Puff Pastry

Puff pastry has achieved a reputation as one of the hardest baked goods to master. I would argue that this is unfair: what puff pastry needs is not skill but patience (and a fridge…. and time). If you follow the instructions and let the pastry cool properly between each fold you can achieve a perfect result every time.

One of the most interesting things about puff pastry is the question of why it puffs up. Why does this pastry puff but others, such as shortcrust pastry, do not? The answer is the same as it is for choux pastry, the only other pastry designed to expand dramatically in the oven: steam. The water added at the beginning evaporates in the heat of the oven. This creates tiny pockets of steam inside the pastry. The butter introduced to the pastry during the folding process creates a miniscule barrier between each layer of dough and this allows the steam produced to lift the layers above it ever so slightly. The effect of the rise is small but when you have over 100 layers, it adds up to a rise that can triple or even quadruple the height of the pastry.

Puff pastry should be cut with the sharpest knife possible or, if you are using biscuit cutters, you must push them down directly. The reason for this is that, if you don’t cut the edge of the shape evenly, the steam can escape from some areas before it raises the pastry whilst other places will puff up as usual leading to an uneven rise. This is also why the edges of the pastry, where the butter is sealed in before the rolling and folding begins, should be incorporated into the dough as soon as possible. They have no butter layer so if they are baked in the oven, these edges will not rise.

While making puff pastry, it is imperative that you allow adequate time for the pastry to rest in the fridge between folds. This gives the butter time to cool down. When you roll out the pastry both the ambient heat of the room and the increase in pressure from the rolling pin heat the butter and, as it warms up, it starts to be absorbed by the flour. If the butter isn’t cooled regularly, it will melt into the pastry and you will lose all the layers you have spent hours trying to create. Not only that but pastry cannot cope with a 1:1 ratio of butter to flour and the butter will melt in the oven, the pastry will collapse/slide off/ liquify resulting in both a mess and a lot of wasted time.

The most basic things you can make with puff pastry are, in my opinion, cheese straws and palmiers. For cheese straws, you grate a large quantity of cheese over the rolled-out pastry, fold it in half (once), roll it out again, and cut into straws which can then be baked. For palmiers, replace the cheese with granulated sugar and, after you have rolled out the pastry with the sugar layer, roll it up from opposite ends into two spirals which come together to make a heart. Slicing with a sharp knife results in lots of identical, sugary hearts which are delicious to eat and beautiful to behold as you can see the layers of the pastry properly.

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I hope you will discover how easy puff pastry really is to make and once you have made it for the first time, you can go and buy it from the shops because no one has time to make this stuff regularly. It is very much a special occasion type of food.

Puff Pastry

Work time: 30 mins

Rest time: around 5 hours

Ingredients:
250g plain flour

225g unsalted butter (fridge cold)

150ml water

Pinch of salt

Sift the flour into a bowl.

Sprinkle in the salt, stir through and make a well in the centre of the flour.

Pour the water into the well and mix with a spoon until the basic dough begins to come together.

Tip out onto a table and knead for about five minutes until a smooth dough has formed.

Wrap the dough in clingfilm and leave to rest for 20-30 minutes so the gluten can relax.

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While the dough is resting, place the butter between two sheets of baking parchment and bash/roll it out to a rectangle 20x15cm (8”x6”). Wrap it up and place it back into the fridge to firm up while you deal with the dough.

Once the dough has relaxed, roll it out into a rectangle about 25x35cm (10”x14”).

Remove the slab of butter from the fridge, unwrap it. You now have two choices: you can place the butter at the edge of the dough (as in the picture below) or you can shift it up to the centre of the dough. The former will give you three seams where the dough is sealed around the butter whereas the latter will only give two (as the third seam will be in the middle and hidden by the butter). Seal the edges of the dough well to prevent the butter escaping.

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This uses the side seal method, not the central seal
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The three sealed edges must be folded in as soon as possible

Roll out the dough lengthwise until it has doubled in size (around half a metre long) and then fold the dough into three layers. This will incorporate one of the original seams into the pastry. This is important to do early as sections with less butter will rise less than the rest of the pastry folding the seams in early will help give an even rise. If you see butter start to burst out of the edges, let the pastry cool more in the fridge and try to fold the burst section into the centre of the pastry to prevent it leaking more later on.

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Rewrap the dough and leave it to rest for another 20-30 minutes in the fridge. Try not to let the dough rest in the freezer unless completely necessary as the shock cold can cause the butter to seize and shatter which will ruin the pastry.

Once the dough has rested, roll it out again in the opposite direction to the last fold (so the edges with the three layers from before will be folded back into the pastry. Fold the pastry into three again, rewrap and chill for another half hour.

Repeat the previous step another two to four times for proper puff. The full six sets of folds will give your pastry 729 layers which should result in super flaky pastry with a beautiful, even rise.

Keep the pastry wrapped up in the fridge until you are ready to use it. Make sure the oven is hot when the pastry goes in otherwise the butter will melt and leak out leading your baked goods to fry on the bottom and be soggy on top.

You can use this pastry to make tart cases, mille feuille, vol-au-vents and a myriad of other delicious and crispy foods. For basic mushroom vol-au-vents, roll out the pastry and cut small circles out of it. Use a smaller cutter to cut an even smaller circle in the centre of each vol-au-vent BUT ONLY CUT HALFWAY DOWN. Bake these at gas mark 6 until golden and crispy. Remove from the oven and let cool. The half cut in the centre will allow you to partially hollow out the vol-au-vents without removing the base. Spoon in a generous helping of mushroom duxelle (the recipe for this can be found with my beef wellington recipe)

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Cheese and pesto twists – spread the filling on the pastry, fold once, re-roll and cut
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Mushroom vol-au-vents and brie and cranberry tartlets. You can clearly see the layers inside the vol-au-vents from all of the folding

I hope you enjoyed the recipe. If you are interested in recipes using puff pastry, check out my takes on beef wellington and salmon en-croute.

Have a good one and I will be back next week with a recipe for some delicious Chinese potstickers.

H

Pumpkin Pie

For such a bland ingredient, I find it fascinating that pumpkin has a whole dessert dedicated to it. That being said, the predominant flavour of a pumpkin pie is a sweet, spiced custard. This is not a bad thing in my eyes. The pumpkin is mainly there as a medium to keep the sugar and flavours in one place after the pie is cut open – a job that it does magnificently.

A classic problem most people face with a pumpkin pie is the dreaded crack. This is no Madeira cake, where you want the filling to bubble up from within like lava leaking from a volcano, this is a beautiful glossy pie with a smooth flat top. The reason that pies crack is overcooking – specifically overcooked egg. This is, of course, a problem as the egg is what causes the filling to set and gives the melt in your mouth, custardy texture. As an egg cooks, the proteins inside it tighten and cause it to shrink. Anyone who has fried an egg will have seen how the edges pull in ever so slightly as they cook, giving a slightly smaller, thicker end result than one would otherwise get. This phenomenon, when spread over the entire width of a pie, can do irreparable damage which can be hidden by whipped cream but will always be there.

“So how”, I hear you shout, “can I stop my pie from cracking?” There are two easy solutions. One: do not overcook the pie, the eggs should be just set and the centre of the pie should be slightly wobbly when it is taken out of the oven. Two: replace some of the egg white with egg yolks. In the recipe below, you will see that there is only one egg white whilst there are four egg yolks. The yolk cooks at a slightly higher temperature than the white of the egg and also shrinks far less if overdone. That is not to say that this solution will ensure perfection every time – everyone messes stuff up occasionally. What this does do however is give you a larger margin of error on your pie. With such a high specific heat capacity due to the fat content, the pumpkin pie will take a good few hours to cool. Leave at least four if you are serving it that day. In this time, the latent heat inside the pie will finish cooking the centre. I should note that we aren’t talking about a small central area here, you should be envisioning a solid four-inch-wide circle in the middle of the pie which appears sunken when the pie comes out of the oven. The puffed-up edges will deflate as the pie cools and the centre will firm up. If your pie is fully cooked through when you remove it from the oven, it is almost guaranteed to crack as it cools if it has not done so already.

All that doom and gloom aside, these pies are celebratory. They are a celebration of the harvest and one of the foods which Americans can proudly call their own. The first recipes for sweet pumpkin pies appeared during the 1800s and their popularity has grown ever since. After the civil war, pumpkin pies were rejected by many southern areas as a way of renouncing what they saw as a Unionist tradition being forced upon them. In retaliation, many people ate sweet potato pies or included pecan nuts and bourbon in their pumpkin pie recipes to separate their pies from the classic “yankee” pie. Nowadays, it is traditional to serve a pumpkin pie as dessert after the Thanksgiving meal but they can, of course, be eaten at any time of the year.

I hope you enjoy the recipe as much as I did – I will certainly be making this again.

Pumpkin Pie

Pastry:

4oz cold butter

8oz flour

3 tbsp caster sugar

60ml cold water (ideally from the fridge)

Pinch of salt

Pumpkin Filling:

1 tin pumpkin puree (15oz/425g)

1 tin condensed milk (14oz/400g)

1 egg

3 egg yolks

1 tsp ground cinnamon

½ tsp ground ginger

¼ tsp Chinese five spice (or a pinch of ground cloves, ground star anise and ground pepper)

½ tsp salt

To make the pastry, cube the butter and rub it into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Stir through the salt and sugar.

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Add half of the water and stir with a knife until the mixture begins to come together. If it is still dry, add more of the water.

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Once the dough has started forming into pieces, tip it out onto a workbench and knead it together into one ball. Try to work the dough as little as possible.

Flatten the dough into a thick disk (about 2cm high) and wrap it in cling film before placing it in the fridge to chill.

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In a large bowl whisk the egg and extra yolks into the pumpkin puree.

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Whisk in the spices, salt and then the condensed milk.

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If you don’t have Chinese five spice, you can substitute it with cloves, star anise and ground pepper, I don’t have these in ground form at home so had to grind them by hand in a mortar and pestle. It doesn’t take that long but you have to remember that a pepper grinder like the ones you would use at dinner will not grind the pepper enough for this recipe. You do not want lumps of pepper in your pie!

Preheat your oven to gas mark 7 (210°C)

Butter a 10 inch pie dish.

Roll out the pastry and line the pie dish with it.

Trim the edges leaving a 2cm overhang.

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Fold this overhang back side the pie and press it into the top edge, this will give you a thick rim which you can crimp.

To crimp the rim of the pie dish, one finger of your left thumb and your right thumb and forefinger to press the edge of the pie into a little divot. Repeat this around the whole pie to get a beautiful edge.

OPTIONAL BUT RECOMMENDED: Using foil and baking beads, blind bake the case for around ten minutes. This will help avoid a soggy bottom late on, you don’t need to bake it for long as it will have another 45 minutes or so in the oven to crisp up but I have found that if you do not blind bake this, although fully cooked, the pastry can be a little bit soft.

Pour the filling into the pastry case and place back into the oven for 15 minutes.

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Turn the oven down to gas mark 3 (170°C) and bake for another 30-40 minutes. When fully cooked, the pie should be just set in the middle and a skewer inserted an inch away from the pastry case should come out clean.

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Allow the pie to cool completely before serving.

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As usual, the first slice may be a little problematic to get out but after that, all slices of pie will come out beautifully and taste amazing – just remember to loosen them underneath with a knife or offset spatula before you try to lift them off the plate.

Serve with lightly whipped double cream and a sprinkle of ground cinnamon. You do not need to add any sugar or flavouring to the cream as the pie is sweet enough already.

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The flavour of this pie is gorgeous and its custardy texture is ultra smooth and creamy. It is simply divine. Of course, not everyone likes pumpkin pie and if you are one of those people, why not try making my raspberry and white chocolate pie – or maybe ever a quadruple chocolate and salted caramel one? If, on the other hand, you are looking for something a little bit more savoury, why not try making a flavourful hot water crust chicken pie? It’s sturdy enough to survive in a lunchbox and just a good cold as it is hot.

Have a good one and I will be back next week with another meal idea.

H