“Pastry-making…is one of the most important branches of the culinary sciences. It unceasingly occupies itself with ministering pleasure to the sight as well as the taste.” So said Mrs. Isabella Beeton in The Book of Household Management, first published in 1880.
A rather staid way to describe the near-magical creation of a glistening, chocolate-glazed caramel tart, or the conjuring of delicate squares of thyme-scented shortbread, no?
There is nothing staid about pastries, of course, and that has much to do with what is arguably the most important ingredient in the art and science of baking: butter.
Tarts, while similar to pies, are not quite the same thing. Like crusts, tarts are filled crusts baked in a pan, but they are shallower and wider than pies, and they almost always are prepared open-face. And while we serve pies straight from the pan, we usually remove a tart from its pan to display it before cutting.
Although tarts can be made with flaky pie dough or many-layered puff pastry, they more often sport a crust made from butter-plush, egg-enhanced short dough, which is less fragile than pie crust and much, much easier to prepare than puff pastry. Eggs provide flexibility in the dough and structure in the crust. (You can also use egg yolks instead of whole eggs, for their rich yellow color. Free-range, organic chickens are most likely to have the richest color and nutrients.) Butter, of course, lends its oh-so-special, signature flavor, as well as the fat content that it needs to produce a crumbly, tart-worthy crust. Most bakers add sugar to the crust dough when the tart will be served as a sweet dessert.
Tarts come in many shapes—round, rectangular, square, even free-form—and the filling possibilities are nearly endless; think fruit tarts, chocolate tarts, nut tarts, cheese tarts, vegetable tarts. In addition to being delicious, they are elegantly beautiful, a “step-up” from pie.
And now for some tart-making tips: