Last time, we looked at shortcrust pastry and its varieties, along with an overview of French pastry creams. Let’s now move on to our second pastry, puff pastry or Pâte Feuilletée, the base for local favourites like chicken patties and projapoti biskoot. Puff pastry feels magical, almost alive. When baked, it increased to upto eight times its original size. How? The secret lies in its layers.
Puff pastry is a laminated pastry dough, involving alternating layers of pastry and butter. It starts off by making a basic dough with flour, water, butter and salt and then adding a slab of butter in the center. It is folded, rolled out, and folded again. This process is repeated a number of times, chilling it adequately each time so that the butter doesn’t melt. The with the number of layers increase exponentially with each go and with enough repetitions, it is possible to make thousands of super-fine layers.
However, that is easier said than done. Puff pastry is incredibly difficult to make at home, and you need proper skills and just the right conditions to make it work. Roll it too hard, and you smudge the distinction between the layers. If the kitchen gets a bit too hot, which is very easy in a place like India the butter will melt and seep out, messing up the layers yet again (trust me, I know). It takes time, patience and skill to make a proper puff pastry.
A cheat’s alternative to this intricate and elaborate process is the so-called rough puff pastry. It involves grating the butter or chopping it up into little pieces before mixing it into the flour, which makes the rolling and folding easier. An even easier method is to pulse the flour, cold butter and ice-cold water in a food processor, which causes the butter to form little chunks dispersed throughout the pastry.
Then dough is then folded one or two times. This does create puffiness, but the layers aren’t well-defined. However, it can be used as a substitute to the traditional puff in more homely applications where the flaky texture is more important than picture-perfect layers, like the humble chicken pot pie.
So, what makes puff pastry puff? As it cooks, the steam in the dough and butter expands, separating the layers of dough thanks to the intervening layers of butter. What results is a crispy, light, flaky and buttery pastry ideal for an incredible variety of applications. Croissants and Danishes work on the same principle, but they use a yeast dough instead.
The Greek filo or phyllo pastry also has paper-thin layers which produces a similar-looking final product, but the technique of preparing it is rather different. Instead of folding and laminating the dough with butter, phyllo is made by stretching the dough into a single, very thin layer, which is then cut and stacked with alternating layers of melted butter, as in a baklava, or rolled up around a filling, as in a strudel.
Moving on now to some classic puff pastry applications. You could use puff pastry to make a tart, the result being much more superior texturally to one made with basic shortcrust. You could add a filling, savoury or sweet in the center, fold and bake. A classic example is the apple turnover or chausson aux pommes. Puff pastry is also an integral component and forms the base of a classic Gâteau Saint Honore (more on that in part 3).
But one of the simplest and tastiest things you can do with puff pastry is cut and fold into specific patterns and bake it. Classic examples palmiers (elephant ears), which look like flakier versions of the beloved Little Hearts cookies, and papillons (butterflies), which shares an obvious etymological link with our very own projapoti biscuit, which is very similar to the Gujarati khari. A great palmier derivative is the teardrop-shaped Arlette, dusted with cinnamon and sugar.
One of the most visually impressive applications of puff pastry has to be the millefeuille, which translates to “thousand leaves”, referring to the multiple layers. It classically comprises three layers of puff pastry alternating with two layers of crème patissiere or crème diplomat.
The top of this intricate dessert is dusted with icing sugar or glazed with icing or fondant in white and brown stripes and then combed, leading it its distinctive appearance. It is also called a Napoleon cake, which appears to come from “Napolitain”, the French adjective for Naples, not the famous conqueror.
Of course, puff pastry isn’t limited to just sweets. The “en croute” style of cooking involves cooking a piece of fish or meat in a puff pastry casing. The crisp, flaky pastry is a perfect contrast to the tender, juicy fish or meat inside. Salmon and sea bass are great choices for the purpose.
One of the most well-known savoury applications of puff pastry is the beef Wellington. It involves coating a piece of tenderloin in a layer of mushroom duxelle, then wrapping it in a layer of crepes. The entire thing is encased in puff pastry, baked and served with a red wine sauce.
Puff pastry may originate but is definitely not limited to the pastry kitchen. Its incredible texture makes it ideal for both savoury and sweet applications. Next week, we will conclude our series with an examination of our third and final pastry.