Tarts with a heart: Skye Gyngell's 10 simple rules for making sweet pastry

It's really worth the effort to make your own sweet pastry, says Skye Gyngell – especially when the fillings are this ravishing
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Indy Lifestyle Online

People generally choose not to make their own pastry, instead buying the ready-made stuff, often frozen, from supermarkets. Contrary to popular belief, however, making pastry yourself is not as difficult as some would have you believe and it is always incredibly satisfying.

There are a couple of rules to adhere to but other than that there is really nothing to it. Find a recipe that suits you and stick to it – there is nothing like repetition in cookery to achieve good results.

The sweet pastry (or pâte sucrée) recipe below is very reliable and the one I use most often. It was given to me almost 20 years ago by a chef in Paris; buttery and rich, it works with almost any sweet filling and is still my favourite.

All the recipes here serve eight and the quantity of pastry is enough for two tarts, but if you want to make only one, don't worry, it won't be wasted: pastry keeps in the fridge for a couple of days and also freezes well.

Here are my simple rules for making good pastry:

1. Make sure all your ingredients are cold.

2. Work it as little as possible.

3. Make sure your hands and work surface are cool.

4. Chill the pastry twice, once after making and also after you have lined your tart tin.

5. Prick the base with a fork to prevent bubbles occurring on the base when you blind-bake it (part-cooking it before filling).

6. To blind-bake: line your tart case well with parchment paper and weigh it down with baking beans. Blind-baking before you pour in the filling gives a better texture, and creates a contrast to the filling.

7. Press the sides of the pastry firmly into the base and sides of your tart case with thumbs – this will stop the sides crumbling inwards at the first stage of cooking.

8. Pastry needs to be watched as it tastes best when it is golden-brown; undercooked is as bad as overcooked pastry.

9. Always cook on the middle shelf; the top shelf can often be too hot.

10. Always rest your pastry for at least 10 minutes before you cut into it.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627

Sweet pastry

Makes enough to line an 10-inch tart tin

500g/1lb plain flour, plus more for dusting
250g/8oz butter, chilled
1 whole organic, free-range egg
1 egg yolk
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Place the flour into a food processor Add the egg and yolk and blend quickly. Cut the butter into little cubes and add to the rest of the ingredients while the mixer is going. Finally, add the sugar and vanilla extract and turn the mixer to "pulse". Fairly soon the dough will take on the consistency of wet sand; continue pulsing and the dough will begin to gather itself into a ball. If the pastry looks a little dry and stays fairly separated, add a tablespoon of cold water.

Once the dough has formed a ball, turn off the machine and remove the pastry. Knead once or twice then swaddle in clingfilm. Place in the fridge and leave to rest for 30 minutes.

The dough is now ready to roll. Dust a work surface fairly liberally with flour. Unwrap the pastry and lay in the centre of the flour. Take a rolling pin and place in the centre of the dough. Place both hands on either end of the pin and press down on the pastry lightly so it flattens slightly. Now begin to roll out the pastry; roll backwards and forwards and from side to side, alternating the movement until the pastry flattens into a round disc no more than an eighth of an inch thick. Take a 10-inch tart tin, preferably with a removable bottom, and place the pastry over the top – I find this easiest if I lift the dough using a rolling pin. Press the pastry firmly into the sides of the tin using your thumbs. Prick the pastry base with a fork and return to the fridge for a further 30 minutes.

While the pastry is chilling, prepare the contents of your tart and preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. When the tart case is chilled, line with parchment paper and fill with baking beans (if you don't have any to hand, use rice or dried chickpeas). Place in the centre of the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and gently take out the parchment paper and the beans. Now pour or spoon in your filling and return to the oven.

When the tart filling is cooked – about 35 to 40 minutes later – remove and cool on a wire rack, before slicing and eating.

Lemon tart

This is not difficult to make and lasts well for a couple of days. Both sharp and sweet, it smacks you in the mouth with tanginess. Try it with crème fraîche: its slightly sour taste complements this tart beautifully.

Serves 8

Pastry, as above
125g/4oz caster sugar
The zest and juice of 2 lemons
5 organic, free-range egg yolks
175g/6oz cold butter, cut into smallish cubes

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas6. Place the sugar, lemon juice and egg yolks into a saucepan over a medium heat. Stir until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon.Add the butter cube by cube, stirring all the while, allowing all the butter to melt and the curd to thicken slightly. Pour the mixture into the prepared tart base and place on the middle shelf of the oven. Leave for 10 minutes then remove from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool to room temperature. Serve with crème fraîche or, if you prefer, thick Jersey cream.

Pear and frangipane tart

The word frangipane is often used to describe a mixture of ground almonds, unsalted butter, eggs and sugar. You can eat it simply on its own or filled with just about any fruit, such as blackberries, quince, pears or apples. It is good served either warm or at room temperature, and best served with crème fraîche as opposed to cream, as this helps cut through its intense sweetness.

Serves 8

Pastry, as above
300g/10oz caster sugar
3 whole eggs
300g/10oz unsalted butter
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
300g/10oz whole blanched almonds
The zest of one unwaxed lemon
3 pears, peeled and cut into six, pips removed

Place the sugar, eggs and butter into a food processor and blend until smooth, then add the vanilla extract.

Set the oven at 180C/350F/Gas4 and place the almonds on a baking tray, brown lightly; this should take no more than five minutes. Remove, allow to cool slightly and add them to the rest of the ingredients. Turn on the machine and purée until you have a paste that is still quite textured. Turn off the mixer and fold in the lemon zest. Pour into the blind-baked tart shell and arrange the pears in a circular shape on top. Place on the middle shelf of the oven and cook for 40 minutes. When finished, the tart should be golden-brown on top and just slightly wobbly in the centre. Cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes and serve slices at room temperature, with a generous dollop of crème fraîche.

Treacle tart

Deliciously sticky and sweet, very old-fashioned and comforting, this tart is best served with lots of good-quality pouring cream. Warm is best as well, as it can feel slightly heavy when eaten cold.

Serves 8

Pastry, as above
400g/13oz treacle or golden syrup
200g/7oz fresh white breadcrumbs
The zest of 2 lemons

Place the treacle or golden syrup into a small pan over a low heat. Heat until the syrup becomes thinner and softer, and hot, but not boiling. Remove from the heat and pour in the breadcrumbs and the lemon zest. Stir well to combine – it should be quite thick. Pour into the cooled, blind-baked tart tin and place on to the middle shelf of the oven. Bake for 30 minutes or until the filling is loosely set: the top should be golden-brown. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Slice and pass around a jug of pouring cream, so that people may help themselves.

The Forager by Wendy Fogarty

Petersham's food sourcer on the best places to buy pastry and everything you need to make it yourself...

If you really don't have the time to make pastry yourself, ready-made, pure-butter organic puff, shortcrust and sweet shortcrust pastry (pâte sucrée) can be bought online from Dorset Pastry. Tel: 01305 854 860, >www.dorsetpastry.com

Bristle-less brushes, grease-proof and baking paper, baking beans, pastry rollers and cutters are available from Lakeland. Tel: 01539 488 100, www.lakeland.co.uk

Beautiful home-made pastries and cakes can be bought from Claire Ptak's Violet Cakes every Saturday from her stand at London's Broadway market, London E8. (Claire worked as pastry chef for Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in California before returning to the UK). www.violetcakes.com

For more pastry inspiration, recipes and tips, try The Pie & Pastry Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum (Simon & Schuster, £25) or Tartine by Elisabeth Prueitt & Chad Roberston (Chronicle Books, £22.50)

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