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Crostatas: They’re Easy As Pie

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
November 1, 2011

I used to be a pie person.

Apple pie was the first dessert I mastered as a preteen. I started with the basic Betty Crocker recipe and soon moved on to the variations listed below the traditional version — apple-cheese pie, which called for processed American cheese and which I did not like even though I substituted cheddar; Dutch apple pie, which had cream baked into it and which I did like; and French apple pie, which featured a crumb topping and which I loved. Then came peach and blueberry, and peach-blueberry, and double-crust and lattice top and pumpkin and custard and so on.

I still love pie, but at some point I began to veer away from it and toward its Italian cousin, the crostata — essentially a simple tart made with sweet, buttery pastry and usually filled with jam, fresh fruit, ricotta cheese or custard (with chopped or ground nuts often added to the mix). I’m not sure what precipitated this shift, but my guess is that it can probably be traced back — no surprise here — to my childhood and summers spent in Italy.

At my aunts’ apartment in Rome, there always seemed to be a jam crostata on the sideboard in the dining room, usually baked by my cousin Trudi. I liked its rustic simplicity, the casual, imperfect placement of the lattice strips and the way the jam — apricot, peach or plum — shone between the strips in a diamond pattern. The tart crust, known as pasta frolla in Italian, was tender and crumbly, almost cookielike. Washed down with a bowl of warm, milky cappuccino, a wedge of jam crostata made a perfect breakfast.

Still, it did not occur to me to try my hand at baking a crostata until I was well into adulthood. In 2004, while working on The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy, I decided I wanted to end the book on a sweet note. It was my first cookbook, and somehow it seemed incomplete without dessert, despite the subject matter. Since the book was organized seasonally, I created four crostata recipes, one for each season — apple for fall, blackberry jam for winter, ricotta for spring and fresh apricot and tart cherry for summer.

The more I worked on the recipes — figuring out the ideal ratio of butter to flour to sugar to create a sweet (but not too sweet) and tender pasta frolla, and playing around with fillings — the more I came to appreciate the straightforward, rustic appeal of the crostata. While a good pie needs a flaky crust, it is almost always the filling that is the star, and the higher the pie the better. A crostata is more of a balancing act between the filling (always a judicious amount) and the sweet dough that encases it.

Ask any Italian home baker for her pasta frolla recipe and it will surely be different from her neighbor’s. Some use granulated sugar while others prefer powdered sugar, which yields a silkier dough; some use whole eggs and others only yolks. Some bakers flavor the dough with grated lemon or orange zest and some with vanilla. And some sprinkle in a little baking powder to lighten the dough.

A few years ago, while traveling in the Veneto region during late winter, I had a memorable slice of crostata made with a delicate cocoa-flavored pastry and filled with pear halves nestled in custard. It was a simple yet elegant expression of the season, and about as fancy as a crostata ever gets.

Simplicity and seasonality determine the filling. Right now, in the middle of autumn, what could be better than a freshly baked, lattice-topped tart filled with tender chunks of apple and pear? Or sweet winter squash mixed with delicate ricotta cheese and spiked with a little cinnamon?

Even if all you have on hand is a jar of jam — good jam, not too sweet and with lots of natural fruit flavor — you will still end up with a lovely fall dessert. Or, for that matter, breakfast.

A Note About Assembling A Crostata

I use a 9-inch or 11-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom to bake my crostata. But many Italian home cooks use a shallow rimmed pizza pan or baking pan. As for the lattice top, have fun and play around with the design. Sometimes I make the strips wide and sometimes more narrow. To make the tart look a little more festive, I use cookie cutters to cut out shapes and arrange them on top of the filling instead of the strips. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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