Culinary school 101: Pie crust (and a pear and hazelnut tart)

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I think everyone knows by now how I feel about fruit. I buy it, with good intentions, and the poor things slowly ripen, grow mold and end up thrown away. It’s currently blood orange season, and I can’t help myself when I see them at the grocery store. And yet in my fruit bowl they sit, softening and losing their flavor until I finally decide to make sorbet (!) to use them all up. You all get where this is going… So, I had some pears… And I made them into a rich, nutty, buttery and just-a-little-bit-fruity tart. I took the idea of almond cream that we made in culinary school for our Pithiviers or King’s cake and made it with hazelnuts. I made a simple, buttery pie crust, cut my ripe pears into thin slices and arranged them on top of my hazelnut cream. A dusting of cane sugar and voilà!

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You’ll be happy to learn that making a tart like this is incredibly easy. It also requires relatively few ingredients, most of which you probably have lying around. It can be made with any kind of ground nuts and any kind of fruit. The possibilities are endless. You may be worried about the quantity of butter in this recipe. You shouldn’t be, and you shouldn’t skimp. You can cut back slightly on the amount of butter in the nut cream, but the result will be slightly drier. I’ll leave that up to you. I say, be indulgent. Your taste buds will thank you!

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Pear and hazelnut tart

Ingredients:
For the crust:
250 g flour
125 g butter
1 egg yolk
50 ml of water (about 1/4 C)
Pinch of salt
2 t sugar

For the filling:
100 g butter
100 g ground hazelnuts
100 g eggs (2 whole eggs)
100 g of sugar
1/4 t vanilla extract

2-4 pears (at least fairly ripe), cored, peeled, cut into halves and finely sliced
1 T cane or brown sugar (optional)

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Today’s recipe will be all in grams. Not to annoy you and make you drag out your kitchen scale, but because that’s how I learned it and it’s easier to remember this way. The hazelnut cream (or more traditional almond cream) is a tant pour tant mixture, meaning that it’s made out of equal parts sugar, nut meal, eggs and butter. The problem with out US measurements is that 100 grams of sugar doesn’t have the same volume as 100 grams of butter. I haven’t tried making this using, for example, 1/2 C of each of the four ingredients. It would probably work well enough, but when baking I tend to prefer the accuracy of my scale, even though reaching for the cups is often easier than converting to grams and weighing.

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The first thing you’ll want to do is make your crust, since it needs to be refrigerated before using. This helps to cut down on the elasticity of the dough. This classic tart crust recipe is ultra simple and hasn’t let me down yet. If you want to use it to make a savory quiche, simply omit the sugar.

In a large bowl, sift together your flour, salt and sugar. Measure your butter and cut it up into small cubes. Leave the butter you’ll be using for the hazelnut cream out, you’ll want it soft. Dump it into the flour mixture and pinch it into the flour using your fingertips. Once the mixture starts to come together, meaning you have no more cubes of butter but large pebbles of it, you can take the dough between your hands and rub it back and forth (as if you were trying to warm your hands up) to help things along. The goal of this process is that each particle of butter be coated with flour. In other words, your mixture should look like a rough sand at the end.

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Once your butter is well incorporated, form a well in the middle of the mixture. Drop in your egg yolk and about half of the water to start. Using one finger, or one hand (to keep the other one clean!), begin by breaking the egg yolk up and stirring in a circular motion. You should “grab” a little more flour from the edges each time you stir. Continue incorporating the flour, adding water 1 tablespoon at a time if the dough is too shaggy, until you have a dough that isn’t sticky. Form the dough into a ball and run it against the sides and bottom of your bowl to grab up any remaining flour, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

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While your dough is in the fridge, make the hazelnut cream. Place your softened butter, cut into cubes, into a metal or glass mixing bowl (not plastic!). Grab a whisk and place the bowl near a warm surface: on top of a burner on the lowest setting, next to your hot oven, etc. The butter needs to be very, very soft, but not melted in order to make a beautiful, whipped beurre pomade. Of course, you can use your stand mixer for this but I’m giving you the “by hand” technique. With your bowl near a source of heat, begin to gently break up and whisk the butter. Whisking may be difficult at first until the butter reaches the right consistency. Stir over low heat being careful not to melt the butter, and whisking until it becomes pale, white and fluffy, with no more lumps.

You can now add your sugar. Again, whisking very thoroughly, cream the butter and sugar together until the mixture is smooth, with only a few visible grains of sugar. Next, add your eggs one by one, mixing after each addition. The hazelnut meal comes last. Stir until just combined.

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Take your pie crust out of the fridge and preheat your oven to 375°. Roll the pie crust out to about a 1/4 of an inch thick. You should have a margin of about 1 1/2 inches more than your pie plate. Fold the crust in half, then in half again, then pick it up and place it in your pie plate. Gently press the crust down into the bottom of the pie plate, being sure to insist around the crease. Fold the top of the overhanging crust inward and on top of itself, forming a “lip” of about 1/2 inch. Cut off any remaining crust. Straighten the “lip” so it’s pointing upwards and crimp your crust if you like. Place the hazelnut cream inside the tart shell, then add the sliced pears on top. Sprinkle with sugar if using, then bake the tart for 30 to 40 minutes, until the crust is crisp and the hazelnut cream is cooked through and browned on top.

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