Salt, sodium chloride, is one of the world's more common minerals with one of its constituents, sodium, being the sixth most abundant element on Earth. Essential for animal life and human health, salt plays a critical role in moving water around the body to maintain fluid balance, and is necessary to facilitate the correct functioning of both nerve and muscle fibres.
In cooking, salt has long been used as a means of food preservation and, with saltiness being one of the basic human tastes, is also a popular seasoning.
How salt influences taste is through the combined action of flavour enhancement and flavour suppression. A somewhat convoluted process given the basic tastes all influence and affect each other, how salt mediates flavour suppression is best appreciated by looking at the relationship between salty and bitter tastes. Bitter compounds are detected by tastebuds when they bind specific receptors. These interactions can occur at varying degrees, based on the strength of interaction and number of receptors involved, meaning humans can taste a range of bitterness (estimated 300 different types). Salt, on the other hand, doesn't bind specific receptors but instead passes through channels that detect its presence (i.e. either it's there or it's not). The signal the 'bitterness receptors' send to the brain requires both sodium and calcium to be sent properly, and so it is the impact salt has on these processes that influences our perception of bitterness.
On the flip-side, salt also serves to enhance flavours and—while physiologically this is not strictly true—again relates to the affect the basic tastes have on each other. The first explanation involves differential suppression - sodium suppresses bitterness, which in turn suppresses sweetness and sourness. Therefore, by adding salt we enhance our perception of sweet and sour. The second, slightly looser explanation, revolves around the enhancement of certain aromas. It is thought that the addition of salt reduces water activity, allowing volatile aromatics to become more volatile. However, whether this occurs as a true chemical change, or happens in the brain at a perceptual level, is debatable.
What it does to these browned butter honey tarts is truly magnificent, cutting the richness of the cream just enough to let the honey and orange blossom shine through. An elegant combination worth making the time for.
- 500 g pâte sablée*
- 140 g butter
- 200 g honey
- 150 g caster sugar
- 20 g plain flour
- 3 g salt
- ½ to 1 tsp orange blossom water (add to taste)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 4 eggs
- 190 g double cream
- blackberry jam
- flaked almonds
To make the pastry cases, roll out the pâte sablée on a lightly-floured surface to a thickness of 2-3 mm. Use a 11.5-cm-diameter ring to cut out rounds and transfer to well-buttered 7.5-cm-diameter tart cases. Refrigerate for 1 hour and then brush lightly with egg wash before filling.
To prepare the filling, melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat and allow to simmer, stirring constantly, until it begins to brown (about 10 minutes). Remove from the heat and add the honey, stirring well to dissolve, before leaving for 10 minutes to cool.
In a medium-size bowl, combine the flour, sugar and salt, and then whisk in the butter mixture, vanilla, and orange blossom until thoroughly combined. Add the eggs, one at a time, whisking well after each addition, then whisk in the double cream.
To finish the tarts, spread one teaspoon of blackberry jam across the bottom of each pastry case and then pour in the salted honey filling. If desired, gently sprinkle some flaked almonds across one-third of each tart (be careful as these will sink into the filling a little). Bake in an oven pre-heated to 180°C for around 45 minutes, until the top is a deep golden brown and has puffed up and set around the edges. The centre should still have a slight jiggle. Leave the tarts at room temperature for 3-4 hours to set, then sprinkle with sea salt before serving.
** My current favourite is Stephane Reynaud's recipe from his latest book, Pies and Tarts, which uses semolina and almond meal to create a really nice, flaky crumb. I used the recipe exactly as-is, so am not entitled to reprint it here. I do, however, highly recommend getting his book if you're interested in that kind of thing. Otherwise, any pâte sablée or sweet shortcrust pastry will be suitable.
** A useful tip with pastry is to always make more than you need (I usually make ~1 kg batches) and then freeze down what you don't use so that you've some ready to go whenever the next pie/tart cravings arise. Just pop it in the fridge the day before you're planning on baking so that it can properly defrost.