When I plan a dinner with guests, I include at least one dish that I have made several times and one that is experimental so I can gather reviews. But once we get to dessert, there is no surprise: a couple of flavors of homemade ice cream and a crostata.
Crostata is popular throughout Italy; you can see various types of the tart in the window of bakeries and pastry shops, and it is easily made at home. I have yet to meet an Italian who doesn't have a soft spot for one kind or another. Crostata has a place of honor in my dessert repertoire because I can make it any time of year with fruit preserves or pastry cream, alone or with fresh fruit.
The shell is made of pasta frolla (or pastafrolla), a dough of flour, sugar, butter and eggs. Pasta frolla is versatile: Besides providing the base to make crostata, it makes very nice cookies called frollini.
There are many recipes for pasta frolla. I have two versions that I have been using (and tinkering with) for some time, inspired by those in the seminal 1891 cookbook La Scienza in Cucina e l'Arte di Mangiare Bene by Pellegrino Artusi. It is available in English as Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well.
During the summer, I use strawberries or peaches. Now I turn to pears. In recent years, I have developed a fondness for Asian pears. They look charming with their distinctive, portly shape, exuding authority and the worldly wisdom of someone who has traveled from afar. The two most widely available varieties of Asian pears are Shinko, medium to large in size with a bronze-russet skin, and Nijisseiki (aka 20th century), medium-sized and yellow-skinned.
Asian pears are great as a snack, sliced and paired with cheese, diced and added to a salad. I also oven-bake sliced Asian pears and then add them to various dishes from soup to frittata, from the stuffing for acorn squash to cooked flaked rye (my husband's favorite breakfast).
Asian Pear Tart
(crostata di pere)
The crostata is best eaten the same day it is prepared. Serves 10-12.
Ingredients and method:
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
A pinch of salt
¼ teaspoon grated orange zest
6 tablespoons or 3 ounces cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg, lightly whisked
For the filling
1 cup good quality, low sugar fruit preserves (berries go well with pears)
1 pound Asian pears, preferably organic (should leave you a few extra slices to snack on)
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 it resembles coarse meal. Empty the mix onto your work surface in a mound.
(If you don't have a food processor: Whisk together sugar, flours and salt in a bowl. Rub or cut the butter into the sugar and flour mixture 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.)
Make a well in the center of the mixture and pour the egg and zest into it. Use a fork to incorporate the liquid into the solid ingredients, then use 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 in plastic wrap. Refrigerate the dough for at least two hours or overnight.
Prepare the shell
Use a fluted, round 9- to 9 ½-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.
Unwrap the pasta frolla.
Lightly dust with flour the top of the pasta frolla and your rolling surface — parchment paper or the plastic film in which it was wrapped works well. If it's very firm, start by pressing it with the rolling pin, inching from the middle outward; turn the dough 90 degrees and repeat. When it softens, start rolling gently.
Roll into 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. (Use leftover pasta frolla to make cookies by baking them with the tart until golden.)
Prick the shell with a fork in several places. Refrigerate for 15 minutes, then heat the oven to 350 F.
Rinse quarter and core the pears, then slice them ¼ inch thick.
Assemble and bake
Take the shell out of the refrigerator and use a spatula to make an even layer of preserves on it.
Arrange the pear slices in circles on top of the preserves, starting from the outside until you reach the center.
Bake for 40-45 minutes. It is ready when the edges are golden.
Remove the crostata from the oven and let it cool slightly on a rack. If you have used a tart pan with a removable bottom, release the base from the fluted ring.
Let it cool a bit longer on the rack, then use a wide spatula to slide the crostata onto a serving plate to cool completely.
Slice carefully and serve.
Simona Carini also writes about her adventures in the kitchen on her blog