Brown Sugar Strawberries and Cream Mini Tarts

This is the story of a dessert that shouldn’t have turned out. It should’ve been an abject failure, but instead, it turned into a giant kitchen redemption tale and an awfully wonderful Mother’s Day treat.

It started out with a beautiful recipe. One that my good friend, Krysta, posted last year. Krysta has made her recipe countless times and it has been perfect. Many other friends, all of them accomplished home cooks, have made this and raved. So why shouldn’t it have turned out?

Because I failed to follow instructions. Big time.

The events that led to my crazy kludged and amazingly wondrous dessert started out innocently enough; Last Friday I went grocery shopping.  Grocery shopping is a big to-do for me. I do one really large shopping trip each month, so my list was rather lengthy and I was on a time line. (You can read more about that here.) The smell of strawberries hit me as soon as I got in the front door of the supermarket. That triggered the memory that I meant to make Krysta’s recipe and had never gotten around to it last year.

I grabbed a flat of strawberries and sallied forth further into the store to complete my task, confident that I remembered how to make her “Browned Butter Strawberry Mascarpone Tart”. This is where I made my first mistake. I had the name totally wrong. Hers were “Brown Sugar Strawberry Tart”. And my first mistake contained an embedded two-fer doozy of a goof-up. First, the recipe didn’t call for mascarpone at all. Anywhere. What it *did* call for, I will get to in a bit.

If you’ve been reading Foodie With Family for a while, you’re probably aware that when a recipe calls for mascarpone, I make my own. So since I mistakenly believed the recipe called for mascarpone, I decided to buy the cream to make my own mascarpone. Enter the second half of that mistake. I bought heavy cream instead of light cream or half and half. Mascarpone and Crème Fraîche are both made with light cream. But again, I didn’t realize this until later.

How much later? I didn’t realize it until I was home, groceries were put away and I had already cultured my cream. “Oh well, no biggie…” said I to myself as I put my newly minted Crème Fraîche into the refrigerator on Saturday afternoon*.  At least until I got to the next royal screw-up on Sunday morning.

*Normally, to turn crème fraîche into a quick mascarpone, you simply drain the crème fraîche in super fine cheesecloth for a couple hours. However, this was so thick -owing to the fact that I had cultured HEAVY cream- that it didn’t need to be drained to be mascarpone. This was great news until…

Sunday morning, I finally looked at the recipe over at Evil Chef Mom. The lightbulb that had hovered happily over my head since my Friday shopping trip blew its element. Dang. I was so wrong. So the recipe didn’t call for browned butter. That wasn’t the problem since I hadn’t browned it yet anyway. The problems were that I had a quart of mascarpone instead of crème fraîche and no heavy cream as called for in the recipe because I had cultured all of mine. I knew the heavy cream (which I didn’t have) she specified was crucial because as it was whipped into the crème fraîche (which I also didn’t have) it helped thicken up the cream filling. And the cultured heavy cream/mascarpone creation in my refrigerator wouldn’t whip up thick since it was already cultured. I’m nothing if not optimistic, so I mulled over my options and hit on a solution. It was simple! I would pass three little groceries on my way home from church. One of them was sure to have heavy cream in stock. I would still get my strawberry tarts, just slightly richer!

Evidently, every one in the three little towns through which I pass on the way to and from church was celebrating Mother’s Day by presenting vats of heavy cream and cultured milk products to their mummies, though, because the  shelves at all three stores were bare of all dairy products other than one sad little pint of half-and-half. I half-an-half heartedly grabbed that orphaned pint and trudged back to the car, certain that my long-time hoped-for dessert was not to be. I knew that wasn’t going to whip up  nicely either and I had committed to the dessert. Tart shells were cooled on the counter. (Because I had opted for mini tarts vs. one large one.) What to do?

I opened the refrigerator and looked around. My lightbulb started flickering again when I looked at the neufchâtel cheese (also know, horribly, as 1/3 Less Fat Cream Cheese!) on my shelf. Then the lightbulb threw out a massive beam. I could save this yet. I whipped eight ounces of neufchâtel in my mixer, added the mascarpone and some half and half and adjusted the sweetness and amount of vanilla accordingly. Voilà and ta da! A creamy, thick-enough-to-pile-into-a-tart-shell-and-top-with-berries filling! Oh joy! Oh relief! Oh happy Mama!

Oh yeah!

It wasn’t just okay. It wasn’t just passable. It was outstanding. The brown sugar shortbread tart shells were the perfect vehicle for the creamy, fluffy, slightly sweet and ever so slightly tangy mascarpone filling. But when topped with those fresh, fragrant, sweet,  bursting with flavour strawberries? It went to another level of heaven entirely. It was bliss.

I was feeling pretty full of myself with this triumph so I capped it all off by following one final piece of advice from Krysta. She had topped her tart with a small amount of fresh lemon thyme. No lemon thyme was available to me (big surprise, right? Since I was so good at following instructions on this recipe) but I did have English thyme popping up in the garden. A small sprig graced the top of each mini-tart. It was the crown on this royal dessert. The herbal green not only looked lovely against the vibrant, red strawberries, but the light perfume it lent the dessert was a special, unexpectedly delicious touch.

So yeah. I botched it royally and made something completely different, but wow. What a beautiful mistake. What should’ve been a disaster is now firmly on the “repeat often” dessert short list. Hopefully, I’ll get to try Krysta’s actual recipe some time soon. In the meantime, though, I might just keep messing this up, but this time it’ll be on purpose.


Brown Sugar Strawberries and Cream Mini Tarts
Recipe type: Dessert
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 9
Brown sugar shortbread tart shells are the perfect vehicle for the creamy, fluffy, slightly sweet and ever so slightly tangy mascarpone filling topped with bursting-with-flavour strawberries and a touch of fresh thyme.
Ingredients for the tart shells:
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons light brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 1 tablespoon corn starch
  • ⅛ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ cup well-chilled butter, cut into small pieces
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Ingredients for filling:
  • 8 ounces softened Neufchatel cheese
  • 1 cup (8 ounces) mascarpone
  • 1 cup (8 ounces) half and half
  • 3 tablespoons light brown sugar, firmly packed
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
For topping
  • 1 pound (about 1 quart) fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced. If you are making mini tarts, each tart requires about 3 berries.
  • Optional: 1 small sprig of fresh thyme per tart.
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Spray 9 mini tart pans (with removable bottoms) ~or 1 [9-inch] large tart pan with a removable bottom~ with nonstick cooking spray and place on a rimmed baking sheet.
  3. Using a food processor fitted with a blade, pulse together the flour, brown sugar, salt and cornstarch until evenly combined.
  4. Add the pieces of butter and vanilla extract to the food processor and pulse until you have very finely textured crumbs that hold together like a dough when you squeeze a small handful.
  5. Divide the mixture between the tart pans and press evenly over the bottom and up the sides, taking care to firmly press the sides so it holds together. Shake off any excess crumbs.
  6. Place baking sheet in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the edges are golden. (If using one large tart pan, bake closer to 22 minutes.)
  7. Transfer the tart pans to a cooling rack to cool completely.
  8. When tart shells are fully cooled, carefully push the bottom up through the tart pan, removing the cooked shell from the pan. If the shells seem sturdy, you can try to remove the bases as well, but if they're even the littlest bit crumbly, leave them on the bases.
  9. Set the removed tart shells on a rimmed platter or baking sheet.
  10. Beat the softened neufchatel cheese on medium-high speed (in a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer) until it is smooth and creamy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the mascarpone, half and half, brown sugar and vanilla.
  11. With the mixer on medium, blend, scraping the side of the bowl at least twice, until the mixture is smooth and even.
  12. Scoop the cream filling into the tart shells, mounding slightly.
  13. Arrange a circle of strawberries, cut side up, around the edge of the tart.
  14. Follow this inside with slightly smaller, overlapping circle of strawberries, cut side down.
  15. Complete the topping with a couple slices of strawberries arranged in the center.
  16. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and chill for at least 2 hours prior to serving.
  17. If desired, top each tart with a small sprig of fresh thyme just before serving.
You can, as noted above, use one large tart pan instead of nine miniature ones. If you opt to do that, simply arrange the strawberries in alternating circles of cut sides up and down for visual appeal. You can scatter minced thyme over the top prior to serving or top each slice with a small sprig.



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