Deborah Madison's Fragrant Onion Tart
©Tart Scene by Dena T Bray

Last week we attended our son’s graduation from McGill University in Montreal. While we were excited to help him celebrate this accomplishment, we didn’t know what to expect from the actual ceremony since it was a mid-year graduation. We’d anticipated there would be only a few students and less pomp and circumstance than a regular spring graduation event. We were wrong.

Bray Family

The event was held in an arena at Montreal’s art’s center. The ceremony itself was an amazing mixture of grandeur and warmth. Hundreds of students in black and crimson caps and gowns graduated that day. Their fields of study included everything from undergraduate English literature, like our son, to Masters in Social work and Ph.D.’s in Environmental studies. An amazing group from all over the world and of every age group had their loved ones there to mark their major accomplishments. The event was as much a celebration of their hard work as it was a celebration of their diversity. The speaker of the evening was Heather Reisman, the founder of Indigo Books. Ms. Reisman spoke eloquently and with warmth about the power of books and the power of the human spirit to create new ways to overcome adversity and define personal success. Using The Little Engine That Could as a metaphor, she was truly inspirational. That day, she became a new mentor to us all.

©Simple Tart on Plate by Dena T Bray.jpg

Her message made me think of my mentors during my studies and over the years. Although I’ve never met her, Deborah Madison has been a mentor in my life. With her groundbreaking vegetarian restaurant Greens on the Presidio in San Francisco and its accompanying cookbook in the ‘80s, she and her partners showed the world the power and flavor of vegetable-based dishes. I was in culinary school in at the time,  where I was taught that flavor in recipes comes from the addition of meat, such as bacon, and the fats that they render in any savory dish. I remember heated discussions at the time with my cooking instructor where I voiced my thoughts that other ingredients, fresh vegetables in particular, could be just as flavorful as meat-based dishes. He didn’t agree but let me take a gamble on my final exam.  My work partners and I chose to create and serve a vegetable-based meal at the school’s restaurant for our final end of the year project. The menu included dishes from the Greens Cookbook. Rich Red Wine and Red Onion Soup was followed by this  Fragrant Onion Tart—a buttery pastry crust filled with onions and herbs that have been delicately sauteéd to bring out their natural sweetness. Topped with more fresh herbs and wrapped in a light cheese filled custard, this tart and the entire meal was a success. I’m mostly happy that the restaurant diners enjoyed but I was also pleased to have been the first person, along with my partners,  in the history of the school to achieve a perfect score on the final exam.  I learned my instructor was generous. He learned something new, too.

Deborah Madison continues to be an inspiration in my life. I’ve collected and learned from all her published books over the years. They sit at my desk and in my kitchen, reminding me of the power of food, mentorship, and of course, good books.

Who are your mentors?

I look forward to seeing you in my kitchen, gathering flavors, soon.


©Tart Scene by Dena T Bray

Deborah Madison's Fragrant Onion Tart


Yield: 4 main course servings


For the crust:

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose or whole wheat flour

¼ teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons butter, cut into small bits

For the filling:

1 ½ pounds white or yellow onions, peeled and sliced thinly.

2 tablespoons butter or olive oil

1 heaping teaspoon fresh thyme or sage leaves plus a few more for garnish

Sea salt

Black pepper

3 eggs

½ cup cream

½ cup milk

1 cup grated Gouda or Gruyere

¼ cup chilled water, or a little more


Prepare the crust by putting the flour, salt and chilled butter into a large bowl. With your hands or a pastry cutter, work the butter into the flour until it resembles coarse cornmeal. Add the chilled water, a little bit at a time, until the dough comes together.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out until it is round and slightly larger than your tart pan. Set the dough gently into a 9-inch round tart pan with a removable bottom. Place in the refrigerator and chill for one hour.

While the dough is chilling, place the butter or olive oil into a large pan. Heat through and add the onions. Cook over medium heat until tender. Add the fresh herbs and a dash of salt. Set aside to cool.  Whisk together the eggs, cream, and milk. Add a dash of salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. F.

Remove the chilled tart dough from the refrigerator. Sprinkle the cheese over the bottom of the crust. Add the cooled onions and pour the milk and egg mixture into the pan.

Set a cookie sheet into the oven. Place the prepared tart on the pan. Bake until the surface of the tart is golden and browned in places, about 45 minutes.

Cool slightly.

Serve and enjoy.


This recipe was slightly adapted from the original one published by Deborah Madison.

Dena Testa Bray has been writing Gathering Flavors, a culinary blog, since 2011. She is a trained chef & ran a home based cooking school. Dena now designs websites, focusing on work with creative people. You can see her website work at She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and family.