Field Report:
Adventures of a Culinary Padawan
École des Techniques à la Cuisine
Lesson Eight: Tartes


Dear Foodie Voyeur,

There is nothing wrong with an American apple pie. It's a culinary delight, long-cooked so the apples grow tender. We normally put flour or cornstarch in with the apples as a thickener so it doesn't go all runny. The crust is flakey and tender, and it magically holds the pie together, so it's edible, too, not like the original Henry VIII era pies that are the English predecessor to our pies.

French apple pie is a completely different beast. It's thin, whereas with our pies, the thicker the better! The apples are cooked as a compote for a french tarte, and the top decorated with fans of thinly sliced apples. The crust is not so much a way to hold the pie together, as it is a tender, frangible complement to the filling.

Pie or tarte crust is a bugbear for many. First, the difference -- a tarte is an open, one-crust filled concoction, either savory or sweet, and normally quite thin, no more than an inch thick. A pie is generally deeper and as mentioned, has a more sturdy crust, and often a top crust as well. In the US, we tend to use this only for sweet-filling concoctions, but in England, etc., meat and vegetable pies are also available, but they tend to use flakey pastry these days. Pot pies are actually descended from a soupy vegetable and meat filling topped with noodle dough; the modern version uses flakey pastry also, and only on top.

The key to a tender crust is to not touch it very much, and to keep everything cold. The idea is not to activate the gluten protein in the flour -- it activates as soon as liquid or fat is introduced to it. What does it do? The proteins "crosslink" -- meaning they stretch and form webs of protein strands, resulting in the stretchy dough texture that's good for bread (thus, hard or "bread" flour is a high-protein flour), but not good for pies and cakes (low protein soft or "cake" flour). Using all-purpose flour (a mixture of hard and soft flours) is fine, but you need to let the dough "rest" in the refrigerator to let the proteins relax and not crosslink. The colder the dough and the less you handle it, the more tender and frangible the crust.

This is where a dough scraper is useful. You can mix and chop with it without your hands touching the mixture, meaning it stays cooler and less "crosslinky." Also, you'll be making it on the counter, so make sure it's clean (wipe with vinegar, then buff dry) and cool. If you've bought a marble slab, this is when you should use it.

For pâte brisée, pile the flour onto the counter, and sprinkle in the salt (add sugar for a sweet pâte sucrée). Using the scraper, "chop" in and mix the dry ingredients (alternatively, you can put them all in a sieve and sift). Have the butter very very very cold, and chopped into cubes -- keep them cold while you're preparing everything else. If you must keep them on the counter, put them in a bowl over an ice bath. Pile the dry ingredient flat, then scatter the small cubes of butter over, then use your scraper to cut and chop the butter and coat the pieces with flour till the mixture takes on a yellowish color from the butter and the pieces are about the size of a split pea. Again, spread the mixture out. Beat together an egg with 2 teaspoons of water (cold, of course!) and sprinkle just over half of it over the flour/butter mixture. Use the scraper again to mix. If you need some more liquid, add a bit more, but the final texture is very crumbly, but will hold together if you softly squeeze a fistful together. It shouldn't be too damp -- the more liquid, the tougher the crust. (Cover and place the leftover eggwash in the refrigerator -- you'll need it later if you are blind-baking.)

Lightly press the pile together to form a crumbly ball. This next step is called fraisage, which is using the heel of your hand to "smear" the dough. That is the extent of the mixing. Really! It works. Take a golfball-sized bit of dough, press it together, then smear it out across your counter surface. Scrape up the ribbon of dough and put aside. Repeat till you've made lots of smears. Pile them all together and pat out into a disc. Cover with two layers of plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator for a MINIMUM of 30 minutes. You might want to write the time and type of crust with a marker on the plastic wrap (savory or sweet). You can freeze these for a month, if you wish.

Prepare a tarte pan -- this is a flat round metal tray with a ring that sits on top of this. Grease these with beurre pomade -- softened butter -- use your hands or a bit of toweling. On a cold surface, roll out the dough, working from the center outwards. Rotate the dough disk and roll again. Do not roll back and forth. Don't worry if it cracks, we can patch it up later. For a long-cooking tarte, roll to about ¼ inch thick. For a quiche or shorter-baking time tarte, roll about half as thin. It should be significantly larger than the tarte round.

Roll up the dough around the rolling pin, then roll out over the tarte ring. Life up the edges and tuck into the sides and corners. You can either cut off any excess with scissors or a knife, or run the rolling pin over the edge of the tarte pan. Remove the scraps and put aside. Take a nut-size bit of dough and make what the British call a "podger" (no, it's not an official term!). Ball it up, and tamp it against the edge to tuck the dough into the corners of the tarte.

It's not advisible to decorate the edges. The ring that forms the shallow edge of the tarte needs to be lifted off the base, and if you excessively decorate and overlap the edge, you'll need to break that edge to de-pan the tarte. Just tidy up the edge or simply crimp it. If you get breaks or holes in your dough, patch them by using some leftover pastry and eggwash to stick the dough onto itself.

For quiche, use the pâte brisée and lightly dock the dough. This means take a fork and poke the dough all over without penetrating to the bottom. Lay foil within, and fill with pie weights or dried beans that you use just for baking "blind" (nothing in it ... like a blind person has no eyes ... I guess?). Place the whole thing in the refrigerator for 15 minutes, so that the butter in the dough doesn't melt immediately when placed in the oven. Bake in a 325°F / 145°C oven for about 15 minutes, then lift out the foil (save the beans in their own jar for another crust). The au blanc crust should appear a bit chalky -- it's par-cooked, not cooked all the way through, so it shouldn't be browned. Using the reserved egg-water mixture, brush the bottom and sides of the crust to "seal" the pastry -- this way, the custard is less likely to run out or soak through. Pop back in the oven for about 3 minutes to set the egg, then remove, leave to cool, and fill as you wish.

Baking blind is done when the filling cooks in a very short time -- about 15 minutes. If you are cooking something for longer, it's not necessary to par-bake the tarte pastry. A quiche, which is an egg-based custard, cooks quickly, so the crust -- as well as the filling components -- needs to be pre- or par-cooked so they get a head-start. Otherwise, they will remain raw when the custard is done, or the custard will go all hard and grainy waiting for the crust to finish.

Quiche Lorraine à l'Oignon
The Jedi Master told us to combine the Quiche Lorraine (bacon, cream, eggs, cheese) and the Tarte à l'Oignon (sweated lardons, onions, and eggs, cream) recipes. The lardons are sweated in a bit of butter, then the emmincer-cut onions are added with a bit of water, then cooked slowly à l'étové under parchment. These are piled into the par-cooked crust, the sprinkled over with grated gruyère cheese. In a pitcher or batter bowl, beat together equal parts cream and milk, a couple of eggs, salt, cayenne pepper and parsley hacher, then pour over all to about half the depth of the tarte (you may not need it all). Place in the oven for about 20 minutes and serve hot or at room temperature.

Tarte des Pommes
The apple tarte needs to cook for about an hour; the pear frangipane tarte, about 30 minutes. Both are simply prepared in the tarte pan, then the dough refrigerated while the innards are cooked or prepped. The longer cooking apple tarte shell should be rolled out a bit thicker than for the frangipane tarte.

For the apple tarte, peel and core 4 apples, and cut each apple into 8 wedges, then crosswise into 4, for a total of 32 chunks per apple. Add lemon juice, a bit of sugar to taste and water, then cook à l'étové under parchment until they are softened but still hold their shape. You can use any apple EXCEPT red delicious. This is the compote. Cool over an ice bath, then pile into the chilled, uncooked crust, flattening out and leveling.

Peel, halve, and core three more apples. Rub with a cut lemon to prevent browning, then slice these thinly, about 1/16th inch or 1/32nd inch in width. Keep the slices together so that the apple half holds it's shape. Place over the top of the compote, then fan out the slices so it forms a ring or spiral along the edges of the tarte. Cover the compote completely with these slices. The slices can also be trimmed down to form a rosette in the center. Pat melted butter over the apple slices, then bake for an hour till the edges of the apples are browned and the crust cooked. Cool to room temperature, and if desired, heat up some apricot preserves with water and strain, then glaze the tarte for a shiny finish.

Tarte aux Poires à la Frangipane
Make a frangipane by making a pastry cream (crème patissière), then creaming butter and sugar, then blanchir with eggs and almond flour (crème d'amondes). Mix three parts pastry cream to one part almond mixture (this is the frangipane), and spread onto the bottom of the prepared, chilled, uncooked tarte shell, about a quarter to half the way up. This will expand significantly when baked, so don't put more than that. Slice canned, drained pear halves perpendicular to the direction of the stem, and fan four half slices symmetrically over the frangipane. Bake till the frangipane is puffy and browned, and the pastry crust is cooked.

All of these can be served hot or at room temperature, not cold or chilled. The Quiche and Frangipane, being egg-based, should be refrigerated if they are going to be stored. A good rule of thumb! Well, maybe rule of tummy?

See, tarte shells are easy! Just don't touch them!

With Love,
Susu, the Culinary Padawan

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