High Altitude Baking: Italian tarts you can make ahead of time
April 25, 2018
High altitudes make cookies spread in the pan, cakes fall, and few baked goods turn out as they do at sea level. This twice-monthly column presents recipes and tips that make baking in the mountains successful.
The Italians know a thing or two about cooking; their food is some of the best in the world. So, when I came across a recipe for shortbread tarts with Mediterranean origins, I thought I ought to try it. I did, and I've made these little cuties numerous times since. They're a delight: fast and easy to make, pretty and fun to serve. Their tender shortbread crust, sweet preserve filling and crunchy nut topping appeal to almost everybody and fit in almost anywhere. They're a good choice for a buffet (you can eat them out of hand) and travel with ease to a picnic or a potluck. And, you can fancy them up by presenting them warm with a sauce made from the same fruit as the preserves you're using, sweetened whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
The recipe is very versatile. I used strawberry preserves for the tarts in the photograph, but you can select any preserves you like (just make sure they're thick) and you can also change the nuts and the flavor of the extracts. If you prefer a larger tart, you can make one by using a 9-inch tart or springform pan with a removable bottom. If you do, the baking time will be a little longer, around 40-50 minutes. Don't have any cornstarch? No worries, just increase the all-purpose flour to 1½ cups. The tarts are at their best a day after baking, so feel free to make them ahead of time.
Italian Tarts with Preserves
Make in five 4-inch shiny metal tart pans with removable bottoms
Yields five tarts
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½ cup superfine granulated sugar, preferably Baker's
1 ¼ cups plus 2 tablespoons bleached all-purpose flour, spoon and level
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (one and a half sticks), cold if using a food processor, room temperature if using an electric mixer
¼ teaspoon of almond extract
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
5 tablespoons thick strawberry preserves
1/3 cup of sliced almonds
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees — 340 if using dark metal tart pans — with a rack in the center position. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil to catch any butter that leaks out of the pan bottoms as the tarts bake. No need to grease the tart pans.
2. To make the dough in a food processor: Put the sugar, flour, cornstarch and salt in the bowl and pulse with the steel blade until combined. Cut the butter into small pieces, add them, with the almond and vanilla extracts, and process until large clumps of dough start to form. Stop processing before the dough forms a ball — it should be thoroughly moistened and starting to come together, but not totally smooth.
To make the dough with an electric mixer: Cut the room temperature butter into small pieces and beat with the sugar until very light, scraping down the bowl several times. Add the almond and vanilla extracts and beat until thoroughly combined. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch and salt, then add this mixture to the butter mixture, beating on low speed until they are just combined.
3. Remove ½-cup of the dough, spread it thinly on a plate lined with plastic wrap and freeze. This will be used as a topping. Divide the rest of the dough evenly between the five tart pans and press and level it across the pan bottoms but not up the sides. (I do this by placing a piece of plastic wrap over the dough and smoothing the dough through it.) The dough can be slightly higher around the rim of the pans, but needs to be even in the middle to prevent the preserves from forming a small puddle in the center of the dough.
4. Stir the preserves so they're loose and easy to spread. If necessary, warm them slightly in a microwave oven. Spoon a scant tablespoon onto each dough circle and spread it to about ¼-inch from the sides of the pan. Remove the frozen dough from the freezer, lift it off the plate with the plastic wrap and crumble it over the tops of the tarts. Some of the preserves may show through. Strew the sliced almonds over the top as well.
5. Place the tarts on the prepared cookie sheet, move it to the oven, and bake about 30-35 minutes, until the tops of the tarts are firm and golden all over. Remove the tarts from the oven, cool them completely on a rack and then remove them from their pans. While good to eat as soon as they cool, the tarts are even better the day after they're baked. Store, airtight, at cool room temperature or in the fridge for up to three days. Serve at room temperature or warm.
Vera Dawson, author of the high-altitude cookbooks "Baking Above It All" and "Cookies in the Clouds," (available at The Bookworm in Edwards and Next Page Bookstore in Frisco), is a high-altitude baking teacher. Her recipes have been tested in her Summit County kitchen and, whenever necessary, altered until they work at our altitude. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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