I was in the middle of a lovely spring lunch at Chez Prune up by the Canal St. Martin the other day with Paule Caillat, a friend who taught cooking classes in Paris.
We talked about many things, but of course, the conversation quickly turned to the most important subject of them all: baking. And soon she began to tell me about this tart dough recipe that she’s been making for years. I was expecting her to say, “You begin by taking some cold butter and work it into the flour.”
But she started by saying, “You take butter. And you take water. You put them in a bowl. Then you put it in the oven for 20 minutes and let everything boil until…” which, of course, stopped me mid-swallow of my Côte du Rhone. I almost started choking. “Surely, you jest!” I wanted to cry out in disbelief. Except I couldn’t, because I don’t know how to say that in French. So I just sat there with my mouth agape, which is a pretty uncharacteristic position for me to find myself in.
Then she reiterated, that she heated the butter in the oven and dumped in some flour then stirred it until it was smooth. Seriously gang, you coulda knocked me over with une plume. It was as if someone told me that I had packed up and split to a foreign country with no plans for my future. It was all just crazy-talk. (However you say that in French…)
So Paule invited me to her kitchen to make the dough. After I caught my breath at her kitchen, which was roughly the size of my apartment, she lit the oven and soon the butter was bubbling merrily away in the oven. She made me come over and look, showing me how it was darkening just around the edges, “comme le beurre noisette”—like browned butter.
A few moments later, she carefully pulled it out then she dumped in an unspecified amount of flour with an audible sizzle, and began stirring briskly. When I asked how much flour she’d added, she said, “Oh…you know, enough to make it right.”
Immediately my breathing became short and I had to brace myself against the wall (although a slug of Côte du Rhone brought me back): I knew that you’d flip out if I didn’t get an exact amount of flour out of her. Yet after multiple messages back and forth with her from my home kitchen, I came up with the right quantity. I know from experience pinning down the French isn’t always easy, but the rewards are invariably worth it.
If you’ve been afraid to make tart dough, give this one a try. It couldn’t be easier to make, or more interesting, and yielded a wonderfully flaky, buttery dough. And if anyone asks for the recipe, do make sure they’re not mid-gulp.
French Pastry Dough
- 85g (3 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 1 tablespoon neutral-tasting vegetable oil, (I used canola)
- 3 tablespoons water
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 160g (5.5oz, or 1 rounded cup) flour
- Preheat the oven to 410º F (210º C).
- In a medium-sized ovenproof bowl, such as a Pyrex bowl, combine the butter, oil, water, sugar, and salt.
- Place the bowl in the oven until the butter is bubbling and starts to brown just around the edges. It may take up to 15 minutes, but check before.
- When done, remove the bowl from oven (and be careful, since the bowl will be hot and the mixture might sputter a bit), dump in the flour and stir it in quickly, until it comes together and forms a ball which pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
- Transfer the dough to a 9-inch (23 cm) tart mold with a removable bottom and spread it a bit with a spatula.
- Once the dough is cool enough to handle, pat it into the shell with the heel of your hand, and use your fingers to press it up the sides of the tart mold. Reserve a small piece of dough, about the size of a raspberry, for patching any cracks.
- (Paule takes a fork and reinforces the dough to the sides, which I didn’t find necessary.)
- Prick the dough all over with the tines of a fork about ten times, then bake the tart shell in the oven for 15 minutes, or until the dough is golden brown.
- Remove from the oven and if there are any sizable cracks, use the bits of reserved dough to fill in and patch them.
- I find it best to pinch off a small amount of the reserved dough, roll it gently between your fingers to soften it, then wedge it into the cracks, smoothing it gently with your pinky.
- Let the shell cool before filling.
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