Studying for a Professional Patisserie Diploma at Westminster Kingsway, the first discipline on the syllabus was pastry and I still work with the basic sweet and savoury recipes I was taught then. After the method was demonstrated we were given two French classics to make, the Tart au Citron and a fresh fruit tart (pictured). They were the best tarts I’d ever tasted, although with hindsight this may have been due to the euphoric satisfaction of having produced both myself rather than the actual flavour 😉

So while every Queen of Tarts recipe will give quantities plus a simple method with any amendments for making different flavours such as one of my favourites, pistachio pastry, I wanted to share the method and best tips for sweet paste that I’ve learnt along the way since college for troubleshooting;

  • PREPARATION – Prepare your chosen tart tin, greasing lightly unless a reliable non stick baking pan. Tartlet and petit four tins especially have a tendency to want to hold onto their guest. Investing in decent non-stick tins if baking regularly saves a lot of frustration. I use cake release spray as it’s a light and flavourless, available in supermarkets and makes for a very quick and easy job.
  • WEIGHING OUT – We were taught at college to always pre-weigh ingredients before beginning a recipe and even, with more convoluted recipes to label each with the weight measured. It is a good habit to get into as is often said, baking is a science and only one ingredient mis-measured can ruin a whole recipe.
  • CREAMING – Cream the butter, sugar and salt together in a mixer with the paddle attachment or if by hand in a bowl with a wooden spoon or hand-held whisk. Beat until the butter and sugar have just come together, it doesn’t want to be fluffy like you would if making a sponge.
  • EGGS – All recipes refer to large eggs. Break them into a small bowl then add any zest or vanilla extract if using. Lightly whisk the eggs before beating them slowly into the creamed butter and sugar, a third at a time.
  • FLOUR – For pastry this is always plain flour. Have it measured and ready in a separate bowl then with the mixer on low add the flour and mix until the dough is almost homogenous.
  • BRINGING TOGETHER – It is always better to under mix and finish by hand than over, over-working the gluten in the flour will cause the pastry to be tight when rolling out and shrink on baking. Scrape out the dough and finish bringing it together by hand till it’s smooth then shape into a ball before flattening a little and wrapping tightly in clingfilm.
  • RESTING – Rest the dough in the fridge for at least half an hour both pre-rolling as well as once rolled out in the tin. It will help relax the gluten, as well as making the pastry much easier to handle and rollout it also helps prevent shrinkage when baking.
  • ROLLING SURFACE – The best surface to roll out pastry is a cold one as it helps keep the pastry together. If you have a stone work surface this is ideal, otherwise any surface without cracks will do – you just need to work with some haste before the dough softens and starts falling apart. Lightly flour your work surface with enough to prevent the dough from sticking without affecting the consistency of the pastry. By throwing the flour diagonally, as though skimming a stone across water you’ll get a lighter, more even coating than sprinkling from above – give it a little welly for the lightest coating. Alternatively if you’re making tarts quite regularly, for a small investment I recommend a flour shaker, one with a fine mesh will give the lightest coating.
  • ROLLING OUT –  To keep the thickness even when rolling, start from the middle of the pastry disk and roll upwards and downwards, turning the pastry as you go rather than working it left to right. Patch any tears by pressing a little dough on the ‘wound’ then dust with a little flour before rolling again. For tins under 10cm in diameter, roll the dough to approximately 2-3mm thick, for anything over 10cm leave it a little thicker, about 5mm (no thicker than a pound coin). If you prefer you can leave an overhang to compensate for shrinkage, any excess can be sliced off later with a sharp knife once blind baked and while the pastry is still warm. If you’re not sure the pastry is rolled out enough just lay the tin on top to check the sizing.
  • LIFTING – To move the pastry, lay the rolling pin on top then fold the dough down over the rolling pin. Lift the pastry and lay it over the middle of the tin making sure it goes over the sides.  and gently lift and press it into the corners of the tin. A ball of excess dough works brilliantly for pushing the dough into the corners and is less likely to tear the pastry than a finger, especially one with nails!
  • LINING – Most tarts with the exception of a few that don’t have liquid fillings, it is necessary to pre-bake the shell so the pastry is crisp all over and prevent the infamous foggy bottom. To prevent it rising while baking, first prick the pastry all over the base with a fork so steam can escape during baking. Then make a cartouche by cutting a piece of baking paper to size then scrunching it up a couple of times so it’s easier to manipulate before flattening it out and laying it over the pastry case. Fill with baking bean weights or uncooked rice to the top and again rest in the fridge for a minimum of half an hour before baking. For small individual tins I use silver foil and for larger individual tartlets made in a muffin sheet, a cupcake case inside out with the creases smoothed works brilliantly as a liner and saves tons of cutting out time – they can also be reused several times.
  • BLIND BAKING – Preheat the oven to the required temperature (for a large tart usually 180’C) and bake the shell for the time indicated (a large tart is usually 15 minutes) then take out of the oven and remove the paper and baking beans before using a pastry brush to egg wash the inside of the tart with a pre-whisked egg mixed with a little salt then baking further (a large tart is usually 8-10minutes) to finish cooking the base. Once cooled the bottom should be golden and sound hollow when tapped. The egg wash acts as a seal to keep the pastry sealed and crisp for as long as possible. Melted chocolate can also be brushed on blind-baked sweet pastry after cooking then left to set before adding filling to add flavour and again help seal the pastry.

Hope that helps and as always…

Happy Baking!