Let’s Bake Crostata: The Italian Fruit Pie of Summer - No. 139
A warm welcome to our guest columnist, Domenica Marchetti of Buona Domenica!
I am thrilled to welcome Domenica Marchetti to Between the Layers. She writes Buona Domenica and is the author of seven books on Italian home cooking. Her eighth, "Williams-Sonoma Everyday Italian," will be published this fall. Today she shares how to bake a peach and spice crostata, the Italian pie of summer.
A slice of freshly baked jam crostata to accompany my morning coffee is, to me, one of life’s sweetest pleasures. I have fond memories of waking up in my aunts’ house in Rome to find a freshly baked crostata on the dining room sideboard. Virtually every hotel, B&B, and agriturismo sets at least one crostata out at its daily breakfast buffet.
A crostata is, essentially, a rustic tart, filled with fruit or some sort of cream or custard—or a combination of those. It is ubiquitous throughout Italy, enjoyed for breakfast, as an afternoon snack, or as dessert. Though it shares similarities with pie, cobbler, and with the free-form French galette, it is distinct from all of those. A typical crostata is shallower than a pie but has more structure than a galette. You can bake it in a fancy fluted tart tin with a removable bottom or in an old pizza pan.
The most basic, and beloved, version is crostata di marmellata, in which a thick layer of good jam (best if it’s homemade) is sandwiched between a buttery bottom crust and a rolled lattice top. Conjure, for a moment, the nostalgic image of a pie cooling on the windowsill; the Italian equivalent is a freshly baked jam crostata resting on the kitchen table beneath a linen tea towel.
Summer is my favorite season to make it, for rather than relying on jam from my pantry, I can start with fresh fruit from the farmers’ market—from strawberries at the beginning of the season to figs at the end. The key is to cook the fruit down a bit with sugar as though you were making a quick jam. This both concentrates the fruit’s fresh flavor and avoids a filling that is too wet.
A kinship between the American South and Italy
It may sound odd but think about it: Virginia country ham and prosciutto; bacon and pancetta; spit-roasted pig and porchetta. And that’s just the pork products. Other notable similarities include cornmeal and polenta; a love of shell beans, braised greens, and long-cooked vegetables; the prevalence of rice. Not to mention homey desserts.
This culinary affinity is one big reason I am drawn to Anne’s newsletter, with its enticing recipes for pot roast (stracotto in Italian), pound cake (torta quattro quarti), cobblers, and pies. Reading her recent posts on fruit cobblers immediately brought to mind my own love for summer fruit-in-pastry desserts, especially crostata.
One big difference between pie and crostata is the crust. While pie crust, whether made with butter, Crisco, or lard, aims be flaky, crostata crust is more like shortbread. The dough, called pasta frolla, is sweetened with sugar and enriched with both butter and eggs.
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 (myself included) prefer powdered sugar, which yields silkier dough. Some use whole eggs and others only yolks. Some bakers flavor the dough with grated lemon or orange zest and others with vanilla. And some sprinkle in a little baking powder to lighten the texture, making it slightly “cakier.”
Making crostata from local ripe peaches
Right now peaches are the star at my local farmers’ market in northern Virginia, glowing temptingly in their bins and growing riper by the second beneath the August sun. So naturally I am going to share my recipe for fresh peach crostata. Feel free to substitute other seasonal fruit.
And here are a few things to keep in mind if you are new to crostata baking:
1. Make the pasta frolla ahead of time, as it needs to chill before rolling out. You can make it the day before you plan to bake your crostata and refrigerate it. Just be sure to take it out of the fridge to soften slightly before rolling (on a warm day it will soften quickly).
2. Pasta frolla is buttery and tender and can tear easily. But it is just as easily patched together, so don’t let that stop you. I promise it will get easier each time you make it. Flour your rolling pin and work surface lightly, and keep flouring as you roll out the dough.
3. You can also make the filling ahead of time. You’re essentially making a quick jam, and it needs to cool before you can fill the bottom crust, so feel free to make it a day or two ahead of baking your crostata.
4. I use a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom to bake this 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 narrow. Sometimes I leave them flat, and sometimes, as in this one, I roll them into ropes, which is the traditional way.
5. The traditional lattice top for crostata is not woven, as the buttery dough makes it challenging to weave without tearing. That said, if the dough is sufficiently chilled, it is possible to create a woven lattice top (the more you practice, the easier it gets). When I want the tart look more festive, I use cookie cutters to cut out shapes and arrange those on top of the filling instead of lattice.
6. If you want to add fresh (uncooked) fruit, slice or dice up a peach and scatter it over the cooked peaches. Since crostata is not thickened with flour or cornstarch, don’t add too much, or your crostata may be runny.
7. Bake the crostata in the lower third of your oven for a crispy bottom. I set the tart pan on an old pizza pan to catch any drips.
8. Dust with confectioners’ sugar, if you like, and serve plain, with a dollop of whipped cream, or a scoop of ice cream.
As with pie, you can fill a crostata with just about anything, from dense caramelized nuts to airy mousses. Pastry cream, ricotta, and lemon curd all make fine crostata fillings, whether on their own or topped with a layer of jam or fresh fruit.
I still remember a slice of crostata my son and I enjoyed at a cozy restaurant outside of Venice years ago: a tender, crumbly pastry filled with pear halves nestled in custard, with a top crust draped over the curvaceous fruit. It was a simple yet elegant expression of the season, and about as fancy as a crostata ever gets.
Have you ever made crostata?
Thank you, Domenica!
I don’t know about you, but I can taste this peach crostata and can’t wait to get my hands on pasta frolla! Be sure to subscribe to Domenica’s newsletter. Her recipes are below.
And coming Thursday for paid subscribers: Morning Glory Muffins, my go-to for busy mornings right into fall and their connection to Nantucket, of all places! Thanks for all my birthday well wishes! I spent the weekend in Birmingham researching my book and savoring a great meal at Chez Fonfon (coconut cake and fig tart were fabulous!) and buying more bread than I could ever need from Continental Bakery at the Pepper Place Farmer’s Market. If anyone knows the recipe for their lemon tea loaves, do tell!
Have a great week!
- xo, Anne
Domenica’s Pasta Frolla (Tender Crostata Pastry)
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
Grated zest of 1 lemon or 1 small orange—or a little of both (about 1 tablespoon)
1 stick plus 3 tablespoons (11 tablespoons total) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
Put the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and zest in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse briefly to combine. Distribute the butter around the bowl and pulse until the mixture is crumbly. Add the egg and egg yolk and process until the dough begins to clump together.
Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface and gather it together into a ball. Form the dough into two disks, one slightly larger than the other. Wrap each disk tightly in reusable or plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or until well chilled (overnight is fine). Remove the dough from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before rolling it out.
Domenica’s Peach Crostata
1-1/2 pounds ripe peaches, pitted, peeled, and cut into 1/2-inch slices or 1 pound frozen sliced peaches (about 3-1/2 cups)
1 firmly packed cup light brown sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1 batch Pasta Frolla, chilled and ready to roll out
Confectioners’ sugar, for serving
1. Make the filling: Put the peaches, brown sugar, and lemon juice in a medium heavy-duty saucepan. Cook over low heat to dissolve the sugar, about 10 minutes. Raise the heat to medium and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring often, until the peaches are tender, and the liquid is thickened and syrupy, about 10 minutes. Stir in the cinnamon and nutmeg, and simmer until thickened to a jam consistency, 5 to 10 minutes more. You should be able to drag a path through the bottom of the saucepan with a silicone spatula. Scrape the peaches into a heatproof bowl and let cool completely. (The preserves can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.)
2. Make and assemble the crostata: Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Have ready a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom.
3. Lightly dust a work surface and rolling pin with flour. Roll the larger disk of pasta frolla into an 11-inch circle, lifting and turning the dough as you roll to prevent sticking and create an even round. Gently wrap the dough around the rolling pin and unroll it over the tart pan. Gently press the dough into the pan without stretching it. Use the palm of your hand or the rolling pin to trim off the excess. Refrigerate while you roll out the second piece of dough.
4. Roll the smaller piece into a 10-inch circle and use a fluted or smooth pastry wheel or a knife to cut it into strips from 1/2-inch to 1-inch wide. (For a more traditional effect, roll the strips into ropes; otherwise leave them flat.) Remove the crostata base from the refrigerator. Spoon the cooled peach filling into the base and spread it out into an even layer. If the filling is syrupy, use a slotted spoon to separate the peaches and syrup, and reserve the leftover syrup for another use (it’s delicious spooned over yogurt or vanilla ice cream). Position the strips of pastry on top of the peaches in a crisscross lattice pattern. You can weave the strips if you like, but the dough is fragile and tends to tear so it’s not necessary (nor is it traditional). Press the edges of the strips into the edge of the tart shell to secure and trim off the excess.
5. Set the crostata on a baking sheet (I use an old pizza pan), and bake until the crust is golden-brown, 30 to 35 minutes and the filling is bubbling. Transfer from the baking sheet to a rack to cool completely. Remove the ring and use a large, wide-angled spatula to transfer the crostata from the metal tart base to a serving plate. Dust with confectioners’ sugar before serving.
This sounds like a delightful dessert. I love that it contains a fresh jam filling. I’m excited also to try Pasta Frolla and making a lattice crust. Crust shaping isn’t my forte, but it looks too pretty to pass up! Thanks, Domenica and Anne!
What a great topic! Thank you Domenica and thank you Anne for introducing her to us. I am 100% Italian so I am always wanting to learn as much as I can about Italian cooking techniques and recipes. I have never made pasta frolla dough but I am definitely going to give it a try. I have some peaches that need to be used up and this looks like the perfect recipe for them. I cannot wait to check out your website. Thanks so much for the wonderful recipe.