My no-fail method of making tart crust was a case of necessity being the mother of invention. When I took my first job as a pastry chef, I somehow forgot to mention that I was a flop at making pastry crusts. After many tough, torn, and otherwise terrible attempts, I came up with this foolproof recipe for an exceptionally tender yet sturdy tart crust.
My “secret ingredient” turned out to be an electric mixer. Using it instead of my hands to mix the dough guaranteed consistent results every time. The only trouble I had when testing the technique for this article was that I ate too much; I found myself nibbling away at the empty crusts, their cookie-like flavor and texture too tempting too resist.
Tender, not flaky, is the goal.
A tart is simply a pastry crust with shallow sides, a filling, and no top crust. Unlike pie crusts, tart crusts are removed from their pans after they’re baked, which means they require a sturdier dough. Tart crusts are less flaky than pie crusts, but their marvelous buttery flavor and crumbly, cookie-like texture makes up for any loss of flakiness
Chill your ingredients to keep the crust light. I use a blend of all-purpose and cake flours; the lower gluten in the cake flour makes the crust less likely to toughen. Butter, which also acts as a tenderizer, gives the pastry its flavor. Sugar sweetens the crust and makes it brown nicely. The high proportion of sugar in this recipe also accounts for the sandy, cookie-like texture of the baked crust. I use confectioners’ sugar for a more tender texture and a finer grain. I also add ground blanched almonds for a more crumbly texture. Baking powder, unusual in a tart crust, makes the pastry lighter and gives it a slight lift.
Your ingredients should be cool to help keep the dough cool as you work with it. That way, small pieces of butter will remain in the dough, forming air pockets when the pastry bakes, which keep the crust light. I always keep the egg and butter in the refrigerator until I’m ready to use them, and on hot summer days I even chill the dry ingredients.
Use an electric mixer to avoid overhandling the dough. Most tart crusts are mixed by hand, which is often where trouble begins. Hand mixing is slow going, and because your hands are warm, there’s always the danger that the butter will become too soft, consequently making the dough oily
In my quest for more reliable results, I tried mixing the dough in a food processor, but the machine worked so fast that I felt like the mixing was out of my control. My solution is using an electric mixer. The mixer works fast, but not too fast, blending the dough thoroughly but quickly so it stays cool. And, unlike in the food processor, I can see into the mixing bowl to judge the texture of my dough as it mixes
I begin with the dry ingredients and butter on low speed, mixing just until the largest butter pieces are the size of peas and the rest looks like coarse cornmeal. Then I add the egg and mix until the dough just holds together and begins to come away from the sides of the bowl. The dough should be smooth with bits of butter still visible. I shape it into a disk, wrap it in plastic, and chill it. The cold relaxes the gluten so the dough is more manageable and less likely to shrink during baking.
When rolling the pastry, dust the work surface and rolling pin with cake flour. Cake flour has less gluten than all-purpose, so it won’t toughen the crust. Shape the crust to the tart pan and chill it again to firm it and help it keep its structure. At this point, you can wrap the crust and freeze it for up to two months. When still frozen, fill it and bake it or blind-bake it.