Story and photo by Anita Chu
For the past 8 years, Jennifer Altman has been creating the perfect endings to meals at Bay Wolf restaurant in Oakland, or “tying the ribbon that binds the whole visit together,” as she puts it.
Her style fits the refined-rustic vibe of Bay Wolf, a beloved Oakland mainstay, the way a well-worn rolling pin fits the hand. Her desserts are as unpretentious and unfussy as the restaurant: buttermilk panna cotta with rhubarb; banana split with peanut brittle and salted caramel; strawberry tartlet with honey mousse. Her best dessert? Perhaps the homey banana cream tart, she speculates, as it once spurred a spontaneous marriage proposal from a smitten customer.
Jennifer says that during childhood she was given free rein to experiment in the family kitchen, as long as she always cleaned up afterward. She tells about how, at age 8, her confidence as a baker backfired when she entered a peach torte in her Brownie troop’s cake contest. After receiving oohs and ahhs, she was told her entry had been disqualified—the judges said there was no way she could have made such a fine dessert without adult assistance. Now, with degrees in food science and microbiology, she’s unlikely to be disqualified from a contest for being too adept, and in fact, she’s passionate about passing along her skills to others. She has taught at the Bread Project and at Tante Marie’s Cooking School, and these days offers private baking instruction.
Pastry dough is often at the top of the list of things her students want to master. It commonly intimidates home bakers, who fear committing certain cardinal pastry sins, such as making a tough, soggy, or bland crust.
“The comment I get the most is, ‘I can’t make pastry. I’m afraid of it,’” Jennifer says. “I feel their pain, but mastering tender, flaky pastry is not as daunting as you may think. If you remember the two rules—Keep everything cold and don’t over-work the dough—you will have conquered all your fears.”
For years, Jennifer has given students instruction for making her flaky French-style pâte brisée with nothing but success. “I had one student tell me that this recipe was worth her entire course tuition. It produces a tender yet flaky and crunchy pastry. Working a portion of the butter into the flour tenderizes the dough, while leaving the remaining butter in larger pieces produces the flakes.”
Jennifer’s dough recipe might look long and complicated, but don’t let that deter you. The tips and tricks she so generously provides with the recipe can help turn any reluctant pastry maker into an accomplished chef.
Jennifer Altman’s Flaky Pastry Dough
This recipe yields about 1¼ pounds of dough, enough for 1 large or 8 individual galettes. If you want to use this flaky dough for your double-crust pies instead, make an additional half batch for the upper crust.
2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 cup (8 ounces) cold butter, cut into ½-inch pieces
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar (omit for savory pies)
½ cup ice water
1 large egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Measure the flour, salt, and sugar (if using), placing into a very large mixing bowl or onto a large cutting board or countertop. Add about a third of the butter pieces and toss to coat. Keep the remaining butter in the refrigerator. With a pastry blender, bench knife, or 2 dinner knives, cut the butter into the flour until it resembles coarse meal. Add the remaining chunks of butter and continue to cut in until they are pea-sized.
Measure out ½ cup ice water and sprinkle over the flour/butter mixture. With a fork or bench knife, gently toss until the mixture clumps together when gently squeezed in your hand. If necessary, add more ice water a tablespoon at a time; be careful not to add too much. Without over-working the dough, form it into a roughly shaped ball. It should barely hold together and will look a little shaggy, which is OK. If the dough feels warm, refrigerate it for a few minutes before continuing. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface.
Now comes the fun part. You’re going to subject the dough to fraisage. This is a French pastry method that consists of smearing small pieces of dough along a board to form a cohesive ball of dough. The result is a tender dough with long, thin butter pieces. (Remember the flakes?) Start by breaking off about 2 tablespoons of dough. Then, with the heel of one hand (not the palm, which is too warm), rapidly smear the pastry away from you across the surface to about 6 inches. Gently gather the smeared dough pieces together (a bench knife works best here), flatten the ball and wrap in plastic. The dough will be cohesive and you should see marbling of the butter. Refrigerate the dough until well chilled, 1 hour minimum, before using. (The dough can be frozen for later use: Simply wrap rolled or unrolled dough well in plastic and freeze for up to a month.)
On a lightly floured board, roll the dough into a circle approximately ⅛-inch thick, lifting and rotating the dough a quarter turn every few strokes to keep it from sticking. The finished round should be about 14 inches in diameter. Brush the dough with the egg wash mixture. Trim the edges and place the round on the back of a parchment-lined baking sheet. Refrigerate while you prepare the filling.
A Gravenstein Apple Galette
“Gravensteins are the first apples of the year,” says Jennifer. “They appear in August and barely last for a month. If you are fortunate to visit the Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple Fair, you can stock up on these delicious apples.”
Jennifer celebrates Gravenstein season by making a Gravenstein galette. The galette, as she describes it, is a rustic French tart, that’s like a fruit pizza. She says, “I prefer galettes to American-style two-crusted pies because they showcase the fruit, and the single layer of dough allows the crust to bake fully at the bottom. It is also easier to make.”
1 ½ pounds (about 4 cups) Gravenstein apples, peeled and cut into ½-inch slices
Sugar to taste (plus some for sprinkling)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Lemon juice to taste
1 large egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Slice the fruit and mix it with sugar to taste, adding lemon juice to perk up the flavor and flour to thicken should the apples be especially juicy. Arrange decoratively in an even layer on the pastry, leaving a 2-inch border. Fold the pastry edges over the fruit. Brush the rim with the beaten egg and dust with sugar.
Bake on the bottom shelf at 375º until the crust is a deep golden brown and the fruit is fully cooked, about 40–50 minutes.
Cut into 8 pieces. Serve warm with caramel sauce, whipped cream, or ice cream.
Jennifer’s Tips & Tricks
Use this recipe with any fruit that’s in season. Cut drier fruits (apricots) thicker than juicy fruits (peaches, rhubarb). Apples that retain their shape while baking should be cut thinner than Gravensteins, which become very soft.
To absorb the excess liquid from very juicy fruits, sprinkle a thin layer of crushed lady fingers or cake crumbs on top of the egg-washed dough before adding the fruit.
I don’t glaze a fruit tart with jams after baking because the sugar extracts the juice from the fruit leaving a soggy mess and tough fruit. If you like a sweet topping, add it just before serving.
A long slice of apple galette makes a delicious breakfast. To crisp the crust, simply place it in a skillet for a few minutes over medium heat. Add some ice cream and you are on your way to fulfilling all your food groups for the day: grain, fruit, and dairy!
Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple Fair: Aug 12–13
(poster art courtesy of the fair)
Bay Wolf Restaurant: 3853 Piedmont Ave, Oakland, 510.655.6004
Anita Chu, also known as pastrygirl, is the creator of Dessert First www.dessertfirstgirl.com an award-winning blog dedicated to all things sweet. Anita was professionally trained in the pastry arts at Tante Marie’s Cooking School in San Francisco. Dessert First documents her adventures in the kitchen through vivid descriptions and mouth-watering photos, along with recipes. She is also the author of Field Guide to Cookies and Field Guide to Candy (Quirk Books, 2008 & 2009, respectively). Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org