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Friday, November 24

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Airbags

Editor's note: This article originally ran on May 4, 2004.

If you're a good son or daughter, you don't need reminding, but just in case: Mother's Day is this coming Sunday.

Don't panic, I've got just the thing. When you head over to Mom's on Sunday, you won't even need a card -- just this tart. It's light and zesty, so it's a perfect dessert for early spring.

I found this recipe in an issue of Saveur Magazine a couple years ago. They called it a "crostada" or jam tart, and they got it from a baker in Tuscany, Italy. It calls for jam -- they recommend blackberry or prune -- but it could be made with just about anything. I used fresh apricots and peaches and it was amazing.

You'll need:
3 cups flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1 T. lemon zest
12 tsp. (one and a half sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 whole egg, lightly beaten
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1 cup jam of your choice (or sliced fruit, veggies, whatever)
Juice of a lemon

First off, let's get that lemon zest. You could use the tines of a fork if you have to, but I'd recommend using a grater -- either the finest side of your box grater or, if you've got one, your microplane. You want to grate off just the yellow part of the peel; avoid getting the bitter white part as much as possible. One average-to-large lemon should yield enough zest for a tablespoon.

Sift the flour, sugar and baking powder together into a large bowl, add the lemon zest and stir well. Make a well, a little crater, in the middle of the mixture and pour in the butter, the egg and yolks in. Make sure the butter isn't too hot, or you'll cook the egg. Using two knives (or, like I did, a knife and a fork), work the solids into the liquids until the dough starts to look like course meal or crumbs.

Lightly flour a work surface and turn the dough out onto it. Dust your hands with flour and knead it just enough to make the dough start to come together and become smooth; don't overdo it or the dough will be too dense. Form the dough into a rough ball, wrap it in plastic wrap and chill it on the bottom shelf of your fridge for at least an hour, preferably two or three.

The reason for chilling the dough is simple: When you worked the dough together, you also warmed it up. You're about to introduce the tart to the fiery furnace that is your oven, and if it's not cold when it goes in, the butter will start to melt before the dough has a chance to set, resulting in a crumbly, greasy crust. Sure, it'll taste OK, but it won't look very good. Trust me, I've done this a couple of times. The time in the fridge will also allow the lemon zest to impart its flavor.

While you're waiting, prep your filling. If you're going to use jam, add about a tablespoon of lemon juice to give it a looser consistency and a little extra, er, tartness. I sliced apricots and peaches into 1/8-inch slivers and tossed them in a little sugar and lemon juice -- you could do the same with strawberries, raspberries or whatever.

Pull the dough out of the fridge and let it warm up just enough to roll without cracking. Roll it out on a lightly floured surface until it's about a quarter-inch thick. Lay the bottom of a 10-inch false-bottom tart pan on top of the dough and cut out a circle. (Don't have a false-bottom tart pan? No sweat, just use a pie pan or something.) Set aside the scraps and carefully transfer the circle onto a cookie sheet that you coated with butter or lined with parchment. Form another ball with the dough scraps and roll it out to quarter-inch thickness again. This time cut eight or so strips long enough to crisscross the top of the tart.

Preheat the oven to 350°. Spread the jam -- or arrange your fruit or whatnot -- across the center of the tart, leaving a two-inch border around the edge. Fold the edge of the tart up just to the edge of the filling, then arrange the strips on top in a lattice or some other pattern, cutting off any excess. Pop the tart in the oven and bake until the crust is golden brown and delicious, about 35 to 40 minutes. Let it cool, then transfer it to a plate or platter. Present to mom, and watch her eyes well up with tears when you tell her you made it yourself.

This basic recipe could be used with a variety of ingredients, such as roasted red peppers, zucchini or, for a more savory flavor, chopped olives even thin-sliced prosciutto. If you go with something savory, leave out the lemon zest and instead try some finely minced garlic or fresh herbs.

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