17 Mar 2017 | Olivia Fleetwood
In the summertime you find baby pears (known as pere coscia in Italian) all over the local farmers markets around Argentario. Yellowskinned, a little firmer and crunchier than regular pears, they make great toddler-sized snacks that cause minimal mess, which is one of the reasons we love them. I’ve also been looking for a way to cook with them, for those occasions when we don’t eat them fast enough (fruit ripens so quickly in a warm, summer kitchen). So along came this tart.
Ricotta crostata is a favourite dessert in these parts – perhaps dotted with chocolate chips (page 228) or layered with lip-smacking sour cherry jam or compote made from visciole cherries (Prunus cerasus). It’s from a tradition more notably found in Lazio and, especially Rome, where it is a well-known dessert of the Jewish Ghetto. In this part of the Maremma – which is closer to Rome than Florence, and is home to villages with a strong Jewish history, such as Pitigliano – it’s easy to find these influences.
This very simple dessert is not overly sweet and is pretty enough to present to guests. The pears are briefly poached in water with a squeeze of lemon juice until just tender but not too soft. The pie dish is layered with the shortcrust pastry dough and smooth ricotta filling and the poached pears are carefully pushed one by one into the filling. Once baked, the tart is best when left to settle overnight in the fridge and eaten the next day – chilled if it’s summer, and room temperature otherwise.
Makes 1 tart, serves 8.
icing (confectioners') sugar, to serve (optional)
7–9 baby pears
55 g (2 oz/¼ cup) sugar
250 g (9 oz/1 cups) plain (all-purpose) flour
100 g (3½ oz) caster (superfine) sugar
125 g (4½ oz/½ cup) cold butter, chopped
pinch of salt
1 egg, plus 1 egg yolk
500 g (1 lb 2 oz/2 cups) ricotta
100 g (3½ oz) caster (superfine) sugar
zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (or scraped seeds of ½ vanilla pod)
Note: If you can’t find baby pears, you can make this with regular pears. Choose firm rather than ripe pears, which hold their shape better. This tart would work nicely with halved and seeded apricots or plums (though these would not need to be poached).
Peel the baby pears. Leave the stems on (I don’t core them, as they are so small and tender they don’t need it). Slice about 5 mm (¼ in) off the bottom of the pear, so that they have flat bottoms to sit on. Roughly chop the pear offcuts and leave aside to add to the ricotta mixture. If you’re making this dish with regular sized pears, peel and slice them into quarters and remove the core (if they are particularly large pears, you can slice into eighths).
Slide the pears into a saucepan of simmering water with the sugar to add a touch of sweetness to them. Cook for 15 minutes, or until they are just tender. Remove the pears, drain and let them cool.
To make the pastry, combine the flour, sugar and butter together in a bowl. Using your fingers, rub together until there are no more visible pieces of butter (or you can pulse in a food processor). Add the salt and egg plus yolk and combine until it comes together into a smooth ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and put in the fridge to rest for 30 minutes, then roll out on a lightly floured surface to about 3 mm ( in) thick. Lay over a 22–25 cm (8¾–10 in) round pie dish and trim the borders. Prick the surface gently all over with the tines of a fork.
Preheat the oven to 180ºC (350ºF).
To make the filling, combine the ricotta, caster sugar, lemon zest, vanilla and eggs, and mix until smooth. Pour over the pastry-lined pie dish and smooth over. Carefully push the pears into the ricotta filling, then bake in the oven for 45 minutes, or until the top is firm and slightly coloured golden brown and the pastry crust is golden.
Let it cool completely before serving and, if you like, just at the last moment sprinkle over some icing sugar – this will mostly sink into the surface of the ricotta and the pears, so you won’t see much of it, but it will add a hint of sticky sweetness.
Store this tart in the refrigerator and eat within 2–3 days.
Note: If you have some leftover pastry, roll out to make mini tart bases that you can blind bake in a muffin tin or cut out cookies with it that you can decorate with icing or layer with jam. It’s a versatile dough that also freezes very well – nice to have for a rainy day baking project.
Hot Weather Pastry Making: If you’re trying to roll out pastry in the hot, sweltering summer, and find that it’s melting before your eyes, try placing a couple of bags of frozen peas (or similar, even ice packs) directly onto the surface where you plan to roll the pastry out for about 10 minutes to chill it. Always chill your pastry before using it (letting it rest in the fridge for 1 hour is ideal). You might even go so far as to put the rolling pin in the freezer to give it some chill. The idea is to keep the pastry (and the butter in it) cold so that you can work with it more easily.