This tart is a fall-into-winter pleasure particularly suited for afternoon tea with a spoonful of clotted cream or crème fraîche. Because the timing and texture of quick-cooking polenta differs from brand to brand, you may need to adjust the milk to get to the correct density. If amaretti aren’t available, flavor the custard with 1 teaspoon almond extract and add some chopped almonds for texture. Make your life easier by using a tart pan with a removable bottom, if you have one. It makes unmolding the crostata a cinch.
Polenta custard tart with pears and amaretti
- Pasta frolla dough for one 10-inch / 25-cm tart shell
- 4 egg yolks
- ¼ cup / 50 g sugar
- ¼ cup / 30 g quick-cooking polenta
- 2 to 3 cups / 475 to 700 ml whole milk
- 2 ripe but firm pears, Boscs are ideal
- 12 amaretti
- Make the pasta frolla dough as directed below, then roll out and line a 9- to 10-inch / 23- to 25-cm tart pan with a removable bottom. Refrigerate until needed.
- Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a bowl until pale yellow and a little fluffy, with well-defined bubbles forming on the surface. Transfer the mixture to a saucepan, then sprinkle in the polenta, letting it fall between your fingers while stirring it in with a wooden spoon.
- Pour the milk into a saucepan and heat over medium heat to just below boiling. Transfer the milk to a heatproof measuring pitcher. Set the saucepan with the polenta-egg mixture over medium heat and slowly stream in 2 cups / 475 ml of the hot milk while whisking continuously. Once the milk is in, continue whisking for about 5 minutes, until the polenta is fully cooked. Gauge the consistency: It should be dense but smooth and easy to whisk. If it isn’t, whisk in as much additional hot milk as necessary to achieve the right texture.
- Turn off the heat, transfer the polenta custard to a cold bowl, and set it aside to cool completely.
- Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and a second one in the middle of the oven. Heat the oven to 375˚F / 190°C / gas mark 5.
- Cut each pear into quarters, then remove the core and stem. Slice each quarter into 4 slices. Crumble the amaretti coarsely. Use three-fourths of them to dust the bottom of the tart shell.
- Pour the polenta custard over the amaretti and level it with a dampened offset spatula or dinner knife. Arrange the pear slices over the custard in concentric circles, leaving an empty circle in the center. Mound the remaining amaretti in the center circle.
- Place the tart on a sheet pan, loosely tent it with aluminum foil, and slide it onto the rack in the lower third of the oven. Set a timer for 30 minutes. When it goes off, remove the foil and move the tart to the middle rack.
- Set the timer for an additional 15 minutes, at the end of which you will test if the tart is done by touching its center; it should softly bounce but not jiggle. If the center still gives a little too much, return the tart to the oven for another 5 to 10 minutes, until it passes the bouncy versus jiggly test.
- Remove the tart from the sheet pan and leave it just until the pan is cool enough to handle comfortably. Lift the tart from the outer pan ring and slide it from the bottom circle onto a plate large enough to contain it within its rim. Serve at room temperature.
Pasta frolla / Italian sugar crust
- 9 ½ ounces / 270 g all-purpose flour
- 3 ½ ounces / 100 g granulated sugar
- Pinch of salt
- Grated zest of 1 lemon or 1/2 orange
- 4 ¾ ounces / 135 g unsalted butter, diced and chilled
- 4 yolks from large eggs
- There are many versions of pasta frolla. Mine is adapted from Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi, first published in 1891. I swear by it as do the many home cooks to whom I’ve taught it over the last decade. But in the unlikelihood a reader does not like it, I encourage that reader to find a version more suited to their taste.
- The original version of this crust has a percentage of lard, which pushes friability to the next level. If you have a good source and the right crowd, try swapping out one-third of the butter for lard. Baker’s sugar—also known as caster, superfine, or ultra-fine—makes the dough easier to roll out, butgranulated sugar will also do.
- Pasta frolla freezes well, so I always make more than I need. Thaw it on the counter for about an hour before getting it mold-ready with a rolling pin. Removable bottom pans and tart rings make crostata handling easy. Or use a shallow sheet or pie pan and serve the tart straight from the pan. Always line the pan with parchment paper, even if nonstick, so the crostata will release without a fuss.
- To make it accessible to everyone, I have developed four different methods for mixing this crust. If you have a well-equipped kitchen, a stand mixer is the fastest way, but it can also be made in a food processor—a more common appliance—using a handheld pastry cutter, or even, last but not least, entirely by hand.
- Stand mixer method: Combine the flour, sugar, salt, and zest in the mixer bowl. Fit the mixer with the paddle attachment, place the shield on the bowl, and stir on speed 2. Add the butter and yolks and increase the speed to 4.
- As the butter and yolks are broken up into the dry ingredients, the mixture will turn into thick, uneven, powdery chunks. Raise the speed to 6. The chunks will quickly turn to crumbs of more even size and still be whitish and powdery. Accelerate to speed 8.
- In a matter of seconds, the small crumbs will lose their powderiness and become yellow. You can now move the speed all the way up to 10. Tune your ears to the noise of the paddle. The shift will be subtle, but as the crumbs cluster into clumps, the rotating arm will sound as if it’s catching, as if the dough is resisting the paddling. As soon as you hear that change, turn off the mixer. The crumbs will be yellow with the occasional fleck of butter and will have clustered in larger pieces. The whole process should take 3 minutes at the most. Each step at a different speed is a matter of seconds.
- Lay two squares of plastic wrap on the counter and pour half of the clumped dough onto each one. Working with one at a time, gather the dough in the center and bring together the four corners of the plastic wrap. Twist them together to press the clumps into a mass. Flatten and shape the mass into a thick puck and wrap tightly. Holding the package in your hands from its sides, turn it while pressing together with your palms and sliding your thumbs from top to bottom all around to push out excess air. Repeat with the second half of the dough.
- Tighten the plastic wrap and let the dough rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes to set and harden before rolling it out. If you do not use the pasta frolla within a week, freeze it.
- Food processor method: Place all the ingredients in a food processor and pulse until reduced to yellow large clumps with a few visible flecks of butter. This could take up to a minute. Proceed as directed in the mixer method.
- Pastry cutter method: Stir together the flour, sugar, salt, and zest in a bowl. Add the butter and yolks and work them with a pastry cutter, occasionally tossing and jostling the bowl. Continue until the mixture is reduced to yellow large clumps with a few visible flecks of butter. Proceed as directed in the mixer method.
- Hand method: If you own none of the above trappings, you can make pasta frolla entirely by hand. Stir together the flour, sugar, salt, and zest in a bowl. Add the butter and yolks. Mix with a wooden spoon to break the yolks. Crumble the butter by swishing your fingertips against the heel of your hands, as if playing castanets. Jostle the bowl to toss its contents, then swirl them, using your fingers as if they were salad servers. Alternate swishing, tossing, and swirling until the ingredients are reduced to yellow large clumps with a few visible flecks of butter. Proceed as directed in the mixer method. When ready to roll out the dough, lightly flour your work surface and a rolling pin. The ideal surface for rolling is marble because of the low temperature it maintains, followed by stainless steel and then wood. If using wood, ensure that the board is free of any strong odors from previous uses. Ideally, you have a wooden board that is dedicated to sweets.
- Spread the flour in an evenly thin veil. Unwrap the rested dough, set it on the floured surface, and soften it by administering a few decisive whacks with the rolling pin. It will make for more expedient rolling.
- Roll the dough from the center toward the outer edges, following the shape of your chosen mold. Visualize the task as a compass and its four cardinal points: roll once from the center to the north, then from the center to the east, south, and west. Smooth the compass three or four times, then slightly lift it, turn it 90 degrees, and repeat. Rolling and turning in all four directions will translate even pressure into even thickness. Lifting will prevent sticking to the surface. If globs of excess flour sneak their way into your dough, brush them away. When you get to 1⁄8 inch / 3 mm thickness, roll the dough around your rolling pin, lift, and carefully unroll it on the mold, letting it drape toward the center. Press in the dough to line the mold completely, then lightly press the rolling pin around the edge to excise the excess crust. Should the dough break, just align the dough scraps and pinch them together. The shell will keep its size and shape.
- Prick the bottom of the shell with a fork and refrigerate to set and harden while you prepare the filling. You can also freeze the ready-to-use crostata shell; just wrap it well to keep it from absorbing odors. When ready to use—it should be within 3 months—it will defrost in the time it takes you to fill it.
Italy by Ingredient by Viola Buitoni. (Rizzoli New York. September 5,2023) Photography by Molly DeCoudreaux