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Cooking School: Pastries with Chef John Besh

How mastering a basic pastry dough helped preserve New Orleans' culinary traditions

Written and produced by Stephen Exel
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  • Chef John Besh

    Recipes in this Story:

    Basic Sweet Tart Dough
    Blackberry Tart
    Peach Galette
    Walter’s Cheesecake with Raspberry Compote

    There’s beauty in taking some flour, butter, and a little sugar and watching the simplest of ingredients become something elegant,” says chef John Besh, a New Orleans native son and the owner of nine restaurants. “If you pay attention to the little details, you’ll have the best pie dough.”

    That trenchant observation stems from a time early in Besh’s career, when he interned at hotels and restaurants in Germany’s Black Forest and France’s Provence.

    Besh studied pastry while working at the Michelin-starred Spielweg restaurant in the Black Forest. His mentors there could not have been more diverse: Edel, a soft-spoken Irish woman with a deft, graceful hand at dessert-making, and Walter, a gruff-with-a-heart-of-gold German pastry chef. Each taught Besh an important lesson: Strip away the layers and embellishments of cooking, and respect the recipe’s basic ingredients and traditions.

    “I wanted to learn the gutsiness of Walter’s cakes and breads and the elegance of Edel’s refined pastries,” Besh remembers.

    Nine restaurants later, including the award-winning August in New Orleans, which showcases his European training and Louisiana roots, Besh today is known for more than just cooking. Although he has been honored by the James Beard Foundation with nominations and awards, he is equally proud of the 2009 Food Arts Silver Spoon award for his work revitalizing New Orleans’ culinary legacy after the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. Besh used his experience as a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War to respond to the plight of those left behind and hungry.

    “The war prepared me to operate in an environment that you can’t control,” Besh says. “I wasn’t given these talents just to win awards. I was able to marshal resources to feed people who were truly hungry. My marine buddies pitched in to rescue people who couldn’t get away. We cooked gallons and gallons of red beans and rice and sent them out in ice chests loaded onto boats. Later, we fed the oil and construction workers who were rebuilding the city.”

    In 2011, he founded the John Besh Foundation to promote New Orleans’ culinary history and provide scholarships for aspiring young chefs and loans to local farmers. Can this work be built on lessons learned years ago in the far-off Black Forest? “Yes,” Besh says. “That time of my life shaped me forever. It led me to appreciate localism and preserve its culinary tradition. New Orleans, similarly, is the only city with its own indigenous urban cuisine. All of us need to work to perpetuate it.”

    For more information on John Besh’s resturants and foundation, visit chefjohnbesh.com.

    Photography: Peter Krumhardt

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  • Cooking from the Heart

    In cooking, as in most other things, there are lessons learned early and lessons learned by putting earlier ones into practice. Besh explores both in his third cookbook, Cooking from the Heart, sharing recipes and techniques, including some for the pastry dough used here.

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  • Peter Krumhardt

    Pastry Dough

    This Basic Sweet Tart Dough becomes the foundation for three very different desserts. The pastry has a sweet note and a crumbly texture, comes together quickly, and freezes well for future use.

    Those building blocks—flour, butter, sugar—don’t need to be treated as precious commodities, but they do need to be handled with a little care. “Make sure the butter is cold,” Besh advises. “Otherwise the fat will melt and the dough will be tough.”

    “While a food processor works fine for cutting the butter into the flour, you’ll get a better feel for the pastry when you cut it in by hand,” Besh says. “The pieces will be a more uniform size. The same holds true for adding the sugar and other ingredients.

    “Finally, to avoid tough pastry, let the dough rest before you roll it out.”

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  • Peter Krumhardt

    Basic Sweet Tart Dough

    This is Chef John Besh’s go-to pastry dough. Simple to make, it has a slightly sweet crumb and cookie-dough texture. To have a better feel for the dough, Besh recommends using a pastry blender to cut in the butter and your fingers to knead the dough. (We’ve also included food processor instructions.) The dough freezes well, so make several batches and store for future use.

    • 2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
    • 1/3 cup sugar
    • 1 teaspoon finely shredded lemon peel
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 1/2 cup cold butter, cut up
    • 1 egg, lightly beaten
    • 1/4 cup milk

    In large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, lemon peel, and salt.

    The recipe continues on the next page.
     

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  • Peter Krumhardt

    Basic Sweet Tart Dough

    Using pastry blender, cut in butter until mixture resembles fine crumbs. In small bowl stir together egg and milk. Gradually stir egg mixture into flour mixture. Using your fingers, gently knead dough just until ball forms. Flatten ball into 6-inch disc. Cover pastry with plastic wrap and chill at least one hour before using, or freeze for later use.

    Tip: To make dough in food processor, place steel blade in food processor bowl. Add flour, sugar, lemon peel, and salt. Cover; process with several on/off turns until just combined. Add butter. Cover; process with on/off turns until most of mixture resembles cornmeal, but a few larger pieces remain. Combine egg and milk. With processor running, quickly add egg mixture through feed tube. Stop processor when all mixture is added; scrape down sides. Process with 2 on/off turns. Remove dough from bowl; shape into ball. Wrap and chill as directed above.

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  • Peter Krumhardt

    Blackberry Tart

    The sumptuous Blackberry Tart can be made with other berries as well. “It’s more refined than a pie,” Besh says. “The Basic Sweet Tart Dough adds balance.” To ensure the pastry is rolled to the correct size and thickness, roll the dough out to 13 inches on a measured pastry mat and use a ruler to make sure the dough is 1/4-inch thick.

    • 4 tablespoons butter, plus 1 tablespoon softened butter for pan
    • 1 recipe Basic Sweet Tart Dough (see recipe)
    • 1 egg
    • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
    • Pinch salt
    • 3/4 cup sugar, divided
    • 1 cup all-purpose flour, divided
    • 5 cups fresh blackberries
    Basic Sweet Tart Dough:
    • 2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
    • 1/3 cup sugar
    • 1 teaspoon finely shredded lemon peel
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 1/2 cup cold butter, cut up
    • 1 egg, lightly beaten
    • 1/4 cup milk

    Preheat oven to 350°F. Brush 10-inch fluted tart pan with removable bottom with the 1 tablespoon softened butter and dust with flour. Roll chilled Tart Dough out on well-floured surface from center to edges in circle 13 inches in diameter and 1/4-inch thick. 

    The recipe continues on the next page.

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    Blackberry Tart

    Press pastry into fluted sides of tart pan. Trim edges with rolling pin.

    Combine egg, lemon juice, salt, 1/4 cup sugar, and 1 teaspoon flour. Stir in blackberries, then pour into prepared tart shell. In medium bowl, using your fingers, crumble together remaining flour, 1/2 cup  sugar, and 4 tablespoons butter into pea-sized clumps. Sprinkle on top of berries.

    The recipe concludes on the next page.

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    Blackberry Tart

    Bake in preheated oven 50 to 55 minutes or until topping is golden. Cool tart in pan on wire rack at least 2 hours.  Remove sides of pan before serving. Makes 8 servings.

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    Peach Galette

    The pliable Basic Sweet Tart Dough works well with this rustic pie, called a galette. Use parchment paper to help lift the pastry over the fruit filling. Try different fruits to fill the galette. Tossing the fruit with flour keeps juices contained. Use just enough flour to coat the fruit, about 1 tablespoon per 2 cups of fruit, a little more with juicier fruit.

    • 1 recipe Basic Sweet Tart Dough (see recipe)
    • 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
    • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
    • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    • 1/4 teaspoon salt
    • 6 cups sliced peaches
    • 1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
    • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
    • 1/3 cup butter, cut into pieces

    Basic Sweet Tart Dough:

    • 2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
    • 1/3 cup sugar
    • 1 teaspoon finely shredded lemon peel
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 1/2 cup cold butter, cut up
    • 1 egg, lightly beaten
    • 1/4 cup milk

    Preheat oven to 350°F. Prepare Basic Sweet Tart Dough. On large piece of lightly floured parchment paper roll chilled Tart Dough into 15x10-inch oval 1/4-inch thick. Transfer paper with pastry onto 15x10x1-inch baking pan.

    The recipe continues on the next page.

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    Peach Galette

    For filling, in large bowl, stir together brown sugar, flour, cornstarch, cinnamon, and salt. Add peaches, walnuts, and lemon juice; toss until coated. Stir in butter.

    The recipe concludes on the next page.

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    Peach Galette

    Mound filling in center of pastry, leaving outer 2 inches uncovered. Fold uncovered pastry up over filling, pleating as necessary and using paper to lift pastry border.

    Bake 1 hour or until filling is bubbly and crust is golden. If necessary to prevent overbrowning, cover edge of tart with foil last 5 to 10 minutes of baking. Use parchment paper to lift cooled tart from baking pan and place on wire rack. Cool at least 2 hours on wire rack before serving. Makes 8 servings.

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    Walter's Cheesecake with Raspberry Compote

    A fresh raspberry compote dresses this cheesecake, filled with tangy cream cheese and yogurt. The Basic Sweet Tart Dough becomes a high-sided crust for this Old World-style dessert. Parchment paper cut to the size of the pan can be a helpful guide to rolling out the pastry. 

    Cheesecake:

    • 1 Basic Sweet Tart Dough (see recipe)
    • 1 tablespoon butter, softened
    • 3 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
    • 1 cup granulated sugar
    • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
    • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
    • 2 teaspoons vanilla
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 3/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
    • 1/2 cup whole milk
    • 4 eggs, lightly beaten
    • 1 recipe Raspberry Compote (recipe follows)

    Raspberry Compote:

    • 1 tablespoon butter
    • 5 cups fresh red raspberries
    • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
    • 1/4 cup apple juice
    • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
    • 3 inches stick cinnamon

    Basic Sweet Tart Dough:

    • 2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
    • 1/3 cup sugar
    • 1 teaspoon finely shredded lemon peel
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 1/2 cup cold butter, cut up
    • 1 egg, lightly beaten
    • 1/4 cup milk

    Prepare Basic Sweet Tart Dough.

    For Cheesecake, butter sides and bottom of 10-inch springform pan with 1 tablespoon softened butter.

    The recipe continues on the next page.

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    Walter's Cheescake with Raspberry Compote

    On floured surface roll chilled Tart Dough from center to edges into a circle 13 inches in diameter (a pastry mat is handy for this) and 1/4-inch thick. 

    The recipe continues on the next page.

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    Walter's Cheesecake with Raspberry Compote

    Gently fold circle in quarters and place in bottom of prepared pan. Unfold pastry; fit dough into bottom and up sides of prepared pan. Trim edges. If dough tears, patch with trimmed portions. Chill while preparing filling.

    Preheat oven to 325°F. In large bowl, beat cream cheese with electric mixer on medium to high speed for 30 seconds. Add sugar, flour, lemon juice, vanilla, and salt. Beat 2 minutes more. Beat in yogurt and milk until smooth. Stir in eggs.

    Pour filling into dough shell. (Filling will not reach all the way to top, but will rise and expand as it bakes.) Place pan in foil-lined shallow baking pan. Bake 1-1/4 hours or until edges are lightly browned and 3-inch area around outside edge appears set when gently shaken.

    The recipe concludes on the next page.

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    Walter's Cheesecake with Raspberry Compote

    Cool cake in pan on wire rack 30 minutes. Using small sharp knife, loosen crust from sides of pan. Remove sides of pan; cool cheesecake completely on rack. Cover; chill at least 4 hours before serving.

    Top with warm Raspberry Compote and serve. Makes 12 servings.

    Raspberry Compote: In large skillet melt butter over medium-high heat. Add half the raspberries plus vinegar, apple juice, brown sugar, and cinnamon stick. Cook 5 to 7 minutes or until liquid is reduced and fruit is tender. Remove cinnamon stick. Press mixture through fine mesh sieve and discard seeds. Stir in remaining raspberries. Makes about 2-3/4 cups.

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