Quick Puff Pastry
One of the most intimidating recipes for aspiring cooks to attempt is making homemade puff pastry…but, in reality it is simply mixing flour, butter, water and a pinch of salt together to form a light dough. So, why does this recipe seem so unapproachable?
It is difficult to get a clear historical perspective on the origin of puff pastry. The French, of course, like to claim credit for this classical preparation…and there is no doubt the French have used puff pastry broadly in many sweet and savory dishes throughout the past few hundred years or so. It appears, however, that ancient documents mentioning puff pastry happily give credit to ancient Greece…far before the days of Carême.
Now…I make no claims on being an expert in ancient Greek puff pastry – something I am still trying to visualize – but, I do know traditional French puff pastry. And, I know from my days working in the Savoy the French take puff pastry very seriously indeed. Everything has to be just right…very fresh flour mixed together with very fresh lightly salted butter to produce layers upon layers of delicate and flaky pastry. In some ways…puff pastry seems to define French cooking and perhaps even explains why so many of us are just intimidated by the thought of making puff pastry.
The traditional method is a bit tricky and involves a bit of practice and patience – as well as using perfect ingredients and having the right atmospheric conditions. To produce a light and flaky product, everything must be done carefully and properly – start to finish – or the results may be disappointing.
French Lesson: The French word for puff pastry is feuilletage from feuilles, meaning ‘leaves.’ The pastry often called Napoleon is known as mille feuilles or ‘a thousand leaves.’
Classical puff pastry is made by carefully mixing together just enough water with flour to produce a light dough (careful though…too much water or mixing will lead to a rubbery dough, which will shrink when baked). Next, great care must be taken when rolling in the butter and turning the dough to get the optimum rise – or puff if you will. The goal here is to create a layer of butter between each layer of dough. In a hot oven the moisture in the dough layers produces steam that will push up as it evaporates, and voila – puffed pastry!
If done correctly, puff pastry should rise about four times its original height. Most standard commercial varieties of puff pastry will have 513 layers of butter (or another fat) and dough. The classical French version will be ‘turned’ more often to create even more layers…something like 1,500!
Fortunately, I’m not counting the layers (nor should anyone else), and quite frankly I do not need a perfect puff pastry. I do, however, need one that tastes of real butter and is not difficult to make, so I compromise and make a version of quick puff pastry.
This method will never produce the rise of the authentic version, but it can be completely made within a couple of hours and with very little effort. The resulting dough is perfect for lining tart pans, making little pies like empanadas or making those fancy little French Fleurons.
The ingredients you will need are 100 gr. bread flour (I use a white spelt flour), 100 gr. all-purpose flour, 200 gr. good quality sweet butter (unsalted), 3 gr. sea salt and 75 gr. cold water. Remember, the ingredients are really important to produce a tasty final product. If you are adverse to using butter, then consider another fat – but, you could just as easily go buy a dough (most commercial puff pastry has palm fat or some other type of hydrogenated fat and very little or no butter).
This recipe will produce about 500 grams of quick puff pastry…so, let’s get started…
The first step is to sift the flours and salt together into a mixing bowl to completely mix the two flours together. The next step is to cut the butter into the flour, either with your fingertips or with a knife. Using very cold butter is important in this step to insure none of the butter melts into the flour. Work quickly and make sure you leave the butter in very large chunks. Add the water to the butter and flour mixture and mix the dough until the water is absorbed. This won’t take too long, and it may be necessary to add a bit of flour if your mixture is too moist. I like to create a dough which is still a bit sticky to the touch, rather than soft like a bread dough.
Dust your work surface with flour, then form the dough into a rectangle with your hands, finishing with a rolling pin to create a rectangle about 30-cm wide. Make sure the corners are square and even, then fold the two ends to the center. Dust a bit with some flour, then fold over one more time like you’re closing a book (watch the video for a good example of how to fold the dough). Wrap in plastic and refrigerate the dough for about 20-30 minutes. Be careful to watch the time. If the dough gets too cold, then the butter will smear when rolling out the dough – this will tear apart the layers. If you happen to let the dough get too cold, then just let it sit at room temperature for another 15 minutes.
You have now give the dough one 4-fold to create sixteen layers. Go ahead and repeat the process four more times for a total of five 4-folds, which should yield 1024 layers…but, who’s counting?
Working with Puff Pastry
- Once you’ve made your own puff pastry, the last thing you want to do is mess it up during the cooking process…so, here’s a few tips on working with puff pastry:
- Be careful when rolling out the dough and make sure you are not smashing the edges down with the rolling pin. This will cause uneven rising and baking.
- Allow the puff pastry to rest about 15 minutes before baking it. This should help alleviate the problem of shrinkage.
- If you are cutting the dough, make sure to use a very sharp knife and cut through the dough evenly to make sure the edges are perfectly straight.
- When using an egg wash on the dough, make sure you do not let any of the wash drip down the sides, which would seal the dough to the pan and prevent it from rising properly.
- Start baking puff pastry in a very hot oven (between 200 and 225 degrees C). If the oven is not hot enough you will lose the rising effect of the steam and the butter will run out of the dough.
- Ideally, the dough is best one day after making it. Make sure the dough is kept well-wrapped and refrigerated, then allow the dough to warm slightly at room temperature before working with it.
- Puff pastry freezes very well, which is what I normally end up doing. Avoid keeping it refrigerated for more than a day or two, as the water and flour will begin to ferment and the dough will turn grey. The ideal way to use puff pastry is to divide it into suitably sized pieces, wrap well in plastic and place in a freezer bag. Defrost the dough overnight in a refrigerator.
video credits: the video was shot, produced and edited by Silvia Gautschi McNulty…The nervous hands producing the pastry were Jack McNulty’s
music credits: the original music was composed by Gavin Norton, using in many instances synthesized kitchen noises.