Monday, February 16, 2009

Picnic with Albertine (II): Meding a Tart Shell

The girls all preferred sandwiches and exclaimed at seeing me eat only a chocolate cake, with its Gothic architecture of icing, or an apricot tart. But sandwiches of Cheshire cheese and lettuce, untried and unknowing fare, had nothing to say for themselves. Whereas cakes were privy to much, and tarts were talkative. In cakes, there was a cloying creaminess, and in tarts, a refreshing fruitiness, which were aware of many things about Combray and about Gilberte, and not just the Gilberte of Combray days, but the Gilberte of Paris too, for I had renewed my acquaintance with them at her afternoon teas

—In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower 482-3

Sometimes making perfect pie dough is like creating a successful negotiation. It takes a great deal of patience to communicate with the dough before one can roll out a perfect piece of crust to fit into the tart pan. The more tart shells I have made, the more I feel that the whole tart shell business is not simply about how to roll out the dough to fit into a tart pan but more about how to create the balanced relationship between one’s mind and the dough. As I have found out, the more eager I am to flatten the dough and make it into the shape of a circle that can perfectly fit into the fluted pan, the more unlikely the dough is to follow my will in conforming to my idea of a perfect circle. Dorie Greenspan mentions in her Baking From My Home to Yours that all I need to do is to use the rolling pin and bang on the dough to force it to flatten a bit. However, the more I beat on the dough, the more will cracks appear on the dough. Such a final product, then, is not a perfect circle but the broken pieces that I always need to mend together in the tart pan with some water. Moreover, it is widely believed that excessive handling of the dough will often result it tougher pie crusts. Violence, then, proves to be unfeasible in my experience of making a perfect pie crust. What improves the chances of making a good crust is the necessity of allowing the dough to come back to room temperature before rolling. Moreover, a piece of parchment paper placed under the dough while one rolls it out is very helpful. The parchment paper not only prevents the dough from sticking to the working surface but also assists the baker in rolling up the dough for transfer into the tart pan.

It seems that making a tart shell is a bit different from baking as whole in which the process is generally deemed as chemistry—the measurements needing to be exact with each step followed faithfully; whereas the process of making a tart shell seems to require more of the baker’s heart in the perception of vision and tactility. As Emily Luchetti suggests, bakers sense the readiness of the dough by observing the size of butter after it is combined with the dry ingredients. And, later, one should feel the dough after adding the liquid ingredients in order to sense the right mixture. The amount of ingredients, then, is never exact as science but is contingent upon the final product of the dough. The amount of dry and wet ingredients is flexible, within limits, to create a perfect final product.

If a lot of factors influence the making of a perfect tart shell (e.g. the temperature of the working surface, the coolness of the butter, or the speed of the food processor or counter top mixer), the careful adjustment of wet ingredients in a dough proves to be the act of care between the baker and the dough. Perception through touching and vision proves to be necessary, while the “purposeless” rolling of the dough also proves to be the key in morphing the shapeless dough into the fit pie crust.

Of course, as in my experience of baking the shell for Proust’s picnic apricot tart, one must take a lot of care with the broken parts that never cooperated. If negotiation fails, reparation—mending the broken tart shell parts together, gluing it together with a bit of water—will never come too late.

Egg-Cream Tart Dough
(Adapted from Classic Stars Desserts by Emily Luchetti)

1 large egg
2 to 3 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
7 ounces (14 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½ -inch pieces
Flour for dusting

Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on low speed until combined. Scatter the batter pieces over the top and mix on low speed until the butter is the size of small peas.

In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and 2 tablespoons of the cream. Add 3 ½ tablespoons of the egg-and-cream mixture and mix on low speed for about 10 seconds. Stop the mixer and gently squeeze a small amount of the dough in your hand. If the dough comes together and does not have any dry pieces, it has enough water. If it is dry, mix in another tablespoon of egg-and-cream mixture and test again. Continue to mix on low speed until the dough almost comes together in a ball.

Form the dough into a 5-inch disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes before rolling it out.

For a 9 ½ -inch pie crust and top, divide the dough in half and roll out each half into a circle 13 inches in diameter and ¼ inch thick.

To roll out the dough, place it on a lightly floured work surface. Dust the top lightly with flour. Roll the dough from the center toward the edges into a circle, rotating the dough a quarter turn after each roll. Occasionally loosen the dough from the work surface with a metal or plastic scraper to prevent sticking and lightly flour the top and bottom of the dough as needed.

Wrap the dough around the rolling pin, carefully center it over a tart pan with a removable bottom, and then unwrap it from the pin. Gently ease it into the bottom and sides of the pan. Fold the overhang inward and press gently, creating a double thickness along the inside edge of the pan. This helps to strengthen the sides of the tart crust. Trim the top of the dough even with the pan rim by cutting it away with a small knife, working from the inside edge outward. Refrigerate the lined pan for at least 30 minutes before baking.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line the unbaked tart crust with parchment paper and fill with pie weights, uncooked rise, or dried beans. Bake until the edges of the crust are golden brown about 35 minutes. Remove the weights and the parchment. Continue baking until the bottom is golden brown, about 15 minutes more.

If your tart crust cracks on the bottom, make a thick paste out of a little flour and water and seal the crack. Place back in the oven for a few minutes to dry the “glue.”

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