“Pies & Tarts.” By Editors of Country Living. Hearst. $16.95

I’m not really sure how Country Living’s “Pies & Tarts” made it into my kitchen.

Maybe it was the promise of more than 70 “foolproof” recipes for pies and tarts or the guide to making the perfect crust from scratch. Or it might have been the photo of tiny cherry pies topped with star-shaped crust and staged with vintage Bakelite-handled forks like the ones my mom uses. It could have been the recipe for a key lime tart with ginger-molasses crust, but it was probably the forks.

Whatever it was, I found myself a little perplexed months later when I pulled it from the pile of books waiting to be tested. I usually gravitate toward interesting cookbooks written by people, not ones published by magazines or TV networks. They feel less personal and generally less inspiring.

But “Pies & Tarts” is good for what it is: a basic guide to baking from scratch.

The book starts with a “Baking for Beginners” guide that covers how to read a recipe, the importance of accurate measurements and even how to transport your pie when it’s done. It continues with information about ingredients (including how to best handle butter when making crust), a fruit know-how section and an illustrated guide of basic tools you’ll use while baking.

While I’m not a pro in the kitchen, I’m experienced enough that the first section was of little use to me. It would be great for a novice baker looking to improve their skills. Tips for how to make decorative borders and pie tops could come in handy for me, though.

The most useful part of this book, no doubt, is the section of pie crust recipes. There are six: Perfect Piecrust, Baked Pie Shell, Grandma’s Pie Dough, Quick Puff Pastry and Crumb Crust three ways (graham cracker, gingersnap and vanilla wafer). Basically, a dough for every occasion.

As I flipped through the sections of fruit pies and custard and cream pies, I was feeling pretty uninspired. The recipes offered are a nice variety – ranging from Farmhouse Apple Pie to Chocolate-Coconut Pecan Pie to Orange-Buttermilk Chess Pie – but I just wasn’t in the mood. This is the time of year I love to eat fruit and berries fresh from the farmers market, not baked in sugary desserts. I’ll come back to those recipes as the holiday season approaches.

Finally, I came to the section on savory pies and I swear a heard a little “ding-ding” go off in my head. These recipes were far more interesting to me, particularly the Savory Gruyère-Apple Tarts, Caramelized-Onion and Gruyère Tarts, and Tomato and Cheese Pie. I can imagine making the Chicken Potpie Turnovers on a cool winter night when comfort food is needed, or whipping up a Tomato and Camembert Tart to serve for lunch with friends.

Drawn by the promise of sweet and salty, I made the Prosciutto and Fig Crostata for a recent Sunday brunch. (Confession: I saved myself time and used the store-bought dough the recipe offered as an option.) The instructions were easy to follow and the recipe quick to come together, though I did find it a little tricky to neatly spread the thick fig mixture over the soft cream cheese. The result was just the salty/sweet blend I was looking for, with a nice creaminess to balance it out.


Makes one (12-inch) crostata

4 ounces dried Black Mission figs

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

2 cloves garlic

1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt

1 (9-inch) store-bought, unroll-and-fill pie crust or homemade recipe of your choice

4 ounces cream cheese, softened

2 ounces prosciutto, cut into 1/2-inch wide strips

1 large egg white

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Place the figs, lemon juice, thyme, garlic and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade and process to a smooth paste. Set aside.

2. Roll the dough into a 13-inch circle on a lightly floured surface. Transfer the round to a baking sheet and gently spread the cream cheese onto the dough, leaving a 3/4-inch-wide border. Spread the fig mixture over the cream cheese and fold the border edge over the fig mixture to form the crostata.

3. Top the crostata with the prosciutto strips and lightly brush the folded edge of the dough with the egg white. Bake until golden, about 15 minutes. Cool on the sheet for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

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