Every now and then, usually a couple of hours before dinnertime, my chat program will ding with a message from a friend.

“I have cauliflower, tomatoes, and three dried figs. What should I cook?”

I enjoy these challenges. It’s not dissimilar to my job, where I find ways to use up 10 extra pounds of flank steak or a case of eggplant. At home I like shopping my pantry to see what I can pull together, and that gets more fun the barer the shelves become. Every once in awhile, though, I’ll get an idea that burrows itself into my head, and when it comes out again, the results are spot-on.

I kept thinking about quinces and sheep’s-milk cheese. I wanted to involve the two in a dessert, but manchego wasn’t going to work. I wondered if I could find a fresh sheep cheese, so I e-mailed some of the cheese shops in town, and some wrote back (way to go, Foster & Dobbs!) and some didn’t (what’s up, Cheese Bar?), but the gist was that spring is the time to get such happiness, not January. Not having that much patience, I settled on some goat fromage frais from New Seasons. It would be a tart: shortbread crust with crushed walnuts in it, a layer of cheese, a layer of quince jam, and sage to top it off.

I don’t make shortbread crusts that often, so I turned to my cookbooks to find what I was looking for. Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Sally Swift had a shortbread and jam tart. Perfect! I thought. It even had almond meal in it. So I substituted walnut meal and put everything in the food processor and prebaked and came up with… a useless, airy crumble of butter.

I remembered making an orange and date tart from Milk and Cookies a couple of years ago to end a fabulous Middle Eastern meal, and the crust was just what I’d had in mind. So I added lemon zest, substituted 200g flour and 50g crushed walnuts, and tossed that lot in the food processor again. Much better results.

What really pulls this whole thing together is the sage. I might even put some in the crust next time. It perfectly balances the sweet jam and tangy cheese. Without it, the dish is almost candy-like, but the sage really brings it back down to earth and gives all the other ingredients a reason for being included.

Make your own quince jam for this. You’ll feel even more accomplished.

Quince Tart with Walnuts and Sage
makes an 8″ tart

200g all purpose flour
50g toasted ground walnuts
110g confectioners’ sugar
zest of 1 lemon
110g unsalted butter, chilled
1 egg

Place flour, walnuts, and confectioners’ sugar in a food processor and process to combine. Add butter and zest and process until mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add egg and process until a smooth ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 400F.

Roll out pastry on a floured surface and use to line an 8″ tart pan with removable base. Line pastry with parchment paper and fill with rice or pastry weights. Bake for 10 minutes, then remove paper and weights and return to oven for 10 minutes until crisp and golden.

(Thanks, Milk and Cookies!)

500g fresh sheep or goat cheese, softened
500g quince jam, heated with 1-2 tablespoons water to soften
whole sage leaves

When tart shell has cooled enough that it won’t fall apart when handled, carefully spread the cheese. Cover with jam and return to the oven for 15 minutes, just to get the components to melt together a bit. Remove from oven and serve with sage leaves.