I was looking at Nigella's recipe for Bitter-Orange and Blueberry Tart and I have a question. I never really know what baking beans actually are, but I imagine (maybe wrongly) that they are somehow meant to put a little weight on the dough? But what are they exactly? And if I don't use them, can I just put the pastry base in the oven for 15 minutes on its own like one does in some other recipes? Thank you very much in advance for your help! I think its lovely that there is this website!
Nigella's Bitter-Orange And Blueberry Tart (from Domestic Goddess) does involve baking a pastry case "blind" before adding the filling. Baking blind is used in many tart recipes as it ensures a crisp and properly cooked pastry case. This is particulalry important if the filling is delicate and needs cooking at a low temperature.
Baking blind involves lining the unccooked pastry case with either baking parchment (parchment paper) or foil and then filling it with weights. These weights are usually referred to as baking beans. They are important as they help to keep the pastry in shape as it cooks. Without the weights the pastry on the base can puff up and the pastry on the sides can collapse inward. Some tarts are just baked from raw, with fillings. Generally these have more robust fillings such as fruit or vegetables.
Baking beans can be regular dried beans or you can also use rice. Once the rice or beans have been used for baking then they are not really edible, but they can be cooled, stored in an airtight container and used time and time again for baking blind. You can also buy specially made ceramic or metal baking beans (often labelled as pie weights) that can be used time and again. Which type you use is very much a matter of personal preference.