‘I grew up on tarte flambée,” says Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the celebrated chef and restaurateur, about the savory flatbread famous in Alsace, on France’s easternmost border. Think of it as Alsatian pizza.
Vongerichten says the tart was conceived out of thrift, to use up dough after bakers had finished making the day’s bread. Traditionally, it is topped with cream, bacon, and onions. The main difference between tarte flambée and pizza as we know it is the exclusion of tomatoes, which are only fresh several weeks a year in Alsace. Instead, the Alsatian flatbread draws from the region’s dairy farms, using rich creme fraiche or its cousin, fromage blanc. The chef explains that the smoky bacon-cream combination is the German influence, because Alsace was once part of Germany. That duo is also found in quiche Lorraine, the savory pie named after the adjacent French province.
The chef serves tarte flambée at several of his New York restaurants; it is also on some menus in the Boston area.
In Vongerichten’s childhood home, tarte flambée was the meal for special occasions at a restaurant. “You needed to have a wood-fired baker’s oven, so it was something we always went out for.” Everybody in the family came. “We never went out with less than 12 people because the tarte flambée would come out in a big oval almost 3 feet long,” he says. “They’d put it in the middle of the table and cut it in long strips, which we would roll up two or three times and eat like a spring roll.” Tarte flambée translates as “tart cooked in flames.” In southern Germany it is known as flammkuchen, which means “flame cake.”
Bakers who began the flambée tradition, says Vongerichten, used “leftover dough on the bottom of the mixing bowl.” All the bits were kneaded together, rolled out, and topped with any leftovers on hand, then baked in the waning coals of the bread oven.
Vongerichten, who was raised on the outskirts of Strasbourg, owns several dozen restaurants, including the acclaimed Jean-Georges in New York. But he has special ties to Boston. His first cooking job in this country was in 1985 at the former Marquis de Lafayette restaurant in the Swissotel in Downtown Crossing. Today, he serves tarte flambée in three New York restaurants: Mercer Kitchen (in fall and winter), The Mark, and the hip pizzeria, Co., a joint venture with baker Jim Lahey of the no-knead bread phenomenon.
Jean Joho, owner of Boston’s Brasserie Jo, says the tart traces back to the 1800s, but was out of the mainstream until the mid-20th century. “The recipe was gone for a long time, then in the 1950s and ’60s this dish came back and became very commercial,” says Joho.
In recent decades, tarte flambée has become available in the frozen food aisle of Alsatian supermarkets. It can also be purchased at takeout shops unbaked. It’s even available in frozen form at Trader Joe’s, where it’s sold as Tarte d’Alsace.
Nicholas Calias, executive chef and director of food and beverage at Brasserie Jo, serves tarte flambée in individual pizza-size servings in three versions: a traditional tart for dinner service, and two breakfast versions: one with scrambled eggs, bacon, and choron sauce, the other with the toppings of a New York bagel without the cream cheese — smoked salmon, capers, red onion, and parsley. He serves 80 to 100 orders a week, mostly for the traditional version.
He first bakes the dough for several minutes, then adds the toppings and gives the tart another quick bake in a 550-degree oven. This keeps the dough crisp.
Across the river in Cambridge, Sandrine’s Bistro serves Alsatian food and features its own version of tarte flambée. There, the tart dough is less crisp but has a more generous portion of smoky bacon.
At home, the tart is quick to make from scratch because the dough can be prepared without yeast and requires no rising time (although letting it rest for 30 minutes before rolling out improves consistency and texture). The versatile dough can be used for homemade crackers, Italian-style pizza, or sweet tarts, and can be made in large batches and frozen for future use.
Tarte flambée is ideal for parties, says Calias. “It’s great for entertaining, it’s great when you’re with friends. It’s instant gratification.”
Vongerichten agrees. “For us it was the only time we went to restaurants,” he says. “One time a week going out with the parents, the family, and having fun — going out for tarte flambée was a big deal for us. It was a way to get together with everybody.”Matt Barber can be reached at email@example.com.