Pastry chefs, bakers put new twist on hand pies

BY JACKIE BURRELL
San Jose Mercury News
Modified: November 6, 2012 at 5:26 pm •  Published: November 6, 2012
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photo - Put a homemade spin on pop-tarts while satisfying our grown-up palates. Here, berry jam pop-tarts. (Mark DuFrene/Contra Costa Times/MCT)
Put a homemade spin on pop-tarts while satisfying our grown-up palates. Here, berry jam pop-tarts. (Mark DuFrene/Contra Costa Times/MCT)

Remember Pop-Tarts? If you recall those ubiquitous, jam-filled, cardboard-textured relics of childhood, they’ve likely left a bad taste in your mouth.

But while the execution of the preservative-filled treats was lacking, the idea remains a good one. And that has not escaped the attention of some chefs, who are reinventing the classic little hand pies as haute-tarts, encasing organic artisanal jams and savory pumpkin-sage mixtures between squares of flaky, tender pastry and serving them up in swanky hotels, luxe patisseries and casual cafes alike.

At Trace in San Francisco’s W Hotel, the breakfast menu includes a Kadota fig-filled tart with lemon glaze. Ham and cheese is the filling of choice at Tout Sweet, “Top Chef: Just Desserts” winner Yigit Pura’s trendsetting patisserie in San Francisco. And at Tender Greens, the fresh, seasonal cafe that opened in downtown Walnut Creek, Calif., last year, the haute-tarts range from savory to sweet, including a s’mores tart and one filled with fresh blueberries and finished with an eye-popping violet glaze.

The trend is easy to understand, pastry chefs and bakers say. These riffs on Pop-Tarts tap into our deepest, most nostalgic longings for childhood — while satisfying our grown-up palates. Besides, they’re adorable.

“There’s something intensely magical about homemade pop tarts,” says Alana Chernila, the Massachusetts author of “The Homemade Pantry Cookbook” (Clarkson Potter, $24.99, 288 pages). “They appeal to the kid in everyone.”

Chernila’s cookbook boasts more than 100 enticing recipes, but the one that generates the most mail is the pop tart. Everyone loves them, she says. They love making them and they love talking about them afterward — and the nostalgia factor is a potent one.

The only problem is, the commercial Pop-Tarts of our youth were made to withstand travel by lunchbox and backpack, not to mention trips through the toaster. They are Sturdy, with a capital S — and sturdy is not a word you ever want to associate with pastry.

So when Kim Laidlaw, the San Francisco author of “Williams-Sonoma Home Baked Comfort” (Weldon Owen, $34.95, 224 pages) took a trip down memory lane and bit into the cherry Pop-Tart that had been her childhood fave, her taste-memory collided with reality. Badly. There was just one thing to do: Make her own toaster-style tart using really good buttery homemade pastry and high-quality sour cherry jam.

Good ingredients and stellar pastry are key. Some bakers, such as Sarah Billingsley and Rachel Wharton, authors of “Handheld Pies” (Chronicle Books, $19.95, 144 pages), go the classic pate brisee — the classic, butter-rich pie dough — route, and fill them with orange marmalade and mascarpone, or tomatoes, mozzarella and prosciutto.

Others opt for the puff pastry direction. Executive chef Sean Canavan, who left San Francisco’s Bluestem Brasserie last spring to take over the top slot at Tender Greens, calls his dough “an in-between, a blitz puff pastry where you intentionally leave streaks of butter in your dough, which later on form your layers.” And just because the childhood classic calls for rectangles covered in nonpareil sprinkles, doesn’t make the parallelogram a requirement. The little tarts are every bit as delicious when they’re cut into circles, hearts or triangles, drizzled with glaze or dusted with powdered sugar.

The Pop-Tarts of our youth may have come in a Kellogg’s box, but the genre is “an ancient one,” Canavan says. “People have always made hand pies.” And the small size has an added advantage: One pastry, many different flavors. A single batch can result in half a dozen flavors.

Annette Picha, the pastry chef at Los Angeles’ Tender Greens outpost, does variations on seasonal fruit, as well as a s’mores riff, mixing graham cracker crumbs into the pastry dough before filling it with chocolate ganache and homemade marshmallow. Canavan enjoys filling the little hand pies with organic, heirloom apples — his favorite is a Cox’s Orange Pippin, a baking apple that is particularly popular in his native Germany — or chopped pumpkin or squash, sauteed in browned butter and lightened with mascarpone. The beauty of it, he says, is “you don’t commit to a big pie.”

Also key: exerting a little self-control as you fill them. “It’s a balance. You want a good crust-to-filling ratio, but don’t get overzealous,” Chernila says. “You want it to goo out in the right way. Put too much filling in there and you can’t get them sealed.”

Seal them patiently, using a fork to crimp the edges securely, and don’t worry too much about appearance.

“Don’t try to make them look perfect. They’re already awesome,” Chernila says. “It’s not worth the fuss to get every one the same size. It’s part of their charm to be very clearly homemade.”

But beware the toaster — a really lovely pastry crust lacks the structural integrity of a tough, sturdy one. And have fun with the filling.

“You’re making pie, and everything is good in pie,” Chernila says. “That’s a rule.”

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VARIATIONS ON A THEME

A classic pop tart is filled with jam or chocolate, but there’s no limit to the sweet or savory fillings you can use to fill this variation on a turnover. Here are just a few ideas:

Rhubarb compote

Cinnamon and sugar

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