Crostatas: They're Easy As Pie

Crostata Per Autunno (Harvest Crostata)
Domenica Marchetti for NPR

Get recipes for Pasta Frolla (Sweet Pastry Dough), Crostata Di Marmellata (Jam Crostata), Crostata Per Autunno (Harvest Crostata, above), and Crostata Di Zucca Gialla E Ricotta (Buttercup Squash And Ricotta Crostata).

I used to be a pie person.

Apple pie was the first dessert I mastered as a preteen. I started with the basic Betty Crocker recipe and soon moved on to the variations listed below the traditional version — apple-cheese pie, which called for processed American cheese and which I did not like even though I substituted cheddar; Dutch apple pie, which had cream baked into it and which I did like; and French apple pie, which featured a crumb topping and which I loved. Then came peach and blueberry, and peach-blueberry, and double-crust and lattice top and pumpkin and custard and so on.

I still love pie, but at some point I began to veer away from it and toward its Italian cousin, the crostata — essentially a simple tart made with sweet, buttery pastry and usually filled with jam, fresh fruit, ricotta cheese or custard (with chopped or ground nuts often added to the mix). I'm not sure what precipitated this shift, but my guess is that it can probably be traced back — no surprise here — to my childhood and summers spent in Italy.

At my aunts' apartment in Rome, there always seemed to be a jam crostata on the sideboard in the dining room, usually baked by my cousin Trudi. I liked its rustic simplicity, the casual, imperfect placement of the lattice strips and the way the jam — apricot, peach or plum — shone between the strips in a diamond pattern. The tart crust, known as pasta frolla in Italian, was tender and crumbly, almost cookielike. Washed down with a bowl of warm, milky cappuccino, a wedge of jam crostata made a perfect breakfast.

About The Author

Domenica Marchetti is the author of four cookbooks, most recently The Glorious Pasta of Italy (Chronicle Books, 2011) and Williams-Sonoma Rustic Italian: Simple, Authentic Recipes for Everyday Cooking (Weldon Owen, 2011). Her articles and recipes have been featured in The Washington Post, Fine Cooking, and Food and Wine, and online at Leite's Culinaria. Visit her website for recipes and stories about Italian home cooking.

Still, it did not occur to me to try my hand at baking a crostata until I was well into adulthood. In 2004, while working on The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy, I decided I wanted to end the book on a sweet note. It was my first cookbook, and somehow it seemed incomplete without dessert, despite the subject matter. Since the book was organized seasonally, I created four crostata recipes, one for each season — apple for fall, blackberry jam for winter, ricotta for spring and fresh apricot and tart cherry for summer.

The more I worked on the recipes — figuring out the ideal ratio of butter to flour to sugar to create a sweet (but not too sweet) and tender pasta frolla, and playing around with fillings — the more I came to appreciate the straightforward, rustic appeal of the crostata. While a good pie needs a flaky crust, it is almost always the filling that is the star, and the higher the pie the better. A crostata is more of a balancing act between the filling (always a judicious amount) and the sweet dough that encases it.

Ask any Italian home baker for her pasta frolla recipe and it will surely be different from her neighbor's. Some use granulated sugar while others prefer powdered sugar, which yields a silkier dough; some use whole eggs and others only yolks. Some bakers flavor the dough with grated lemon or orange zest and some with vanilla. And some sprinkle in a little baking powder to lighten the dough.

A few years ago, while traveling in the Veneto region during late winter, I had a memorable slice of crostata made with a delicate cocoa-flavored pastry and filled with pear halves nestled in custard. It was a simple yet elegant expression of the season, and about as fancy as a crostata ever gets.

Simplicity and seasonality determine the filling. Right now, in the middle of autumn, what could be better than a freshly baked, lattice-topped tart filled with tender chunks of apple and pear? Or sweet winter squash mixed with delicate ricotta cheese and spiked with a little cinnamon?

Even if all you have on hand is a jar of jam — good jam, not too sweet and with lots of natural fruit flavor — you will still end up with a lovely fall dessert. Or, for that matter, breakfast.


A Note About Assembling A Crostata

I use a 9-inch or 11-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom to bake my crostata. But many Italian home cooks use a shallow rimmed pizza pan or baking pan. As for the lattice top, have fun and play around with the design. Sometimes I make the strips wide and sometimes more narrow. To make the tart look a little more festive, I use cookie cutters to cut out shapes and arrange them on top of the filling instead of the strips.

Pasta Frolla (Sweet Pastry Dough)

This version of pasta frolla is rich and buttery, enhanced with a little lemon and orange zest. It has a crumbly shortbread texture when baked. Be sure to chill the dough thoroughly — for at least 1 hour — after making it (overnight is fine). Remove it from the refrigerator about 45 minutes before rolling it out so that the butter softens and the dough becomes pliable. Use a lightly floured surface to roll out the dough and do not overwork it. Too much flour and handling will yield a tough dough.

Pasta Frolla (Sweet Pastry Dough) i i
Domenica Marchetti for NPR
Pasta Frolla (Sweet Pastry Dough)
Domenica Marchetti for NPR

Makes enough dough for one 9-inch or 11-inch lattice-top crostata

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface

1 cup confectioner's sugar

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

Finely grated zest of 1 small orange

1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 large egg

2 large egg yolks

Put the flour, sugar, salt, and lemon and orange zests in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pulse briefly to combine the ingredients. Distribute the butter around the bowl and pulse until the mixture is crumbly. Add the egg and egg yolks and process until the dough just begins to come together.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and gather it together. Knead it briefly and shape it into a disk. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or until well chilled (overnight is fine). Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it sit for 30 to 45 minutes, or until it is just pliable enough to roll, but not too soft to work with.

Cook's Note: If you make a 9-inch crostata, you will have some leftover dough, which you can rewrap and freeze for future use, or roll out, cut into shapes and make cookies. Bake them at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes, or until lightly browned.

Crostata Di Marmellata (Jam Crostata)

I like the contrast of deep blackberry preserves against the golden lattice of the baked crostata, but just about any type of good-quality preserves will make a lovely tart, so use your favorite. This recipe is adapted from The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy (Chronicle Books, 2006).

Crostata Di Marmellata (Jam Crostata) i i
Domenica Marchetti for NPR
Crostata Di Marmellata (Jam Crostata)
Domenica Marchetti for NPR

Makes one 9-inch lattice-top crostata

1 batch pasta frolla, ready to roll out

1 1/2 cups blackberry or other fruit preserves

Confectioner's sugar for dusting

Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream for serving (optional)

Cut the dough disk into 2 portions, one slightly larger than the other. Rewrap the smaller portion and refrigerate. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the larger portion into an 11-inch round about 1/8 inch thick or slightly thicker. Carefully wrap the dough around the rolling pin and drape it over a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Gently press the dough into the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Use the rolling pin or the flat of your hand to press around the perimeter of the pan to cut off any excess dough. Put the lined tart pan in the refrigerator to chill for 30 minutes.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the tart pan from the refrigerator. Spoon the jam into the shell and smooth it with a spatula. Roll out the remaining dough portion into a 10-inch round about 1/8 inch thick or slightly thicker, and use a fluted pastry wheel to cut it into 3/4-inch-wide strips. Carefully place the strips over the filled tart in a lattice pattern, gently pressing the ends of the strips into the sides of the tart shell. Use the flat of your hand to gently cut off any excess dough.

Bake the crostata for about 40 minutes, or until the crust is golden. Remove from the oven and set it on a wire rack to cool to room temperature. Remove the rim of the tart pan and transfer the crostata to a decorative serving platter. Dust with confectioner's sugar before serving. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream, if you like.

Crostata Per Autunno (Harvest Crostata)

The only thing that beats an apple tart in fall is an apple-pear tart. This one is simple and homey yet elegant. I simmer the chopped fruit on the stovetop for a bit before filling the tart shell — this ensures that the chunks of apple and pear are tender when the crostata comes out of the oven. This recipe is adapted from my book Big Night In: More Than 100 Wonderful Recipes for Feeding Family and Friends Italian-Style (Chronicle Books, 2008).

Crostata Per Autunno (Harvest Crostata) i i
Domenica Marchetti for NPR
Crostata Per Autunno (Harvest Crostata)
Domenica Marchetti for NPR

Makes one 9-inch lattice-top crostata

1 batch pasta frolla, ready to roll out

3 sweet-tart apples, such as Stayman, Suncrisp, Gold Rush or McIntosh, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch chunks

3 ripe but not soft pears, such as Anjou, Bosc, or Red Bartlett, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch chunks

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup sugar

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Confectioner's sugar for dusting

Vanilla ice cream for serving (optional)

Cut the dough disk into 2 portions, one slightly larger than the other. Rewrap the smaller portion and refrigerate. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the larger portion into an 11-inch round about 1/8 inch thick or slightly thicker. Carefully wrap the dough around the rolling pin and drape it over a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Gently press the dough into the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Use the rolling pin or the flat of your hand to press around the perimeter of the pan to cut off any excess dough. Put the lined tart pan in the refrigerator to chill for 30 minutes.

While the dough is chilling, make the filling. Combine the apples, pears, butter, sugar and lemon juice in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring to prevent the fruit from scorching. Cook, stirring frequently, for about 15 minutes, or until the fruit has broken down some and the mixture has thickened. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the tart shell from the refrigerator. Spoon the cooled filling into the shell and smooth it with a spatula. Roll out the remaining dough portion into a 10-inch round about 1/8 inch thick or slightly thicker, and cut it into 3/4-inch-wide strips with a fluted pastry wheel. Carefully place the strips over the filling in a lattice pattern, gently pressing the ends of the strips into the metal rim of the tart pan with the palm of your hand to cut off the excess. If you like you can arrange more strips around the outer rim of the pan to form a border. Press these into the metal rim to cut off any excess dough.

Bake the crostata for 40 minutes, or until the crust is golden. Remove the crostata from the oven and place it on a wire rack to cool for about 20 minutes. Remove the fluted rim of the tart pan and let the crostata cool completely on the rack. To serve, transfer the crostata to a decorative serving platter. Dust the top liberally with confectioner's sugar and serve with vanilla ice cream, if you like.

Crostata Di Zucca Gialla E Ricotta (Buttercup Squash And Ricotta Crostata)

Buttercup squash is not as well known as other varieties of winter squash such as butternut or acorn — but it should be. Buttercup is squat and round with a hard, dark-green, striped rind. Beneath that rind is bright orange flesh that is smooth, dense and sweet when cooked. Look for buttercup squash at farmers markets and well-stocked supermarkets through fall and into winter. Be sure to use good-quality ricotta, not the grainy mass-produced stuff you find in most dairy cases — it makes a difference.

Crostata Di Zucca Gialla E Ricotta (Buttercup Squash And Ricotta Crostata) i i
Domenica Marchetti for NPR
Crostata Di Zucca Gialla E Ricotta (Buttercup Squash And Ricotta Crostata)
Domenica Marchetti for NPR

Makes one 9-inch lattice-top crostata

8 ounces whole cow's milk ricotta cheese

8 ounces cooked buttercup squash, pureed (see Cook's Note below)

3/4 cup confectioner's sugar, plus more for dusting

2 large eggs, separated

2 tablespoons dark rum or brandy

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

Whipped cream for serving

Cut the dough disk into 2 portions, one slightly larger than the other. Rewrap the smaller portion and refrigerate. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the larger portion into an 11-inch round about 1/8 inch thick or slightly thicker. Carefully wrap the dough around the rolling pin and drape it over a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Gently press the dough into the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Use the rolling pin or the flat of your hand to press around the perimeter of the pan to cut off any excess dough. Put the lined tart pan in the refrigerator to chill for 30 minutes.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

While the dough is chilling, make the filling. In a large bowl, beat together the ricotta cheese and buttercup squash. Beat in the sugar, and then the egg yolks, rum, vanilla and cinnamon.

In a separate bowl, using clean beaters, beat the egg whites with the salt and cream of tartar until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites into the ricotta-squash mixture.

Remove the tart shell from the refrigerator. Gently spoon the filling into the shell and smooth it with a spatula. Roll out the remaining dough portion into a 10-inch round about 1/8 inch thick or slightly thicker, and cut it into 3/4-inch-wide strips with a fluted pastry wheel. Carefully place the strips over the filling in a lattice pattern, gently pressing the ends of the strips into the metal rim of the tart pan with the palm of your hand to cut off the excess. If you like, you can arrange more strips around the outer rim of the pan to form a border. Press these into the metal rim to cut off any excess dough.

Bake the crostata for 50 to 60 minutes, until the crust is golden and the filling is puffed and just set. Remove from the oven and place it on a wire rack to cool for about 20 minutes. Remove the fluted rim of the tart pan and transfer the crostata to a decorative serving platter. Serve warm with a dollop of whipped cream on top of each serving.

Cook's Note: To cook buttercup squash, use a large, sturdy chef's knife to split the squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Rub the flesh with a small amount of vegetable oil and set the halves, cut-side-down, on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake at 375 degrees for 45 to 60 minutes or until you can easily pierce through the rind with a fork. Remove from the oven and let cool. Scoop out the flesh and measure out 8 ounces. Reserve the rest for use in other recipes (I use it to make squash pancakes and squash cornbread.)

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