The current Cook the Books Club selection is Midnight at the Blackbird Café by Heather Webber.1 On her website, the author explains:
The inspiration for this novel came years ago in a song. After hearing the Beatles' "Blackbird" for the first time, it haunted me... I was captivated with the concept of broken wings and how emotional wounds can keep many from being able to metaphorically fly... Blackbird research led me quickly to the Song of Sixpence with its “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie,” and then a tidbit in Celtic folklore revealed that blackbirds were considered guardians and messengers of the "Other world.” With that, the heart of this book took form. What if blackbirds with their songs could pass messages from dearly departed loved ones through, of all things, pie, to bring comfort and love to those left behind?
The novel is a fairy tale (favola) set in a village in Alabama, mostly in the café of the title. Anna Kate, the protagonist, inherits the business and uses her spare time to untangle family secrets. It is a pleasant read and while the ending is fairly expected, there are a few surprises along the way.
Mulberries (more di gelso) play an important role in the story. If this were mulberry season, I would have made something with the delicious fruit, but those fleeting days are gone this year. Apples and pears of the new crop take center stage, crisp and juicy. I am Italian, so when I think about a dessert made with fruit, I think about crostata (tart). I presented crostata di mele (apple tart) some time ago2 so here I am sharing a recipe for pear tart. While the rendition on the photos uses Asian pears (pere asiatiche), the tart can be made with other pear varieties.
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 / 240 ml fruit preserves of a flavor that goes well with pears (like berries) and made mostly with fruit (see Note 3)
- 1 pound / 450 g Asian pears or another variety of pears (choose one that bakes well), preferably organic (you should be left with a few extra slices to snack on)
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, quarter and core the pears, then slice them ¼ inch / 6 mm thick.
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.
Arrange the pear slices in circles on top of the preserves, starting from the outside until you reach the center.
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.
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 pere 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.]
FTC disclosure: I have received the table linen free of charge from the manufacturer (la FABBRICA del LINO). I have not and will not receive any monetary compensation for presenting it on my blog. The experience shared and the opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.