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Apples Center Stage

In a beautiful crostata

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Cycling around the lush Slovenian countryside in late September and early October, I saw well-tended gardens everywhere. In them, the last tomatoes of the season were ripening, while cabbages and leeks appeared ready to be harvested. Fall flowers around the edges provided a colorful note. The branches of apple trees were laden with different varieties. I wish the gardeners sold their surplus. I purchased yogurt and cheese from vending machines installed outside farms, but found no way to buy apples directly from growers.

Language being a barrier, I didn't feel comfortable asking the occasional gardener I saw — intent on uprooting bean poles and cleaning up spent summer crops — whether they would sell some of their bounty. Being on the move and with limited cooking capabilities, I could not have done much with the apples beyond eating them raw. Still, I could dream about being one of those gardeners with a bumper crop to use up.

Apples from Humboldt's new crop were available before I traveled to Europe and I had already started my tradition of roasting less than perfect ones to make apple sauce, a recipe I shared in this paper some time ago ("Baking Beauties," Oct. 23, 2014). With Thanksgiving and then the December holidays fast approaching, it's a good time to talk about apples in an elegant dessert.

In Italy, crostata is a popular dessert there, thanks to its versatility. I can make it any time of year with fruit preserves, fruit, pastry cream or a combination thereof. The base or shell of crostata is made of pasta frolla (or pastafrolla), a dough of flour (I use more than one kind of flour), sugar, butter and egg. Besides crust, pasta frolla can be used to make cookies called frollini.

The most traditional crostata is filled with jam and decorated with a lattice of dough. For this recipe, I use the mandoline to thinly slice the apples and spread them to create a lovely surface effect. I encourage you to look for and try different varieties of apples. Ask the grower which ones they recommend for baking and feel free to experiment to find your favorite.

Apple Tart or Crostata di Mele

The crostata is best eaten the same day it is prepared. Choose apples that are sweet and crisp, and use a preserve that goes well with them, like plum. Use leftover pasta frolla to make cookies and bake them along with the tart for 12-15 minutes, until golden. Serves 10-12.

Ingredients

For the pasta frolla:

1/3 cup ultrafine sugar (baker's sugar) or ½ cup powdered sugar

½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour

½ cup whole-wheat pastry flour

¼ cup almond flour or almond meal

¼ cup whole-grain barley flour or unbleached all-purpose flour

1 pinch of salt

6 tablespoons (3 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1 large egg, lightly whisked

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

For the filling:

1 cup good quality, low-sugar fruit preserves

10 ounces apples

First, prepare the pasta frolla. In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, pulse the sugar, flours and salt a few times to mix. Add butter and pulse several times for 3 seconds until the mix resembles coarse meal. (If you don't have a food processor: Whisk together sugar, flours and salt in a bowl. Cut or rub the butter into the sugar and flour mixture with your fingers until it has the consistency of coarse crumbs. Do this in the bowl or on your work surface, using your fingertips, a fork or a pastry blender.)

Transfer the mix onto your work surface in a mound. Make a well in the center of the mixture, and pour the egg and vanilla extract into it. Start mixing with a fork to incorporate the liquid into the solid ingredients, then finish with your fingers. Knead the dough lightly just until it comes together in a ball. Flour your hands with all-purpose flour as needed to prevent excessive sticking. Shape the dough into a flat 1-inch-thick disk and wrap it in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.

Once the dough is chilled, form the shell. Use a fluted, round 9- to 9 ½-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Unwrap the chilled pasta frolla. Lightly dust the top of the dough with flour. Dust your rolling surface with flour, too — parchment paper or the plastic film in which the dough was wrapped work well to roll on. Start by pressing the pasta frolla with the rolling pin, inching from the middle outward; turn the dough 90 degrees and repeat. When it softens, start rolling it gently and continue until you obtain a circle about 1/8-inch thick.

If you used parchment paper or plastic wrap as rolling surface, flip the pasta frolla over the tart pan, centering it. Gently press it into the pan, covering all corners. Peel away the wrap.

Trim the excess dough hanging over the edges of the pan and use it to fill any gaps. Press around the edges into the sides of the pan making sure it's an even thickness all the way around. Prick the shell with a fork in several places. Refrigerate for 15 minutes.

Heat the oven to 350 F.

Assemble the crostata. Rinse the apples well, cut them into quarters and core them. Slice them thinly crosswise using the thinnest setting of a mandoline (1/16 inch).

Remove the unbaked tart shell from the fridge. Using a spatula, spread the fruit preserves in an even layer on the bottom of the tart shell. Fan out the apple slices over the fruit preserves to make a beautiful, even layer.

Bake for 35-40 minutes at 350 F, until the edge of the tart is just golden. Make sure the apples don't burn at the edges. (If that seems about to happen, cover the tart loosely with foil and continue baking.)

Remove the crostata from the oven and let it cool on a rack for 10 minutes. Release the base of the tart pan from the fluted ring.

Let the crostata cool another 10 minutes on the rack, then use a wide spatula to slide it onto a serving plate to cool completely. Slice carefully and serve.

Simona Carini (she/her) also writes about her adventures in the kitchen on her blog pulcetta.com and shares photographs on Instagram @simonacarini. She particularly likes to create still lives with produce from the farmers market.

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