I learned it from Judy Witts Francini, an American who teaches cooking classes that capture the simple home cooking of Tuscany. The first tart we made — technically a crostata — was filled with fig jam, but these simple pastries made from butter, sugar and flour really can be filled with anything.
This is one of those treasured recipes where the sum is greater than the parts! The list of ingredients is short and basic. For that first tart I made, the secret was a beautiful jar of homemade fig jam scented with lemon zest and almonds. I was incredulous that something so easy to make could taste so good. The crust is so wonderful, a cross between pie dough and a sugar cookie.
When I came home, I was obsessed with making the tart. I start by creaming the butter and sugar as if I am making a cake. I like to add orange blossom water to the dough, but you can use vanilla or almond extract.
I then whisk together the flour and salt, and add it to the butter mixture by hand, mixing just until crumbs form. During my class in Italy, we reserved some of the dough to make a lattice top, but I simplify and just sprinkle some crumbs of the crust over it.
As I learned in Italy, the real secret to the tart is using the best quality jam you can find. I look for jam made with only a bit of sugar, and I prefer fig, apricot, cherry, strawberry and raspberry. The thing I love about switching up the jams is that you can add extracts and seasonings to match your jams. When I make a fig jam tart, I add a touch of cardamom to the crust; when I make cherry, I use almond extract instead of orange blossom. You can even make the crust chocolate with the addition of 1/2 cup of cocoa powder. The list of variations goes on and on.
For Valentine's Day, try making a strawberry jam tart and drizzling it with a little melted chocolate when it comes out of the oven. It's a twist on chocolate-covered strawberries!
ITALIAN JAM TART
Start to finish: 1 hour
13 tablespoons (1 stick plus 5 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon orange blossom water or vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
Generous 1/2 cup (about 6.5 ounces) fig, apricot, cherry or berry jam
Heat the oven to 350 F. Position an oven rack in the centre of oven.
In a large bowl, use an electric mixer with the whisk attachment to beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until the mixture is very light in colour, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the orange water or extract and blend well.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix by hand just until the dough is thoroughly combined, about 30 seconds. Measure out a scant 1/2 cup of the dough and smooth it out on a small plate, then place the plate in the freezer.
Meanwhile, press the remaining dough evenly into and up the sides of a 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom. If the dough is too soft to work with, chill it briefly. Refrigerate for 15 minutes.
Once the tart has chilled, spread the jam evenly in it, starting from the centre and leaving a border of about 1/2 inch around the edges. The jam should be thinly spread and not resemble a filled pie. Remove the reserved dough from the freezer and crumble it into small pieces over the jam.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the topping is a beautiful golden brown. Remove from the oven and place on a rack to cool completely. Remove the tart from the sides of the pan and cut into wedges.
Nutrition information per serving: 470 calories; 220 calories from fat (47 per cent of total calories); 25 g fat (16 g saturated; 0.5 g trans fats); 65 mg cholesterol; 59 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 29 g sugar; 4 g protein; 60 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."