I love fruit desserts such as tarts, pies, cobblers, and crisps. They are simple to make and are often the perfect finish for a meal. Take tarte au citron, the classic french lemon tart and one of my favorites, as an example. Sweet, crisp pastry encasing a bright, tart, creamy filling. As much as I like it, rarely will I order it when I’m out. You may be rolling your eyes thinking to yourself “This is why I would never make dessert for a pastry chef!”. The reason why I say that is because it’s a really simple dessert to make but hard to get right. The problem lies mainly in the pastry dough. It can’t be too thin or too thick. It can’t be under baked, soggy, tough, or hard. The worse is raw dough at the bottom of the tart.
If you’ve done some baking or perused pastry books, you’ve probably seen recipes for several different doughs. There is American pie dough, sweet dough, pâte brisée, pâte sucrée, pâte sablée, or pâte à foncer. Some have no sugar, some have more sugar, some have twice the butter, some have eggs, some have water while others don’t. This is enough to make one’s head spin! How are you to know which dough to use? Some people make it easy for themselves and use one recipe for everything. Let’s explore this topic and try to make it easier to figure out.
A “pâte” is simply French for dough, but it could also be a paste, as in “pâte à choux” or choux paste. Doughs are pastry doughs for rolling as well as doughs for cookies. For now, let’s stick to pastry doughs for rolling and lining pies and tarts. Doughs are so important as a foundation recipe that in French pastry kitchens, un patissier tourrier (essentially a dough maker) is dedicated to its production. Pastry chefs and bakers often refine and tailor their recipes to fit their needs. Multiple dough recipes, as similar as they may seem, ensure that the finished products are properly made. After all, a wet filling may destroy a finished tart if the dough is intended for use with a dry filling.
Doughs usually require flour, fat, and liquid. The flour is typically a wheat flour of moderate protein level, such as pastry or all-purpose, for some gluten development. Low protein cake flours may be used in recipes for tenderness, where structure is not important. Rarely are high protein bread flours used as they can be too strong.
Fats provide flavor and texture. Butter, is a favorite for flavor, but lard, vegetable oils and shortenings are also popular. How the fat is incorporated into the dough determines the texture of the finished dough. To some extent, it also determines how porous the baked dough is. If there is a high proportion of fat worked into the flour by rubbing into a mealy, fine texture, it is called a short dough. Short doughs have a rich, sandy, yet tender texture, as in pâte sablée. They are called short because the fat coats the flour particles preventing long chains of gluten strands from forming once the liquid is added. If cold, hard fat is cut into the flour and left in larger pieces, the resulting dough would be considered flaky. When broken, the baked dough almost shatters into fine sheets. This is the hallmark of perfect American pie crust. Pâte brisée is similar, though less flaky. I remember my pastry chef instructor at the CIA teaching us to rub butter pieces into the flour for pie dough. We smeared it between the palms of hands in opposite directions to create flakes of flour and butter before we added the water. “Long flakes! We want long flakes for flaky pastry!” He would say over and over again. If the temperature of the fat becomes warm, you will lose the flaky texture, so working quickly is a key.
Another dough similar to the textures of pie dough and pâte brisée is the lesser known pâte à foncer, a lining dough. It uses a creaming method with water and sometimes egg yolk to help emulsify the ingredients. Flour is added at the end. The resulting dough is smooth and sturdy, excellent for sweet and savory fillings such as quiche or clafoutis. It won’t absorb liquid fillings quickly so the dough bakes well and keeps its texture longer.
Liquids are very important for binding the dough together and hydrating the flour. If there isn’t enough of it, the dough would be really difficult to roll and would more than likely be a dry, crumbly mess. Too much liquid will make the dough sticky and have a tough texture because too much gluten formed. Liquids include water, eggs, and sometimes milk. Other liquids may be used, too. The water needs to be cold to prevent the fats from melting or softening. This might cause it to become absorbed by the flour. That would change the texture from short and tender or crisp and flaky to compact and pasty. For flaky doughs, liquid is added at the end. It’s important to use just enough water or liquid to bring the dry ingredients together and hydrate the flour. If eggs are included as the liquid, they will hydrate, add flavor, color, and structure. If you want a dough that holds its shape with minimum shrinking or slumping, a recipe with egg is just what you need. Pâte sucrée, or sweet dough, is one such dough. Often, a modified creaming method is used to blend the ingredients together. Modified means the butter and sugar is not whipped fluffy as it would be for a cake recipe. Add the flour at the end.
Other important ingredients include salt and sugar for flavoring. In addition to sweetness, sugar refines and tenderizes the texture and gives great color and crispness to the baked dough. You may also see a small quantity of acid such as vinegar or lemon juice in a dough recipe. This help slow down oxidation and add a little elasticity to the dough to make it easier to roll.
To decide which dough to use, keep in mind what we discussed about the role of the ingredients and method used to incorporate those ingredients. Think about the texture that is appropriate for the filling. For example, an American apple pie made with a pâte sucrée would not give you the strength and flakes we often think about for apple pie. Pâte brisée or pâte à foncer would be better suited for the apple pie. It would be better to use the pâte sucrée as a prebaked shell and fill it with pastry cream and fruits for a fresh fruit tart or use it for the tarte au citron. Pâte sablée and pâte sucrée are interchangeable for the most part. Depending on the recipe, pâte sablée can be harder to handle in warm kitchens because of the butter content.
To tackle common issues such as soggy or underbaked bases, consider prebaking and brushing the surface of the dough with beaten egg or egg white to create a protective seal from wet fillings. Not only does it ensure the dough is completely baked, but also that it stays crisp. If you prebake the shell with egg wash at the end, the finished tart shell will be nicely colored and shiny. Try working with a few recipes. Before you know it, you will have your favorite go-to ones for all occasions.