I have always had a mild fear of baking. It’s something I inherited from my mother, a fantastic chef who instilled in me an intense appreciation for fresh foods and creative dishes, but whom has always hated baking. Complaining that it required too much “rule following” for her taste she would only muster the patience a couple times a year, for very special, or at least unavoidable occasions.
And so I grew with the unquestioned understanding that baking was no fun, and should be avoided unless you were looking to endure and afternoon of frustrated boredom.
Fortunately, at some point the curiosity to take on the challenge outweighed the long heeded warnings of boredom. I started slow, with cookies for friends, and then, for the challenge of it, tried a couple of the most complicated desserts I could find, chocolate truffles, crème brûlée, soufflé but always stayed well away from pastry. Now that my resolution to cook more and try new dishes is coming into its 10th month I think it’s about time I explored the fickle, subtle, completely qualitative but certainly not boring world of pastry.
For me there is a Zen to following a recipe exactly, measuring your success by the result of each step. Determining when your soft peaks become stiff, but not dry, or whether to add that last teaspoon of ice water to make your pastry dough look like “it’s about to come together, but doesn’t quite” (an exasperating description you will find in Nigella’s Rich pastry dough later in this recipe). I see where the notorious stress and anxiety of pastry baking comes from, in so many instances these are skills that can’t be taught from a book, but rather must be learned by sight. A charming daydream of peering into a pastry bowl as your grandmother explains the ideal consistency at each step as the butter is cut into the flour, the egg is added, and then the water, ever so slowly, to make that perfect, flaky crust interrupts the path of logic I’m using to translate Nigella’s words into pictures. No list of creative descriptors can ever compare to that visual education. But alas, without baking relatives I’m left with my best sense of reasoning to make my galette crust (which, ironically, I must attribute to my father).
The idea of a galette is an especially appealing use of pastry to me. It’s cooking in the best of both worlds; the science of the pastry but baked into a rustic free-form tart, taking the shape of whatever fruit filling you put inside.
For this recipe I followed Nigella’s wise advice to a tee, with the sole exception of adding ½-1 teaspoon of cardamom for a little extra spice to compliment the fig spices. C’mon, you didn’t think I baked exactly by the rules, did you?
RICH PASTRY CRUST
1 cup all purpose flour
4 Tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter cold and cut into a half-inch dice
Egg yolk (keep the white for an egg wash later)
1 Tsp non-fat greek yogurt (Nigella also suggests other acidic liquids such as lemon or orange juice, mascarpone or crème fraiche)
Pinch of salt
A few teaspoons of ice water on hand
1 tsp cardamom (if you like)
Measure the flour and cut butter into a food processor or mixer bowl and freeze for 10 minutes. Meanwhile whisk the egg and yogurt and salt and keep in the fridge until needed. When good and cold process (or mix with the paddle attachment in a stand mixer) the flour and butter for about a minute or until the crumbles resemble flattened bread crumbs or oatmeal.
Add the yolk mixture and process well, ensuring total incorporation so you can gauge the consistency. Now, at this point you want to pay very close attention to the size and consistency of your crumbs. You want to stop just as the dough looks like it is about to clump together, but not before. If you need more liquid, add ice water ½ – 1 Tbsp at a time. I needed about 1½ Tbsp but this will change depending on temperature, humidity and especially which acid additive you use.
When the pastry is just about to clump turn it out onto a sheet of saran or wax paper, form into a fat disc and put in the freezer to keep or if using immediately chill in the fridge for at least 20 minutes. When ready to roll out you want to work with the pastry as close to fridge temperature as possible. This will help with the stickiness.
FIG BALSAMIC FILLING
1 pint figs halved or sliced
1/4c balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp honey (I used
3 Tbsp Sugar
1 tsp cardamom
½ tsp cinnamon
This recipe works best with very ripe figs. They soak up the liquid and spices better and tend to be sweeter. If your figs at still firm though it is helpful to marinade them in the liquid and spices for a bit of time before heating them.
Preheat the oven to 375º.
Combine all the ingredients except the figs in a deep saucepan and heat on low just enough to dissolve the honey and sugar. Add the figs and stew them for a few minutes, just long enough to let the figs soak up some of the sauce and the sauce begins to reduce.
Place the fig slices in concentric circles starting at the center of your rolled out pastry, leaving about 1½” around the edge for folding over. Pour some of the syrup over the top of figs (this will sweeten and richen the tart but be careful not to add too much liquid that will seep out of the crust and make it soggy). Fold the excess crust over the edge of the filling, pleating the extra material into a pretty pattern.
Brush the leftover eggwhite over the crust and sprinkle with a few pinches of sugar. Place the tart in the center of a hot oven and bake for about 35 minutes until the figgy syrup is bubbling and the crust is golden brown.
Let cool for at least 10 minutes to let the filling solidify a bit before cutting. If you have leftover syrup from the stewing process you can reduce this down and drizzle it over each slice topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.