Of Imperfect Tarts and Perfect Crusts
I have a confession to make – I’m not a big fan of crème brulee. Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against a glistening golden crust of caramelized sugar that shatters under the onslaught of your spoon to reveal a silky belly of creamy custard. But over the years I have eaten so many crème brulees that don’t live up to this image – thick crusts, eggy custards, a one-note taste of sweet in my mouth. Even if everything is right, the ratio of crackly sugar crust to custard is usually too low for my liking because, second confession, I’m not the biggest fan of custard. So I had begun to avoid this dessert altogether. There was always another cheesecake or crepe or tart or chocolate dessert to hold my attention.
However, at a recent lunch at a restaurant, unremarkable save for its dessert offerings, I was reacquainted with the joys of a perfectly made crème brulee. (In case you’re wondering, I didn’t order it – we just ordered one of everything in their dessert menu. Of course, there were only four desserts on that menu, and three of us, so this is not as jaw-dropping as it sounds.) The crème brulee arrived in a fancy restaurant dish that looked a little like this, only rectangular. The dark caramel gave way to pure vanilla and the shallow dish kept the ratio of crust to custard just perfect. I was completely won over.
(Re)falling in love with something is dangerous especially if the object of your affection is prone to setting you up for disappointment at subsequent encounters. Not ready to give up, I decided to try and replicate that lost chemistry in my own kitchen. Rooting in my cupboards for something that would help me achieve that perfect ratio, my eyes fell on the tart pan – that shallow depth would be perfect. But make one big crème brulee – how would I serve it? Mini tartlet pans would have been perfect but I didn’t have any. And then the cartoon bulb over my head turned on – if I was going to make crème brulee in a tart pan, why not just make a crème brulee tart? Perfect! To add a new note of flavour, I decided to throw some raspberries into the mix. I imagined the brittle top crust and flaky bottom crust perfectly balancing the creaminess of the filling, the raspberries adding a summer sparkle to the plain vanilla.
Well, it sounded brilliant in my head. And tasted lovely in my mouth. But it was somewhere in between that things fell a little bit apart.
First, I had to blind bake the crust. I had never blind baked before, finding ways to work around it, but this time there was no alternative, and my beautiful crust, though golden and flaky, shrank. That’s alright, I thought and ploughed on. For some insane reason, I crushed the raspberries instead of leaving them whole to layer over the crust. Bad idea. Once baked, the custard seemed nicely set, but the raspberries had left angry red blotches on its surface. Not pretty but I could work with it. Then, not owning a brulee torch (yes, I set out to make a crème brulee without a brulee torch) and not having bruleed anything before, I burnt my sugar in some spots while trying to do it under the broiler.
Upset and disappointed, I stabbed in my spoon and took a bite. And closed my eyes and fell in love again. Unbelievably, despite all the mishaps, this tart actually tasted freaking good. (Other witnesses corroborated this.)
Which brought me to the question – was I going to post this recipe? Or was I going to scrap it just because I screwed up and it was not pretty? Was I going to be that person? In the end, I decided that I would post the story but tweak the recipe and redo it (my friends would say this was the nerd in me). Even though I wouldn’t think twice about sharing this tart with my (amazingly non-judgemental and frankly sugar-happy) friends and family, I didn’t feel good about giving you a recipe that still had so many pitfalls; something you wouldn’t feel confident serving if say, Amanda Hesser, or your mother-in-law, happened to drop by.
But so you don’t boycott me for making you read all that and then not giving you a recipe, here is the recipe for my favorite oh-so-buttery pie crust – the one I used in this tart, actually the one I use in all my pies and tarts, the one thing that always works. I’ve made this in different places under different conditions and it always turn out golden and delicious, provided you are gentle and patient. Also are tips to help turn out that perfect crust, including some for blind baking which I searched for after the shrinking debacle. Please don’t be dissuaded by the length of the recipe – I’ve tried to include all the helpful notes that have helped me. If you still use store-bought crusts, I’m not the kind to judge.
P.S. If any of you have made anything similar to what I was attempting here, your comments will be so welcome.
P.P.S. I’m sure all of us have had kitchen disasters at one point or another. My biggest was over-baking a cake so much that I couldn’t even cut it properly with a knife (this was when I’d just started baking many years ago and hadn’t figured out that all ovens run at different temperatures, and followed baking times in recipes to the letter). I ended up breaking it into small pieces and disguising it in a sundae – the ice-cream and fudge sauce softened the cake and nobody knew.
Wouldn’t you share your own disaster stories and what you did (maybe how to avoid them), if only to make me feel better?
Flaky Pie Crust
Recipe adapted from Good for Almost Everything Pie Dough (Baking: From My Home to Yours – Dorie Greenspan)
(But the first time I made the same crust, it was originally from here with the shortening swapped with butter. Shortening is supposed to make a flakier crust but I much prefer butter – you can use one or the other.)
Makes a single pie crust
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar (omit if using crust for a savory pie)
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter
3-4 tablespoons ice water
You can make the dough in a processor or by hand. It is supposed to be easier in a processor, but I don’t always have access to one, so I’ve got used to making it by hand. I’ve described both methods below. Whichever method you use, remember that the less you work the dough, the better it is.
In a food processor:
Blend the flour, sugar and salt in the processor.
Remove the butter from the fridge (what, it was sitting on the counter all the time? Nope, that simply won’t do.) Cut the cold butter into small cubes and drop it into the processor. Pulse until you have a coarse mixture with pea-size bits of dough.
Add the ice water a little at a time and pulse until the dough just starts to clump and come together – stop. Remove from the processor, and very gently knead the dough, only about 3-4 turns and form into a ball. Flatten into a disk, wrap with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour.
Whisk the flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl.
Remove the butter from the fridge (cold butter is the key here). Cut the butter into small cubes and drop it into the bowl. Cut with a pastry blender or a fork until you have a coarse mixture with pea-size bits of dough.
Add the ice water a little at a time and gently bring the dough together until it starts to clump and come together. Very gently knead the dough, only about 3-4 turns and form into a ball. Flatten into a disk, wrap with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour.
(When making this by hand, another thing I sometimes do when it’s hot, especially in Bombay, is to cover my empty bowl and put it in the freezer for 15 minutes before I start working.)
Chilling the dough gives it time to relax and also helps prevent shrinking when baked.
The pea-size bits of butter in your dough are responsible for the flakiness of your crust – when the butter melts while baking, it creates an air pocket, which is inflated by the steam created when the liquid evaporates. Result – flaky crust. End of science lesson.
Once your dough is nice and chilled, generously flour your work surface and rolling pin. Place the dough disk on the surface and start rolling, lifting the dough at intervals and giving it quarter turns. Once rolled out, transfer the dough to your pie pan (butter the pan lightly first) – fold the dough into quarters, gently lift and place in the pan with the point of the dough at the centre of the pan, and unfold. Press gently onto bottom and sides of pan; trim excess dough (if making a single pie crust). Chill for another hour.
Use as directed in your favorite pie recipe.
If partially pre-baking the crust:
Preheat the oven to 350⁰F (175⁰C) with the rack in the middle. Lightly prick the bottom of the crust with a fork. Line the bottom and sides with parchment paper or foil and fill with rice or beans (I don’t own pie weights and when I checked them out at the store, they just felt too heavy). Bake until golden, 15 to 20 mins.