Why a crust is a must

We love pastry, partly for symbolic reasons — but mainly because it is so tasty

April 22, 2010

Pastry - the stuff of dreams. That melt-in-the-mouth, crumbly, moist texture makes pastry irresistible. And it comes in so many different forms. It could be a crisp-crusted flaky layer over summer berries. Or a slice of warm apple pie topped with a blanket of golden, sugar-dusted short-crust, laced with hot custard. Maybe light puffs of choux pastry filled with cream and drizzles of dark chocolate sauce. Then there is strudel, with its complicated, translucent dough; the glorious Sephardi cigars; hot bourekas; and knishes - milchig and fleishig - so satisfying as a hot lunch or part of a kiddush. Whatever the pastry, Jews have long adored its versatility.

Brillat-Savarin, the famous 17th-century gourmet and food commentator, said: "a chef who has no knowledge of pastry is a chef with only one arm".

But there are reasons other than flavour why pastry is so popular with the Jewish community.

In the Shulchan Aruch (Rama 242:1) it is explained that we eat bourekas on Friday night because the filling is covered by pastry above and below, like the manna which was protected by dew both above and beneath it. Then again, it is said that in medieval times, Jewish people - ever superstitious - wrote a wish on a small piece of paper and wrapped it in a dough of some description. They attached it to a form of string and wore it around their necks, as a talisman.

It is thought by some religious men that our lives are directed by forces of fate, beyond our control. Often we do not understand the reasons. However they believe that submerged under secret seams lie a kind, good hand guiding us for the best. Thus a plain dough, such as a hommantasch, conceals a sweet heart, and pastry is metaphor or symbol for this Godly action.

Of course, our ancestors were never far removed from poverty, so it made sense to extend small amounts of expensive filling with rich and satisfying coatings.

When I was a child, I loved my mother's "apples in their dressing gowns" - delicious pastry-covered windfalls. There was always a hot tart bubbling in the oven after Friday night supper, filled with plums or tender pears from the garden and plenty left to eat cold on Shabbat.

And now I realise that Wednesday's mincemeat pasties full of carrots and swede with a little leftover meat, fed us cheaply and happily.

So, in remembrance of my mother Judith's wonderful apple pies, I offer you her cherished recipe which produces a fluffy, cake-like dish. If you prefer a more traditional pastry, simply use all plain flour.

Judith's apple pie


For the pastry
● 110g magarine plus 1 tbs pea-nut butter (optional)
● 110g self-raising flour
● 75g soft brown sugar
● 5g vanilla sugar
● Grated rind of 1 lemon and a tsp juice - or enough to give a soft dough
● 1 medium egg

For the filling
● 700g peeled, cored and sliced apples – use ½ Bramley and ½ eating apple, such as Jonagold
Grated rind of 1 lemon or orange plus juice of 1 lemon
● 1 teasp mixed spice
● 80g sultanas
● 3 tbsp chunky marmalade
● 3 tbsp ground almonds
● To top, 5-10g castor sugar

● Pre-heat oven, gas mark 6, 200°C, 400°F .
● Make pastry by rubbing in fats with rinds and flours. Add sugars. Beat egg. Combine adding sufficient lemon juice to make a soft dough. Chill for ½ hour minimum.
● Combine filling ingredients.
● Fill a deep dish approx 1.5 litres with filling mix. Roll out and cover apple mix. Sprinkle with sugar. Decorate with pastry leaves.
● Bake for 15 mins then lower to 180°C, 350°F, gas Mark 4 for approx 30 mins or until golden.

Last updated: 12:30pm, April 22 2010