Thursday, January 29, 2009

Trust your own crust

When will I get over my conviction that people who write cookbooks know more than I do, simply by virtue of their having written cookbooks? Maybe I'll get over it when I write my cookbook, topic TBD. (Judging by what's been coming out of my kitchen lately, a meditation on noble culinary failures might be worth exploring.)

My feelings of inferiority are even stronger if said cookbook writer is English and glam and the sister of my darling Daniel Day-Lewis. But listen up, Tamasin Day-Lewis
: Your tart crust was ucky. And I knew it didn't seem right when I was putting it together, but I soldiered on, thinking that you couldn't possibly steer me wrong.


Day-Lewis's pie-dough recipe in
The Art of the Tart calls for a cup of white or whole wheat flour, four tablespoons of unsalted butter, a pinch of sea salt and two tablespoons or so of ice water. Not enough fat, I thought, and not quite enough water. I was right on both counts. I whirred the (white) flour and salt in the food processor for a few seconds, cut the cold butter over the top of the flour, put the top back on the processor and started working the pulse button. I was waiting for that magical moment when the mixture starts to look like coarse cornmeal . . . and it never came. Know why? Because there wasn't enough fat.

I didn't want to overwork those four paltry little tablespoons of butter, so I laid off the button and started drizzling in some ice water. Day-Lewis warns that too much water makes the crust liable to shrink upon baking, so I was very judicious. But her prescribed two tablespoons (say it with me now) weren't enough to bring the dough together. So I added a bit more water. Then a bit more. And more still. The moment the dough looked the slightest bit clumpy, I dumped it onto the counter and pressed the clumps into a ball, smooshed the ball into a disk, wrapped it in plastic and banged it into the fridge for a half-hour.

When I rolled it out, the damn thing
still cracked like the leather seats in a '91 Buick Park Avenue. And when I tasted a scrap, it was flat and floury. (Do you taste raw pastry dough? I did this in front of my father once while on Thanksgiving pie duty and sent him into paroxysms. In my opinion, if it doesn't taste okay raw, it's not going to taste okay baked.)

Despite its dryness, the crust did indeed shrink when blind-baked. It cracked and leaked filling all over the place (this is why I always put my tart pan on a baking sheet). And it tasted flat and floury. The innards were delicious, though, which rescued the project from utter failure.

So, Tamasin, I do owe you thanks for the lovely filling recipe, which I'll certainly use again, and for reminding me that I should more often trust my instincts about whether a recipe is good or not. Say hi to your brother for me. And try this pie-crust recipe
, which has never once failed me.

Chard, Gruyère and Crème Fraîche Tart

9-inch unbaked tart shell, chilled
2 heads of Swiss chard
1 cup crème fraîche

4–6 T. whole milk

1 egg, beaten, plus 4 egg yolks

3/4 c. Gruyère, grated
1/4 t. cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Strip the leaves off the chard, and wash leaves and ribs carefully. Set the leaves aside for something else (you can sauté them with a little olive oil and garlic and serve them alongside this tart, if you like). Then slice the ribs as you would celery, in 1/4-inch widths, and steam them until tender. Drain and let cool.

Bake the tart shell blind for 15 minutes, then remove the beans, prick the bottom with a fork, brush with beaten egg, and return to the oven for 5 minutes. Turn the oven down to 350 degrees F.

Beat together until smooth the remaining beaten egg, yolks, crème fraîche, and milk, then stir in the cheese and cayenne pepper and, sparingly, some salt and pepper.

Quickly assemble the layer of cooled chard ribs on the tart bottom, pour the custard over the chard, and cook until browned, about 30 minutes.

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