When I was growing up, my father directed the excavation of an Etruscan sanctuary on a hill overlooking the town of Murlo, about 15 km south of Siena. We were often invited to workmen's houses for Sunday dinner. The meals were wonderful, and almost invariably closed with a jam crostata, made by spreading a thin layer of pasta frolla (a shortcrust pastry) over the bottom of a pan, topping it with homemade jam, and baking it.
Simple country fare, but delicious. Since the 1960s, Italian cuisine has increased tremendously in sophistication and the variety of pastries and baked desserts is considerably greater. But it's still hard to find something that's quite as satisfying as a well-made crostata.
There are two kinds: The jam crostata (crostata di marmellata) is simplicity in itself, and very well suited to family meals and get-togethers. Another variation is to use Nutella (here's a recipe for homemade Nutella) as the filling.
The fresh-fruit crostata (crostata di frutta), on the other hand, is made by baking the crust, then spreading a thin layer of crema pasticcera (pastry cream) over it, and decorating it with thinly sliced fresh fruit. It's quite refreshing, and if you use several kinds of different colored fruit and have a flair for design, the results can be very impressive -- easily worthy of an important occasion, and even a wedding.
To make a crostata, you will need to begin with the pasta frolla. The following recipe, derived from Artusi, is pretty much standard:
To make the Shortcrust Pastry Shell (pasta frolla) for a Crostata:
- 1 2/3 cups (200 g) flour
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2/3 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 egg plus 1 yolk
- The grated zest of 1/2 lemon or 1/4 orange
Mix the flour and sugar together. Combine the ingredients, handling them as little as possible to keep the butter from melting (a pastry blender or a food processor make this easier). If it's more convenient for you to make the dough a day ahead, do so because it improves with age; it should in any case rest for at least 1 hour.
Once the dough has rested 1 hour, butter a flat-bottomed pan about 12 inches across (if you have one elegant enough to double as a serving dish, use it), and preheat your oven to 350 F (175 C). Roll the dough out somewhere between a 1/4- and 1/2-inch thick; work quickly, without working the dough too much. Set aside the cuttings to make decorative strips (if you're making a jam crostata) or shape them into fanciful cookie shapes.
Now, depending upon what you are making, your paths divide.
To make a Jam or Nutella Crostata:
You'll need 2 cups good quality fruit jam, such as strawberry, raspberry, apricot, fig, or plum, or Nutella (store-bought or homemade). Baking the jam obviously concentrates it; therefore, if it's quite thick, heat it in a pan with a little water to dilute it. Also, if the jam's very sweet to begin with, the crostata will be cloyingly so; in this case heat it over the stove and stir in lemon juice to taste to temper the sweetness.
Spread the jam or Nutella on the dough in the pan. Reroll the cuttings, cut the sheet into half-inch strips with a serrated pastry wheel, and lay the strips in a loose lattice pattern on top of the jam. When you've finished laying out your strips of dough, lay a thin ring of dough around the border of the crostata and tamp it down with a fork to pattern the crostata's rim.
Bake the crostata for about 20 minutes, or until the dough begins to brown. Do not let it overbake, or the pasta frolla will become hard as stone, and the jam will become as sticky as glue. A friend of mine's mother once discovered she had overbaked a crostata and told everyone not to eat it. But his grandfather wouldn't listen. Conversation came to a halt when he returned his slice, with his dentures firmly embedded in it, to his plate.
To make a Fresh Fruit Crostata:
You will need to begin by preparing the dough and selecting the fruit, which should be varied, perfect in appearance, and perfectly ripe (for example, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, currants, blueberries, peaches, apples, pears, kiwi, bananas, oranges, grapes, and so on -- the important thing is variety). Figure you'll need at least 1 quart (4 cups) of sliced fruit, and perhaps more (what you don't use will make an excellent fruit cocktail).
Preheat your oven to 350 F (175 C). Roll out the dough as above and put it in your pan. Cover it with a layer of ovenproof paper and spread 2 cups of dried beans over it, which will keep it flat as it bakes. Bake the base for 20-25 minutes, remove it from the oven, remove the beans, and let it cool.
Crema pasticcera, pastry cream, is one of the basic ingredients used in Italian pastries and cakes. It's not difficult to make, though it does require care and attention lest it curdle. Fernanda Gosetti, author of Il Dolcissimo, suggests you use a copper pot because it conducts heat better, and adds that if you make crema pasticcera frequently you should invest in a round-bottomed pot because its entire contents will be accessible to the whisk or spoon. She also notes that the crema should be transferred to a bowl as soon as it's ready, because it will continue to cook in the pot.
Here's the basic recipe, which can easily be expanded or reduced:
- 6 tablespoons flour
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 vanilla bean, or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- The yolks of 6 very fresh eggs
- 1 pint (2 cups/500 ml) whole milk
- A pinch of fine sea salt
Set all but 1/2 cup of the milk to warm over a slow burner with the vanilla bean. In the meantime, lightly whisk the yolks in a bowl to break them. Strain the flour into the bowl, whisking gently, and making sure that no lumps form. Whisk in the sugar too, and then the remaining 1/2 cup of milk, keeping a wary eye for lumps.
By this time the milk on the stove will be about ready to boil. Remove and discard the vanilla bean, and slowly whisk the milk into the egg-and-milk mixture. Return the cream to the pot and the pot to the fire, and continue cooking over a low flame, stirring gently, until it barely reaches a slow boil. Count to 120 while stirring constantly and it's done. (Note: depending on your eggs and milk, it may thicken to the proper consistency before it boils. If it reaches roughly the consistency of commercially prepared plain yogurt of the sort that will pour from the cup, it's done).
Transfer it to a bowl and let it cool, laying a sheet of plastic wrap directly on its surface to keep a skin from forming across it.
As a final note, if you cover the milk after heating it and let it sit for 10 minutes, covered, it will absorb more bouquet from the vanilla bean. Also, you can, depending on what you are going to use the cream for, flavor it with other things, for example, 2 coffee beans or the zest of 1/2 lemon.
While the pastry cream is cooling, prepare the syrup:
To make Simple Syrup (for glazing the finished tart):
- 1 1/4 cups sugar
- 1 cup water
- The zest of 1 lemon or 1/2 orange, cut into strips.
Bring everything to a gentle boil and cook the syrup down until some dribbled from a spoon forms filaments. Remove and discard the zest.
Wash the fruit, pat it dry, and slice it (the strawberries lengthwise into halves, and the remainder as you prefer). Spread the pastry cream over the crust, and then lay the sliced fruit over it in whatever pattern you find most pleasing. When you are done gently brush the fruit with the syrup and you are done.
Either of these tarts should serve 6-8.
[Edited by Danette St. Onge]