When baking a pie or tart there are a number of pastry recipes you can choose from. How do you know which pastry works best with a recipe? Is it just trial and error or is there an exact science to figuring it out? Maybe a little of both. There are 3 basic ingredients for pastry crust - fat, flour, and liquid. You can come up with numerous variations by changing your basic ingredients and their ratios. Typically, American pies have crusts that are both light and flaky. Whereas, tarts tend to have crusts that are richer, smoother, and crumbier.
The secret to a tender and flaky crust is make sure you only coat the fat with flour, not blend them. This is easier if your fat is cold. When adding liquid (whether it's water, milk, egg, lemon juice, vinegar, or even vodka) you don't want to mix in, but collect all the flour-coated fat particles together and make them stick to one another. That's why less is better than more, and cold is better than warm.
Flour: For the tenderest crust, choose a low protein flour. Pastry flour works great but cake flour might have too little protein, making it difficult to work with. All-purpose flour is generally my go-to flour for pastry crusts. Make sure all the dry ingredients are sifted together, which lightens the mixture.
Fat: Your choice of fat will affect the flavor and flakiness of your crust, while the amount affects its tenderness. Flakiness comes from bits of unmelted fat layered between layers of flour melting away while baking. When it comes to fat, you can use butter, shortening, lard, duck fat, vegetable or nut oils, or a combination of any of those. Butter makes a tasty dough, whereas shortening makes the flakiest dough.
all butter - flavorful but less flaky
all shortening - easier to work with, holds shape, flaky but less rich in flavor
lard - flakiest crust but chemical aftertaste
combo butter/shortening - flavor and flakiness
melted butter or oil - mealier dough but fine-textured and crispier crust
Liquids: Ice water, fruit juices, vinegar, vodka, eggs, sour cream, buttermilk, milk or cream add different flavors and textures to your pastry crusts. You also only want just enough liquid to moisten the flour, not drench it. The liquid must be ice cold and added gradually for best results. Use the pinch test to see if your dough has the correct amount of liquid. Pick up a small clump and gently squeeze between your fingers. When the dough just sticks together with small dry cracks, your dough is perfect. Chilling the dough before baking also promotes tenderness. This allows the gluten to relax, the fat to re-solidify, and helps prevent shrinkage while baking.
fruit juices - acid: tenderizer, flakiness
lemon juice & vinegar - dough conditioners: tenderizer, prevents oxidizing, relaxes the gluten
vodka - texture:moistness and suppleness, stops the formation of gluten
buttermilk, milk or cream - protein, fat and sugar: texture, richness, browns crust
whole egg - structure: stronger dough, less shrinkage
egg white - protein: crispness and stability
egg yolk - additional fat, richness in color and flavor, smoother dough that's easier to work with
To egg or not to egg - that is the question. Whether used whole, or separated into yolks and whites, eggs perform a number of functions that affect hydration, structure, texture, leavening, flavor, and color. The proteins found in whole eggs coagulate during the baking process and create structure. Dough made with whole eggs create a crust that doesn't fall down the sides, or shrink into the mold while baking. Yolks adds richness in color as well as flavor, while its natural emulsifiers generate a better distribution of liquids and fats that help to make a smoother dough that's easer to roll out and work with. This isn't always desirable if you want a more tender, crumblier texture. Dough using only the yolk sometimes falls down the sides of the mold. Using only egg whites gives you a stronger dough from the coagulation of the protein. They also add crispness and stability to baked dough.
I rarely use eggs - whole, whites or yolks - in my pie crust recipes. However, I will use eggs if I want a richer, smoother crust - usually for a tart recipe. I threw in an egg for the following tart recipe. I found it easier than usual to roll out the dough, but the texture was much 'chewier' than my normal eggless pastry recipe.
WORTH A FIG
Fig Frangipane Tart
pastry for a 9-inch tart or pie pan
1/2 lb blanched & peeled almonds
2/3 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp butter
2 tsp lemon zest
3/4 lbs figs
2 tbsp honey
1 tsp water
- Heat oven to 375º degrees. Roll out the pastry dough to a 1/4-inch thickness and fit into a 9-inch tart pan. Trim, and discard excess. Pop it into the freezer for 10 minutes.
- In a food processor, grind the almonds, sugar, eggs, vanilla, salt, butter and lemon zest to make a smooth, slightly flowing paste. Set aside.
- Remove the stems from the figs and cut the fruit into lengthwise quarters. Set aside.
- Pre-bake the tart shell: Prick the shell with a fork. Lay a sheet of foil or parchment paper in the shell and fill with pie weights or dried beans and bake until the rim is dried and lightly golden, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven and remove the beans and foil.
- Spread the almond mixture in the base of the tart, using the back of a spoon to spread evenly. Arrange the cut-up figs as you like on top of the almond mixture, pushing them in a bit.
- Place the filled shell on a baking sheet and bake until the almond mixture is puffed and golden, 40 to 45 minutes.
- When the tart is almost done baking, warm the honey and water in a small saucepan until fluid. When the tart is done, lightly brush the tops of figs with a little honey mixture. Serve at room temperature.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
8 tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 - 2 tbsp ice water
- Place the sugar, salt and flour into a food processor. Pulse a few times to incorporate.
- Add chilled butter. Pulsing a couple of times, just until combined.
- Add egg and pulse once or twice.
- Add the water 1 tablespoon at a time, pulsing between additions, just until the dough starts to gather together and pull away from the bowl.
- Pat the dough into a disk and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for 2 hours.
- Place the dough on a floured work surface and rub all sides with flour. Roll out the dough from the center until 1/4-inch thick and approximately 12-inch diameter.
- Lift the dough onto the rolling pin and center it over the pan. Place it in the pan, pressing gently against the sides and bottom.
- Trim any excess dough that extends more than an inch over the sides of the pan. Place in refrigerator or freezer for at least 20 minutes to re-solidify the butter.