You can create a beautiful tart crust without picking up a rolling pin
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Almond Strawberry Tart
Credit: Photo by Greg DuPree / Food Styling by Ruth Blackburn / Prop Styling by Claire Spollen

This time of year, when berries and other fruit are starting to show up at the market, you'll hear a lot of people suggest you showcase them in a fruit tart. Which is a pretty fantastic idea—unless you're scared of rolling out tart dough.

When I first got into baking, I avoided tarts as much as possible because I just couldn't get the hang of rolling the dough. It was either too cold to roll out evenly, or I'd get it to the right thickness, slide my fingers under the edges of the dough to transfer it to the tart pan, and find a giant circle from the center had torn away and remained glued to the countertop. I'd then gather the dough in a ball again, re-flour my countertop, roll it out, and bake the crust. What I ended up with was so chewy and tough it brought back memories of the chef-instructor at culinary school who screamed "shoemakers!" at us when we presented overworked, leathery pie crusts for his approval. After that kind of wildly supportive feedback, it was no surprise that I volunteered to make anything but tarts while working in restaurant kitchens.

Then, a chef friend gave me a Jamie Oliver cookbook for my birthday one year, and I read his mantra for pastry: Don't roll it if you aren't feeling it. He instructs baking newbies to shape the dough into a fat cylinder before chilling it. You then cut it into thin slices and press them into the pan. It's so easy, and quickly got me over my trepidation. I found another great tip for the rolling-averse in this recipe for an Almond and Strawberry Tart by Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray of The River Café in London: Grate the chilled dough directly into the tart pan. You just pat the shavings into place, then press them into the pan to form an even crust. Simple and easy.

Tart dough
Credit: Photo by Greg DuPree / Food Styling by Ruth Blackburn / Prop Styling by Claire Spollen

These techniques will get you pretty far when it comes to tart and pie crusts. And when you're ready to pick up your rolling pin—as I did after a couple of years—here are some tips to follow. Start with a well-chilled (but not frozen!) dough. Shape it into a flat, round disk before chilling it, so it's easier to roll into a circle later. Lightly flour your surface; a marble slab or stone countertop is ideal, since that cool, smooth surface will help keep it from sticking. (You can even tape a sheet of parchment paper to your countertop and use that as your surface.) When it's time to roll out the dough, don't be afraid of it—it can smell your fear. Work quickly and confidently, or the dough will warm up and the butter will smear and stick to the surface; a good rolling pin will help a lot here. Turn the dough 90 degrees every few rolls so it forms an even circle, adding a little more flour to the surface if the dough feels like it's even possibly about to start to stick. Return the dough to the refrigerator for a few minutes if it gets warm and sticks to the surface; a warm dough absorbs too much flour and becomes tough and chewy. 

As with many things in life and the kitchen, you just need more experience with tart dough to feel comfortable, and in this case, repetition helps you develop a sense memory for what it should look and feel like. But until you get there, feel free to slice or grate your dough. Taking that first step towards feeling confident with pastry dough means more delicious tarts for everyone.