Nothing tops off a Summer Solstice dinner more perfectly than an apple tart. My friend's mother, Val, made a simply divine one the other night, and I am still daydreaming about its goodness. I'm talking the-skies-opened-up-and-the-angels-sang good.
Although tarts seem like a relatively simple dessert, it's the crust wherein lies the excruciating challenge. And to me, it's the crust that's the crucial ingredient. What you put on top - albeit delicious - is secondary. But Val, sweet Val, you nailed it! If crust making were an Olympic event you would win the Gold Medal. Perfectly browned; neither too thick nor too thin; and (here's where the angels started singing) ever so light and flaky.
I asked her for her recipe, afraid that she wouldn't divulge some secret family recipe, and she responded, "It's Julia Child's recipe. You can never go wrong with Julia." Amen, sister.
And so I share the Queen's recipe for Pâte Brisée Sucrée (Sweet Short Paste), which can be found in her must-have book Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Sweet short paste is made exactly like regular short paste except that sugar is mixed into the flour before you begin.
For an 8- to 9-inch shell. 1 cup flour, scooped and leveled 1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar 1/8 teaspoon plus a pinch salt 6 tablespoons chilled butter 2 tablespoons chilled vegetable shortening 4 to 4 1/2 tablespoons cold water
Directions for making short paste by hand:
Place the flour in the bowl and mix in the sugar and salt. Add the butter and shortening and, with the tips of your fingers, rapidly rub them together with the dry ingredients until the fat is broken into bits the size of small oatmeal flakes. Do not overdo this step as the fat will be blended more thoroughly later.
Add the water and blend quickly with one hand, fingers held together and slightly cupped, as you rapidly gather the dough into a mass. Sprinkle up to 1 tablespoon more water by droplets over any unmassed remains and add them to the main body of the dough. Then press the dough firmly into a roughly shaped ball. It should just hold together and be pliable but not sticky.
Directions for making short paste in the food processor: Measure the dry ingredients into the bowl (equipped with the steel blade). Quarter the chilled butter lengthwise and cut crosswise into 3/8-inch pieces; add to the flour along with the chilled shortening. Flick the machine on and off 4 or 5 times. Turn the machine on and pour in the water. Immediately flick the machine on and off several times, and the dough should begin to mass on the blade. If not, dribble in a little more water and repeat, repeating again if necessary. Dough is done when it has begun to mass; do not overmix it. Scrape the dough out onto your work surface and proceed to the fraisage.
The fraisage -- or final blending -- for handmade and machine dough: Place the dough on a lightly floured pastry board. With the heel of one hand, not the palm which is too warm, rapidly press the pastry by two-spoonful bits down on the board and away from you in a firm, quick smear of about 6 inches.
With a scraper or spatula, gather the dough again into a mass; knead it briefly into a fairly smooth round ball. Sprinkle it lightly with flour and wrap it in waxed paper. Either place the dough in the freezing compartment of the refrigerator for about 1 hour until it is firm but not congealed, or refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight. (Uncooked pastry dough will keep for 2 to 3 days under refrigeration, or may be frozen for several weeks. Always wrap it airtight in waxed paper and a plastic bag.)
Rolling out the dough: Because of its high butter content, roll out the dough as quickly as possible, so that it will not soften and become difficult to handle. Place the dough on a lightly floured board or marble. If the dough is hard, beat it with the rolling pin to soften it. Then knead it briefly into a fairly flat circle. It should be just malleable enough to roll out without cracking.
Lightly flour the top of the dough. Place rolling pin across center and roll the pin back and forth with firm but gentle pressure to start the dough moving. Then, with a firm, even stroke, and always rolling away from you, start just below the center of the dough and roll to within an inch of the far edge.
Lift dough and turn it at a slight angle.
Give it another roll. Continue lifting, turning and rolling and, as necessary, sprinkle the board and top of dough lightly with flour to prevent sticking. Roll it into a circle 1/8-inch thick and about 2 inches larger all around than your pie pan or flan ring. If your circle is uneven, cut off a too-large portion, moisten the edge of the too-small portion with water, press the 2 pieces of pastry together and smooth them with your rolling pin.
The dough should be used as soon as it has been rolled out, so that it will not soften.
Making a pastry shell: Mold your pastry in a false-bottomed, straight-sided cake pan 1- to 1 1/2- inches deep and refrigerate.
(A French tart is straight sided and open-faced and stands supported only by its pastry shell.) When the shell is ready for unmolding, the pan is set over a jar and the false bottom frees the shell from the sides of the pan. It is then, with the aid of a long-bladed spatula, slid off its false bottom and onto a rack or the serving dish.
Prebaking the pastry shell: Partial baking sets the dough and is a safeguard against soggy bottom crusts. Line the pastry with buttered lightweight foil or buttered brown paper, press it will against the sides of the pastry and fill it with dried beans. The weight of the beans will hold the pastry against the mold during the baking. Bake at the middle of a preheated 400-degree oven for 8 to 9 minutes until pastry is set. Remove mold or foil and beans. Prick bottom of pastry with a fork to keep it from rising. Return to oven for 2 to 3 minutes more. When the shell is starting to color and just beginning to shrink from sides of mold, remove it from the oven.