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Sometimes it's fun to be bossed around by your pastry. There's something gratifying about signing a sadomasochistic agreement with butter and flour and water and ending up with pie.
But -- and this is especially true for novice bakers and anyone prone to panicking in the face of dough -- it's also nice to take it easy, skip a few of the more traditionally gruelling steps, and still end up with pie.
And there isn't a friendlier, more easy-going pastry dough than Paule Caillat's family recipe for pate sucree. Every time you make it, it's giving you a high five, instead of hollering for you to do another lap and 20 push-ups.
Caillat (above), founder of Promenades Gourmandes, a cooking school in Paris, was taught this recipe by her husband's grandmother and her sister (who had studied at Le Cordon Bleu in the 1930s but learned this method from a neighbor). "These two ladies, Mémé and Tante Léo, never left France in their entire life, and now their recipe is repeated all over the world," Caillat wrote in an email. "I like this idea."
Here's how it works: You slide a Pyrex bowl filled with mostly butter, plus small but crucial amounts of oil, water, sugar, and salt, into a hot oven till the mixture is sputtering and the butter is golden and flecked with brown. Then you pull it out and quickly stir the flour in -- it sizzles and foams angrily for a moment, then settles into a rich malleable sludge.
Caillat's instructions here are vague and intuitive ("Flour as necessary; till it pulls off the sides of the bowl"); but David Lebovitz -- who first published Caillat's then-secret recipe in 2009 -- kindly supplies a measurement for those of us who need more hand-holding (5 ounces, or a mounded cupful).
Once the dough is cool enough to handle, you'll pat and press it into a tart pan and bake it straightaway. Because you don't have to roll it or wait for it to chill, you can go from "Hm, tart sounds good" to finished crust in about 40 minutes -- no matter how cramped, hot, or humid your kitchen might be.
The finished tart shell is crumbly and sandy, like a good shortbread, with that barely sweet, haunting quality that brown butter always brings to the table. It's also inexplicably flaky: You haven't laid the groundwork for those layers, which normally require you to cut pockets of icy butter into flour, but there they are.
Be forewarned that the crust will crack less with European-style butter like Plugra, which has a slightly lower water (and higher fat) content than typical American butter, but David Lebovitz recommends a brilliant patching technique for those cracks anyway -- just reserve a small knob of dough to spackle into any cracks after baking. (No need to bake again.)
Slick it with chocolate ganache, sweetened mascarpone, or lemon curd. And if you find yourself missing the sick demands of pastry-making, apply yourself to lining up concentric rings of summer berries across the top, just so.
Paule Caillat's Brown Butter Tart Crust
For 6 servings (one 8 1/2" or 21 cm shell with removable bottom)
- 6 tablespoons (3 ounces) unsalted butter
- flour as necessary (about 5 ounces, or a slightly mounded cupful, per David Lebovitz)
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 3 tablespoons water
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- a pinch of salt
Got a genius recipe you'd like to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].