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I have a tart recipe that has a shortcrust base that I have done several times. On the first attempts, everything was okay with the base - the "dough" was crumbly but could be rolled and kept its shape relatively well.

Now I tried making it and the "dough" turns out very crumbly, more like dry flour than dough. Rolling is impossible, and only after a lot of compaction with my hands was I able to make something workable.

The ingredients are:

  • 300 g flour
  • 100 g sugar
  • 200 g butter, cut into small cubes
  • 1 beaten egg

The instructions are:

  • Mix flour, sugar and butter
  • Add beaten egg and stir until combined
  • Flatten the dough, wrap in cling-film and place in refrigerator for 2 hours

The instruction imply to use a food processor, but I have been using my KitchenAid stand mixer with the flat beater. I also tried mixing by hand (with a fork as well as literally by hand), with minimal improvements.

What am I doing wrong now, and why did it work before but not anymore?

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    If you're in the northern hemisphere, and winter is coming on, the humidity in your kitchen is probably much lower. You may need to add a few mL of water to the dough (at the same time as you add the egg). Also, are you sure the eggs are same size now as before? – John Feltz Nov 23 '16 at 19:00
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    Yes, I am in the northern hemisphere, and yes, the house has a much lower humidity than a few months ago. I typically buy large eggs, so probably yes. – Eli Iser Nov 23 '16 at 19:03
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    @JohnFeltz I have heard the story of "air humidity matters when you work with flour" a lot, but I have never seen any proof of it. Sure, flour is not 100% dry, but pretty close. Even if its water content is halved in winter, the difference in total liquid in the recipe will be much less than the precision of an average cook's scale or measuring cup, and practically unnoticeable next to a recipe's margin of error. So, even if water might help here, blaming air humidity for changes in dough is like blaming a groundhog for a longer winter. – rumtscho Nov 23 '16 at 19:11
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    @rumtscho here's a reference that supports humidity affecting dough consistency (stickiness of cookie dough): aaccnet.org/publications/cc/backissues/1982/Documents/… flour moisture content is quoted as 11.5--14.5%. applying this 3% range to 300g of flour gives a difference of 9g of water. That's almost 20% of your 50g egg, or 2 teaspoons. This is more than the amount John Feltz suggests, but the flour moisture range in the article is probably more than in a kitchen. – Chris H Nov 23 '16 at 20:00
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    @ChrisH Hah, I went searching on my own and found this reference and came back to apologize - and your comment was 12 seconds old when I did :) Nice simultaneous find. OK, then please disregard my comments above - it turns out that, while the difference in total water is insignificant, the moisture content of the dough has an effect independent of it. – rumtscho Nov 23 '16 at 20:03
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If your dough is very dry and crumbly, it needs more water.

Add a few mL to the dough when adding the beaten egg.

  • Great, now I need to make another cake to test this ;) – Eli Iser Nov 23 '16 at 20:18
  • Made the cake again. Adding 10 grams of water and then another 10 grams (for a total of 20 grams) made the dough perfect. – Eli Iser Dec 18 '16 at 1:58
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The recipe is a prototypical German style Mürbeteig, and whatever went wrong, it is not with the ratio, so it must be something about the process.

If you have problems, I'd say the first thing to do is to ditch the food processor. This type of dough is not designed for it, and when troubleshooting, it is best to try to get the standard process working before trying shortcuts.

One of the things you should do is to use confectioner's sugar - I don't see it mentioned in your recipe, might have been missed, or maybe the food processor is supposed to powder the sugar enough while working the dough. But if made by hand, you will end with sugar crystals embedded in your crust if you are using caster sugar.

Also pay attention to the flour. Pastry flour will work better than all purpose, but if all you have is all purpose, take a look at the protein content and if it is above 10%, change the brand.

When mixing, mix the flour, sugar and butter first, rubbing them by hand. You will end up with a bowl of greasy powder, that's fully normal. Now add the egg. The place where the egg hit will clump - knead the lump, pressing it into the powder, until it has gathered all the powder. The egg is more than 40 g of liquid, that's enough to have all of it come together. Let it rest - a fridge will give you a better texture later, but is more difficult to roll out.

For rolling out, you usually cannot place it on a mat and roll. You need to work between two sheets of plastic foil, repositioning them now and then and flipping the dough. The edges will be slightly crumbly, but the middle should keep in a single smooth piece. When it is ready, remove one side of the foil, lift with the other, and place it in the pie tin naked side down. Only then remove the other foil and shape the walls.

  • Thank you for the description - it makes perfect sense after reading some more on the chemistry behind a shortcrust base. However, @JohnFeltz explains better the reason it worked before and doesn't work now. – Eli Iser Nov 23 '16 at 19:27

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