Pastry 101 : Shortcrust

The word “pastry” has a different meaning in India and the West, which confuses a lot of beginners. While we use the term pastry to refer to cakes filled and frosted with cream, the term is used differently in the West, and infact, has two meanings. Pastry in the West can refer to the final finished creation itself: a millefeiulle or an éclair for example, or the building block used to create these masterpieces. Over the next three weeks, we will explore three such building blocks, with primary focus on the French patisserie.

The word pastry is actually derived from “paste”, referring to the mixture of flour, fat and liquid which is used to create a baked product which then forms the basis for most of the creations of the French patisserie, with few exceptions like the macaron and the Mont Blanc. This week, we’ll deal with the simplest of these, the shortcrust pastry, so called because the gluten strands in the dough are kept short, owing to the presence of fat. But let’s back up a little bit, with a revision of gluten chemistry.

An array of French pastries (Courtesy : Le Cordon Bleu)

Gluten is a protein present in flour that comprises two components, glutenin and gliadin. In the presence of moisture and with adequate kneading, the gluten forms long chains resulting in a stretchy dough and consequently, a chewy baked good. This is precisely what happens in a bread dough, where the dough is mixed with water and yeast and kneaded for a sufficient period of time, resulting in gluten development.

In a shortcrust dough however, the flour and fat are rubbed together first, so that the fat coats the grains of flour, preventing them from forming long strands when the water is added. Gluten development is also limited by not overworking the dough; once the components coalesce together, that is it. As a result, the texture is crumblier, and hence more tender. And this is why a slice of bread is chewy, while a piece of cookie is crumbly.

Gluten Chemistry (Courtesy : breadscience.weebly.com)

The simplest form of shortcrust is the pâte brisée (broken dough), made using flour, fat, ice cold water, and a touch of salt. The technique of mixing described above is also called the sablage or sanding method, as the flour-fat resembles wet sand. Pâte brisée is ideal for savoury tarts and quiches. For sweet applications, a small amount of sugar can be added to the dough. Eggs can also be added for moisture and richness.

The pâte sucreé (sugar dough) has a much higher sugar content than the former, resulting not only in a sweeter product, but also a more tender crumb. The pâte sablé (sandy dough), however, has a much higher fat and lower egg content, resulting in a super-tender, almost crumbly dough, hence the name. It can have additional ingredients like almond flour, which makes it even more tender.

The three French shortcrust doughs (Courtesy : Ashlee Marie)

Pâte sucreé is usually mixed using not the sanding method like its cousins, but with the creaming method where the sugar and butter are beaten together first before adding the flour, a technique used in making cakes and cookies. In fact, pâte sucreé and especially pâte sablé are rich enough on their own to be made into simple cookies. A sablé can also be used as a rich, crumbly base for a more complex dessert like a mousse cake or an entremet.

The buttery, crumbly texture of shortcrust is ideal for tarts, which is its primary application. some famous examples being tarte au citron and tarte au chocolat, filled with tangy lemon curd and rich chocolate ganache respectively. While in the latter, the shell is docked (pricked with a fork) and blind-baked (baked with weights added to it) completely before the ganache is added, the former involves partly blind-baking the shell before adding the curd mixture and then baking it to completion.

Tarte au citron (Courtesy : Pardon Your French)

Both docking and blind-baking prevent the empty tart shell from rising in the oven. A third variety of classic tart is the fruit tart, which involves baking the tart shell completely, then filling it with pastry cream and slices of fresh fruit. Pastry cream, or crème patissiere, is one of the many creams that are commonly used in classic French pastry. Let’s take a detour a look at some of the most popular varieties.

The simplest of the French pastry creams is the crème chantilly, basically heavy cream whipped with sugar and vanilla until thickened. Most others start off with a base of crème anglaise (literally “English cream), something we’ve mentioned in our custard article. Egg yolks and sugar are whisked till fluffy, tempered with a bit of hot milk, then readded to the pan of milk infused with vanilla, and cooked till the mixture coats the back of a spoon, which the French call nappe.

Crème Anglaise (Courtesy : The Spruce Eats)

Crème anglaise is a classic dessert sauce, great with cold fresh fruits and warm soufflés. It is also used as a base for ice creams. Add some cornstarch to a crème anglaise and cook it out further, and you’ve got a basic crème patissiere. You could flavour it with chocolate, caramel, fruit puree or anything else you fancy to create a wide array of flavours. The crème patissiere, in turn, forms the base for a number of other pastry creams.

Add some softened butter and you’ve got a silky crème mousseline; some whipped cream turns it into a fluffy crème diplomat; while the addition of Italian meringue creates a sturdy crème chiboust (pronounced shi-boo). Many of these have classic applications, like the mousseline in a Paris Brest and the chiboust in a Saint Honoré, and we will revisit them in the upcoming parts.

So far, we have laid the groundwork for French pastry with the varieties of shortcrust pastry and an array pastry creams. Next time, we will examine another category of pastry dough.

Gâteau Saint Honoré with Crème Chiboust (Courtesy : Bruno Albouze)

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