Neither a cake nor a pie nor a tart, but with elements of all three, the crostata is to Italians what apple pie is to Americans. Every Italian loves crostata, every Italian has a favourite topping and every Italian has an opinion on what makes a good one. Usually that will coincide with how Mamma or Nonna made it.
In short, crostata is a pie made with a rich short crust pastry which is covered either before or after baking with jam, a patisserie cream or fresh fruit. The two main types of crostata are those with a lattice pastry topping and those that are completely covered with a sheet of pastry.
Crostata is made in homes, restaurants and bakeries the length and breadth of the country and the variations are endless. The topping or filling is dictated both by season and location. Fresh fruit pies are more commonplace in the summer whereas jam pies are generally made over the winter months. Each region has its own variants on the theme. The crostata del diavolo (devil’s crostata) is a Calabrian version in which the pastry is coated with alternate layers of orange and chilli jams and finished with an almond topping. Pumpkin crostata is popular in Veneto as is a version made with ricotta in Lazio. The most popular by far, and made throughout the country, are the pies made with plum, apricot and cherry jams.
Every Italian will tell you they hold the secret to the perfect crostata. I’m no different. If cooking the crostata with the filling on top some say it’s good practice to sprinkle breadcrumbs, crushed biscuit or very thin slices of sponge cake over the base before adding the filling. This prevents the jam bleeding into the pastry and making it soggy. That said, many cooks (myself included) would advocate allowing the filling to bleed slightly into the crust thereby adding flavour. The key is in the pastry. If you get the consistency and thickness of the pastry right, you are on the road to crostata perfection. For a good rustic country crostata, the base should be about 1cm in thickness and it should be rich, buttery and slightly crumbly.
Apricot jam crostata
Crostata con confettura di albicocche
Makes 1 24cm crostata
Preparation time: 15 minutes plus resting time
Cooking time: 35-40 minutes
400g plain flour
150g unsalted butter
1 large free range egg
200ml apricot jam
Allow the butter to come to room temperature. Sift the flour into a large bowl and add the butter, sugar and beaten egg. Use your fingers to quickly mix all the ingredients together and knead together to make a smooth dough. Don’t overwork the pastry but do make sure all the ingredients are well incorporated.
Divide the pastry into two parts – of ⅔ and ⅓ - and allow to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes. Dust a work surface with flour and roll out the larger piece of pastry with a rolling pin. The pastry needs to be about 1cm thick and it should rise up the side of the baking dish by about 2cms. (If you like you’re your pastry completely dry you can, at this point, sprinkle some biscuit crumb over the base.) Next, spoon the jam over the pastry. To finish the pie, rip off small walnut-sized pieces of dough and roll them out by hand into thin snakes about 1cm thick. Arrange them in a lattice formation over the top of the crostata. You don’t need to be too precise. It’s a rustic country cake.
Bake in a preheated oven at 175ºC for 35 to 40 minutes. Allow to cool before serving. You can, of course, use a different jam. Cherry, plum, blackberry or fruits of the forest jam all work well.