Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sheer tart attack

There are a lot of things that intimidate me. Driving. Fire. Vacuum lines. Gregorian chant. Ferris wheels. Roseanne.

Even among such company, being intimidated by pie crust sounds a little absurd.

Yet I lived in fear of making pie crust for years.  Over those years, I stuffed dozens of new culinary techniques up my sleeve.  Deep-frying.  Braising.  Zucchini ribbons.  Blanching.  Seriously, blanching.  You have to get an extra pot dirty, wait 30 minutes for water to boil, and empty an ice cube tray, all just to cook a single vegetable.  Who thought of that one?  Probably someone who threw a lot of dinner parties.  Probably someone popular.  Probably someone named Blanche.

Pie crust remained a sticking point.  I might make it on special request for someone's birthday, but even then only begrudgingly.  And every time I was thusly burdened with a pie, I'd always panic, and doubt myself, and look up some new method online, one which purported to be the easiest, most foolproof pie crust recipe yet. I would always be convinced that this would be the one that finally succeeds, the one that wouldn't shrink by half, leak caramel sauce through the pie tin onto the oven floor, or require a diamond saw to cut.  After all, every blog entry I read claimed as much from its novel pie-making protocol.

So I'd go through the new recipe, following its inevitable just-bizarre-enough-to-sound-brilliant recommendation: to roll the crust out not once, not twice, but thrice; to roll it out between sheets of  wax paper; or to mix half the flour with a butter to form a fine paste. Yet, in the end, the process would always degenerate into a familiar pattern, my standby method for making pie: stir the ingredients together, watch them crumble apart, smash them into a rough ball, put the ball in the fridge, try to roll it out, tear it, hit it with my rolling pin, swear at it, then apologize to it so it doesn't pop off the table and smother me.  Put it back in the fridge, hide in a corner, and repeat.  Like I said, I was intimidated.

But I'm applying to jobs right now, and I figured that pâte brisée would be a good skill to have on my resume, right between atomic force microscopy and initiating interdisciplinary collaborations.  Looking through some old food photos last week, (aha! is this why I take pictures of food?) I remembered that I've been making a really successful crostata around the holidays for years--I even made one this Thanksgiving, and I've never remembered it giving me any trouble, or turning out anything less than fantastic.  According to Wikipedia, a crostata is "a form of pie."  Has the perfect crust recipe been under my nose all along?  Or as Giada might say, il mio naso.

The world needs to know about this pie crust. 

I feel like a superhero.  I feel like this post has been my origin story.  All I see, everywhere, are pies and the ingredients that could comprise them. My pie sense is tingling.  Kale is now for quiche.  Blueberries for hand pies.  Ricotta for crostata.  True, when the only superpower you have is a pie crust, everything looks like a pie filling.  But, you know, there are less useful superpowers to have.

My new goal is to establish a lifestyle such that I eat all meals in the form of pies, from now until I can no longer eat solid food.  Just in the past week I've made a savory tarte tatin as part of a brunch spread, a fig tart with chestnut honey, and an open-faced onion tart with tomatoes and goat cheese (at midnight, instead of hanging out with friends).  My labmate David came over for a cooking lesson tonight, and I decided to make the tarte tatin again.  Not only because I wanted to reinforce my new skill by teaching it to someone else, but also because I couldn't bear the thought of going two consecutive days without eating a pie that I made.

Well, we'll see if my Galactus-like hunger and Jean-Grey-like crosta-telepathy last for the next few months.  There's sweet potato pie on the horizon.  For now, here's yet another pie recipe for the internet.  Wait!  This one actually works!


Really, really foolproof fig tart
(no, really)
crust stolen from Jonathan Waxman

2 sticks of butter (8 oz, 16 tbsp)
2 cups flour, plus extra for rolling (8.8 oz)
3 tbsp sugar (to make a savory tart dough, use less sugar)
1 tbsp kosher salt
ice water

1 lb figs, or more
dark honey
coarse-grained salt

Cut each stick of butter into 32 pieces or so and chill in the freezer until hard.  Place the flour, sugar, and kosher salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until well-mixed.  Add the butter and pulse in 1-2 second increments until the mixture resembles sand with a few larger pebbles in it.  Open the food processor and drizzle 6 tbsp ice water evenly over the mixture.  Pulse 3-4 more times, just until the mixture is starting to pull away from the edge of the bowl in small chunks.  If it's not pulling away after a few pulses, drizzle a little more water in, 1 tbsp at a time, and pulse again.

If you don't have a food processor, you can accomplish these initial steps by hand.  What I do is chill everything--including the flour and the mixing bowl it's in.  Then add the butter to the flour mixture, and mix by rubbing chunks of butter together with the flour between your hands, letting them fall back into the bowl, until you get the sandy-pebbly texture described above.  Drizzle in the water and mix with a spatula.

When the mixture is just starting to hold together, turn it out onto a floured cutting board and gather it together into a single mass of dough.  Cut the dough into 6 pieces, then gently flatten each piece on the cutting board.  Stack the flattened pieces together, then wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes, or overnight.

When you're ready to roll, preheat the oven to 400 F.  Cut the figs into halves or quarters and trim off the stem end.  Roll the chilled dough out on a floured surface, until it fits into a tart pan that you want to use--I found that one pound of figs just about filled a 9-inch round tart pan.  This dough is really easy to roll out.  Don't eat the raw pie dough; it never tastes as good as you'd think.

Press the dough into the tart pan and arrange the figs on top of it.  Drizzle with 1-2 tbsp honey.  Bake for 20-30 min, or until the crust is browned.  Top with another drizzle of honey and a sprinkle of coarse-grained salt while it's still warm.

Whipped cream.

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