Many beautiful things have happened in Knoxville in the last decade, but there’s little that surpasses the beauty of a city filled with the aroma of sweet things freshly baked. So many tender cakes, luscious pies, and chunky cookies are available now that there’s not enough time or room in one’s diet to eat them all. But one particular treat never fails to compel me to stop and smell the flour: a hand tart.
Several local treats are made to be eaten by hand, but two of my favorites have the distinct shape and heft of an overly processed breakfast love from my youth, the Pop-Tart. I don’t know what it is about a rectangular treat that excites me; it’s probably less about true love and more about the serial insertion of craving-creating commercials into Saturday morning cartoon schedules. Still, they remain a temptation.
If you’re similarly tempted and decide to begin a tart search—and it’s a worthy quest—there are two in particular worth seeking out. You’ll find them at Tomato Head and Old City Java.
Tomato Head doesn’t keep a regular stock of these treats; you’ll find them as a daily special or, more likely, on a Saturday morning at their Market Square Farmer’s Market booth. The author of these tarts is Maggie Davidson; she’s the magician in charge of sweet things for Tomato Head’s bakery, Flour Head. Davidson’s no slouch in the realm of sugar wizardry—she graduated from Paris’ Cordon Bleu, and it shows.
For her, a tart begins with a classic French dough, pate sucree—a blend of flour, butter, eggs, and powdered sugar. It’s a pale dough with a dense, soft, but pleasantly crumbly texture; it tastes far better than a tart from a box and it doesn’t contain unpronounceable ingredients.
“People love them because they’re just like the Pop-Tart but made with good things,” she says. “Our tarts don’t give you a funny taste in the back of the mouth like you get from mass production.”
Highly processed dough uses stabilizers and other chemical means to improve the product’s texture and longevity. But those additives contribute a funny, almost pasty aftertaste—not unlike eating glue. Of course, you won’t find that in Davidson’s pastries. What you will find are some pretty amazing fillings. She likes to use the jam that she and Flour Head’s owner, Mahasti Vafie, make in-house: “It holds its shape pretty well in the oven, and we make good jam.”
That’s an understatement. A hand-tart, plump with house-made ginger-pear jam, baked with a little sprinkle of sugar on top, is so lovely that I’m ashamed to admit that I once loved toaster pastries. The crust is firm but yielding to the bite and makes a blissful union with the jam—a just-right balance of sweet and spicy; the whole mouthful is punctuated by a little crunch from the sugar sprinkle. My sample tart didn’t make it home—I scarfed it down in about three bites as I drove.
At Java Old City, the tarts have the same shape, yet the approach is a little different (yet equally delicious). Meghan Parrish—whose craft, she says, is self-taught and comes by way of “a lot of practice and a lot of love”—is the creative mind behind the Wild Love Bakehouse, Java’s in-house bakery. Parrish uses a traditional American pie-crust recipe that includes European butter with a high butterfat content. The richness of the butter makes for an enchantingly flaky crust; it’s the stuff that pie dreams are made of.
But Parrish says she doesn’t sweeten her dough because she doesn’t think the tart needs it: “We tried a shortbread crust once, but it was a little too sweet with sweet fillings.” Wild Love hand tarts are filled with a fantastic array of agreeably sweet stuff. My favorite thus far was stuffed with slices of fresh pear and a few sprigs of aromatic rosemary; those flavors have an appetizing affinity that’s especially suited to a buttery, flaky frame with a satisfying crunch from the beautifully browned edges.
My other favorite was a Nutella and cherry filling—or was it the strawberry-apricot? It’s too hard to decide on a favorite from among so many wonders, so try them all. That’s pretty easy at Java. Parrish’s tarts have become popular enough that she makes them every day; but your best bet is to visit on Wednesday or Sunday—that’s when she bakes the most. While that may not coincide with your Saturday morning cartoon viewing, you probably wouldn’t make it home with one anyway—so just grab a nice cup of coffee and save yourself the trouble of cleaning crumbs from your car.
12 Market Square, 865-637-4067
Mon.-Thu.: 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri: 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sat.: 9 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun.: 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
7240 Kingston Pike #172, 865-584-1075
Mon.-Thu.: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri.: 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Sat.: 10 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Sun.: 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Old City Java
109 S. Central St., 865-523-9817
Mon.-Fri.: 7 a.m.-10 p.m., Sat.-Sun.: 8 a.m.-10 p.m.
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