A work of tart

Making dough for a tart or pie is, more than any other baked good, a deeply philosophical matter.

Pastry crust has become an almost forgotten art, mostly because grocery cases are stocked with frozen and refrigerated doughs that are pretty good. The question then becomes: Don't I deserve more than pretty good?

Even weightier: When does the choice to merely unroll a scroll of store-bought pastry start to show up in other aspects of my life? In other words, what do we lose when every destination comes by way of a shortcut?

Heavy stuff, which, frankly, you can take with a grain of kosher salt. The reason for making a fruit tart from scratch is because it tastes really good. Plus, there's something innately satisfying about letting flour, butter and water come together under your fingers. You may not believe it until you've tried it. So let's try it.

Tender, flaky pastry dough works on the premise of distributing little nuggets of butter or shortening throughout a mixture of flour, sugar and a little salt.

Brought together with liquid, the dough is chilled, then rolled out. Filled and placed in a hot oven, the now-flat shards of butter melt and leave minuscule crevices that create the mouthwatering flakiness of a great tart or pie.

A baker's staple

This recipe has a secret ingredient: vodka. Actually, it's not much of a secret anymore since the folks at America's Test Kitchen came up with the trick a few years ago (that would be those who work for the TV cooking program of the same name, also producers of the Cook's Illustrated magazine). But using vodka in pastry still seems so weird.

Here's the science: Vodka is 60 percent water and 40 percent alcohol. Using it, along with some ice water, enables us to mix a dough that's moist enough to hold together without being overworked.

That could result in a tough crust because more mixing develops more of the flour's gluten, and we're making a flaky tart, not chewy bread. This recipe has a total 8 tablespoons of liquid, but the alcohol vaporizes during baking, leaving only 6 1/2 tablespoons of water.

Brrr. Chilly is better

Another secret to successful pastry crusts is to keep everything cold. Use cold butter, cold shortening, cold liquid. Some bakers even chill their flour before mixing. This keeps the butter from melting until the tart is in the oven.

Because we're making a free-form tart that won't have the support of a pie or tart tin, we mix the butter and flour so the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal, instead of leaving butter in the pea-sized nuggets mentioned in other pastry recipes. This more equitably mixed dough will have fewer buttery weak spots through which the fruit might leak.

With that in mind, don't roll the dough too thin; aim for a 12- to 14-inch shape. You can add whatever fresh fruit you like to fill the tart -- peaches, blueberries, raspberries, nectarines. Or make one tart of each.

To help absorb any fruit juices, a mixture of sugar and cornstarch is sprinkled over the bottom of the tart. Pile the fruit in the middle, and gently ease the dough up and over the fruit, pleating or folding it to form a border. There's no right or wrong here. We're aiming for a rustic look.

Embellished with some decorative sugar, the tart -- also called a galette or crostata -- will bring any summer meal to a jewel-toned close.

And if you have any leftovers, they're great for breakfast!

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185

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