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Tarting Up

Placing dough on pan

Fennel cooking


Rolling the dough



Dough to rest

Fennel Tart

Tarts I don’t like not being able to do something. If you followed my Chef School series last year, you’ll remember that the one thing I failed at was pie crusts. I don’t bake a lot of pies or breads, so dough was a foreign substance to me. My final exam-cooking a full meal-came out pretty well, except for the apple galette. The apples were wonderfully juicy with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg. The crust? Cement. Needless to say, my teacher marked me off for that one.

It’s bothered me ever since.

Recently, The New School of Cooking, where I graduated, offered a class called “Sweet and Savory Tarts.” They really have to change the name. You can imagine the snarky lines my friends fed me when I told them I was taking this class. But I was excited to take it. This was my chance to conquer pie dough.

Our teacher, Jess, was very instructive and explained to us the three main mistakes people make when preparing dough:
1-Not having cold enough ingredients. The butter needs to be very cold, with the cut up cubes very small. The water used should be ice water, not just cold.
2-Overworking the dough. (This is where I screwed up the first time) She explained that a lot of this is trial and error. The big thing here I learned is that you WANT to see tiny pieces of butter in the dough, as when it melts, it lets off steam which helps make the dough flaky.
3-Not resting the dough enough. After you figure out how to work the dough just enough that it sticks together, you have to form a ball, wrap it in plastic, press down on the ball to flatten it a bit, then put it in the refrigerator for about ½ or so to get it cold again. Jess explained that if you keep it longer, it gets too cold to work with. She then explained that it’s not enough to rest the dough when it’s in the ball. After rolling it out and placing it into the tart pan, you need to rest it again in the refrigerator. At this stage, you can even freeze the whole thing to use at a later date.

At this point, we all took out our recipes. Some of us were making savory pies, like onion and thyme. The others were making sweet tarts, like bittersweet chocolate. I was assigned a savory dish-fennel and cardamom. But first, I had to conquer my nemesis-the crust!

I mixed together the flour, salt and sugar. I cut the very cold butter into ½” pieces and proceeded to mix them together, gradually adding the water as I went. Jess wandered around to make sure none of us added too much water so that it got too sticky. As soon as she passed my station and said, “That looks perfect!” I ran for the plastic wrap to let it rest. Whew!

After resting, rolling and resting again, it was time to blind bake the crusts. Blind baking is just pre-cooking the crust. How long depends on the recipe, but a pie weight or bunch of beans us used to weigh the crust down so it doesn’t puff up. Mine only needed a few minutes, as the recipe calls for a longer cooking time.

My filling was the easy part, which I share with you below, along with the dough recipe. I found it delicious. It makes a nice alternative to a quiche for brunch. And I’m proud to say my crust came out flaky and delicious.

I’m sure it will take me a few times to get comfortable with dough. Next time I will use a Cuisinart instead of my hands to mix the dough. All it takes is a few pulses and it’s done. There’s no heat from hands involved, either, so the dough stays colder.

For those of you who are expert bakers, I bow to your prowess.

Flaky Pie Dough
Makes dough for 1 double crust 9” pie or two tart pans

2 ½ C All purpose flour
½ tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
8 oz unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
6-8 tbsps ice water

Combine dry ingredients. Cut in butter. Add only enough water until the dough just holds together, Divide in half and wrap in plastic. Form into discs, Refrigerate 30-45 minutes.

Fennel, Taleggio and Cardamom Tart
½ recipe Flaky Pie Dough, blind baked in a tart pan for about 10 minutes

4 fennel bulbs, tough outer layers removed, quartered and sliced
1 oz (2 tbsps) unsalted butter
¼ C each olive oil, white wine and water
The crushed seeds of 8 cardamom pods
2 heaping tablespoons crème fraiche
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
1C heavy cream
1C whole milk
Salt and pepper
1/3 C taleggio cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cook the fennel in a heavy bottomed skillet with butter, olive oil, wine, water and cardamom seeds. Bring to bubbling, reduce to simmering. Cover and cook gently until the fennel is soft, about 10-12 minutes. Remove it with a slotted spoon. Reduce the juices down to slightly syrupy-about 2-3 tablespoons worth.

Whip together the crème fraiche, eggs, yolks, cream and milk. Add the fennel reduction liquid to the custard mixture and beat together thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper.

Cut the taleggio into ¼” squares. Spread the fennel over the tart shell, then scatter the cheese over it. Pour on the custard and bake until just set and browned, about 25 minutes or so. Serve warm.

2 Responses to “Tarting Up”

  1. I am making this today and can’t wait. Your crust looks fabulous.