When my grandmother made pastry, she used the palm of her hand for a measuring cup. After years of practice, she knew the soft weight of a cup of flour or exactly how much sweet cream butter to cut into the dough. Pie crust, biscuits, homemade cookies, cakes, yeast rolls, cornbread, crusty loaves, or tea breads were on her table every day.
I learned from her the science and magic of pastry and bread dough: ice water in pie crust keeps the layers so flaky the crust will shatter under your fork; kneading bread dough releases the gluten from the wheat molecules and makes your bread chewy; use dried beans for pie weights, don’t handle biscuits too much or they get tough; heat the cast iron skillet to smoking hot before you put your cornbread batter in…so many secrets, and I wish every day she was still here to pass more on.
An accent in the same way that meat is in my kitchen, bread and pastry nevertheless make life incredibly easy. Toast often is an edible plate for favorite things and seasonal vegetables, flaky pastry surrounds heaps of seasonal fruit or chicken and vegetables, a tiny bite of a buttery shortbread cookie satisfies my cravings, crusty ciabatta sops up the last drops of a rustic soup, and toasted sourdough or a soft brioche roll turns last night’s dinner into a delicious lunch.
Practice, practice, practice. The beauty of pastry is in the science. Three ingredients you will come to know so well, molecular qualities become intuitive, light fingers move with confidence all on their own and know all the floury secrets passed down over generations.
Savory Butternut Squash Tart with Pancetta and Gorgonzola
1/2 recipe savory tart dough, rolled into a circle, 1/4″ thick
3 small or 2 medium butternut squash, peeled and sliced into half circles
1 shallot, minced
1 T thyme leaves
1 T sage, minced
1 T minced fresh rosemary
salt & pepper
pinch red chili flakes
2 T olive oil
1 T butter
1/3 c. ricotta cheese
2 oz. gorgonzola
3-4 very thin slices pancetta
Preheat oven to 350. For uniform squash slices, use just the squash necks and save the bellies for another use, like soup or risotto. Toss squash slices in a bowl with shallots, herbs and red pepper flakes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Heat butter and olive oil in a skillet and briefly saute squash slices, until just barely tender. Remove from heat and set aside. Whisk egg into ricotta cheese. Transfer pastry circle to baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Spread ricotta egg mixture on pastry circle, leaving a 2-3″ border. Arrange squash slices on top. Crumble gorgonzola and scatter on top of squash. Fold edges of pastry around the filling. Drape pancetta loosely over the filling. Bake in middle of oven for about 25-30 minutes, until pastry is golden, cheese is bubbling and pancetta is crisp.
Savory Tart Dough
Makes enough for one double crust pie or two single crust pies.
2 1/2 c all purpose flour
1 t salt
1 t sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
1/4-1/2 c ice water
Make sure all ingredients are very, very cold. I sometimes even put my food processor bowl and blade in the freezer. In the bowl of a food processor, combine flour, salt and sugar. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal, 8-10 seconds. Do not over process. With machine running, add ice water a little at a time, just until dough comes together without being wet or sticky. Squeeze a small amount together to test it. Dump mixture out onto a piece of parchment paper and bring together into a ball. Squeeze in any loose crumbs or flour mixture. Small bits of butter should still be visible in the dough. It is essential not to let the dough get warm, or to process or handle too much. Keeping the gluten in the cells is the secret to tender, flaky pastry. Breaking the cell walls and releasing the gluten will make pastry rubbery or chewy. Use your fingertips as much as possible, rather than the warm palm of your hand for handling it. Divide into two balls, flatten slightly and chill for at least an hour. Dough can be frozen as well–well-wrapped it keeps for up to six weeks in the freezer.