One of my unofficial resolutions this year is to bake more fruit tarts. Year after year I find myself wishing I had baked with the strawberries of spring, the peaches of summer, and autumn’s glorious apples. Time passes so quickly, and I regret not celebrating fresh fruit at the peak of its season. It may seem silly to worry about such things, but I believe investing precious spare time in baking a fruit tart slows time down a little. Eating fresh fruit out of hand is a true pleasure, but it’s a fleeting one. Baking a tart is a ritual beginning with selecting the fruit, composing the pastry and blind-baking it, filling the tart shell and finishing it off in the oven. We plan each step then we wait as fruit bubbles and crust caramelizes under the heat of the oven, filling the kitchen with its tantalizing aroma. To me, a fruit tart embodies hospitality. If you’ve got a tart and a pot of tea, then you’ve got a party waiting to happen. For my first fruit tart of the year, I’ve baked Martha Stewart’s Rustic Meyer Lemon Tart, which is actually based on a recipe from Chez Panisse Desserts. I made the tart with Meyer lemons and then with regular lemons- both variations were delicious.
It makes me sad to hear someone say they’ve given up on making fruit pies and tarts because the pastry is too difficult. Perfect comes with practice, and since the trend in the food world is to make everything look easy, we’ve got unrealistic expectations. With practice, your tart crusts will get better every time. If a recipe fails, look at what went wrong and seek out troubleshooting ideas from baking books to ensure success next time. Baking, by James Peterson is my favorite book when it comes to tart dough. The pictures and step-by-step instructions are great, but the best part is the way Mr. Peterson sets up our expectations. The first time I baked Martha Stewart’s Rustic Meyer Lemon Tart, I had difficulty with the short crust. After chilling the dough, her instructions read:
“Using your fingers, press dough evenly into bottom and up sides of a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Freeze for 30 minutes.”
The dough was so stiff I struggled to press it into the pan. The rolling pin tore it to pieces, which sent my anxiety through the roof. I felt abandoned. What to do? Then I found a section on Working with Fragile Pastry Dough in James Peterson’s Baking book that helped me adjust my expectations and troubleshoot the situation:
“Some pastry dough, especially that which contains a lot of butter or contains very little liquid, can be almost impossible to roll out without cracking.”
Good to know. Peterson encourages patching tears and moving on- these things happen. He gives us permission not to be perfect.
Here are a few more tips I’ve learned for making short crust pastry for fruit tarts:
- The pastry must never get warm. A short crust is made by cutting cold pieces of butter into flour. Flaky layers are the result of pieces of butter suspended in the dough. If the pastry starts to get warm just stop what you’re doing and pop it into the freezer for a few minutes. James Peterson writes that “Pastry dough will withstand any number of mistakes- even the dreaded overworking- as long as the butter it contains never melts.”
- Reading James Peterson’s book, Baking, I learned that you can make pie and tart dough in a stand mixer! I don’t own a food processor, so this was exciting news to me. I also found it easier to see the pastry coming together in the stand mixer: from fine gravel to coarse gravel to large lumps. Use the paddle attachment to combine the ingredients on medium speed for about 4 minutes, then add the liquid and mix a few seconds to combine.
- To get the fragile tart dough disk flattened out and into the tart pan, I employed a technique I had seen Martha Stewart do on tv- beat the pastry (gently) with the rolling pin to flatten it. That made rolling the dough out much easier. Then I pressed the dough into the tart pan and trimmed off the excess.
- You don’t have to use a tart pan with a removable bottom. Sure, it makes for a nice presentation, but a ceramic tart dish (like the one I used) will do just fine. Make sure to grease the ceramic tart dish with butter before pressing in the dough. Once baked, just cut and serve the tart from the dish.
Each week I contribute a column to the Whole Foods Market Cooking Boulder website expanding on one of my 10 Ways Tuesday ideas. This week I baked a lemon tart with sweet, flaky pastry and tart, buttery lemon curd filling. The heat of the oven caramelizes the lemon curd, imparting a rustic quality and depth of flavor not found in other lemon tarts. For my column and the recipe, click on the icon below.