For many bakers, pie is the first dessert that comes to mind when summer rolls around. But for this Italian baker, the dessert of choice is a crostata, a tart often filled with fruit or cream—or a combination of the two—that is ubiquitous throughout Italy.
Although a crostata shares similarities with pie and with the freeform French galette, it’s distinct from either of those treats. A typical crostata is shallower than a pie but has more structure than a galette, and can be baked in anything from a fluted tart tin to an old pizza pan. It is made with pasta frolla, a sweet, buttery short-crust pastry enriched with egg, and as with all Italian food, its filling varies by region, season, and individual baker.
The most basic, and beloved, version is crostata di marmellata, in which a thick layer of good jam is sandwiched between the bottom crust and a rolled lattice top. Virtually every hotel, B&B, and agriturismo sets at least one crostata out at its daily breakfast buffet, and I have fond memories of waking up in my aunt’s house in Rome to find a freshly baked jam crostata beneath a clean towel on the kitchen table.
Pasta frolla, the butter-rich pastry used to make crostatas, is like a fingerprint in Italy; every baker has her own version. The basic recipe contains all-purpose flour, butter, sugar, and eggs or egg yolks. But variations abound. I use confectioners’ sugar rather than granulated because I find it makes silkier dough. Most bakers add a touch of vanilla or a little finely grated lemon or orange zest (or both) to their dough. Substituting unsweetened cocoa for a portion of the flour creates a pastry with a deep chocolate color and gentle cocoa flavor. And a pinch of baking powder in the dough yields a softer, more tender crust, which I like especially for breakfast jam crostatas. For dessert crostatas, I prefer the shortbread crispness of a crust made without baking powder.
Be sure to chill pasta frolla before rolling it out. It is easy to roll, but warms up quickly—take care not to overhandle it. Still, don’t fret over it; the dough is silky and forgiving, and while it can tear easily, it is just as easily patched back together.
Not all crostatas call for a lattice top, but it is traditional. There are a couple of approaches to forming the lattice. One is to roll pieces of dough by hand into long ropes and arrange them on top of the filled base in a crisscross pattern. Another is to roll the pastry into a sheet and cut strips with a straight or fluted pastry wheel. The traditional lattice top is not woven, as the buttery dough makes it challenging to weave without tearing. That said, if the dough is sufficiently chilled, it is possible to create a woven lattice top (the more you practice, the easier it is to do).
Finally, you can forgo the lattice altogether and instead use cookie cutters to cut out decorative shapes to top your crostata, as in the Lemon Crostata recipe. Let your own artistic sense be your guide.
Summer is my favorite season for crostatas. Rather than relying on jam from my pantry, I can start with fresh fruit from the farmers’ market or garden—from strawberries at the beginning of the season to figs at the end. The key is to cook the fruit down a bit with sugar to make a quick jam. This both concentrates the fruit’s fresh flavor and avoids a filling that’s too wet.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the crostata is how accommodating it is, and how easy it is to adapt it to your own taste. The recipes here offer good examples, because they invite mixing and matching. For the simplest rendition, start with the strawberry jam crostata, a classic breakfast crostata. For something more elaborate, try the caramelized peach and frangipane, or the spiced blueberry and ricotta. Or mix it up by topping the frangipane filling with spiced blueberries, and the ricotta filling with caramelized peaches. You can also substitute the caramelized peaches or blueberries for the strawberries in the classic version. And keep in mind that the Brandied Fig and Chocolate Crostata is delicious baked in the cocoa crust, but it’s just as good in a plain crust (see the cocoa variation in the Pasta Frolla recipe).
Once you’ve mastered the basics, you’ll soon find yourself dreaming up your own filling and flavor combinations.
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