Miracle crust from the master

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Maury Rubin knows crust. If you've had the lemon tart at City Bakery in Brentwood, you might describe his crust as almost ethereal, so buttery and rich, crisp yet tender. If only he would show you how to make it....

Maybe his tart crust is magic because it was the beginning of something -- something big -- born from time spent in an Upper West Side apartment testing recipes and staring at the wall as he contemplated starting his first bakery. In 1990, Rubin opened the original City Bakery near Manhattan's Union Square, and his tarts would become famous (he's written a book about them, aptly titled "Book of Tarts"). In February, after months of public anticipation, he opened the second City Bakery in the Brentwood Country Mart.

Conventional wisdom would have you believe that making a great crust is difficult. A pie crust should be flaky, a tart crust crisp, and you jump through hoops trying to achieve that, because what is a pie or tart without a good crust? A disappointment. So you worry about whether your butter is cold enough. You stare into the bowl of the food processor, trying to determine whether the butter and flour you've just pulsed together have formed pieces the size of oatmeal flakes or the size of peas. You handle the dough gingerly, so as not to render it tough once it bakes.

But one recipe can change all that. You don't need a food processor or even a mixer. You're not scrutinizing your dough, hoping to see what looks like snowy peas or barley or the Infant Jesus of Prague. You don't have to worry about overworking the dough because even if you knead it and slap it and press into it to patch up some torn spots, it turns out great.

The recipe is for Rubin's standard tart dough, a traditional pate sucree with at least one notable distinction -- a little cream. "It's not so common for pate sucree to have cream," Rubin says. "It gives it a little more flavor, a little more richness, a little more fat." These are the things that bakeries are made of.

Rubin studied pastry in a tiny town called Yssingeaux in the Auvergne region of France under the tutelage of Denis Ruffel. Ruffel set him up as an apprentice at Patisserie Rousseau-Seurre in Paris' 9th arrondissement. "It wasn't a plan," Rubin says of becoming a baker. "I did it, I loved it, I stayed with it." And now he is known not only for his tarts, but for his hot chocolate and house-made marshmallows and part-bread-part-pastry pretzel croissants that have a beautiful brown crust dotted with sesame seeds and an interior that's all layers of pillowy-soft tenderness.

But before there was hot chocolate and marshmallows and cookies and muffins, there were tarts. "From the very beginning, there were tarts -- tarts and croissants, classic French viennoisserie. No cookies and muffins," Rubin says. "My tarts are French in technique but American in personality. I've always liked the tart as a vehicle to do a lot of different things."

Things like lemon tart (Rubin recently has picked up some Meyer lemons), passion fruit tart, Milky Way tart, chocolate tart, blueberry-coconut tart, "orange tart made out of apples," tropical chocolate tart and "the world's first stuffed raspberry tart," in which the cavities of the raspberries are filled with chocolate.

Now, feeling a little out of place in near-80-degree weather, he's preparing for his first Thanksgiving in Los Angeles, "ordering a lot of butter, eggs and sugar" for such holiday offerings as Indian apple pie and pumpkin pie and a show-stopping cranberry, caramel and almond tart.

As he makes his way across the big, sunny bakery in plaid shorts and blue cardigan, he's greeted with "Hi, Maury!" from customers and employees alike. He divides his time between the store, the office and the kitchen. He still bakes pastry every day.

In the kitchen, he mixes the dough for the crust of a cranberry, caramel and almond tart -- it takes less than a minute. "The tendency is for people to disbelieve that it can be that easy," he says. "Believe it. It's that easy."

Step-by-step guide

Rubin uses a standing mixer but says you can even use your hands, but not a spoon. "Once you leave the realm of bare hands, I'm a believer in the right piece of equipment." He mixes powdered sugar with soft butter just until incorporated, drops in an egg yolk and whirs that in until the mixture is uniform, then adds the flour in two batches, and lastly the cream.

The result is a "simple shaggy mass of dough." Flinging organic flour across his pastry board (he uses organic ingredients whenever possible and is planning on opening his second "green" bakery in New York, named Birdbath), Rubin gathers up the dough, wraps it in plastic and puts it in the refrigerator.

"What's important is that it be chilled evenly," he says. "If it's too soft inside, then you have a temperature issue." Once it's chilled, he starts flinging more flour ("all the time you want to be dusting a thin layer of flour"), cuts the dough in half and then each piece in half again; he turns it and repeats the sequence so that he ends up with 16 equal pieces, then kneads it back together into one new mass, making the dough easier to work with. "It's like bread. You can work it and work it and work it" without compromising the resulting texture.

Then he rolls out the dough ("you can patch it if it breaks") to about one-eighth-inch thick, trims it into a large circle and pricks holes all over it. To lift the dough, he rolls about a third of it around the rolling pin, lifts it up and lowers it into a ring. (Rubin says he prefers using a flan ring because it makes for clean lines, but you could also use a fluted tart pan.) He lightly presses the dough into the pan, forming it to the sides, trims the excess, then puts it in the freezer for an hour. "It's a very tender dough; it wants to rest because it's been through the equivalent of plastic surgery," he says. "The freezer gives it a chance to relax and prevents the gluten from developing."

Rubin blind-bakes the crust -- baking it first without the filling -- and says it's better to bake it a little too long than not enough because that's what will form a buffer for the filling, a big gooey, toasty, sweet pile of caramel, almonds and cranberries. (Rubin recommends using frozen cranberries as they keep their shape and color better than fresh ones.) The whole thing goes back in the oven and what comes out might be the best Thanksgiving tart you'll ever make. "This tart dough will turn out when it's made at home," Rubin says. "It's absolutely, easily delicious. The recipe gets you a long ways."

People's eyes get wide when they sink their forks into it, make their way through that sticky mess of nuts and fruit and buttery caramel and finally hit crisply luscious golden crust.

For pies, it's even easier

Even easier to make is a pumpkin pie with a thick graham cracker crust that you just press into the pan, filled with a creamy pumpkin custard.

The only thing you need to watch out for is baking it too long, which means it will get too firm. When it comes out of the oven it should be very, very soft. It sets up overnight in the refrigerator.

"For pumpkin pie, I've been around the block with all the different kinds of variations. And you know what? Maybe it's like when a woman starts dating. She wants a studly guy, a rich guy, but then she says to herself, 'I just want a really nice guy.' This pumpkin pie -- really nice guy."

bettyhallock@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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