We’ve been making a lot of tart and pie crusts this winter, and it has reminded me of an important axiom in our kitchen: trust your instincts and don’t assume recipes and established wisdom are right. About 15 years ago when I started making pie crusts, I followed the old precepts: keep the butter ice cold from the fridge, don’t over work the dough, let the dough chill before rolling, mixing by hand is better. The results were good, but something seemed missing. Slowly it dawned on me that the colder the butter is, the more liquid has to be added to the dough. If the butter softens just slightly, it has more power to make the dough come together with less liquid and therefore less gluten development. So now I mix the butter/flour and let it sit a few minutes before doing anything else. I used to be so scared of overworking the dough that I hardly got it to come together at all, which led to cracking and other problems rolling it out. Now I roll the dough out, fold the ragged edges in on themselves, and repeat that process several times, which produces a uniform, well-integrated dough easy to roll out without any chilling. Finally, though I love working by hand, a food processor is so much more efficient distributing liquid throughout the dough, that when I use the processor I use less liquid, and therefore develop less gluten. My pie crust results have never been more uniformly successful or delicious.
We love apple tarts of various kinds in our house. Recently, we’ve been making the simplest, most classic version possible, with just apples, a little sugar, spice, and finished with a jam glaze.
While teaching our kids to love a wide variety of good and adventurous foods has been more challenging than we had hoped, when it comes to making a sweet treat, our rule is that if you want to eat it you have to help make it.
Our six-year old son Peter helped me make it recently, and I’m happy to share the recipe.
1) To make the crust, combine 150 grams flour with 110 grams butter along with a big pinch of salt and a very big pinch or two of sugar. Process about 5 seconds in a food processor until the butter pieces are the size of small peas.
2) Let the mixture sit for 5 minutes, then (with the machine running) add just barely enough liquid to make the dough come together (about 3 or 4 tablespoons). I use milk, but you could use water if you had too. Vodka is also great because it is flavor neutral but won’t develop gluten.
3) Without chilling the dough, place it on a well floured board and roll out to about 1/4 inch thickness. Fold the ragged edges in, and then roll out again, and repeat two or three times until the dough is uniform.
4) Roll the crust out a final time to a thickness of about 1/4 inch and place in a pie or tart pan. I often just use a cast iron skillet, which works wonderfully.
5) Refrigerate the dough (covered with plastic) at least a few hours, or preferably overnight. I get less shrinkage and better results with more chilling.
6) Prick the crust all over with a fork, and then place thin apples slices in a slightly overlapping concentric circles. Top with a generous dusting of sugar and little spice (cinnamon maybe, or nutmeg, or whatever).
7) Bake at 375 degrees until the apples and crust are both nicely browned, about 45 minutes. Depending on your oven, you might want to let it bake a few minutes in a lower position to nicely brown the bottom of the tart.
8) Place the tart on a rack to cool. Meanwhile, quickly bring some jam, thinned with a little water to a simmer, and when it seems like a nice thick syrup, use a pastry brush to brush syrup all over the tart, crust and apples.
9) When slightly cooled, garnish with powdered sugar and serve!