel, herbs and cheese are whipped into a soft creamy bed for the tomatoes and smoothed over the uncooked pastry. If you don’t have access to fennel leaves (fronds) from a garden then many of the bagged salads in supermarkets contain it. Or look for an entire fennel root with a decent amount of fronds attached. The rest of the bulb can be sliced and added to salads, cooked down into summery tomato-based pasta sauces or roasted in its entirety so it won’t go to waste.
This tart takes minutes to prepare and they are good minutes too: by the time you slide the tart into the oven, the air will be scented with the aniseed notes of the fennel and the sharp grass and fruit of tomatoes at the height of their season.
320g ready-made puff pastry
2 very large tomatoes (around 750g)
150g Le Roule soft herbed cheese (or similar brand: Rosary garlic and herb goats cheese is good, too)
2 cloves garlic
sea salt and pepper
sprigs of thyme, lemon thyme, marjoram (chopped, about 3 level tsp), keep a few more sprigs whole for garnishing
chopped fennel fronds (about 2 tsp) or fennel seed (1 tsp)
2 spring onions, cut into thin slices along their length
Shaved parmiggiano to finish (a handful)
Heat oven to 190c / 375f and grease a flat baking tray with oil. Put tray in oven to get good and hot. This gives a good baked finish to the pastry base- no soggy bottoms.
Unwrap the pastry and place it on the baking tray then, using a sharp knife, score a line on the pastry, about ½ in (1 cm) in from the edge, all the way around without cutting all the way through. This will ensure that when the pastry bakes, a natural lip will form around the topping.
Crush the garlic with a flat blade and finely chop it. Then chop the fennel and herbs finely too, keeping a few stems of thyme and marjoram intact for the garnish.
Place the soft cheese into a bowl, add the crushed garlic, fennel (fronds or seeds), chopped herbs and a goodly amount of salt and fresh black pepper to taste. Whip it together with a fork until it is creamy and well combined then using a small palette or other round-bladed knife, spread the cheese mixture evenly all over the surface of the pastry, right up to the line you scored earlier.
Now, thinly slice the tomatoes and arrange them on top of the cheese in whatever pattern pleases you. Sometimes I overlap, sometimes (as in the photo above) I just dot them about. Arrange the spring onions over them. Brush the edges of the pastry with olive oil, and drizzle some of the oil over the tomatoes and onions then season them with a little more salt. Scatter the herb sprigs on top.
Bake in the pre-heated oven on the middle shelf for 40-50 minutes or until the pastry is golden-brown and the tomatoes are soft, slightly charred at the edges and perfectly roasted. Keep an eye on it during the last ten minutes because seconds can lie between a perfect charred edge and black smoking ruin. I always throw on some shaved parmesan to serve, too.