A third and final extract from the new edition of my book Don't Sweat the Aubergine.
I am not dextrous. My efforts at woodwork at school were a jumble of ill-fitting joints, and my Airfix models were encrusted with surplus glue and misapplied paint. Today, I am incapable of wrapping a present without scrunching up the paper, or of folding a shirt without leaving it in need of another go with the iron. And I cannot rub fat into flour efficiently. When I try to roll pastry, I always get it stuck to the rolling pin and to the table, and end up with an uneven, glutenous slab with holes and ragged edges.
I can still make a tart, though. A food processor does the work of my incompetent fingers (though the machine has potential disadvantages – see below), and, leaving the rolling pin in its drawer, I simply spread the dough (as recommended by Elizabeth David), or grate it (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall).
HOW TO MAKE IT
(For a 23cm tin)
140g plain flour
About 2tbsp iced water
Cut the butter into small pieces, and put it back into the fridge for 30 minutes. You could put the flour in its bowl there too.1 – see why you do it
Tip the flour and butter into a food processor. On a medium speed, whizz the ingredients, in short bursts, until the butter is blended and the mixture has the consistency of breadcrumbs.2 (Or, if you prefer, carry out this process with your fingertips.)
Tip this mixture back into the chilled bowl in which you had held the flour. 1tbsp at a time, sprinkle over the water, lifting and blending the mixture gently until it coheres; or stir it into shape gently with a knife.3 Put it back into the fridge, wrapped in clingfilm if you want to protect it from the odours of other foods, for another 30 minutes.4
A loose-bottomed tin will enable you to transfer the cooked tart to a plate. Grease it with a little olive or vegetable oil – the solids in butter can cause sticking. Spread the pastry by hand over the bottom and sides of the tin; or grate it into the tin, and smooth it out.
Prick the pastry with a fork, lay foil or kitchen paper on top, and weigh down this covering – with baking beans, or with uncooked rice, or, as I do, with another tin of the same size. Cook the pastry “blind” (without a filling) in a gas mark 6/200°C oven for 15 minutes; remove the weight and the foil or paper, and continue to cook until the pastry loses all tackiness. Now it is ready for your filling.5
Why you do it
1) Cold ingredients. The trick in pastry-making is to minimise the creation of gluten - the rubbery, tough protein that forms when molecules in starch granules bond, with the help of water. “Shortening” – a fat such as butter or lard – coats the grains of flour, repels water, and inhibits these chains of molecules from forming. A low temperature also inhibits gluten formation. The recipe includes no salt, you’ll notice: salt “greatly strengthens the gluten network”, Harold McGee warns.
2) Machine or hand? I use the machine, because I tend to botch the hand-rubbing. But it has drawbacks. The vigorous beating can cause the water in the butter to hydrate the starch, creating gluten, as can the heating of the rapidly whirring blade. I try to minimise these effects by using the motor in short bursts. Lard, if you’d like to use it, has a lower water content.
3) Adding the water gradually, and gently. This is a delicate stage of the process: you’re introducing an ingredient that will cause gluten to form if handled insensitively. Do not pour water through the spout of the processor. As the ball coheres, it will be kneaded by the blade. Kneading is fine for bread, but not for pastry.
4) Resting. Even with your delicate handling, the dough has developed some lengthier protein molecules. During the next 30 minutes or so, they will relax.
5) Blind baking. Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book is a wonderful work, but offers bad advice in suggesting you pour your tart filling into a case of raw dough. You end up with a soggy crust. When baking blind, you prick the pastry and weigh it down because it can buckle as the water in it steams.