Perfect pastry dough
Creating the perfect pastry, whether for steaming, delicious savoury pies or for scrumptious sweet treats, is both an art and a science.
First made as long ago as the 5th century BC, pastry was originally used just as a casing for the filling, and after protecting the filling from the fire in primitive ovens and preserving the juices, the pastry, made simply from flour and water, was discarded. As ovens improved and butter and lard were increasingly used, the profile of pastry improved.
Yet, even in Tudor times pies were often used as spectacular centrepieces at banquets, with the emphasis on the appearance rather than the taste. When the beautifully moulded crusts were opened, the “filling” was always a dramatic surprise, including live animals or performers! And so, not surprisingly, the pastry was not eaten.
Today’s pastries and pies are either sweet or savoury but in Old England, when pastry was used as a way of packaging food, pastry parcels cleverly contained a savoury filling at one end and a sweet one at the other.
Over the years, pastry became richer and much more flavoursome, by the 17th century, butter, eggs and spices were being added to the basic flour and water paste. Puff pastry is believed to have been created around this time by a young French pastry apprentice who forgot to add the butter to the dough and hastily attempted to disguise his error by wrapping it inside the pastry. As chefs experimented with different ingredients and techniques, pastry-making became simpler and less time consuming, and a number of short-cut recipes such as rough puff pastry came into being.
Making the perfect pastry may be considered time consuming or complicated but creating a melt-in-the-mouth base, cover or envelope for mouth-watering sweet and savoury fillings is well worth the effort.
Essentially a dough, pastry is made from flour, fat, salt and water, and of course other flavourings and ingredients can be added for a unique twist. From these basic ingredients a range of pastries can be made.
The right flour is important for a light, crisp result. The fat used is also very important and pastry made with butter will have a rich flavour. To bind the fat and flour together, liquid is required, and this may be water, milk, cream or eggs. Salt enhances the flavours, sugar is added for sweet pastry and herbs, spices, nuts or cheese can a creative touch.
In making various kinds of pastry, some secrets apply universally. Firstly, minimum handling is a key secret and a pastry cutting tool will make this easier. Keeping the ingredients as well as the utensils cold during the process is important. If the fat melts during the pastry preparation, the pastry can be tough once baked. When adding the liquid, do so a little at a time, since adding too much too quickly will create a tough dough and adding too little could make the dough crumbly. Chill before rolling out to avoid shrinking in the oven and roll out only in one direction, rotating for an even shape.
Before baking, glaze the top of the pastry for a shiny, attractive finish and to seal the surface. You can use beaten egg white and sugar, milk, beaten whole egg or lightly beaten egg yolk. Each of these glazes gives a slightly different result. Egg wash adds a deep golden colour as well as gloss, lightly beaten egg white gives a clear finish, and milk gives a dull shine. For a richer colour, saffron can be infused with milk and used on its own or with beaten egg. After glazing, sweet pies can be sprinkled with sugar.
The exception is filo pastry, which is given its golden shine by the butter that is brushed over the pastry before it is baked.
Apart from these universal tips for great pastry, the particular ingredients and methods may differ slightly to create the different textures and tastes and, of course, some pastries are more difficult to perfect than others. Traditions and classic recipes abound but there is almost endless scope for creative, unique touches.
Shortcrust pastry is the simplest of all pasties and the best known. It is widely used for both savoury dishes such as quiche and sweet dishes such as apple pie. It can also be spiced up by adding cheese or French herbs. Rich shortcrust pastry (pate brisée) contains more butter than basic shortcrust pastry, and eggs, not water, for liquid.
Puff pastry (pate feuilletee) is wonderfully light and flaky, and variations include the easier and faster short-cut puff pastry and rough puff pastry. Flaky pastry looks a little like puff pastry, but has fewer layers and the quick version is called rough flaky pastry. Choux pastry puffs up during baking to at least double its original size, creating a hollow centre, perfect for both sweet and savoury fillings.
Biscuit pastry (pate sucrée) is a rich and crisp-textured sweet pastry which holds its shape well during baking. French flan pastry (paté a fonce) is ideal for holding sweet and savoury fillings for a long time without becoming soft and soggy. Then there is the well-known filo pastry and even healthier wholemeal pastry. Some interesting innovations include olive oil pastry for savoury tarts and vegetable fillings, potato pastry, cream cheese pastry, chocolate pastry, almond pastry, and spiced orange pastry.
Quick rough puff pastry
For those bakers who are pressed for time, the delicious rough puff pastry recipe below, courtesy of Holsum, is a great time-saver. It is much simpler and far less time-consuming to make than puff pastry but still produces lovely buttery, flaky results. It has a lower proportion of fat to flour and does not rise as well as puff pastry, so it is most suitable for sweet and savoury pie and flan crusts.
This recipe makes about 500g, enough for two single-crust pies in 1.5 litre pie dishes.
250 g plain flour
pinch of salt
175 g chilled butter, diced
5 ml lemon juice
120 ml chilled water
• Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl. Add the butter and mix with your fingertips to coat the butter with flour.
• Stir the lemon juice into the water, then add to the dry ingredients and mix in with a round-bladed knife to make
a soft dough. Don’t worry if the dough is slightly lumpy; the rolling and folding will gradually incorporate the fat.
• Put the dough on to a lightly floured surface and knead for a few seconds to bring it together.
• Roll out the pastry to a 30 x 10 cm rectangle. Fold the lower third over the centre and the top third over that.
Seal the edges. Wrap in clear film and chill for 15 minutes.
• Place the pastry on a lightly floured surface with the sealed edges at the top and bottom. Roll, fold and chill,
as before, four more times. After this, the pastry is ready for use.
Happy Baking .
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