As regular readers of this blog will know, I am not much of a baker. Nor do I have much of a sweet tooth. But, for some reason, I felt inspired the other day to make a baked dessert for some dinner guests. Foolish, perhaps, to start my baking career by ‘experimenting’ on guests, but all’s well that ends well. I actually liked the way this turned out, and so did the guests.
Of course, I wasn’t totally rash: a crostata di mele, or apple tart, is really very simple to make. If you break it down into its component parts, it is really quite manageable: a base of pastry, called pasta frolla in Italian and pate brisée in French, on which you lay a bed of frangipane, almond paste mixed with butter, sugar, eggs and a bit of liqueur if you like, then sliced apples, arranged in concentric circles. Once baked, you can top this off with an apricot glaze, which gives your tart a lovely sheen and extra layer of flavor. The whole process does not take much more than an hour, and you can make it ahead.
Ingredients (enough for 4-6 servings)
For the pastry shell:
200g (2 cups) pastry or all-purpose flour
150g (1-1/2 sticks) butter
1 Tbs. sugar
A pinch of salt
1 egg yolk (optional)
Cold water (about ½ cup)
For the frangipane base:
50g (½ cup) butter
50g (½ cup) sugar
75g (2/3 cup) of almond paste
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk
2 Tbs. flour
For the filling:
3-4 baking apples (see Notes below)
For the apricot glaze:
A small jar of apricot preserves (or jelly)
To make the pastry shell:
1. In a bowl (or stand mixer) mix together the flour, sugar and a pinch of salt. Then mix in the butter, using your hands or the paddle of your stand mixer, until well incorporated. The resulting mixture will look a bit like little pebbles. Then the egg yolk (if using) and enough cold water so that the mixture just forms a solid dough. Do not knead or overmix, which will make the dough tough. And you should do this all quite quickly, so that the butter does not start to soften too much.
2. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge for 30 minutes or more, to let the dough rest and stiffen up again.
(NB: While the dough is resting, you can make the frangipane base and slice your apples.)
3. Take the dough out of the fridge, remove the plastic wrap, and roll it out with a rolling pin into a round that is at least an inch wider than the tart pan in which you intend to bake your crostata.
4. Using your rolling pin, roll up the dough and then unroll it over the tart pan, trying as best you can to center it well. Gently push the pastry into the bottom of the pan with your fingers. (If, as sometimes happens, your pastry doesn’t quite reach the edge of the pan, you can always ‘nudge’ the pastry outwards to cover the edges of the pan.) Prick the pastry with a fork all over to prevent puffing while it bakes. Then trim off any excess pastry, using the edge of the tart pan as your guide. (NB: If you prefer, you can leave the excess on and fold them inward over the filling when the time comes.)
To make the frangipane:
5. In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar in a mixing bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix them well until you have a smooth paste. You can use a wooden spoon to start and then, once the ingredients are mixed, switch to a whisk to smooth the mixture out. But you can do with in one go, in a fraction of the time and with little effort, using a KitchenAid or other stand mixer, with the whisk attachment.
6. When your pastry shell is ready, take the frangipane and slather it out evenly over the bottom of the shell with a rubber spatula. This will act as a ‘bed’ for your apples and help anchor them in place.
To make the filling and bake the tart:
7. Peel, core and slice the apples into thin half-rounds. Then arrange them attractively in the tart pan. Push one side gently into the frangipane bed, then lay it on its side. Proceed with the next piece, slightly overlapping the proceeding one like roof tiles, continuing around in concentric circles until the entire shell is filled with a single layer of apples slices. Trim off any excess pastry—or, if you prefer, you can fold the edges over the outside of the apples.
8. Now you are ready to bake your tart: If you have one large enough, place the tart pan on a cookie sheet (this will catch any spillage from the tart, but is not 100% necessary.) Place the tart pan in the hot oven (200C, 400F) for about 15 minutes, then lower the temperature to a moderate oven (180C, 350F) and bake for another 10 minutes, then sprinkle the apples with ample sugar, and bake for another 10 minutes or more, or until the apples have nicely browned along their edges and are perfectly soft when pierced with a knife.
9. Remove the tart from the oven, place it on a cooling rack and let it cool off in its pan.
To finish off the tart (optional):
10. If you like, you can finish off the tart with an apricot glaze. To make the glaze, take apricot preserves and force them through a fine sieve with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula—this will smooth out the consistency, as preserves usually have little bits of fruit in them. Then take this purée and heat it gently in a small saucepan with a spoonful or two of sugar to taste, depending on how sweet the preserves are in the first place. Thin out the purée with some water, until you have reached a brushable consistency.
11. Once the tart has cooled, brush over the warm glaze evenly over the entire surface of the apples, but avoiding the pastry.
Now you’re done! Enjoy your crostata di mele either by itself—it is perfectly delicious—or, if you want to gild the lily, with some whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
NOTES: First of all, I have a confession to make… the foregoing recipe really should be called tarte aux pommes à la normande. Probably some of you might have guessed it from the Calvados… but although torta di mele (apple pie) is probably more popular, Italians also make costata di mele in basically the same way. The most important difference is that the Italian version will more often have a different ‘bed’ for the apple filling—rather than frangipane, crema pasticcera (egg yolks emulsified in hot milk, sugar and flour), marmalade or homemade apple sauce. And crostata di mele is less likely to have an apricot glaze.
For this recipe to succeed, you need to choose the right kind of apples. The best apples for tart-making are not too sweet and crisp, so keep their shape in cooking. Others will break down and turn to mush if exposed to heat—which is fine if you want to make apple sauce (or even an apple pie) but not a tart. For this first try, I used Cortlands and they were fantastic: they have a nice, crisp texture, pristine white flesh which was not too sweet and—and at least the ones I used—didn’t even need to be cored. Other favorite baking apples include Galas, Golden Delicious, Braeburns (one of my favorites for eating, too), Rome Beauties, Honeycrisps and, if you like a rather tarter tart, Granny Smiths. These, at least, are some of the options here in the US. Varieties to avoid for a tart include McIntosh and Red Delicious (which, in my humble opinion, are definitely not delicious!)
Pastry dough has a reputation for being tricky to make, but—perhaps it was beginner’s luck—I found it remarkably easy, and it came out just as it should—friabile (flaky) and nice and buttery. They say the most important point is not to overwork it, so that the gluten does not develop too much—gluten will bind the dough together, which is what you do not want—and to keep the dough well chilled. Neither of these tips are at all difficult, but you do need to work quickly. Note this dough is quite fragile compared, say to pasta dough. Once rolled out, if you try to pick it up, it will fall apart in your hands, so use a rolling pin.
There are various types of tart pans you can use. I personally like my ceramic tart pan with fluted edges, from which you can bring to the table for serving, as pictured in this post. But the more elegant and classic solution is the metal tart pan with a removable bottom, for serving the tart out of its pan and on a platter. And even a regular old pie dish will do, of course, in a pinch.