There is often a huddle of people waiting outside the nondescript bakery on a corner of the Jewish ghetto, the one so small there is only room for 3.5 customers at a time, the rest obliged to wait outside gazing into the windows filled with biscotti and crostate and whatever festive specialty there happens to be at that point in the Jewish calendar. The cherry and ricotta tarts are the thing a lot of those customers are waiting for; voluptuous creations bursting with baked sweetened ricotta and cherry jam, the almond pastry baked till it is a deep burnished colour. They are incredibly good; the ricotta light but creamy, the jam tart and sprightly, and the pastry very well cooked. The cheerfully grumpy ladies that bustle about at the counter explain that the singed colour is the way they bake it, that the pastry needs to be well cooked to the point of almost catching.
Here here, nothing better than well cooked pastry nods the writer, who has made a hundred slightly too blonde tarts; remember il forno boccione and give that tart another five minutes in the oven!
A crostata – the generic name for a jam or fruit tart – is a kind of mainstay of Italian family cooking. Italians don’t actually bake a great deal – most often a birthday cake is a fluffy mass of sponge layered with custard and cream from the local pasticceria – but there is someone in every family who prepares the crostata for the occasions where one is called for; a nice afternoon tea, a family lunch, a picnic or a special breakfast. Indeed, crostate are as much a breakfast food as anything else in the land of cakes for colazione.
A pastry ‘crust’ is essentially just a vehicle for whatever seasonal fruit is calling out from the market stalls, or begging to be used from the bottom of the fridge. You can use jam you already have in the larder (good reason to always have extra jars of good jam on the shelves) or cook fresh fruit down ready for the tart. I am constantly experimenting, and love good ripe fruit like plums sprinkled with sugar and just cooked down as part of the baking process, actually a fine way to get a really well baked crust as the fruit needs time to cook. We made this at Market to Table a couple of months ago and the group decided that it was very good, and also agreed that a little whipped cream goes well with a plum tart. If you want to see photos of this version they are part of this lovely account of Market to Table by Paola from Italy on My Mind.
crostata con la marmellata, simple jam tart
For short crust pastry:
250 g plain flour (or 150 g plain flour, 100 g fine ground durum wheat flour)
80 – 100 g caster sugar (light brown caster is nice)
125 g butter
1 large egg (or 1 med egg plus one yolk)
Zest of 1/2 lemon
Pinch of salt
Jar of homemade jam
The pastry can be made so easily by hand there is (almost) no advantage to puling out the stand mixer or food processor. It can also be made in advance and keeps well for a couple of days in the fridge and can be froozen for up to 3 months. Mix all of the dry ingredients and lemon zest together, then add the chilled butter cut into small pieces. Rub the butter into the flour using the tips of your fingers and once mixture has the consistency of breadcrumbs add a beaten egg and mix well until the mixture comes together in a ball. If the pastry is still dry add a teaspoon of water. Turn out onto a well floured surface, knead until it has a uniform consistency, then form a block, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least half an hour before using.
Heat the oven to 180°C.
Roll out two-thirds of the pastry out on a well floured surface. Marble is good because it is cold and helps stop the butter in the pastry from melting. Lightly flour a tart tin with a removable base and line with pastry. If the pastry tears or is not quite the right size you can patch and repair the missing bits. Trim the excess pastry using the back of a butter knife or metal spatula.
Fill the shell with a roughly 1.5 cm layer of jam, making sure not to fill too high. Remember that the jam will bubble up during the cooking process. Roll out the remaining pastry and using a knife or a pastry wheel cut ribbons the length of the crostata and the width you prefer. One by one place the ribbons of pastry on top of the tart to create a lattice. I believe in slightly wonky rustic style lattice, but if you want perfectly threaded lattice this is a good video.
Bake for 20 – 30 minutes at 180 °C or until the pastry has a deep golden colour.
crostata con le fragole, tart with fresh strawberry jam
short crust pastry (as above)
For the filling:
500 g in season strawberries
150 g sugar
Half a lemon juice and peel
Make pastry as above.
Wash and cut the strawberries and cook them lightly with the sugar, lemon juice and lemon peel till they ‘almost’ turn into jam. Once the strawberries are soft remove from extra liquid and let the juice reduce for another 5-10 minutes. The mixture should be jammy enough but the strawberries should still have some form. This is a tart to make when strawberries are really in season and super perfumed, in springtime in Rome my favourite are the big ruby red berries from Basilicata.
Heat the oven to 180°C.
Lightly flour a tart tin with a removable base and line with pastry. If the pastry tears or is not quite the right size you can patch and repair the missing bits. Trim the edges with the blunt side of a butter knife or spatula. Fill with strawberry mixture, and then roll out the remaining pastry to create the lattice top. See notes below if you want to blind bake the base of the tart first, which can help with such a wet filling. Bake at 180°C for 25 – 30 minutes, until the pastry has a deep golden colour. A light sprinkle of icing sugar is nice when serving.
The photos of the strawberry tart steps are by Marie Sjoberg. The other photos are mine apart from the lovely crostata on cake stand which is by Giorgia Nofrini. Vanessa Miles also has a version of the fresh strawberry crostata on her blog The Hungry Chook.
Halved plum version
Short crust pastry (as above)
8-10 ripe plums
150 g caster sugar
Line the tart tin with a piece of pastry that has been rolled out with at least 5cm extra overlap. Place the ripe halved plums into the shell, arranging them either with tops up or down as you like, then sprinkle liberally with sugar. Fold the edges of the pastry over and bake in a 180°C oven for at 30-40 minutes. Depending on how ripe the fruit is you will need this time to cook both the fruit, which will literally ‘jam’ in the oven, and the pastry to cook.
A note about blind baking.
I go on and off blind baking. It is true that it helps to cook the base of the tart well, but it is also true that almost the same result can be achieved by a longer baking time. Blind baking is cooking the tart shell empty before adding the wet filling, so that the pastry on the base gets a chance to cook. Because pastry shrinks it requires ceramic beads, beans or rice to weight the pastry down and stop it disappearing.
To blind bake: line the tart shell with pastry, then line with baking paper and fill with beads. Bake for 10 minutes, remove baking beads and bake for a further 5 minutes and then proceed with the recipe. For a basic crostata you could blind bake if you wish, or you can bake everything together making sure to give the tart a decent time in the oven. For the fresh strawberry jam version, for example, where the filling is very wet blind baking can be worth the effort.