How to make pastry: Flour, butter, plus a little magic

Cognac and almond tartlets are finished with a dollop of red jam.
Cognac and almond tartlets are finished with a dollop of red jam. St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Go ahead. Lick your fingers. You know you want to. You know you’re going to.

When you make pastry, licking your fingers is part of the deal. It’s the payment you give yourself for making it.

Pastry is like magic from the oven. You take flour, sugar and butter, maybe add an egg or two and possibly some milk or cream. Mix it together in just the right way, and you end up with little pieces of heaven. Crispy, flaky heaven.

The professionals who produce pastry are alchemists, maybe wizards. They are artists of the highest order. They can do things with sugar and flour that we mere mortals can never even attempt.

But that does not mean that baking is hard.

It helps to remember that top bakers are essentially scientists. They work in precise and exact proportions to achieve the desired results. If you follow the formula, you should be able to re-create that flaky pie crust, that smooth fruit filling.

All you need are a couple of general rules. For best results, always weigh your ingredients instead of measuring by volume – that said, I never do this because I do not feel the need to get all obsessive about it. If you do measure by volume, as I do, be sure to fluff up your flour before spooning it into the measuring cup.

Don’t overwork your doughs; that will make them tough. And keep the butter cold and moisten only with ice water; the colder the ingredients, the flakier the pastry will be.

Still, some rules are meant to be broken. Of the recipes I made here, both used butter that was either softened or at room temperature. Call me a rebel.

The first of these was a fabulous strawberry chocolate tart from a recipe by Michel Richard.

I also had to make cognac and almond tartlets. I simply had to. The recipe comes from France, where pastries are often made with ground almonds or almond flour. These tartlets strike me as sheer elegance.

Once again, the crust is savory, or at least not sweet. That is where a lot of the elegance comes in. But if you think about it, if you used a sweet crust it wouldn’t be tart, right?

The crust, as noted, is also made with cognac or other brandy. You don’t really taste the alcohol, but you would definitely miss it if it were not there.

But the filling is the star of these tarts. You simply grind almonds and mix them and sugar into lightly whisked egg whites. That’s all. Well, you could put a splash of a red fruit jam on the crust before you add the filling if you want, and I would recommend that. Another dollop of jam on top after you have baked it doesn’t hurt, either.

Go ahead. Try it. You know you want to.

Strawberry chocolate tart

Serves 8

Recipe from “Sweet Magic” by Michel Richard and Peter Kaminsky.

2 tablespoons whole almonds

2 tablespoons confectioners sugar

1 pinch salt

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into pieces, divided

3 eggs, divided

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons cocoa powder

3 pounds fresh strawberries, washed and trimmed, divided

1/2 cup granulated sugar

7 ounces bittersweet chocolate

1/2 cup heavy cream

Place the almonds in a heat-proof bowl. Bring a cup or two of water to a boil in a small pot and pour over the almonds. Allow to sit for 45 seconds to 1 minute, but no more. Drain the almonds. Remove the peels by rubbing them.

Place the almonds and the confectioners sugar in a food processor and pulse on and off until finely ground. Add the salt and 1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) of the butter and process until smooth. Beat 1 of the eggs in a small bowl and add half of it to the mixture (you can discard the remaining 1/2 egg). Mix together the flour and cocoa powder and add 1/3 of this combination to the almond-butter mixture; mix just until incorporated. Mix in the second portion of flour until incorporated. Add the remaining third of the flour in short pulses, just barely mixing it. Do not overmix.

Place the dough on a large sheet of plastic wrap. Flatten it out into a 1-inch-thick disk. Wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours before baking.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

On a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough into a 12-inch circle, about 1/4-inch thick. With a fork, poke holes in the dough. Smear the remaining 2 tablespoons of room-temperature butter all around the inside of a 9-inch pie plate. Carefully lay the dough into the pie plate and press it into place. Using a knife, trim the extra dough from the top edge, if any. Place the shell in the freezer for 10 minutes.

Cover the cold shell with a piece of parchment paper and fill it with dry beans or pie weights. Bake for 20 minutes.

While the tart dough is in the oven, make the filling: Puree 2 pounds of the strawberries and the granulated sugar in a blender until smooth and pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer. Microwave the chocolate on high, at 30-second intervals, stirring in between, until melted.

Pour the strawberry purée into the chocolate and mix with a whisk. Stir in the heavy cream, whisking constantly. Beat the remaining 2 eggs in a small bowl and add to the chocolate mixture; whisk until combined.

After the tart shell has baked, remove the weights and parchment and let cool for a few minutes. Leave the oven on.

Pour the chocolate mixture into the shell and bake the tart for 30 minutes, or until the filling is set in the center but not solid. Test for doneness by shaking the pie plate gently; the tart should still jiggle slightly. Allow the tart to cool.

Finish the tart by arranging the remaining fresh strawberries on top.

Per serving: 391 calories; 28 g fat; 15 g saturated fat; 113 mg cholesterol; 6 g protein; 37 g carbohydrate; 24 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 53 mg sodium; 32 mg calcium.

Chocolate eclairs

Serves 20

Recipe from “The Art & Soul of Baking,” by Cindy Mushet

1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 cup water

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, divided

6 large eggs, plus another if needed, divided

1 1/2 cups whole milk

2 large egg yolks

6 tablespoons granulated sugar

2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

4 ounces good quality dark chocolate or combination milk and dark, finely chopped

1/2 cup heavy whipping cream

Note: Eclairs are best when served the same day they are filled. They can be stored in a refrigerator, covered with plastic wrap, for up to 3 days; however the pastry will absorb moisture from the filling and eventually become soggy. The chocolate glaze can be prepared and refrigerated up to 1 week in advance (reheat over a double boiler); the pastry cream can be stored up to 5 days in the refrigerator in an airtight container with a piece of plastic wrap pressed directly on the surface.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and position 2 racks in the top and lower thirds of the oven. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and use a pencil to draw 10 (4-by-1-inch) rectangles on each with a space between each rectangle. Turn the pieces of parchment over.

Place a medium saucepan over low heat and add the butter pieces, water and salt. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon so the butter melts evenly. When the butter has melted, increase the heat and bring to a boil. Immediately remove the pan from the heat and add 1 cup of the flour all at once. Beat vigorously with the wooden spoon until the dough comes together in a mass around the spoon. Place the pan back over medium heat and continue to cook, beating, for another minute or so to dry out the dough – the pan will have a thin film of dough on the bottom.

Transfer the dough to the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on medium speed for 1 minute to slightly cool the dough and develop the gluten. In a separate medium bowl, beat 4 of the eggs together until you can’t distinguish the yellow from the white. With the mixer on medium, add the eggs a couple of tablespoons at a time, allowing each addition to blend completely into the dough before continuing.

When all of the eggs are incorporated, the mixture should be shiny and elastic and stick to the side of the bowl. It should also pass the “string test”: Place a bit of dough between your thumb and forefinger and pull them apart. The dough should form a stretchy string about 1 1/2 to 2 inches long. If the dough has not reached this stage, beat another egg and add as much as needed, a little at a time, until the dough is finished.

Spoon this dough into a pastry bag (or a gallon-sized plastic bag with a small hole cut out in one corner) fitted with a 1/2-inch plain round tip. Pipe the dough into 1 / 2-inch high rectangles to fill each template drawn on the parchment paper. If you don’t have a pastry tip, spoon the dough directly onto the templates about 1/2-inch high.

In a small bowl, lightly beat 1 egg to blend thoroughly. Brush a light coating of egg over the tops of the piped dough, being careful that the egg does not drip down the side (it will glue the eclair to the paper). You will not use all the egg. Bake both sheets of the eclairs for 20 minutes; then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees, switch the sheets between racks and rotate the pans from front to back, and bake for 20 minutes longer. Reduce the temperature again to 300 degrees and bake 10 to 15 minutes longer to dry out the interior. The eclairs should be a deep, golden brown, with no bubbling moisture visible around the sides. Transfer the eclairs to a rack to cool completely.

Fill a large bowl with ice and water and set it aside. Pour the milk into a medium saucepan and heat to just below boiling; remove from the heat. In a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining 1 egg, the 2 egg yolks and the sugar until well-blended and smooth. Add the remaining 1 / 4 cup flour and whisk vigorously until the mixture is very smooth. Very gradually, pour about 1 / 2 cup of the hot milk into the yolk mixture, whisking constantly to temper the yolks. Slowly pour the yolk mixture back into the hot milk, whisking constantly.

Heat this mixture, whisking constantly to prevent the flour from lumping, until it reaches a boil. Continue to cook and whisk for another minute, until the pastry cream is very thick. Remove from the heat and whisk in the 2 tablespoons of cold butter and the vanilla extract. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of this pastry cream, then set the bowl in the ice water. Once the cream has completely cooled, use or store in the refrigerator until needed.

Spoon the pastry cream into the (cleaned and dried) pastry bag or another gallon-sized plastic bag with a small corner cut out and fitted with an elongated, thin tip or a 1 / 4-inch tip. If using the long, thin tip, insert it into one of the short ends of an eclair as far as it will go. Squeeze firmly as you slowly pull the tip out of the pastry, filling the cavity with the pastry cream. If using the plain tip, insert it into 2 evenly spaced places in the bottom of the eclair, squeezing firmly to fill the center of the pastry. Repeat to fill the remaining eclairs.

Place the chocolate in a small bowl large enough to accommodate an eclair, which is about 4 inches long. Bring the cream to a boil in a small saucepan. Immediately pour it over the chocolate and let the mixture sit for 1 minute. Stir until the mixture is completely blended and smooth. Cool for 10 minutes.

Turn the eclairs upside down, dip the top of each one halfway into the chocolate glaze and let the excess drip back into the bowl. Set right side up on a serving platter and allow 30 minutes for the glaze to set.

Per serving: 182 calories; 13 g fat; 7 g saturated fat; 100 mg cholesterol; 4 g protein; 14 g carbohydrate; 7 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 63 mg sodium; 38 mg calcium


Cognac and almond tartlets

Serves 6

Recipe from “The Art & Soul of Baking,” by Cindy Mushet.

1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing pans

2 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting

1/4 cup cognac or other brandy

1 egg

A red fruit jam or preserves, optional

8 egg whites

2 1/2 cups ground almonds, see notes

1 1/3 cups superfine sugar, see notes

Notes: Grind the almonds in a food processor until they form a powder, but not to the point that they turn into almond butter. If you don’t have superfine sugar, make your own by putting granulated sugar in a blender for 10 or 15 seconds.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 6 individual tart pans, each at least 1 1/4 inches deep, with butter.

Place flour, brandy and egg in a bowl and add 3 tablespoons of cold water. Mix to combine and then add the butter; knead to make a smooth dough. Cover and chill for 30 minutes.

Dust the counter and rolling pin with flour and roll out the dough to a scant 1/4 inch. Use a bowl a little larger than the pans to cut out circles in the dough, and line the pans with them. If desired, spread a little fruit jam or preserves into the tart.

Make the almond filling by lightly whisking the egg whites and mixing in the almonds and sugar. Pour the filling into each pastry-lined pan. Bake the tartlets for about 30 minutes, until golden brown.

Per serving: 1,011 calories; 63 g fat (29 g sat.); 143 mg chol.; 20 g protein; 93 g carb.; 47 g sugar; 6 g fiber; 93 mg sodium; 135 mg calcium.