Do you ever commit yourself to a last-minute cooking or baking project and they realize, “Whoops! I actually need to deliver on this and do it well.” This has happened to me more than a few times which is why I try to keep some no-fail, sure-fire, crowd-pleasers in my recipe file. One of these is a a project I whipped up today, after offering at 8:30 a.m. this morning to join Pie Party Live, hosted by The Diva that Ate New York. Good thing that I’ve made this Mixed-Berry Crostata about fifty or so times before.
The recipe comes from an issue of Bon Appetit magazine from May 1995 dedicated to Mediterranean cookery. Remember when they used to do a whole issue devoted to the cuisine of one region or country? I really wish they did those again. I’ve saved all the ones that I could get my hands on, as that was during the time I was living overseas, and the magazine wasn’t easy to find where I lived. These are priceless resources for my cooking library, and all the dishes I’ve tried to make from them have worked really well. One of these is the Grandmother’s Tart (or Torta alla Nonna), from which I made the crostata.
I’ve baked this dessert in several countries and cities, using metric, imperial, and American measures and pans, so here’s my tips for making it. Many of these are low-tech, as something I’ve never really discussed on this site is that I really do love to get my hands messy when I cook. I have no problem mixing pastry dough by hand or mixing up the stuff for meatballs and then shaping them between my palms. Cooking, for me, is a tactile experience, as much in the eating as in the preparation. This is also where the extra ingredient of care gets added in, and that isn’t listed in any recipe card, on-line instructions or cookbook that I’ve ever found. It also lets you know when you need to adjust the composition of a dish to add liquids or solids to make it come together.
Although the instructions call for using a food processor, truthfully, you can easily use a pastry cutter or a fork to cut the butter into the dry ingredients. After I add the eggs, I use a wooden spoon to incorporate everything. Then, when the egg is mostly mixed in and there is no longer any visible liquid, I put the spoon aside, roll up my sleeves, and mix all the rest of it by hand. The moisture and heat from my palms helps to bring those last bits together, and then I knead it for about a couple of turns just to make sure that there are no clumps of butter hanging out in the dough. This isn’t bread, so you don’t need to knead it more than a few times (personally, I don’t think I’ve ever kneaded it for a minute like it says in the instructions).
Then, you press the dough into the removable-bottom tart pan. This dough is very forgiving so you can shape it and patch up holes as you go. In the U.S., I use about a 9-inch pan. Overseas, look for one that is about 23 cm in width. The original recipe calls for cherry or apricot-pineapple preserves. I say, use what you like and what you’ll eat. Cherry is a favorite of mine, but today, I decided to use Mixed-Berry (or frutti di bosco). In Italy, I have seen crostate at bakeries with either plum (prugna), cherry (ciliega), or apricot (albicocca). It is possible to make the dough in advance and press it into the pan without adding the jam. Then, put it into the refrigerator, covered in plastic, with the ball of dough for the lattice top also covered in plastic and placed in the fridge. Take it out about 15 minutes before filling it with jam and creating the lattice.
Lattice top added
The trickiest part of making this is really to roll out the cross pieces for the lattice without them breaking apart. I think I’ve only managed to do this successfully about once or twice. The positive side is that it definitely looks rustic (rustico) and handmade (fatto a mano) if they aren’t perfect or don’t break in the middle during baking, which mine usually do, as you’ll see in the results below. Don’t fret over this at all! The only advice I have is again that this dough is so forgiving. If a piece breaks before you’ve laid down the lattice slat, stick it back together and roll it out again. Also the recipe calls for 12 equal pieces. I’ve done 6, 8, 10. It doesn’t matter as along as they criss-cross.
Here is what the end result looks like. Lemon-perfumed, shortbread-like crispy crust with melty, sweet, gooey fruit all cooked together. This is perfect for an impromptu supper or tea or as a potluck contribution, and the leftovers, if there are any, make a delicious next-day breakfast or snack (not that I’m speaking from any kind of personal experience on that, mind you), and you can take all the credit for making it yourself, which is sure to impress your guests.
*Kitchen Witch Tip:
For this version of the crostata I used Sarabeth’s Spreadable Fruit. I like it in this recipe as spreadable fruit is less sweet and more of the fruit flavor is present. The down side is that it can also sometimes be more liquidy. To use it here, measure out the amount that you need for the filling and let it it drain for 10-15 minutes in a fine-mesh sieve before spreading over the crostata base. That way, you will not have all the liquid seeping into the crust to make it soggy.