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Croustade is French pastry lover's dream come true

| Sunday, Dec. 23, 2007

If there had been a photograph of the dessert in "Daniel Boulud's Cafe Boulud Cookbook" -- an apple and Armagnac croustade -- I doubt I would have attempted making it.

It would have looked too gorgeous, too complicated, something my sorry skills probably would have botched. Yes, I can cook, but I'm no baker.

But the recipe looked easy, so I gave it a try.

The result• A dessert so beautiful, so dramatic, so different, that it's just the thing for Christmas dinner or New Year's Eve. My friend who had come to dinner gasped when I brought it to the table. I cut into it to serve it, and the tall slice -- layers of crisp, delicate, caramelized filo, studded with sliced almonds and filled with apples cooked in Armagnac -- held together picture-perfectly. The texture was brilliant, the flavor wonderful. OK, so the apples weren't quite sweet or tender enough, but I figured I could tweak the filling next time I made it.

The croustade, as I learned from the recipe's headnote, is a specialty of Gascony, but I had never seen nor tasted one -- nor even heard of it -- although I'd spent quite a bit of time in southwestern France. My husband, a native of the region, had heard of it but didn't know what it was. Traditionally, it's made of thin sheets of a hand-pulled, streudel-like dough, but Boulud's recipe used filo dough.

Boulud's recipe calls for four layers of buttered, sugared sheets of filo, crinkled into circles, strewn with sliced almonds and stacked. On top of that go apples that have been sauteed with sugar and vanilla, then flambeed with Armagnac and cooled. Another crumpled, buttered, sugared, almond-strewn filo sheet goes on, then another, then you bake it. Take it out of the oven, add one more crumpled layer, which you dust heavily with powdered sugar, then back in the oven it goes. When it's caramelized, shiny and golden-brown, it's done.

I was smitten. The filo was so easy to work with, building up layers that you could drape to beautiful effect. Later, I read the recipe again more closely and realized I hadn't quite followed the directions, which say to press the dough into the pastry ring you use as a form; "it should be fairly flat and shouldn't come up the sides of the ring," wrote Boulud and his co-author Dorie Greenspan. I had gone for height, not knowing what I was doing, and the effect was fantastic.

Another confession: I didn't have any Armagnac, but I had Calvados, the apple brandy from Normandy. The apple-on-apple flavor, with the burnt edge of flambe, was terrific.

The next time I made it, I sliced the apples thinner, added more sugar, and cooked it a little longer.

Hungry to know more about this mysterious dessert, I grabbed the best source on Gascon cooking I know: Paula Wolfert's "The Cooking of Southwest France." Leave it to Wolfert, who had a whole page on the pastry-covered pies of the southwest, including croustades.

Croustade, she wrote, is the name used for them in the Languedoc and Guyenne, but it's "pastis in the Quercy and the Perigord," and "tourtiere in the Tarn and the Landes." In each case, paper-thin sheets of strudel-like pastry are "brushed lightly with clarified butter or goose fat and wrapped about a sweetened fruit filling, shaped according to the custom of the region, then baked."

On the next page was a dessert that sounded even better than the one I had made: a croustade with apples and prunes in Armagnac. It called for prunes soaked in Armagnac and sugar syrup for two weeks, but I couldn't wait that long. I came up with a quick version, steeping them in tea for a couple hours, followed by a soak overnight in the Armagnac-syrup mixture. They were pretty fabulous. Wolfert suggests cooking the apples in a vacuum-pack pouch, but I didn't have the equipment, so I used her alternative, cooking them over low heat in a covered pan.

Wolfert's way of shaping the croustade involves brushing filo sheets with butter, folding them in half vertically, and arranging them on a pizza pan so they radiate like spokes, with the ends overlapping to cover the pan. The prunes go in the middle, topped with the apples, then you twist the spokes of filo loosely and wrap them into rose-shapes, folding them up and over the filling, until the entire top is covered with filo roses. Drizzle with a mixture of prune-Armagnac liquid, butter, sugar and a little straight Armagnac, then sprinkle with sugar and bake. More sugar goes on when it comes out of the oven, beautifully browned and caramelized, then, just before serving it, you dust it with powdered sugar.

This one doesn't have the height of my tweaked Boulud recipe, but it's just as gorgeous. The filling is absolutely killer, and filo dough is my new best friend.

Apple and Calvados Croustade

This dish is adapted from a recipe for apple and Armagnac croustade in the "Cafe Boulud Cookbook" by Daniel Boulud and Dorie Greenspan. Boulud's recipe is traditional from Gascony, hence the Armagnac, but Calvados, the apple brandy from Normandy, is also wonderful. Feel free to use the traditional Armagnac, if you prefer. Be sure to use a large enough skillet (13 inches is perfect) so the apples caramelize properly.

Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

• 1 stick plus 2 tablespoons butter, divided

• 6 Black Arkansas or Rome apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/3-inch slices

• 1 moist, plump vanilla bean

• 1/4 cup sugar

• 1/3 cup Calvados

• 8 sheets filo dough

• 1/2 cup powdered sugar (or more, as needed)

• 1/3 cup sliced almonds, divided

Melt 4 tablespoons (one-half stick) of butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Place the apple slices in a bowl. Cut the vanilla bean lengthwise in half and, using the tip of a small knife, scrape the seeds over the apples and drop the pod on top. When the butter is foamy, add the apples with the vanilla and the sugar and cook, stirring very gently but frequently, until the apples are lightly caramelized and soft, about 15 to 20 minutes. Add the Calvados and, using a long match and standing well back, set it aflame. When the flames subside, turn the apples over in the Calvados; when the flames have died out and the Calvados has reduced to a glaze, transfer the apples to a bowl and allow them to cool to room temperature.

Center a rack in the oven and heat it to 350 degrees. Place a 10-inch tart ring on a baking sheet lined with a silicon mat or parchment. Melt the remaining 6 tablespoons butter and set it aside. Unfold the filo dough on your work surface and cover it with a damp towel.

Remove the top sheet of filo (re-cover the remaining sheets), brush it lightly with butter, and dust it with powdered sugar shaken from a fine-mesh strainer. Gently and loosely crumple the dough into a circle and lay it into the pastry ring. Sprinkle it with about one-fifth of the almonds. Repeat this procedure three more times, until you have four buttered, sugared and almond-sprinkled sheets of filo layered in the ring. Do not press them together -- let them keep some height.

Spoon the apples into the center of the croustade, leaving a 1-inch border bare. Working as you did before, butter, sugar and crumple a sheet of filo, fitting it over the apples. Sprinkle this layer with the remaining almonds, and cover this with another crumpled sheet of buttered and sugared filo. Do a little styling and draping; arrange the filo so it looks good.

Slide the croustade into the oven and bake for about 10 to 12 minutes, watching the top of the tart carefully to make certain it doesn't brown too much. The top should be just lightly browned. Remove the croustade from the oven.

Increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees. Butter and sugar another sheet of filo, loosely crumple it and place it on the last layer to make a light, airy crown. Bake the tart for 5 to 10 minutes, or until lightly browned, then remove it from the oven again.

Butter the last sheet of filo and, once again, crumple it to make a crown. Place it on top of the croustade and dust it heavily with the remaining powdered sugar. Return the tart to the oven and bake until the top layer caramelizes evenly, about 5 to 10 minutes. Check the progress of the sugar frequently because it can go from brown to burned in a flash. Pull the croustade from the oven as soon as the top is a golden caramel color and allow it to cool for 5 to 10 minutes.

To serve, lift off the tart ring and, using two large, wide metal spatulas, transfer the croustade to a serving plate. Serve the tart warm or at room temperature the day it is made, with creme fraiche, whipped cream (or even better, creme fraiche lightened with whipped cream) or vanilla ice cream.

Makes 8 servings.

Nutritional info per serving: 363 calories; 18 grams fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 46 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 38 milligrams cholesterol; 5 grams fiber; 95 milligrams sodium.

Croustade With Apples and Prunes in Armagnac

This was adapted from "The Cooking of Southwest France" by Paula Wolfert. Use filo sheets measuring 13 by 18 inches; measurements should be stated on the box.

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes, plus overnight soaking time for the prunes.

• 2 chamomile tea bags

• 25 pitted prunes

• 3/4 cup plus 2/3 cup sugar, divided

• 2/3 cup plus 2 teaspoons Armagnac, divided

• 2 pounds Granny Smith or Pippin apples, peeled, cored and thickly sliced

• 2 strips orange zest

• 1 moist, plump vanilla bean, split

• 1/3 cup butter, melted

• 11 or 12 sheets of filo dough Powdered sugar for garnish

Brew 2 cups of chamomile tea. Put the prunes in a small heat-proof bowl, pour the tea over, and let them soak for about 2 hours, until soft.

Drain the prunes, dry them with paper towels, and place them in a small bowl. In a small saucepan, combine one-half cup of the sugar with one-fourth cup water. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Boil undisturbed for 2 minutes, then cool slightly. Pour the syrup over the prunes, then add two-thirds cup Armagnac to cover. Stir to combine, and push the prunes down so they're submerged. (Add a little more Armagnac, if necessary.) Let the prunes soak, unrefrigerated, overnight.

Place the apples in a large saucepan, add two-thirds cup sugar and the orange zest. Use the tip of a small knife to scrape the seeds of the vanilla bean onto the apples, then drop in the pod. Stir carefully to combine. Cover and cook over low heat until the apples are soft (but not mushy), about 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool.

Drain the prunes, reserving the liquid. Cut them into quarters, place in a bowl and pour 1/4 cup of the liquid over them.

Mix 2 tablespoons of the melted butter with 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 tablespoon of the remaining Armagnac-prune syrup and 2 teaspoons Armagnac. Set aside.

Two to 3 hours before serving, place a baking sheet on the lowest oven rack and heat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly brush a 13- to 15-inch round pan (such as a pizza pan) with 1 tablespoon of melted butter.

Unroll the sheets of filo in front of you and cover with a damp towel. Working quickly so the pastry doesn't dry out, brush the top leaf lightly with melted butter. Fold it in half lengthwise, and brush each side lightly with butter. Place one short end of the folded sheet in the center of the pan, letting the sheet hang over the side of the pan. Repeat with the remaining leaves, arranging them so that they look like the spokes of a wheel (with the inner ends stacked in a hub and the outer ends barely touching).

Very lightly sprinkle some of the butter-Armagnac mixture over the dough that extends over the edge of the pan. Place the prunes in a 6 1/2-inch circle in the center of the pastry. Drain the apples, remove the vanilla pod and orange zest and place the apples on top of the prunes.

To enclose the filling, start with the last sheet placed on the pan. Lift up the outer end and bring it toward the center, twisting the piece once so that the underside faces you. Roll up the end of the strip loosely to form a cup-shaped "rose" and set it flat on the filling, pressing lightly so it adheres. Repeat with the remaining leaves, placing the flowers close together to cover the top of the cake. (Don't worry if a little filling shows through.) Sprinkle the top very lightly with the remaining butter-Armagnac mixture, drizzle with the remaining butter and dust with 1 tablespoon sugar.

Place the pan in the oven on the hot baking sheet and bake for 12 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake for 20 to 25 minutes longer, or until the croustade is golden and crisp. Slide it onto a wire rack. Sprinkle the final 2 tablespoons of sugar over the top and let it cool to lukewarm. Just before serving, dust it with powdered sugar. Serve the same day it is made.

Makes 8-10 servings.

Nutrition info for each of 10 servings: 358 calories; 7 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 65 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 16 milligrams cholesterol; 4 grams fiber; 112 milligrams sodium.

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