At the risk of showing my age, I went to school during an era when home economics was routinely taught (to girls at least). We learned by rote the exact combinations of ingredients required to make shortcrust pastry and a béchamel sauce. We were even taught how to press different items of clothing not that you would know it now from the way I wield an iron.
Apart from the ironing aspect I enjoyed my home economics lessons although I never really saw it as an academic subject on a par with history or english. A change of school at 14 meant I was forced to take an ‘O’ level in home economics which seemed like a waste of a qualification to me. In retrospect, I’m glad I did it as it allowed me to progress from jam tarts onto choux and puff pastry and many other things besides. And, as it would transpire, it was one of my stronger subjects.
I always found the seemingly endless rolling and turning to make puff pastry a bit of a faff. But my grandmother raved about my puff pastry so I continued to make it during my latter school years, particularly around Christmas time (it makes a wicked sausage roll). This was high praise indeed coming from a woman who, at the age of 96, still makes the lightest, crispest shortcrust pastry I have ever tasted. I haven’t made puff pastry for years. Like so many celebrity chefs, I’m inclined to agree that the pre-made pastry you can buy in supermarkets is absolutely fine for most recipes. However, it is one of the dishes names on the top ten most difficult dishes to make and is a component of the remaining two dishes (Napoleons and Beef Wellington).
I still remember the recipe we used at school for puff pastry which included lard. However, for the sake of propriety I am using a recipe from The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Pastry Arts. Don’t forget to check out what Margo and Jill are up to over at SaucyCooks.com!
Makes approximately 340g pastry
- 125g plain flour (I used 00 Italian flour but regular plain flour is fine)
- 125g strong plain bread flour
- 1 tsp fine sea salt
- 35g softened butter (this should have the consistency of thick, cold sour cream)
- 125-150ml cold water
- 250g block cold, unsalted butter
- Sift the flours together with the salt onto a clean, cold work surface. Divide the softened butter into small spoonfuls (say ½ tsp) and add this to the flour. Quickly rub the butter into the flour until combined (cold hands are best for this!) then gradually add the water until you have a soft dough. Shape it into a block, wrap in plastic film then refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
- Take the block of cold butter and bash it with a rolling pin in order to flatten it (this part is quite therapeutic if you are in a bad mood!). Fold and reshape it into a shallow, square block and return to the fridge until required.
- The butter and dough should be the same consistency before you proceed i.e. the dough needs to firm up a little and the butter needs to soften a little (the bashing above will have helped with this).
- Lightly flour the work surface and from this point forward ensure your work surface is covered with just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking. If it sticks, it will not form proper layers.
- Unwrap the dough and roll the edges outwards to create a thicker centre square with flaps large enough to encase the block of butter (it should look rather like a flower).
- Unwrap the butter block and place this on the thicker centre of the dough ‘flower’. Fold one set of opposite flaps over the butter then fold the remaining two flaps to completely enclose the butter. Pinch the dough together to create a parcel.
- Using a rolling pin press the parcel along one length until it is about 23cm long. Dust the work surface again before rolling the dough out into a longer rectangle about 56cm long (you only need to roll the dough out lengthways, not across its width).
- Now the folding begins. Take the bottom third of the dough and fold it up and over the middle of the rectangle. Bring the top third of the pastry over this as if you were folding a business letter. Turn the dough to the left so that the neat folded edge is on your right and the ‘ragged’ top edge is on your left. Roll the dough out again as above and fold again as instructed but this time wrap the dough in plastic film and refrigerate for one hour. This is to avoid the butter getting too warm and melting into the dough which will prevent the pastry from rising as much as it could.
- After an hour repeat this folding and turning another two times before placing the dough in the fridge for a further hour. Repeat this process again. The optimum number of turns is apparently six but the dough should be refrigerated after every two turns and for a least an hour before it is used in a recipe.