Shortcrust pastry is one of the most useful baking skills. You can use it for sweet or savoury dishes, make it in any quantity, keep it for a day or two in the fridge or store it for later in the freezer. And the skills are very simple – you mix the flour and butter using the same rubbing in method as for scones.
The recipe today is for a freeform fruit tart, so you don’t need to worry about lining a pie dish or tart tin. You can use all sorts of fruit in the centre, just cut fairly small so it cooks through. Watch out for fruits that give off a lot of juice when they cook – you might want to add some breadcrumbs or cake crumbs underneath the fruit to soak up the juices. But with the rhubarb here, I just didn’t pack it too closely, and it was fine.
Making shortcrust pastry is surrounded by a dense thicket of rules and myths:
- Cold hands make better pastry
- You should roll out the pastry on a marble slab
- You need to use ice water
- All butter pastry is best
- You should always use lard for the best pastry
So why all the rules? What’s with keeping everything cold? For pastry, you really need the waterproofing effect of the fat to make sure the pastry ends up ‘short’, which means crisp and crumbly, like shortbread. Butter is made of only about 80% fat (depending on the brand). The rest is a mixture of water and milk solids (seriously. Check the nutrition panel on a packet). This means that anything you do to warm the pastry up risks melting a little bit of butter and releasing some water into the flour, and you want to keep that to a minimum.
Another reason for keeping things cold is to preserve some pieces of fat in the pastry. When the dough is rolled out, these pieces will form thin layers of fat, separating layers of dough. As the pastry cooks, the fat melts and separates the layers, making the cooked pastry flaky as well as crumbly. If you want a more flaky pastry, leave more large pieces of fat in the dough. When you roll it out, if you can see big streaks of fat, you can gently fold it like a business letter before proceeding. This will gives you some of the characteristics of rough puff pastry. If you want it more crumbly, rub the fat in until all the big pieces disappear. For a really shortbread-like crust, you can use softened or melted butter, along with sugar, which also interferes with the gluten.
Similarly, you want to handle it as little as possible. Rolling it out or stretching it many times will make it tough not crisp, as it develops the gluten.
Why use lard or shortening?
Those who swear by lard or vegetable shortening for their pastry do so for two reasons. One is that both are 100% fat, so there’s no risk of releasing water into the pastry as it melts. The other factor is that both melt at a higher temperature than butter, meaning you can use warm hands with less risk of melting the fat. The down side of both is that the flavour isn’t as nice as butter, so a common compromise is to use half butter and half lard.
- Baking sheet or tart tin
The phrase to remember is ‘half fat to flour’ – you always start with a ratio of half the weight of butter or other fat to the weight of flour. Richer shortcrust pastries can use more butter, and can use eggs as well, but this is the basic recipe, and a good place to start.
- 200g flour
- 100g cold butter (or half butter and half lard)
- 4-5 tbsp cold, cold water
- Big pinch of salt
For a rhubarb tart:
- 3 sticks of rhubarb
- 1 clementine or orange
- Brown sugar
Weigh the flour into a bowl, add the salt, and add the cold butter, cut into chunks. Using a dinner knife, cut the butter into smaller pieces in the flour. Aim for the largest chunks to be about the size of a large pea. This will make it easier to rub the butter in.
Using your fingertips, rub the flour and butter together to integrate them, as in the scones recipe. Here, it doesn’t matter if the butter doesn’t disappear completely – you can leave some small lumps. Keep everything as cold as you can.
Once the butter is rubbed in, add about 3 tablespoons of fridge-cold water (about 45g if the bowl is on the scales). Use the knife to mix it around and try to get everything equally damp. You’re not trying to get it wet enough to form a ball on it’s own, like with scones. All you need is enough dampness that when you squeeze the crumbs together, they stick to each other and don’t crumble apart again. Try that test to see if it’s ready. You will probably need another tablespoon or two to make sure it’s damp enough all the way through, but try not to use too much more than you need. The more water you use, the tougher the pastry will be, and the more likely it is to shrink when it is baked.
Use the knife to start sticking the damp crumbs together (the more you can use a knife or a scraper to push things around, the less you will have to use your hands, and the cooler everything stays).
Tip everything out onto the counter and pat and push it into a single disc of dough. Put this into a small ziplock bag or wrap it in clingfilm, and stash it in the fridge. Leave it for at least 30 minutes and up to a day.
Remove from the fridge, put it onto a floured counter and start to roll out with a rolling pin. If it’s too cold and stiff for the rolling pin to make an impression, leave it out for a while.
The trick when rolling out pastry is to roll it only in the middle – don’t roll off the front or the back. Just roll a little, then turn the pastry gently by about 1/8th of a turn, and roll again. This stops you making any part of the pastry too thin, and turning it helps to keep it roughly round and makes sure it is not sticking.
The pastry will probably start to crack at the edges as you roll it out. You can push these together, so that they don’t spread and get bigger as you roll further. Just push the edges of the crack together with your fingers, or pat the edges to seal it up.
Once you have a thin sheet of pastry, transfer carefully to a baking sheet. It’s easiest to move it by draping it over the rolling pin, or by folding it gently in half and then sliding it over. Using a piece of baking parchment to line the baking sheet will make it easier to move, and will also stop any juices from the fruit sticking the tart to the baking sheet when it’s baked.
Spread it out on the baking sheet, and move the whole thing into the fridge while you prepare the fruit. This will chill the pastry back down, and also give the gluten that was stretched out by the rolling pin a chance to relax.
Meanwhile, chop the fruit into small pieces and combine with a couple of tablespoons of sugar, and some clementine zest here.
Remove the pastry from the fridge. Arrange the fruit over the pastry, leaving a wide border around the edge. Leave any juices that have collected in the bowl. Fold the edge of the pastry over the fruit, and pinch it together to hold it in place.
Crimp it all the way around, then if there are some sugary juices still in the bowl, use a pastry brush to brush them over the edge of the pastry. This is not essential, but will make it sweeter and help it brown.
Bake at 200C/180C for about 20 minutes until the pastry is brown and crisp.
- You can cut the pastry into pieces when it comes out of the fridge, and roll each piece out separately to make individual tarts. The ones below are actually made with a rhubarb-apple compote and roasted rhubarb pieces on top.
- French apple tart – use the same pastry to line a tart tin. Peel, halve and core about 6 or 7 medium apples. Slice thinly and arrange on the pastry. Bake for about 45 minutes, until the pastry is deep golden and the apples are all cooked and starting to colour. Brush the top with warmed apricot jam. This one adapted from a recipe in Saveur magazine.
- Use the same pastry on top of a dish of beef stew or chicken to make a pot pie. Brush the dish with water or milk to make it stick, and crimp it to the dish. Cut a couple of holes in the top to let the steam escape. Brush the top with milk or egg to get a lovely golden colour. Try replacing the puff pastry in this Jamie Oliver recipe for beef and Guinness pie with your own homemade pastry.