I would like to begin this week’s “Tuesday Techniques” column–a column which appears regularly on Wednesdays–with a discussion of the word “technique.” I think people are intimidated by the word. It implies a “right-wrong” dynamic, something hammered home by Tom Colicchio on “Top Chef” when he criticizes improper technique. “You don’t know how to cut an onion?” “You don’t know that proper paella has a crust?” “You kissed Padma on the left cheek and not the right?”
This bullying has its merits. In a cooking school environment, in a restaurant kitchen, forceful drilling of proper technique produces top-quality chefs. At home, however, does it matter if you have a perfectly clear consomme? Not unless a perfectly clear consomme is something to which you aspire.
Most people, I’d conjecture, just want to make dinner. And that’s why TV hosts like Rachael Ray and Giada De Laurentis are so popular. They make cooking look easy and fun. In fact, those words “easy” and “fun” are often in their show titles.
But why can’t using proper technique, cooking on the level of a Tom Colicchio, be easy and fun? Why does Jacques Pepin’s “Technique” book feel so much like a text book? Why does writing this column sometimes feel like homework? Why does this paragraph have so many questions?
The answer lies in the picture at the top of this post: a French Apple Tart which I literally whipped together last night while roasting a chicken for dinner.
Yes, believe it or not, that perfectly caramelized confection with its floral patterns and concentric circles was assembled (pre-baking) in approximately 20 minutes. It was easy AND fun. And it employed “proper” techniques which I will describe below.
Why was it so easy? Why was it so fun?
Because (a) I really like desserts–a fact which proves a theory I’ve long ascribed to: to make cooking pleasurable, cook food that you like!
And (b) the techniques involved in making a French Apple Tart are challenging at first, but once you get the hang of them they’re like any technique that gives you pleasure as you master it. For example, I once bought a magic kit as a kid with a deck of cards and detailed instructions on how to force a card. I practiced this trick over and over and over again and now, today, if you hand me a deck of cards, I can flip through it and when you yell “stop” I can tell you exactly what card is there. It’s a technique that might’ve been homework at first, but it didn’t feel like homework because I really wanted to conquer it and now that I’ve conquered it, I’m my generation’s Doug Henning.
So that’s why techniques are your friends. They make cooking easier and, once you master them, more fun. For example, watch Mario Batali slice garlic on “Molto Mario.” He does it so swiftly and with such pride, he practically beams when his guests mumble their astonishment. But knife skills are something you can practice–Tom Colicchio bought packages of celery to practice his chopping. Practice your chopping the way you practiced that magic trick, or the harmonica, or the yo-yo and soon the very act of cooking will give you that same gratification you get when your hands have a chance to show off. And plus, unlike a yo-yo trick, the result is edible. Case in point: the French Apple Tart. Here’s how you make it:
(1) Put 2 cups of flour into a bowl with a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar. In this picture, you will see I bought fancy French butter to make the tart but I’m not sure that really paid off. Whichever butter you use, make sure it’s unsalted:
(2) Cut 1 and 1/2 sticks of butter into tiny, tiny little cubes. Make sure the butter is VERY COLD. You may also want to chill the flour beforehand–cold ingredients make rolling pie dough easier. Toss the butter with the flour.
(3) Add 1/3 cup of ICE COLD water and mush the whole thing together with your hands. Is it dry? Is it coming together? Knead it in the bowl and if it’s too flaky to roll out, add a bit more water (I added another 1/3 cup). Once it comes together, stop kneading and place in a disk on a floured board.
(4) Now I will note here that this is not the very best technique for making pie/tart dough. There’s a more specific technique from Gourmet Magazine that you can read about here that produced the best pie/tart dough I’ve ever made. Still, though, it’s very similar to this technique. So if this is how you’d like to start, don’t be afraid.
(5) Now’s the hardest part. This is a technique that daunts MOST first-time bakers. My very earliest attempts at rolling out pie dough were all disasters (many of them documented on this blog). Here’s what I’ve learned: flour the board, flour the rolling pin, flour the dough (slightly) and use a rolling pin WITHOUT handles. This forces you to put the pressure in the middle instead of the sides–precisely what you want to do to get the dough to spread. First things first: whack the dough with the pin. This’ll immediately start the flattening and you will tell right away if this dough is going to roll along with you or give you trouble. If it crumbles upon whacking, you need more water. If it flattens and just cracks a little, you can roll. Immediately place the pin in the center of the dough and with great gusto push out. Swivel the dough around and push out again from the center out in a different direction. Keep going in all different directions and do it fast so that the butter doesn’t get hot and gummy. If you go fast and push aggressively, you will roll out your pie dough like a master:
See, was that so hard? And, again, once you get the hang of it it’s fun.
(6) Place the pie dough in a pie plate.
(7) Realize it’s not pretty enough and transfer pie dough to a tart pan. This is an apple tart after all!
Roll the excess dough off with the pin and use a knife to completely separate. Doesn’t it look nice and trim and ready to be a tart?
(8) Now you prep your apples. Pepin gives us another technique here: he tells us to remove the stem at the top and bottom with a paring knife by putting your fingers at the top of the blade, inserting into the apple, and scooping around in a swirly motion. It makes sense when you do it: you’re carving out an “O” and getting rid of the stem bit and the bottom bit without having to core the whole thing. Then you peel the apple and slice in half. Once sliced in half you do that same swirling thing with the seed section in the middle. This way, you have a lot of apple left to make a pretty tart.
(9) Once all the apples are seeded and peeled, you slice into 1/4-inch slices. The end pieces (at either end of the sliced apple) you slice into small bits and scatter all over the uncooked tart (see picture).
(10) Now’s the fun decorative part. You fan the apple slices all around the edge of the tart, overlapping, so it looks like a pretty flower. In the middle you arrange it so it looks like a rose. Then you sprinkle the whole thing with 3 TABLESPOONS of sugar. I emphasize that amount because it’s a LOT of sugar. I think that’s the key to this tart, though, because it really lets the apples caramelize. You also dot the top with 2 Tbs butter cut up into bits.
(11) That’s it! You place on a cookie sheet in a 400 degree oven for 75 minutes. I checked after 65 minutes and it was very done, so make sure to start checking after an hour. Look how pretty it came out:
So you see, patient reader, Tuesday Techniques are not sad, sorry affairs for people who like to do their homework. Tuesday Techniques are for the party girls, the go-go boys, the Hells Angels, and exotic dancers among you. Don’t be afraid to learn a little technique: just a little practice and you’ll be cooking like a star.