Is there anything more perfect that pastry? A delicious, melt in your mouth delivery system for carbs and fat. It makes the things you pile into it taste better without losing anything of its own. In its simplest form pastry is flour, salt, fat, and water. The proportions and temperature are important, but the basic recipe is simple. Your single 9 inch pie crust is 1 1/2 cups flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 6 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter (cut into small pieces), and 1/4 cup cold water. You mix the flour and salt, cut in the butter until it resembles coarse meal, then add the water, a little bit at a time, until you can pull it together into a ball. Most recipes call for chilling it at this point, but if your ingredients were cold, it’s not strictly necessary. The real secret of pastry is to not handle it very much. Too much kneading, and it is tough. Of course making it in the food processor is easy–pulse until it’s a ball.
But there is more than simple pastry. You can “super-fat” your pastry, by using three times the amount of fat, divided into thirds. You make the pastry with 1/3, roll it out and smear it with another third, fold that up, roll it out and smear it with the last third. This pastry with be sturdy enough for a tall pastry, but still melt in your mouth. First mentioned in Scappi in the 16th century. Folding into thin layers can make a strudel pastry or a puff pastry.
You can use different fats, although butter and lard make the best pastry. You can add egg yolks for richness, sugar for sweetness, rosewater for scent. Grated lemon rind, spices, ground nuts can all be put into pastry. Pastry can be baked or fried, thin or thick.
A few years ago I taught a pastry class at 6 AM in the kitchen at an event. Seven hearty souls showed up, and we made pastry for the herb tortas than were served for breakfast. Here is the recipe:
Herb Tortas (Makes 2)
3/4 pound Romano cheese, freshly grated
10 large eggs
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh marjoram, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh sage leaves, minced
1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley leaves, minced
1 teaspoon powdered ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/3 sticks unsalted butter, chilled and cut into 1/2 dice
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup ice water
2, 8 inch pie pans
Preheat oven to 350′ F. Make pastry: Whisk flour and salt together to mix. Then work chilled butter cubes into the flour until it resembles coarse meal with some slightly larger pieces. Gradually add the ice water a little at a time until the dough pulls together and stays, but is not sticky. Divide dough into two balls for the individual crusts. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill slightly. Roll out the chilled dough on a lightly floured board. Press the crusts gently into the pans, trimming and crimping the edges.
Filling: Put eggs, cheese, sugar, minced herbs, ginger, and salt into blender and blend. Add the softened butter and blend until smooth. Divide and pour evenly into pie crusts. Bake at 350′ F for about 35 minutes until set and golden brown on tops. Serve warm or room temperature.
For those of you who might want a bit more of a challenge. Here is a recipe adapted from several sources. Period literature mentions that at the third wedding of Lucretia Borgia, a special torta was served in her honor that was topped with something that replicated her long blonde hair. A modern Italian dessert, Torta di Tagliarini Farrarese, is the descendant of this dish. However, the version I found in The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper, had many modern elements not used in Renaissance cooking. I then went looking through Scappi to look at period 16th century tortas. Below is my version of the dish.
Torta di Ferrara (makes one large torta)
1 cup all-purpose unbleached flour
10 Tablespoons cake flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 pinch salt
8 Tablespoons chilled unsalted butter
3 egg yolks, chilled
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter (for greasing)
1/4 cup or less cold water
3 ounces cappellini (angel hair pasta)
1 1/2 cups blanched almonds, toasted, then chopped fine
1 cup sugar
1 pound ricotta cheese
3 eggs, separated
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 Tablespoons melted unsalted butter
Make the pastry a day ahead, form into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and put in a zip-lock bag and chill.
Pastry: Stir the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Using your fingertips, rub in the butter until the mixture looks like coarse meal with a few large shales of flour coated butter still intact. Make a well in the center. Add the egg yolks and 1 Tablespoon water. Beat the yolks and water with a fork until smooth. Then toss the dry ingredients until everything is moistened. Do not stir or knead or the dough will toughen. Gather the dough into a ball. If too dry, sprinkle with the remaining Tablespoon of water, toss a few seconds, then gather into a ball, wrap, and chill.
Making the crust: Sprinkle a work surface with flour. Thoroughly grease a 9″ springform pan with butter. Roll out the dough into a large round about 1/8″ thick. Make sure it is of even thinness. Fit into the pan, bringing the dough up its sides and neatly trimming it around the pan’s rim. Keep cool or chill while preparing filling.
Filling: Preheat oven to 375′ F. Have a 10″ round of parchment paper ready. Boil salted water to vigorous boil. Boil dried pasta for about 1 minute. It should be tender enough to eat, but quite firm. Drain, rinse under cold water, and shake dry. Spread pasta on paper towels. Mix the topping sugar and cinnamon together and set aside.
Mix the ricotta, sugar, and egg yolks and mix thoroughly. Stir in the almonds. Beat the egg whites to form soft peaks. Then gently fold the whites into the Ricotta mixture. Slather half the filling over the crust; spread half the pasta over this. Drizzle with half the melted butter and sprinkle with half the sugar-cinnamon topping. Top with remaining filling, and top that with remaining pasta. Drizzle with the melted butter, and sprinkle with remaining sugar-cinnamon topping.
Lightly cover the tart with parchment paper and bake 20 minutes. Uncover and bake another 30-35 minutes or until a knife inserted 2″ from the edge comes out clean. Cool on a rack. Take out of pan and place on serving plate. Sprinkle with more sugar if desired.