From “Living Within”, July 2014
An unexpected poll at a gathering of friends last month left me wondering why my fellows, some great cooks amongst them, admitted to a man (or, more accurately, to a woman) that not one of them ever thinks to make their own pastry. A bit taken aback, I missed the opportunity to persuade or cajole, and I am not sure I will find occasion any time soon to remedy this and “indulge” them in in-depth talk of pastry.
So here may lie my opportunity to press a case for pastry making, especially important, maybe, at this time of the year when produce is at its peak and looking for opportunity to frame itself appropriately. I could tell you that, genuinely, it is neither hard nor time consuming to make, I might also add that it is not expensive, or that it is satisfying and can be a therapeutic pastime. But more important than any of this, probably, is that, done right, it will ALWAYS taste better than anything that you can buy.
The basic proportions for a short crust dough are very simple. You will need double the weight of flour to fat (butter is my preference). I learned at my mother’s elbow with a basic recipe of 8oz plain flour and 4oz fat (about 220g:110g), a pinch of salt and some ice cold water. There are many variations on this, but let’s start here with proportion and method and you can move onward to the internet, the library, or maybe even your own bookshelves to find further example.
Things to remember:
- keep the ingredients as cool as possible; chill the butter; ice the water.
- Sieve the flour into a large mixing bowl - if it looks lump-free in its packet, you can dispense with the sieve. Add a pinch of salt and mix in with a fork or wire whisk.
- Cut the butter into small cubes (about 1cm) and toss these into the flour.
- Maintain your cool! Keeping your hands as much out of the bowl as you can manage, and using ONLY your fingertips, squeeze the butter and the flour together, raising your hands up and out of the bowl as you do so (imagine that you are really letting air into the mix). With the lightest touch that you can manage, continue to do this until the fat and the flour look a bit like breadcrumbs; a heavy hand will warm the fat too much and cause you to have oily lumps instead of a light crumble, so look out for this danger.
- Add in the iced water, tablespoon by tablespoon. How much to add is a bit of an art form - one that you can hone with a little experience - but it is impossible to be too prescriptive. I add in about 4 tablespoons at the start, toss the ingredients lightly together through the fingers of one hand, or use a blunt edged knife to stir them gently together. Add in more water as you need it. What you are trying to achieve is for the crumbs to come together and just hold as a recognisable dough - one that is homogenous and will roll out without crumbling. So much easier to add more water in than to take some out - so proceed with caution.
- As soon as you have a dough, wrap it in cling film, gently press it into a disc, and flatten slightly, and allow to rest by chilling for 30 minutes in a fridge.
To make an easy, flat, free-form tart: melt about 40g of butter, very gently, set aside and keep warm. Pre-heat your oven to 180ºC (or equivalent). Roll the pastry out on a lightly floured surface using a lightly floured rolling pin (move the pastry often as you do to make sure it is not sticking - no need to turn it over) into a flat round disc a few mm’s thick, then transfer to a baking sheet lined with baking parchment (as you would shop-bought pastry too).
Mix together a tablespoon each of: sugar; plain flour, and ground almonds (if you have them - sugar and flour will do if you don’t) and spread this over the pastry base (leaving a border of an inch or two all the way round - this will absorb excess juice from the fruit). Fill the middle with suitable fruit - halved apricots in my pictured example - you could also use pitted cherries, plums, sliced apples, blackberries - something that can take a bit of heat. Arrange in neat patterns or pile in a heap - anything goes. Sprinkle with two or three tablespoons of sugar (according to the sweetness or tartness of the fruit) and roll up the edges of the pastry to enclose the sides. Brush the pastry edge with the melted butter and sprinkle a couple of tablespoons of sugar on top of this. Place in the heated oven and bake until the pastry looks golden brown and crisp and the fruit looks tender (between about 25 and 45 minutes, depending on your oven - check often). Serve straightaway or at room temperature and pass round the cream.