Desserts: In a shell

Published in FSD Update

Pies and tarts, often in smaller bites, offer versatility on dessert menus.

Individual desserts have been gaining in popularity, beloved for portion control, personalization and presentation. Shells are the perfect way to package these desserts, whether you’re offering pies, tarts, mousses or ice cream sundaes. Take it from Ashley McRae, production supervisor for the Grain Chain at Florida Hospital, in Orlando, who makes a variety of pie shells and mini tartlets as an alternative to a whole pie. “Because our tartlets aren’t a slice out of a whole pie, which can be viewed as unfinished, they are beautiful on their own as a complete dessert and seen as a great value,” McRae explains.

Fill ‘em up
McRae recommends filling shells with fun, decadent flavors like Key lime. Jeffrey Russo, executive pastry chef at the University of Maryland, in College Park, agrees. He fills his tart shells with nearly 30 kinds of custards in flavors like piña colada and poached fruit. “We try to incorporate something [customers are] familiar with visually with something [that’s] upscale.” 

Lindsay Marshall, executive pastry chef at the University of Montana, in Missoula, can relate. “Our mini apple pies feature locally grown apples and homemade crust in a portable portion that doesn’t require silverware.” Marshall also makes a chocolate bourbon pecan tart, a cherry almond tart and an ice cream cup with wild huckleberries in a chocolate shell. 

When choosing the right filling, a good rule of thumb is to keep moisture low to prevent sogginess, Marshall says. 

The temperature of your filling also affects your shell. “Gelatin-based mousses and cold bases give a condensation, so you’ll need to line the shell, while hot custards need a par-baked crust that gets eaten the same day,” Maryland’s Russo says. 

Making shells in house
Anna Fisher, director of food and nutrition services for the Mount Diablo Unified School District, in Concord, Calif., buys 3-inch tart shells commercially to make individual sweet potato pies. “Our facility doesn’t have the ability to make 2,500 shells in one day, and it’s more cost-effective to purchase the shells and make our own filling and bake them off,” she explains. 

Other operators prefer to make their shells in house. “The products we create are far superior in taste and design than what we can purchase,” explains Marshall, adding that she believes it’s less expensive to make shells from scratch because you’re able to customize shell size, which reduces waste. 

Russo falls somewhere in the middle, purchasing smaller shells commercially for volume and making large and odd-shaped shells in house. Take your time with the dough, Russo urges. Don’t overwork it or fill it too quickly after baking. And choose your fats wisely: high-ratio shortenings are great for flaky pie crusts, while sweet butter cut into soft cake or pastry flour makes the best mealy crust.