I bought my first food processor in my late 20s, and the first thing I made was short pastry. Until then, it had always been an intimidating prospect: a pity, because there is no reason to be afraid. Baking, and pastry-making in particular – in contrast to cooking – have an aura of exact science. For me, it had the exotic attraction of a chemistry lab. Again, a pity. There are important basic principles that have to be followed, of course, but in the end there is room for adaptation.
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With this column, I hope to relieve pastry of its forbidding reputation, and demonstrate that you can even make it by hand, without a food processor. For a more interesting challenge, I have upgraded the basic pastry by adding ground pistachios, and transformed classic pastry cream into pistachio cream. The combination provides a fine base for summer fruits, giving the tart itself a colorful grandeur.
Short pastry with pistachios
Ingredients (for a 22-24 cm round baking pan):
100 gm cold butter
1½ cups (210 gm) flour
½ cup (60 gm) shelled pistachios
½ cup (50 gm) superfine (castor) sugar
grated rind of one lemon
2 tbsp water
pinch of salt
Cut butter into ½ cm cubes and return to refrigerator. When making short pastry, it is important that the butter be very cold, to prevent or minimize the release of gluten, which is what gives pastry elasticity. (That is the reason why hot water is used for steamed dumplings, where the pastry needs to be soft and pliable.)
Grind the pistachios finely. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, ground pistachios, castor sugar, grated lemon rind and butter cubes. (We use castor sugar because the mixing of the dough is very quick – again, in order to prevent it from softening – and regular sugar may take too long to be absorbed into the dough.)
Mix contents of the bowl with both hands, using rapid movements. Crush and crumble them between the fingers and palms of your hands until crumbs are formed.
Transfer mixture to a flat work area and make a deep hole in the center. Whip the egg, water and salt in a small bowl and pour it into the hole. Use a pastry cutter or fork to mix the liquid and solid ingredients. Turn dry edges inward, in the direction of the liquid, collecting any liquid that escapes to the side. This should be done quickly, with fairly rapid, expansive movements; it should not be a lengthy process. Mash any remaining chunks of butter with the pastry cutter or fork. The resulting dough should be slightly moist and sticky.
Pick up the dough with your hands and place it on a sheet of plastic cling wrap. Flatten it on the baking pan base and cover it well. Put it into the refrigerator for at least an hour (to stop the release of gluten, so that the pastry will be crumbly).
Dust a flat work surface with flour. Take the dough, place it on the surface, and lightly dust the dough with flour. With a rolling pin, roll the dough to a thickness of about 3 mm. The diameter of the pastry should be greater than that of the baking pan. Work quickly and in as cool an area as possible, to avoid the dough sticking to the work surface. Grease the sides of the baking pan with butter (not as a “lubricant,” but to bind the dough so it doesn’t shrink), and put the dough into the pan. Press the dough to the sides of the pan, making sure there are no empty spaces where the base and sides of the pan meet. Use your fingers to press the dough into those areas, so that it forms an exact right angle between the base and the sides. Prick the dough with a fork, cover it with baking paper, and lay baking weights on top of it if you have them. (Most home cooks don’t have baking weights, but covering the dough with dry beans will do just as well. The idea is to keep the dough from rising during baking.) Put the pan in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 180°C.
Remove the baking pan with the dough from the refrigerator and cut away any bits of dough that have spilled over the edge of the pan. (Don’t throw the pieces away: Cut them into squares, bake them for a short time, and you’ve got short pastry pistachio-butter cookies.) Put the pan in the oven – with the baking weights or dry beans – and bake for 10 minutes. (This method is called “blind baking,” and is especially appropriate for short pastry, where the tart shell is baked without the filling.) Remove baking paper and baking weights, reduce temperature to 150°C and bake for 15 minutes more. Remove the pan from the oven and set it aside to cool.
Pistachio cream tart
This is in fact a crème ptissière or pastry cream, without the typical vanilla flavor, and with the addition of ground pistachios. You can, of course, use other pie fillings if you prefer: lemon curd, for example. Preparing the cream in parallel with the tart saves time.
Ingredients (for a 22-24 cm round baking pan):
1¾ cups (about 450 ml) milk
½ cup (60 gm) pistachios, peeled and ground fine
2 egg yolks
rind of one lemon, grated
1/3 cup (about 70 gm) sugar
2 cups cornstarch
Heat the milk in a saucepan over medium heat and bring to a gentle boil. Meanwhile, combine the egg yolks and sugar in a bowl and beat well. Add the ground pistachios and mix well. Add the cornstarch and mix well. The mass will solidify, but that is normal. When the milk begins to boil, pour it all into the bowl at once. Mix well (a whisk is recommended) until the mass becomes absorbed in the milk to produce a thin liquid. Return it to the saucepan over medium heat, mixing constantly until the mixture begins to thicken, at least 5 minutes. Keep mixing and don’t lose faith: it will thicken in the end. As soon as the mixture has thickened, remove the saucepan from the heat and beat the mixture briskly for one minute more. Place the pan on medium heat again, beating occasionally. Remove from heat when the mixture begins to bubble. Cover the saucepan with plastic cling wrap (as close as possible to the surface of the cream, to prevent a crust forming) and place it in the refrigerator for 45 minutes.
Take the cream out of the refrigerator and whip it briskly to soften it. Use a spatula or a spoon to fill the baked crust with the pistachio cream. Decorate the pie with slightly tangy fruits, like nectarines, early spring grapes, dried lemons (recipe below) and mint leaves. (Mint leaves should be added just before serving to preserve their fresh appearance.)
Dried and sugared lemons
This beautiful confection is very easy to prepare and provides an explosion of sweet-and-sour flavors. I find it adds a great deal to the tart, and can of course be used for other desserts as well.
Ingredients (for 15-20 slices):
Heat the oven to 130°C. Cut the lemons into slices 3-5 mm thick. Remove any seeds. Put a sheet of baking paper onto a baking pan and arrange the lemon slices on it. Sprinkle very small amounts of brown sugar on the lemon rind only, and put the pan in the oven for 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 90° and continue to dry the lemons for another 2½ hours. Remove the pan and set aside to cool. Carefully remove the lemon slices from the baking paper. Cut them into halves or quarters and place them on the tart.