Saturday, November 6, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Pies and Tarts

Baking class, week eleven: finishing the pies and tarts. Two weeks ago we prepared a flaky pie dough and a sweet tart dough; last week we made vanilla pastry cream and lemon curd. This week the doughs and custards are coming together! Plus we’ll prepare fillings for Apple Streusel Pie and Pumpkin Pie.

Fruit tarts

Because the pies need to bake longer than the tarts, we start by preparing the two pie fillings. Both are uncomplicated but satisfying nonetheless. The apple filling is a mixture of Granny Smith apples, sugar, fresh lemon juice, vanilla, cinnamon, and a little flour. Since this is an Apple Streusel Pie, it has a crumbly topping of butter, flour, and brown sugar. The pumpkin filling consists of pumpkin puree, eggs, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and evaporated milk. Pretty simple stuff.

Chef Sandy does a demonstration of rolling out pie dough. The trick is to work quickly and keep the dough as cold as possible. If it warms too much the butter in the dough will start to melt, diminishing the flaky, tender quality of the final crust. Roll the disk of dough from the center to the edges until it’s a circle about two inches larger than your pie pan. Plop it into the pan, crimp the edges, and you’re ready to fill and bake.

Apple Streusel Pie. The convection oven can't seem to bake evenly.

For Thanksgiving, at home, I usually prepare two pumpkin pies: a “standard” version, and a second pie with a layer of chocolate on the bottom. Has anyone else discovered the magic of pumpkin and chocolate? I got the idea from Jeff Smith, aka The Frugal Gourmet, who suggested spreading a layer of melted Hershey’s milk chocolate bars on top of a pumpkin pie. I prefer dark chocolate, and got the idea of sprinkling a layer of semisweet chocolate chips UNDER the filling, which is easier than spreading melted chocolate on top. Of course the chips melt during baking, but the drawback is that dark chocolate solidifies more than milk chocolate as the pie cools. Milk chocolate stays softer at room temperature, and the texture is more pleasing. I’m sure I could improve the application of dark chocolate if I put my mind to it. Maybe swirling a chocolate sauce into the pumpkin filling?

Pumpkin Pie, decorated with pastry "leaves." I got kudos from the chef on this one.

The last class activity is preparing the fruit tarts. These are a little more complicated than the pies. The tart dough will be “blind baked,” i.e., baked without a filling. The dough is rolled out, cut to size, and carefully placed in small tart pans. “Docking,” or pricking the bottom with small holes, helps prevent the formation of air bubbles in the crust. To further keep the bottom from puffing up and cracking while it bakes, each tart shell is lined with a small piece of parchment paper filled with raw pinto beans. The dough is thin and needs to bake only a few minutes. My tarts over-bake slightly, as evidenced by the browning on the top edges. It's dawning on me that I need to pay more attention during the baking stage.

After baking and cooling, the tart crusts are filled with vanilla pastry cream or lemon curd. An assortment of fresh blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries are available for decoration. A lot of the appeal of these little tarts depends on their appearance. I keep my designs simple but, I hope, appetizing. After the fruit is arranged, a coating of “tart glaze” is brushed on top to add shine. In this case the glaze is liquefied apple jelly, but it could as well be simple syrup (equal amounts of sugar and water brought to a boil, then cooled) or a gelatin-based glaze.

I’m too busy during class to sample my work, but have the chance later at home. I’m surprised by how wonderful these little tarts taste. The three components—crisp but tender crust, smooth custard, and fresh berries—go together remarkably well, creating a dessert greater than the sum of its parts. Why don’t Americans eat more tarts? Is the rustic, uncomplicated character of the pie more reflective of the American spirit? I don’t know; I like them all.

Take home: one Apple Streusel Pie, one Pumpkin Pie, six small fruit tarts.

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