Cooking Instincts vs. The Cookbook

It all started, because we ate out at a new, or rather, new-to-us restaurant in town a couple of weeks ago. The food was pretty good, though I really wish that folks in Ohio would learn what al dente means when it comes to cooking pasta, and they had a dessert that sounded delightful–lemon blueberry tart.

It sounded delightful, but Zak and I declined, because Zak pointed out that blueberries were in season, I knew how to make lemon curd and he bet that any tart I made would be better than what we paid too much for in a restaurant.

When he put the logic to me in that way, I couldn’t rightly disagree–especially since it meant that he trusted me to make a bang-up beautiful pastry all on my own in the kitchen.

And well, that is probably what I should have done in the first place. I should have just stuck to my usual instincts and made either a pate sucre crust or a batch of shortbread and pat it into a tart pan and call it a tart crust.

But no. I had to go and mistrust my own instinct and decide to get all fancy and follow a recipe out of a cookbook.

Without changing it as I went along.

I really don’t know what possessed me to decide that actually following a recipe as written was a good idea, since I so seldom do that, but there I was. I had bought a quart of fresh blueberries and a dozen eggs at the farmer’s market and a bag of lemons at the grocery store. Butter, flour and sugar I had in the kitchen, so I trotted off to look up my pate sucre recipe, when my eye was caught by a book that I loved reading, but had never baked from.

In the Sweet Kitchen: The Definitive Baker’s Companion by Regan Daley won the International Association of Culinary Professional’s prestigious Cookbook of the Year award in 2001, and with good reason. It is an excellent resource on dessert baking, and is chock full of facts, figures, tables and reference material that, while it may be available elsewhere, is not available all together in one volume.

Regan Daly is a young pastry chef who has worked at many of the finest restaurants in Toronto, and she really does know her stuff, and it is obvious by the way in which she writes.

So, I felt pretty comfortable taking that book out to see if she had a recipe for a lemon-blueberry tart. I figured a hotshot pastry chef is bound to know more about these things than I am.

And lo, and behold–there it was! A recipe for “Cornmeal Crusted Lemon Tart” that had a variation called simply, “Lemon Blueberry Tart.” I read the description of the dessert and my mouth watered: “a mouth-puckering, intensely lemony version of a classic bistro dessert…the cornmeal crust adds a rich nutty flavor and acts as a crunchy contrast to the sikly curd…the Lemon Blueberry Tart variation that follows is divine–these two flavors complement each other beautifully…but be sure you prepare it with fresh wild blueberries, or don’t make it at all!”

I had to cop to liking her attitude–insisting that your reader do the recipe your way or not at all appeals to me–not that I had fresh wild blueberries, mind you. I had fresh, locally grown cultivated organic blueberries, and figured that was good enough.

But it wasn’t the berries that gave me fits.

It was the crust.

I read the recipe, and read her method and thought about it. And something bugged me awfully much about it. It only had 1/3 cup of yellow cornmeal, preferably stoneground–but it also included baking powder, one large egg and one large egg yolk.

Daly warned in her description of how to put the recipe together that her tart dough turns out looking like dry, crumbly floury bits of weirdness and not like a proper dough at all. That gave me pause. She explained it away by saying that cornmeal takes a long time to assimilate liquids and that after the liquids soaked in a bit the dough would come together. She advocated putting the dough together in the food processor, but also gave a method for doing it by hand.

What really bothered me wasn’t crumbly tart dough–pate sucre can be crumbly and shortbread is intensely crumbly and looks like a disaster until you start patting it into its mold or the tart pan. It was the insistence upon the use of both an egg and an egg yolk that made me cagey. I was afraid that the eggs would make the tart dough too tough–which is probably why she added a single egg yolk in addition to the whole egg.

A little kitchen science to explain my wariness with this recipe: what causes pastry dough to be flakey and good is the way it is put together. The fat, in this case, butter, is cut into the flour–in this case, flour mixed with a very small amount of cornmeal–and then a scant amount of liquid is added–just enough to make the dough stick together.

Tart doughs are supposed to be somewhat stronger than regular pie dough, because after they are baked, they are removed from their pan to stand on a serving plate alone. The pie pan holds the crust of regular pies in shape–it is so flaky that it would crumble if it didn’t have the pie pan to give it structure.

The egg was obviously meant to help strengthen the tart dough, and I figured that the use of a single egg yolk in addition to the whole egg was meant to tenderize the dough by the addition of extra fat. The part of an egg which provides the most structural elements are the proteins in egg whites, while the egg yolk is mostly fat and water.

What was bothering me was this–not only was the dough going to have very strong structural elements–the crunch of cornmeal and the binding element of eggs, but it was also not rolled out, but instead, patted into the tart pan by hand.

I was fearful that all of this handling of the dough would make it tougher than it needed to be. The addition of the baking powder was obviously meant to lighten the pastry to some extent by providing a bit of lift, but I didn’t think that the amount she put in the recipe was really going to accomplish much.

I measured out the ingredients and almost chickened out and went for the shortbread crust instead. I figured I could use my shortbread recipe that includes ground almonds in it for the crunchy aspect of the cornmeal, and all would be well. I nearly did it, too, but my curiousity was too much for me. I had to know what that cornmeal crust tasted like.

And so, I followed the recipe, to the letter.

And the result was stunningly beautiful to behold: I have to toot my own horn here and say that the tart looked fantastic, which, really, anyone with eyes can see.

Making the crust was simple, and the lemon curd went together just as lemon curd goes together, meaning, I stirred and stirred the ingredients over a hot water bath for what seemed like an eternity of boredom, while nothing happened, when all of a sudden, it came together, thickened and became lemon curd.

The blueberries with their garnish of fresh raspberries made a lovely presentation. Everyone oohed, aaahhed and drooled over it.

Until I went to cut the thing.

The crust, the beautiful golden crust, had turned into concrete.

I knew I hadn’t overbaked it. I had baked it at the right temperature. Morganna had very delicately patted it in the pan without handling it overmuch.

It had to be those eggs. And the cornmeal. And patting it into the crust made for just a bit too much handling.

After I managed to saw through the crust, and served the tart, people’s reactions were eloquent.

The cornmeal didn’t just add crunch–it added grit. Our dining room sounded like it was full of a bunch of cows chewing cud mixed with gravel. The lemon curd was beyond tangy into downright wicked puckery goodness, and the blueberries were perfect, a little sweet, a little tart and very lovely contrasting with the yellow lemon curd and golden crust.

But the crust was just way too tough, gritty and unpleasant, and it ruined the dessert.

It was a demoralizing lesson, but one I had to learn.

Now, I know, the next time I get an inkling that something may not work out, I will follow my instincts–even if they run counter to what the hotshot chef who wrote the book says to do.

That said, I have decided to follow my instinct and remake the tart this weekend, using my shortbread recipe that includes almonds. I will report upon the results and post the recipe when I get to putting it together.

Until then, folks can feast their eyes, if not their palates, on the beautiful picture of the tart that should have been divine, but instead had a crust of concrete. (Which is like my feet of clay, only crunchier and harder on the dental work.)


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  1. The tart sure looks lovely, too bad that the crust was such a disaster. I think that everyone should trust their instincts more, but I have to admit that I too would have followed the original recipe, because you automatically trust a top chef, especially with such a prestigious cookbook award… I’m looking forward to read about you remaking the tart with your shortbread recipe, it sounds yummy with the almonds.

    Comment by Dagmar — July 19, 2005 #

  2. Yeah, I’ve had this experience before (and more than once), when following my instincts would probably have given me a better result. The photo is beautiful, though.

    On a side note, I’ve been reading your blog for while and love it. I really enjoyed your recent post about meat and vegetarians.

    Comment by Amy — July 19, 2005 #

  3. The thing about that cookbook, Dagmar, is I love the thing–I had never baked from it, but until this year, when I dedicated myself to learning how to make pies, I didn’t really bake desserts often. I really think that the author has a lot of knowledge and a lot of good stuff to say, and I love the way she says it, but I think I might agree with a reviewer on Amazon who said that she might have waited a bit longer before writing her “magnum opus” on desserts–she is very young.

    And if she were older, she might have a bit more experience to figure out that ingredients like stoneground cornmeal are variable–some are grittier than others–and thus might suggest something more specific, like, “finely ground stoneground cornmeal” or some such. I think that the toughness of the crust wouldn’t have been quite so unforgiveable had the gritty cornmeal not given it the texture of gravel.

    Amy–I am glad you like my blog, and that you liked my essay on meat eating. I am going to do another similar, in depth piece on the sustainability of vegan diets, probably sometime in August. I want to be careful and do some research and some math for that one, so I get my figures straight.

    And no worries–I will definately post about the remade recipe.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — July 19, 2005 #

  4. Baking pet peeve: Tart crusts that are so hard they are really meant to only hold the item together for presentation, but are never ever meant to be eaten. This seems to happen a lot with individual sized tarts, especially ones served at “nice” restaurants. Sure, you can scoop out the tasty insides, but I want the whole experience, dammit!

    My first attempt at pie crusts was really good. One Thanksgiving, Mom said “You’re making the pie crusts”, set me up at the kitchen table, and yelled the ingredients and instructions to me while she worked on something at the counter. No warnings, no tips really, just let me go – and they turned out perfectly. Now, of course, I’m scared to death of making bad pie crust, which probably means I will woory myself into an utter failure at flakiness.

    Comment by Amy — July 19, 2005 #

  5. I would bet, Amy, that those little tartlets whose crusts are made of concrete, are not actually made in-house. Yes, yes, I know that you are talking about “nice” restaurants–but a surprising number of “nice” places get their desserts off site. A lot of them use commercially available frozen tartlet crusts and then fill and top them in house.

    And let me tell you–some of those ready-made tarlet crusts are just this side of kevlar when it comes to eatability. Blech.

    Here is my advice on pie crust–the more you do it, the better you get at it. Just do it. Don’t think too much about it, either, but it helps to keep a journal of what works and what doesn’t. Me, I can keep most of this stuff in my head and adjust accordingly, but most people should keep it all written down.

    That is what I had Zak do when he was working with bread dough, and as soon as he started keeping track of it–his breads improved immensely.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — July 19, 2005 #

  6. I honestly didn’t think the crust was bad Barbara. It wasn’t fantastic, but it wasn’t bad.

    I hungrily devoured my entire piece, and I’d just had wisdom teeth pulled! So don’t sweat it.

    It will be better next time.

    But, just as a good litmus test for that, you’ll have to save me a piece, so I can confirm 😉


    Comment by Dan — July 20, 2005 #

  7. Well, I reckoned on making it one day this weekend when Morganna is in–so, come over for dinner and you will get some. Ain’t that the easiest way?

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — July 20, 2005 #

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