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A Crostata for Aunt Lucia

A golden Italian jam tart, revived from memory and a great cookbook

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I have always loved crostata alla crema (tart with pastry cream). My mother, however, did not bake desserts of any kind. My aunt Lucia baked tarts with her homemade jam and made excellent pastry cream, but in her kitchen never the twain would meet. I feasted on her pastry cream and nibbled at her jam tart. My father and all my cousins loved my aunt's jam tart, so I was never able to convince her to diversify her recipe.

My longing for tart with pastry cream now is easily satisfiable, since I have full control of a kitchen and the passion for making experiments in it, but I recently felt a sudden nostalgia for my aunt's jam tart. Looking back at those days, I realize how special were things I took for granted: her homemade jam, her oversize tart pan, the love she put into her baking. I can no longer call my aunt to let her know that I am baking crostata, but that does not detract from the pleasure of doing something that reminds me of her, especially this time of the year.

During my childhood and adolescence, my family spent my father's summer vacation, three weeks in August, in his native village of Poggio Catino (north of Rome), in the house where he grew up and where my aunt lived year-round. I have a few nice memories of those long, hot weeks, but mostly the memories are of boredom. My aunt did her best to alleviate my ennui, cooking, sewing and knitting things for me. I was not overly fond of her jam tart: I would have preferred a thicker layer of something less sweet. On the other hand, I loved her crostatine,cookie-size little tarts made with leftover pastry dough, topped with a dab of jam.

My mother also made jam. One year, I asked her to make a batch with only one part of sugar to 10 parts of fruit. I loved the result, because I could taste the fruit (peaches, in that case). This year, after I started thinking of honoring my aunt by baking a jam tart, I bought plums and honey at the farmers' market and made what I should call fruit spread, using the same proportions (plus some lemon juice).

The expectation may be that I will share my aunt's recipe for past frolla, the sweet shortcrust pastry that provides the base of a crostata, but unfortunately I never asked her for it. So, instead, let me introduce you to the illustrious Pellegrino Artusi (1820-1911), author of the classic La scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiare bene, first published in 1891 and available now in an English translation, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well.

Section 589 contains three recipes for shortcrust pastry dough. For crostata, Artusi recommends recipe C, made with butter and strutto, rendered lard used for cooking. I prefer a variation of recipe B, which employs only butter.

Put half a cup minus one tablespoon of white granulated sugar in the food processor and let it run a bit, then add one cup of unbleached white flour and 3/4 cup of whole wheat pastry flour, and pulse to mix. Add a stick (half a cup) of very cold unsalted butter cut into pieces, plus the grated zest of half a lemon, and a pinch of salt, and pulse a few times, until the mixture has the consistency of coarse crumbs. Then empty the food processor's bowl on your kneading surface. (The food processor method was added in some update of the 1891 edition.)

In a small bowl, lightly beat a whole extra-large egg plus a yolk. Make a well in the center of the mounded flour and butter mixture and pour the beaten eggs into it. Do not scrape the bowl clean -- set it aside, covered, in the fridge. Use a fork to incorporate the liquid into the solid ingredients, until the consistency is such that you can use your fingers without having to run after rivulets of egg. Work the dough as little as possible. Shape it into a thick disk, wrap it in plastic and place it in the fridge to chill for at least half an hour, more if possible. “If it is convenient, you can make the dough the day before,” says Artusi, because “the more time it sits, the more tender it will be when baked.”

When you are ready to bake the tart, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. I use a 9-inch fluted round tart pan with removable bottom, about 1 inch high, and cut a circle of parchment paper to cover the bottom. Roll the dough into a rough circle 1/8-inch thick. Make sure the working surface and the rolling pin are well floured. I use plastic wrap, well-floured, as a rolling surface, which makes the subsequent move onto the tart pan easier.

Transfer the dough onto the pan and delicately press it all around so the corners are well covered. Use the edges of the pan to cut the excess dough and pat the dough to make a nice border. Prick the bottom with the tines of a fork in a few places. Evenly spread the jam, preserve or fruit spread of your choice over the tart shell. I use about 1 3/4 cups of my honey-sweetened plum spread.

Shape some of the leftover dough into strips and make a lattice over the surface, or decorate as desired. My aunts used thin strips to draw large diamonds with centers marked by a small dot of dough. Brush the border and strips with the small quantity of beaten egg you put away earlier. Put the tart in the oven and set the timer for 25 minutes. Check then, and adjust the remaining baking time so that your tart is of a nice golden hue.

A short detour to deal with your leftover pastry dough: After chilling it for 15-20 minutes, roll the dough and use your favorite cookie cutter to obtain desired shapes, then place them on a cookie sheet lined with a silicone mat or parchment paper. Spoon a bit of jam or fruit spread on the top, making sure that it does not get too close to the edges (to avoid spillovers). Put the sheet in the oven together with the tart, or whenever convenient. (Aunt Lucia's crostatine were round and had two short, thin strips of pastry dough crossed over the dab of jam in the center.)

Bake the crostatine, checking them after eight minutes and again adjusting the baking time until they are light golden. Let the crostatine cool undisturbed, as they harden in the process and if you try to move them too early they may break (they are still edible, even though broken).

Going back to the main feature, take the tart out of the oven and let it cool before slicing. It is not easy to prevent house inhabitants from staring at it with yearning. As an argument on the side of waiting, relay to them what Artusi says (section 616): “It gets better after a day or two.” It may not convince them to wait that long, but it may make the tart at least reach room temperature before it meets the knife.

ACrostatafor Aunt Lucia

Ingredients:

1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1/2 cup minus 1 tablespoon white sugar

1 cup unbleached white flour

3/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour

grated zest of half a lemon

a pinch of salt

1 extra-large egg and 1 yolk

jam or fruit spread

Pulse sugar and flour in food processor to mix.

Add butter, lemon zest and salt, and pulse until mixture has consistency of coarse crumbs.

Put mixture on kneading surface, make a well in center ad beaten eggs.

Incorporate the liquid into the solid ingredients using a fork, then your hands, working dough as little as possible.

Shape dough into thick disk, wrap it and thoroughly chill in refrigerator at least half an hour (more if possible).

Preheat the oven to 375 F.

Roll the dough into a rough circle 1/8” thick, place in 9” fluted round tart pan lined with parchment, press it into pan so corners are covered.

Prick the bottom with the tines of a fork.

Spread dough with jam or fruit preserves.

Cut leftover dough into strips and make a lattice over the surface.

Brush the border and strips with the small quantity of beaten egg.

Bake in oven for 25 minutes, or until crust is golden brown.

Remove from oven and let it cool before slicing.

Pellegrino Artusi says: “It gets better after a day or two.”

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