Reluctantly baking: tarts of winter

Baking is just not one of the already scant number of talents I have. The precision required of successful bakers feels like embarking on a fruitless quest for perfection, on a flight of no fancy, on a forced marriage from which I can't stray. The one exception to this aversion are crostate-the Italian word for tarts, a sweet medium that allows me to express my pinch-of this-splash-of-that style and still convince my audience that I know my way around an oven.

In the last few weeks I came up with these 2 tarts, which gained many accolades, including a shout out from Marcia the Fabulous, aka The Table Hopper.

 

Pasta frolla Italian pastry crustPasta frolla

Pasta frolla is the short pastry crust we use in Italy for our tarts and sometimes also for deeper filled tortes. There are a myriad versions, but this is my favorite and the one my mother also preferred. It is from Artusi, the still very actual late 19th century cookbook which codified Italian upper middle class cooking.

Whenever I make a tart, I always double or even triple the quantities for the crust and then freeze the excess to have ready in a pinch if I have guests or want to bribe my child with cookies for breakfast.

You have the option of using some lard, and if you decide to take, it will yield a remarkable flake and crumb. Indeed, my mother often used lard alone in her pasta frolla, though the result with all butter is also delicious.

10 ounces flour ½ cup sugar pinch of salt grated zest of a small orange or a lemon 1 stick + 2 tablespoons butter (or, even better, 7 tablespoons butter and 3 tablespoons lard) 4 egg yolks

Whisk the flour, sugar, salt and zest in a mixer bowl.

Dice the butter and add it and the yolks to the dry ingredients.

Work on medium high speed with the paddle attachment. They will start coming together first in small crumbs which will quickly increase in size.

When the crumbs are large (there will be a change in the noise the mixing produces), empty the bowl onto a piece of plastic wrap and quickly press them together with your fingertips. Then, using the palm of your hands, form a thick round flat.

Wrap tightly with plastic and place in the refrigerator to rest for at least 30 minutes or until ready to use.

If using a food processor, pulse until the ingredients come together in big crumbs, then proceed as above.

 

Crostata di pistacchi e tarocchi Pistachios and blood orange tartCrostata pistacchi e tarocchi

for a 9" tart: 1 stick unsalted butter+2 tablespoon butter 1 cup pistachios 3 blood oranges 1/2 cup sugar+1 tablespoon sugar 1 egg 3 tablespoons rum 1 dose pasta frolla (see recipe above)

Let the butter soften at room temperature. Lightly roast the pistachios, wrap them in a clean kitchen cloth and rub off as much of the skin as possible (it doesn't need to be perfectly removed). Grind them very finely and let cool.

Slice the oranges quite thinly. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a saute pan and sprinkle 1 tablespoon of sugar on it. Gently caramelize the orange slices on both sides in the butter and sugar over low heat for about 5 to 6 minutes on each side.

Cream the butter and remaining sugar until pale and fluffy. In the meantime, separate the egg.

Mix the pistachios and yolk into the butter and sugar mixture. Add the rum and lastly work in the flour.

Whip the egg white to stiff peaks and fold it into the pistachio cream.

Line a 9" removable bottom tart pan with parchment paper.

Roll the pastry crust to about 1/8" and unroll it onto the tart pan. Push down gently and eliminate the excess dough from the sides.

Prick the bottom of the tart gently with a fork.

Spread the pistachio cream in it into an even layer rising just above half way up the sides of the tart shell.

Arrange the orange slices attractively in rows or concentric circles.

Place the tart on a cookie sheet and loosely tent it with aluminum foil. Bake at 375˚F for approximately 45 to 50 minutes, removing the aluminum foil half way into the baking.

Test by inserting a knife blade or toothpick in the center: it should exit slightly wet, but clean and clear otherwise.

Let the tart cool before removing it from the mold and serving.

 

 

Crostata mele uvette e nocciole cottaCrostata di mele, uvette e nocciole Apples, currants and hazelnuts tart

1/2 cup currants 1/4 cup hazelnuts 2 apples 1 8 ounces jar apple butter 1 dose pasta frolla (see recipe above)

Soak the currants in warm water.

Toast the hazelnuts at 325˚F until you can smell their woodiness. Place them in a clean kitchen towel and rub their skins off. Chop them finely.

Peel, core and quarter the apples then slice them thinly along the longer side.

Line a 9" removable bottom tart pan with parchment paper.

Roll the pastry crust to about 1/8" and unroll it onto the tart pan. Push down gently and eliminate the excess dough from the sides.

Prick the bottom of the tart gently with a fork. Drain the currants and squeeze them from excess water.

Spread the apple butter over the crust in an even layer.

Arrange the apple slices in a tight concentric circle closer to the external circumference of the tart. Follow with a ring of currants, then one more circle of apple slices and lastly a mound of currants in the center.

Sprinkle the hazelnuts all over the apples and currants.

Place the tart on a cookie sheet and bake at 325˚F for 30 to 35 minutes. The tart should be positioned closer to the bottom of the oven, and, for the first 15 minutes, loosely tented with aluminum.

When done, the edges should be a golden blond and the bottom firm and the apples soft but not mushy.