Intro to Tart Shells | Chocolate Pastry Crust

Intro to Tart Shells | Chocolate Pastry Crust

Really this is an intro to tarts, and pies, and anything else with a pastry crust. Recently I've been obsessed with all things in this category. I think it's the fact that they provide an excellent framework on which to build any kind of flavor profile. I love the prospect of being able to approach baking similarly to how I might approach a pasta dish, pulling in the freshest seasonal ingredients to star on an inviting blank canvas. Get the matrix in place and build flavor from there; understand the basic underlying theory, and you get the keys to the kingdom. I want those keys... it's the reason I've embarked on this project. 

The two categories to get straight are crusts/shells and fillings. I'll cover a broad overview of the crusts in this post, filling options in the next, and from there I'll delve into each in more detail. 

  1. Pâte Brisée: this is the classic European savory pastry crust. If you hear the words "short crust" on The Great British Baking show... this is what they're talking about.
  2. The Great American Pie Crust: differs from the above mainly in the method of mixing. Bigger pieces of butter = more tender flakiness. Also more fussiness. I find it quite amazing that we managed to one-up the French in the pastry fuss department. 
  3. Pâte Sucrée: this is the most classic sweet pastry crust, literally "sweet pastry." It has a dense texture and holds its shape even with a wet filling.
  4. Pâte Sablée: also a sweet pastry crust, but differing from sucrée in that the addition of either extra egg, extra flour, almond meal, or all of the above renders the texture more crumbly and toothsome. 
  5. Faux-dough: This category includes mashed up cookies, graham crackers, etc. I'm more than a little bit biased against these, because either a) you must first make cookies and then destroy them in an extravagantly inefficient two-step process, or b) you must buy those cookies, which undermines the whole point of being able to take very basic pantry ingredients and turn them into something awesome. 

Depending on what you want to make, there will probably be a best candidate for the job. Once you understand the options, you can make an informed choice, and really, you only need a very few basic recipes in your repertoire to be able to do so. 

Without further ado, let us hone in on a classic chocolate Pâte Sucrée. (Recipe adapted from Pretty Simple Sweet). I realize that a chocolate pâte is probably not technically classic, but we're starting with it anyway. The amount here is either perfect for approximately nine personal-size tarts (above), or one long rectangular 4"x14" tart + one personal-size tart, or - since most likely if you have a tart pan it will be one of these - a round 9" or 10". I also imagine that a 9" or 10" springform pan could work, with only a bit less polish. Country wench-style.  

Shell Ingredients:

  • 1⅓ cups (190 g) all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons (20 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
  • ½ cup (55 g) powdered sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1⅓ sticks (150 g) cold unsalted butter, cubed
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Shell Directions:

1. Make the dough: pulse flour, cocoa, sugar, and salt in a *food processor to combine. Add the cubed butter, breaking it up slightly with your fingers so it doesn't clump. Pulse again until the pieces of butter look like very small pebbles, but not so long that it looks like sand. Add egg and vanilla and pulse again until the dough just starts to stick together. It won't look like one cohesive lump yet, but once you dump it out onto a floured surface, you should be able to pat it easily into a ball. If you're unsure, take a small amount between your fingers and squeeze to see if it comes together easily before dumping it out. If it's too dry, add a teaspoon of water at a time. *If you don't have a food processor (I didn't until recently!) you can do all of this with a pastry cutter, a little extra time and some elbow grease.* Pat the dough into a flattened disc, wrap tightly, and refrigerate for at least an hour.  


2. Roll. Once your tart dough has chilled for an hour, roll it out on a flat floured surface, gently picking up the dough every few rolls and re-flouring beneath so it doesn't stick. It can be tricky to gauge even thickness while rolling. I have found that a combination of running my fingers over the interior of the dough plus feeling around the edges helps me find any thick spots that need attention. 

3. Fill. Gently lift the dough and ease into the tart pan. You get one shot at this, so try to make sure that it's well-centered. Pay special attention to the corners and bottom edge, making sure that the dough is coaxed all the way down into the crevices. Trim the top edge even with a sharp paring knife, then patch in any missing pieces. A word on pricking the dough: I've tried it both ways, and found that pricking the dough made it prone to leaking with a wet filling. Prick if you're using a thicker filling; don't prick if you're using a runny filling that takes time to set up in the fridge - like a panna cotta. Reserve a small ball of dough back for any post-bake patching. Turn the oven to 375F/ 190C and pop shell in the freezer for 30+ minutes to harden. This step helps the dough keep it's shape while baking.  

4. Bake. Don't let the term "blind baking" scare you - and don't be tempted to skip it, because then your tart dough will rise and be puffy. Cartoon tart instead of sleek, sexy tart. Cut a piece of parchment (not wax!!) paper or aluminum foil a few inches larger than the footprint of the tart pan, and fill it with your choice of pie weights or dried beans. (I've personally always opted for the dried beans, and keep them in a special jar in my pantry just for blind baking.) Bake on the middle rack for 20 minutes, then remove the parchment and bake for 10 more minutes or until it no longer looks wet. If any cracking occurs, patch it with a small piece from the reserved ball of dough - a brilliant idea I adopted from David Lebovitz. If it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me! 

The next post will cover an overview of filling options and an almost criminally easy recipe for panna cotta, one of those fillings. 

Intro to Tart Fillings | Panna Cotta with Seasonal Fruit

Intro to Tart Fillings | Panna Cotta with Seasonal Fruit

Swiss Meringue Buttercream Basics

Swiss Meringue Buttercream Basics