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Sunday, October 13

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I think I'll have to change my standard line of "I don't bake" to "I'm much better with cooking than I am baking."

Maybe it was the sudden cool blast that hit this weekend, maybe it was lethargy that made me not to want to leave my home, but I know it was definitely the sight of a few peaches and cherries in my refrigerator that were just on the verge of needing to be tossed, that caused me to think "baking." So I followed my mind's bidding and turned to cookbooks.

For baking, since I'm just shy of phobic, I turn to books instead of the internet for recipe ideas. There's something about a bound book that makes me think it is just slightly more reliable. And I'm less worried about getting flour in a book than I am about getting flour in my laptop.

I browsed several books and wondered who I should trust. Julia Child? Alton Brown? The Joy of Cooking? Better Homes and Gardens? Nope, for this I turned to the gigantic recipe tome put out by Cooks Illustrated called The New Best Recipe. I trust these folks, and just as importantly, I get to read why they didn't add heavy cream but chose whole milk instead or why adding more salt would affect the crisp texture — and because I get to understand a little bit of why each recipe works, I feel like I've become a better cook. Even though my baking experiments have continued to be rather limited, just reading the recipes and explanations have helped me immensely.

One of the reasons why I like cooking instead of baking is because I can see instantly how adjusting recipes will affect taste and sometimes, texture. But by reading about how professional recipe testers have walked through their assumptions and compared recipes and how they adjusted ingredients and the effect it had, I feel more comfortable with a rolling pin in my hand. I still need to force myself to not be lazy and measure everything precisely, but the desire for tasty food is getting me closer to being where I want to be.

I decided that I would settle on making the "Sweet Pastry Dough for Prebaked Tart Shell." I got out the food processor, began to patiently measure and followed each step precisely. I was delighted when I placed my wrapped ball of dough in the refrigerator to chill. And then I realized that this was just a recipe for a baked shell. I still needed a way to turn my fruit into pie filling. Since it was less than desirable — with chunks that needed to be cut out of the peaches and cherries with sometimes wrinkly skin — I decided that I would make an attempt at creating a cheater-jam concoction.

I know that one of the simple tendencies in Italy, and in France, is to create a baked tart shell and spread it with a thick layer of jam. It's a simple preparation that goes against we Americans' deep, stuffed fruit pies, as well as against the thinly sliced and artfully prepared fruit tarts. But necessity is the mother of invention, right? And I had a need to use up fruit before it expired.

So I winged it. I pitted my cherries, I sliced my peaches into small chunks. I combined these with some wine and some sugar and simmered them for a while covered and then for a while uncovered. What I came up with was a slightly loose jam and there was just enough to spread it over the bottom of the tart. A pleasant accident, to be sure, but one that seems repeatable. And a recipe that seems easy enough that I might even try it again in the near future — maybe for the picnics I'm headed to this weekend. After all, a slice of tart is easier to eat on a paper plate than a loose and goopy slice of pie, no?

I'm providing a very condensed version of the Cook's Illustrated recipe, but all credit goes to them. For the full description, I high recommend reading pages 917-920 of their book.

Sweet Pastry Dough for Prebaked Tart Shell
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon of heavy cream (I used soy milk)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cup of unbleached, all-purpose flour (plus some more for dusting the rolling pin and rolling surface
2/3 cup of confectioners' sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick)) of cold unsalted butter

Whisk the egg yolk, cream and vanilla in a small bowl and set aside. Measure the flour, sugar and salt into the bowl of a food processor. Cover and pulse a couple times to combine all of the ingredients. Cut the butter into 1/2" cubes and sprinkle them over the surface of the flour. Pulse in 1-second bursts 15 times. With the processor running, pour the liquid ingredients into the bowl and let it just combine, which should take about 12 seconds. Turn off the food processor. Place a sheet of plastic wrap or wax paper on your counter and dump the bowl's contents onto the plastic. Wrap up the contents and lightly compress the dough till it is in a round disc about 6 inches across. Place this in your refrigerator for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours.

This is important. I know baking desires are often a desire for immediate gratification, but if you don't let the dough rest, you'll get a crumbly mess that will only stick to your rolling pin and leave you frustrated and unfulfilled. The flour will actually absorb the liquid and the butter will meld with the flour so you get a crispy crust and not a crumbly mess.

After an hour, and preferably more, place your dough on the counter and let it sit for 10-20 minutes to warm slightly. (This will let the dough warm up enough so it is malleable.) Spread out a sheet of plastic wrap or wax paper on your counter. Sprinkle just a little bit of flour across it and place your dough disc in the middle. Rub a little flour across the rolling pin and let the excess fall on the dough. Start the rolling pin at the edge closest to you and push lightly and evenly away from you. Turn the plastic wrap 180 degrees and roll again. Now turn the plastic just slightly, imagine that your dough is a clock and you're moving the 1 to the 12 position. Roll and repeat, turning the plastic in small amounts and rolling lightly. You may want to add a little more flour to your rolling pin or your dough if it starts to stick. By turning the dough in small increments and rolling lightly, you'll actually get something that comes very close to resembling a circle that is about 13" across.

Ideally you'd have a tart pan. I don't, but I do have a pie pan and it works just fine, it just causes a little extra work. (A tart pan consists of a flat metal bottom that slips into the sloped sides so you can remove the sides of the pan once the tart is cooked easily.) Place your rolling pin on the edge of the plastic wrap farthest from you. Grab the edges of the plastic and roll with the pin toward you so the dough slowly gets wrapped around the pin. With most of the dough wrapped around the pin, place it over the edge of the pan and slowly unroll the pin while the dough drapes over the pan. Gently peel the plastic off the dough and discard. Now gently press the dough into the edges of the pan and press the dough against the outside edge to remove any excess dough. Now you're going to want to fold or roll the dough down the inside of the pan sides so it only comes about halfway up the sides (if you're using a tart pan, you can ignore this step). If you get any tears, just pinch them closed or add a scrap of dough to make a patch and smooth it with your fingers. Now place the dough in your freezer for 30 minutes*. Set your oven to preheat at 375° F. (If you prefer, you can place this pan in a gallon-sized freezer and freeze it for up to one month.)

*Again, this is important. The first chill let the flour absorb the liquid. This freeze will let the butter in the dough get frozen through so it won't melt and cause your crust to get schlumpy. It will also help the dough brown evenly.

Your oven should be preheated by now, so remove the pie pan from the freezer and either had your cooked fruit mixture (recipe to follow) or 1 cup of jam to your tart shell. Place a baking sheet on a rack in the middle of your oven and place the pie pan on top of it. The baking sheet will cause even heating. Let it bake for 15 minutes, then turn the pie 180 degrees and let it bake for another 15-20 minutes. The edges of the crust should just start to turn slightly dark brown while the rest of the crust is golden-brown. Let it cool and serve it with a dollop of ice-cream, a little whipped cream, or just plain.

Cheater Stovetop Jam
3 cups of chopped fresh fruit (I used 2 cups of cherries and 2 peaches)
1/3 cup of white sugar
3 tablespoons of red wine (1 tablespoon of lemon juice would also work)
1 teaspoon of lemon zest is optional, if you like your tart, tart

Place the ingredients into a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir to combine, cover, and let the ingredients come to a boil. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and let it simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. (I suggest you complete up to this step before you begin making the crust.) Remove the lid and let it simmer uncovered for another hour, continuing to stir occasionally (which should give you just enough time to let the dough chill.) The contents should have reduced until you have about 1 cup of a jam-like substance. It may seem slightly too runny, but if you let it cool it should thicken up slightly. Since you want the mix to be cooled all the way through, let it sit for 15 minutes before placing in your refrigerator until you're ready to pour its contents into the shell.

Even though there were a lot of steps, and a lot of waiting, I didn't actively engage with the cooking for more than 10 minutes at any given time. The most hands-on time intensive step was pitting the cherries and chopping the peaches. It took 5 minutes to create the dough, another 5-7 minutes to roll the dough out and place it in the pie pan. The rest of my time was spent doing other things in the kitchen (like dishes) and just waiting. Which also makes this a good dish for when I want to have a dessert ready to pop in the oven just as I sit down to eat dinner. And hopefully the ease of the making will encourage me to make more of these. I can actually see myself making a few of these crusts and freezing them to pull out at a moments notice just to make an impromptu jam tart.

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About the Author(s)

by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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