Everyone loves a flaky pie dough, sure, but the French were really onto something with the tart dough called pâte sucrée. Crisp, crumbly and buttery like shortbread, but sturdy enough to cradle heaps of pastry cream or slices of juicy fruit from tart tin to your mouth, pâte sucrée is one of the most foolproof weapons in a baker’s arsenal of dough recipes. (Only the rolling can take some practice.) It freezes perfectly so you can have it ready for a quick tart pretty much anytime. And it’s super versatile.
Pâte sucrée means, literally, “sugared paste,” so it’s a touch sweet (its sugarless counterpart, pâte brisée typically graces savory dishes like pot pies and quiche). But I love it so much, I often use this sweet dough with savory fillings—the sugar is a brilliant balance for vegetables or salty meats.
Perfect Tart Shells
Makes two 9" tart shells
2 sticks butter, room temperature
½ cup sugar
2 cups all purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
Zest from 1 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla (optional)
1) Mix the dough. Use whichever machine makes you happy. Each method will turn out the same dough, although if you use your hands, the dough stays a little cooler, comes out less sticky and needs less chilling time in the refrigerator.
Stand Mixer: Cream the butter and sugar with a paddle attachment until fluffy—about 4 minutes on high speed. Add the egg and vanilla and mix until combined. Add the flour, salt and zest and mix just until the dough starts to congregate in the bottom of the bowl and pull away from the sides. It will look like cookie dough. Remove from the mixing bowl, turn out onto a clean, floured surface.
Food Processor: Combine the flour, sugar and salt in the food processor. Cut the butter into small chunks and add. Pulse about a dozen times or until the mixture looks like a coarse crumble. Add the lemon zest. In a small bowl, combine the egg and vanilla. Turn the processor on an immediately add the egg mixture in a steady stream—let it run for about 20 seconds. It should look like a dry cookie dough. Remove from the machine, turn out onto a clean, floured surface.
Your Hands (My Favorite): Combine the flour, sugar and salt on a large cutting board. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients using two knives, a pastry cutter, or your fingers; it’s okay to really get in there with your hands. Once you’ve got a crumbly mixture, make a well in the center and pour in the beaten egg and vanilla. Zest a lemon all over the entire lot. Slowly start moving the crumbles to the middle of the well and mixing until it starts to come together like cookie dough.
2) Divide, Wrap and Relax
Divide the dough into two equal parts and shape into flat discs about 6” across. Pre-shaping makes rolling easier later. Wrap well in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Chilling the dough makes the dough easier to handle; it gives the gluten time to relax (which means the dough won’t “fight back” when you’re rolling it) and it chills the butter in the dough that will give the crust a texture like shortbread.
At this point, the dough can be frozen for up to 1 month.
3) Roll Thin and Even
After the dough has rested, place the disc on a heavily floured surface. Flour the top of the dough. Don’t be afraid of extra flour; you don’t want the dough to stick to the surface.
Using a rolling pin, start at the top of the disc (12 o’clock) and roll to the bottom (6 o’clock) and then back up to the top. Do this a few times, but don’t try to really flatten the dough—focus more on getting it even. If the dough starts to crack around the edges, don't sweat. If they get bad, just push the cracks back together and keep going. The disc should now be oval shaped. Turn the disc 1/8 of a turn clockwise (the top of the oval is now at 2 o’clock) and repeat the rolling as before, straight up and down. Keep turning the disc 1/8 of a turn and rolling from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock until you’ve turned the dough all the way around the clock. It should be easy to turn the dough each time. If not, add more flour under the dough. (If you think the dough is getting too thin too quickly, you must have strong forearms. Modify by turning the dough ¼ of a turn instead of 1/8 of a turn.)
You want the sheet of dough to be about ¼” thick. Lightly flour the surface of your counter and your rolling pin periodically to prevent sticking. And, try to work quickly. You don’t want the butter to get too warm or the dough becomes sticky and difficult to handle.
4) Line the Tart Pan
Set your tart pan within reach. Lightly flour your rolling pin and loosely roll up the entire sheet of dough around the rolling pin to pick it up off the counter and transfer it in one piece to the tart pan. Gently unroll the dough from the rolling pin into the tart shell, and the hard part is over.
5) Shape and Chill
To shape the crust, pick up one edge of the dough and let the crust fall into the edges of the tart shell. Use your fingers on your free hand to softly press the dough into the edges of the pan. Move along the diameter of the shell, and continue picking up the edge of the dough and pressing the slack into the pan. Roughly trim excess dough from the edge, but leave about ¼” brimming from the edges of the tart to account for shrinking that may occur when chilling the shell.
Chill the tart for at least 30 minutes in the fridge to get the butter nice and cold. Remove the tart from the fridge and with a knife, trim the edge clean.
6) Blind Bake
To keep the crust crisp, you’ve got to bake it first without filling (this is called blind baking). If you’re going to be serious about blind baking, prevent puffing by lining the tart with a piece of foil and filling the shell with dried beans (they’re re-usable and way cheaper than pie weights). You don’t need the beans, though. Instead, I open the oven about 10 minutes into baking and lightly press down any puffy parts with a fork. Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes or until light golden brown.
Let it cool, remove from the tart pan, fill and eat.
Here are some of my favorite ways to use a perfect tart shell:
Caramelized Banana Walnut Tart
Mix ½ cup of Greek yogurt with ½ cup of vanilla pudding. Slice three bananas and toss with ½ cup of chopped walnuts and ¼ cup of brown sugar. Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. When hot, dump in the banana mixture and let the bananas caramelize for about 30 seconds, stirring or shaking the pan constantly. Remove from the heat and let cool. Spread the yogurt mixture into a fully cooled tart shell and top with the caramelized bananas.
After blind baking, spread a thin layer of soft cheese into the tart shell. Crack 6 to 8 whole eggs into the shell and bake at 350° until the egg whites are cooked but the center is still runny – about 20 minutes. Top with lightly dressed spinach before serving.
Smoked Salmon Tart
Mix one cup of cream cheese with one tablespoon of freshly chopped chives and the juice from one lemon, then spread enough of it to cover the bottom of the shell. If it’s tomato season, thinly slice tomatoes and lay them along the tart. Prettily arrange ribbons of smoked salmon over the tomatoes and sprinkle with some chopped capers.
Asparagus Prosciutto Tart
Sprinkle a handful of gruyere cheese into the tart shell. Top generously with spears of roasted asparagus, salt and pepper. Finish with another handful of cheese on top and bake for about 15 minutes at 375° or until the cheese is brown and bubbly. Arrange paper-thin slices of prosciutto over the tart before serving. Serve warm or cold.