Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy, the current selection of our Cook the Books Club, is a well-known children's book in the US. It was an interesting read, giving me a glimpse into some of the literature people my age were exposed to during their childhood and a view into rural life and related activities in an age and place quite removed from mine. For Almanzo and his family the year was marked by the seasonal work they did, and that work is described in detail by Ingalls Wilder. There is also moral content, mostly with regards to money.
The distance in time and place between the book and me made some parts jarring and in this light, it was particularly interesting to listen to a recent piece on NPR on Ingalls Wilder on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of her birth1. As usual, I am thankful to belong to a book club that exposes me to works I would not have read on my own.
There is a lot of food in the book and also something dear to my heart: the imperative of avoiding food waste. This topic recurs in the story including in the chapter connected to my choice of recipe. First Almanzo and his siblings harvest apples by hand, careful not to bruise them so they won't spoil when put into storage.
The other apples are pressed into cider (sidro). Making use of less than perfect apples was the subject of an article I wrote a few years ago1. I regularly buy such apples (called seconds at farmers' market around here) and eat them out of hand or use them in my kitchen. Their main fault usually a tiny bruise or discoloration that can be easily removed, or a non-conformant shape.
Almanzo likes all pies. I have nice memories of the first apple pie I tasted, during my first stay in the UK, homemade by my landlady with apples from her garden. Being Italian, my preference goes to crostata, the traditional Italian tart.
The base (shell) of a crostata is made of pasta frolla (or pastafrolla), a dough of flour, sugar, butter and eggs. In the filling of this crostata I celebrate the change of seasons by using plum preserves from summer and apples from the new crop.
For pasta frolla:
- 1/3 cup / 65 g ultrafine sugar or 1/2 cup powdered sugar (see Note 1)
- 1/2 cup / 60 g whole-wheat pastry flour
- 1/2 cup / 65 g unbleached all-purpose flour (see Note 2)
- 1/4 cup / 30 g almond flour or almond meal
- 1/4 cup / 30 g whole-grain barley flour OR unbleached all-purpose flour OR a mix of millet and sorghum flours
- A pinch of salt
- 6 tablespoons / 85 g / 3 ounces cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 large egg (possibly from pastured poultry), lightly whisked to blend yolk and white
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the filling:
- 1 cup fruit preserves of a flavor you like that goes well with apples and made mostly with fruit (see Note 3)
- 2 apples, about 10 ounces / 280 g, of a variety that is sweet and crisp, organic if possible
Note 1: Ultrafine or superfine sugar is also referred to as baker's sugar. If you cannot find it, you can make your own by putting some regular granulated sugar in a food processor or blender and letting it run until the sugar is finely ground.
Note 2: The less gluten (as indicated by % protein) in the flour, the better (I like to use Perfect Pastry blend by King Arthur Flour). Do not use bread flour.
Note 3: I use my homemade low-sugar preserves. I recommend you choose a good quality product, made with mostly fruit and little sugar.
How to make the pasta frolla
Put sugar, flours and salt in the bowl of the food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse a few times to mix. Add butter and pulse a few times for 3 seconds at a time until the mix resembles coarse meal. Empty food processor's bowl onto your work surface.
[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. You can do this in the bowl or on your work surface, using your fingertips or an implement of choice.]
Make a well in the center of the mounded flour and butter mixture and pour the egg and vanilla extract into it. Use a fork to incorporate the liquid into the solid ingredients, then use your fingertips.
Knead lightly just until the dough comes together into a ball. Use some all-purpose flour as needed to flour your hands to prevent excessive sticking.
Shape the dough into a flat disk 1 inch / 2.5 cm thick and wrap in plastic wrap. Place the dough in the refrigerator and chill for at least two hours. I usually make it the evening before and refrigerate it overnight.
How to prepare the bottom layer of the crostata
To bake the crostata, I recommend using a 9 or 9 1/2-inch / 23-24 cm fluted round tart pan with removable bottom, about 1 inch / 2.5 cm high.
Take the pasta frolla out of the refrigerator and unwrap it. I recommend you roll the dough on a piece of parchment paper or the plastic film in which it was wrapped as it is quite crumbly.
Lightly dust with flour the top of the dough and the surface on which you are rolling it. Keep some flour handy to lightly dust the dough as you go along.
If the dough is very firm, start by pressing the dough with the rolling pin from the middle to each end, moving the rolling pin by a pin's width each time; turn the dough 90 degrees and repeat; when it softens, start rolling gently.
Roll the dough into a circle about 1/8 inch / 3 mm thick. If you used parchment paper or plastic wrap as rolling surface, flip the dough over the tart pan, centering it, and delicately press it all around so the corners are well covered. Peel away the wrap.
Trim the excess dough hanging over the edges of the pan and use it, as necessary, where you find that you came up short and/or to make the border of an even thickness all the way around. Prick the shell with a fork in several places. You will have only a small amount of dough left over, which you can use to make a thicker edge or a cookie or two (1/6 inch / 4 mm thick and cut as desired, baked at the same temperature as the tart for 15 minutes).
Refrigerate the tart shell. After 15 minutes or so, preheat the oven to 350 F / 177 C.
How to fill the crostata
Rinse well the apples and cut them into quarters. Slice them thinly crosswise using the thinnest setting of a mandoline or similar tool.
Take the unbaked tart shell out of the fridge. With the help of a spatula distribute on it the fruit preserves in an even layer. Fan out the apple slices and distribute them over the fruit preserves to make an even layer that will look quite beautiful once the tart is baked.
How to bake the crostata
Put the crostata in the oven and bake for 35 minutes. Check the tart to estimate the time remaining, then continue baking until the tart border is of a light golden hue. Make sure the apples don't burn at the edges. (If that is about to happen, cover the tart loosely with foil and continue baking.)
Remove the tart from the oven and let cool slightly on a rack. If you used a tart pan with a removable bottom, release the tart base from the fluted tart ring. Let cool a bit longer on the rack, then, with the help of a wide spatula, slide the crostata onto a serving plate. Make sure the tart is completely cool before slicing delicately and serving.
The tart is best eaten the day it is made.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the crostata di mele audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]