Fast Puff Pastry

THER IS NO excuse for puff pastry. It’s nothing but butter and flour, and it’s bad for you. As someone with an aversion to butter, I have trouble justifying my love of puff pastry, but I’ve learned to embrace the contradiction. Biting into a piece of puff pastry is like biting into air—wonderfully crisp, flaky air. Almost any dish is complemented by the crackle of puff pastry. Apart from being so good to eat, it is an excellent way to show off. People remember that you made puff pastry long after they have forgotten other dishes that were much more trouble.

Puff pastry is most familiar in napoleons or as patty shells, invented to hold thick cream sauces and thus consisting of a double layer of pastry. Patty shells are out. The fashionable presentation these days for first courses or desserts is the feuilleté—a flat rectangle of dough that rises when baked to about an inch and a half. You split it open and fill it with, say, vegetables in a light cream sauce for a first course, or poached or baked fruit slices for a dessert.

Feuilletés don’t have fancy, scalloped edges, as patty shells do. Their straight, severe lines suit many post-modern chefs. For example, Anne Rosenzweig, the chef and co-owner of Arcadia, a popular restaurant in New York, puts a whole braised leek in a feuilleté, with the green tail curved around the outer edge. Jeremiah Tower, a San Francisco restaurateur, makes a pecan pie by filling a feuilleté with a cooked mixture of ground, toasted pecans and a sugar syrup, and serves it with a chocolate sauce and a sabayon lightened with whipped cream (the recipe is in his New American Classics). I find puff pastry most useful for impressing guests at a cocktail party, for which purpose small feuilletés with elementary fillings work very well.

Classic puff pastry (feuilletage classique), in which a block of butter is enclosed in dough that is folded and rolled until it has 730 layers, is a lot of work. Even books that begin by saying that it is easier than is popularly supposed, which is true, continue with pages and pages of instructions. Fortunately, there is a much quicker and easier way to make puff pastry—you just cut up butter, mix it with flour and water, and start rolling. This method became popular here in the late seventies, when two books, Julia Child & Company and Jacques Pepin’s La Technique, gave recipes for feuilletage rapide. It has been known at least since 1815, when the great pastry chef Antonin Carême mentioned it in his book Le Pâtissier Royal. Puff pastry made in this way became known as Scottish puff pastry, perhaps because the diced butter and flour resemble a plaid.

Pastry chefs still look on fast puff pastry as a last resort. But even though it doesn’t boast the miracle of the 730 layers, it’s flaky enough for me. I recently traveled to Boulder, Colorado, to take a course in pastry doughs with Bruce Healy, a disciple of a famous French pastry chef, Paul Bugat. The course would teach both kinds of puff pastry. I hoped to perfect my technique for making fast puff pastry, and to persuade Healy, who from our preliminary conversations seemed as condescending toward it as any pâtissier, that it was just as good as classic. I wanted to go on making the fast version with a clear conscience.

HEALY IS AN unlikely cooking teacher. He taught physics at Yale University for two years before a lifelong love of pastry led him to study in Paris with Bugat, whose grandfather was a pastry chef under Auguste Escoffier. Healy decided to write a book with Bugat explaining basic professional French pastry techniques for the American home cook; such a book, surprisingly, was not available. The book they wrote, Mastering the Art of French Pastry, which was published three years ago, documents techniques and recipes used in French pâtisseries.

Healy still has the manner of a science teacher. Studying in his kitchen reminded me of being in high school, where a blunder committed in the lab in the morning would be mentioned on the playing field in the afternoon. Healy is jocular. In one of his classes he tossed an egg behind his back to a student. It landed on the student’s head.

The atmosphere is softened by Healy’s teaching partner, Mary Taylor, who trained in Paris as a cuisine chef (meaning someone who cooks the savory, as opposed to the sweet, courses for a meal). Cuisine chefs usually find pastry chefs too concerned with precise quantities; pastry chefs usually find cuisine chefs too haphazard. Healy gives instructions that admit little dispute; Taylor tells students what they can get away with and still produce decent results.

Healy included fast puff pastry in the course with little enthusiasm. He has made classic puff pastry so many times that it seems usual and normal to him. He pointed out that fast requires almost as much rolling as classic. He forgot that the rest times between rollings of the fast version are shorter and that you can use fast the same day you make it, whereas classic should rest overnight before it is baked. He said that fast was good for hors d’oeuvres and cookies but not fora showpiece like a pithiviers—two circular layers filled with almond cream. This was fine with me, since it had never occurred to me to serve a pithiviers.

FOR A BLOCK OF fast puff pastry (called a paton) which yields enough dough for desserts or hors d’oeuvres to serve two dozen people, start by putting about a cup of water in the refrigerator to chill (you’ll need less) and melting a bit less than two tablespoons of unsalted butter. (Land O’Lakes is a brand on which many American pastry cooks rely, because of its consistent water content.) The precise amount to melt is 24 grams, or about five teaspoons. (Weighing ingredients makes sense in baking, battery-operated scales, including models made by Terraillon and Soehnle, give precise measurements in grams and ounces. Cuisinarts has put on the market a handsome balance scale that will weigh as much as a pound in precise quarterounce increments; it costs about $20 and is available at many kitchen-supply stores.)

The rest of the butter called for by this recipe is easily measured—half a pound, or two sticks — but the flour isn’t. The amount is 12 ounces (340 grams), or about two and a half cups of unsifted flour. Many books call for mixing cake flour and regular flour in order to mimic French flour, which has a low gluten content. Healy uses all-purpose flour, and it works well.

Cut the sticks of butter in half lengthwise, in half lengthwise again, and then into half-inch dice, keeping the pieces separate. The colder the butter, the easier it will be to cut. Somewhere between frozen and chilled is ideal.

Sift the flour onto a counter. Healy had marble work spaces for each student—pastry stays coldest on marble. He also kept the air-conditioner on, even though outside it was only in the fifties (the students were told to bring heavy swearers to wear in class). Although that much cold is not essential, it can be very difficult to roll puff pastry in a warm, humid room. Add half the butter chunks and toss to coat them with flour. Add the rest and do the same. Proceeding by halves makes it easier to keep the chunks separate, though this won’t be a problem if the butter is well chilled.

Dissolve a teaspoon of salt in a half cup plus two tablespoons of the cold water. Pour the melted butter into the water. It will partially solidify and look like candle drippings. Healy calls this addition of melted butter, which other recipes for fast puff pastry don’t specify, a pastry chef’s trick. It quickly coats and neutralizes gluten strands, he says, helping to prevent an excessive amount of gluten from forming. Gluten is essential to make the layers in puff pastry, which will be driven apart by steam from the water in the dough. Too much gluten too soon, however, will make rolling difficult.

Start sprinkling the water over the flour-butter mixture with one hand and tossing with the other until you can pat the whole mess into a disheveled ball. Although you don’t want to overwork the dough, you can be much clumsier than when making pie crust, and you can add two or three more tablespoons of water to the ball of dough to make it cohere. (Mary Taylor told the students that they could do this; Healy later admitted that he, too, usually needs to add a bit more water.) There will be many loose strands of dough and uncoated bits of flour, but don’t let these worry you. The rolling will mix the dough.

Push the dough into a rough rectangle about one and a half inches high, ten inches or so long, and no more than five or six inches wide. Roll away from yourself to push the rectangle to a length of sixteen inches (the width won’t increase by much). Healy showed each student how to put all his weight into rolling by standing directly over the rolling pin, not behind it, and grasping each end with the whole hand, not just resting the palm over it. It was impressive to watch Healy, who is six feet tall, struggle with a very firm piece of dough. Taylor, who had to use a step stool to be as far above the dough as Healy, worked even harder.

This first rolling is the most inconvenient, because the butter chunks stick to the counter and the pin. Keep dusting with flour—removing the excess with a brush—and keep scraping the dough off the counter. The dough will be rough and sticky, with naked chunks of butter showing through. When the rectangle is the right size (eighteen-inch rulers are invaluable in a kitchen), fold the top third down and the bottom third up, making a rough square. These two folds, akin to folding a business letter, are called a turn. The first turn in fast puff pastry serves to mix the dough. Once that’s accomplished, wrap the square of dough in lightly floured waxed paper and chill it in the freezer for fifteen minutes or in the refrigerator for a half hour. Then unwrap the dough and place it on the rolling surface so that the folded edges become the long sides of a new rectangle, and the last third folded faces up.

Now you’re ready for two more turns. Turns are usually done in pairs, so that gluten can form evenly—you roll in one direction, make a turn, and then roll in the perpendicular direction. Start with the dough at the very edge of the rolling surface, almost at your waist, so that you can put all your weight on top of it as you roll. Try to maintain the pressure that you began with through to the end. Always stop a half-inch short of the top and bottom edges of the dough: if you roll over the edge, the layers will be fused and the dough won’t rise evenly. Keep flouring the rolling surface (lift the dough, from the sides, with a pastry scraper or a spatula), the rolling pin, and the dough. When the top and bottom edges of the dough become much thicker than the rest, gently roll over them side to side, trying not to increase their width by much. If the dough keeps sticking, flip it over, flour it and the surface, and try again. Brushing off excess flour matters more and more with each turn; the surplus will toughen the dough. Try to make the top edge square. Taylor showed the class how to do this by stretching it when starting a turn.

Once you’ve finished the first pair of turns, another pair remains. If you want to use the dough right away, you need only to chill it. If you want to store it and don’t want to freeze the dough in its final shape, freeze it now and do the last turns after you defrost it. You have the option of doing the final pair of turns on sugar rather than flour, as palmiers—deliciously crunchy fan-shaped cookies—and other cookies require. If at any point in the rolling the dough shrinks back when you lift the pin, chill it again, even if your instinct is to persevere and get the turn over with. Dough that shrinks back will only become more difficult to roll, and will shrink even more when baked. After the second pair of turns, chill the dough again before rolling it out to use.

THE EASY PART of puff pastry comes at the end. You don’t have to do much to it before you serve it. The range of shapes for puff pastry is fairly small, because the pastry itself is the event. All you do is roll out the pastry into a rectangle or a square three eighths of an inch thick (you can roll in any direction once you’ve finished the turns, but you still have to stop rolling if the dough shrinks back), prick the dough all over with the tines of a fork so that it will rise evenly, and cut the shape you want. If you have time, chill the rolled-out pastry before cutting it. A small biscuit cutter works well to make feuilletés in shapes suitable for hors d’oeuvres, but small squares or rectangles made with a knife or a pizza cutter are just as good. The usual shape for a dessert feuilleté is a rectangle two inches by four inches.

Be careful not to drag the knife and thereby smash the layers together, which will result in lopsided pastries (you can tell why a juice glass won’t work as a substitute for a biscuit cutter). Place the tip of the knife at one end of the line you want to cut along and cut straight down until you come to the end of the blade; then start again where you left off. This is easier if the dough is very cold. It also helps to measure with a ruler and score lines lightly with the back of the knife before cutting. If you use biscuit cutters, don’t twist them on the upswing. Transfer the pastries to a baking sheet moistened with a wet pastry brush or paper towel (the moisture will hold them in place). If you have the patience and the inclination, lightly score crosshatch designs on the tops (don’t go too deep, or the pastries won’t rise properly). Brush beaten egg on the tops, and the tops only—if it dribbles down the sides, it will fuse the layers. Chill or freeze the pastries for fifteen minutes to a half hour before baking. If you wrap the frozen dough tightly, it will keep for months. Don’t defrost pastries before baking or they will lose some of the water that is needed to create steam.

To bake, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. When you put the chilled or frozen feuilletés in, turn the heat down to 400. Don’t open the door for seven or eight minutes, so that steam has a chance to build up. Then start checking. The pastries are done when the sides as well as the tops are brown. This takes twelve to fifteen minutes for small pastries, and longer for larger ones. A good method to ensure that the insides of larger pastries won’t be gummy and greasy is to turn off the oven after ten minutes and let the pastries dry for ten or fifteen minutes more with the door open. They will rise to a height of one to one and a half inches; split them in half horizontally with a serrated knife and fill with whatever you choose. For hors d’oeuvres, anchovy paste, smoked salmon, or small pieces of pate will do, as will any kind of flavored butter. For dessert, poached fruit or fresh berries are ideal, and a vanilla or lemon sauce on the side is even better.

FOLLOWING THESE instructions, start to finish, will produce the highest, tenderest pastry, and you should strive to adhere closely to them to teach yourself about puff pastry. But if the dough sticks, or looks blotchy rather than an even yellow, or refuses to form perfectly square edges, don’t worry. This dough will work almost no matter how you mistreat it. When testing what must have been my twentieth batch I floured the counter and rolling pin with abandon, rolled side to side when it was forbidden, stretched the top edge to make it even, and was not scrupulous about halting at the first sign of the dough’s shrinking back. The dough rose evenly and high all the same. When it came out of the oven I felt masterly instead of slovenly.

Healy almost came around to my point of view on the virtues of the fast method by the fourth day of the course. The main business of the lesson was to make a pithiviers, considered a hallmark of a pastry chef. Healy had insisted on making the classic puff pastry dough by himself the day before, rolling it with a chilled, twenty-inch-long section of a steel pipe that he had had cut at a plumbing-supply store. He took special care as he shaped the two large circles for the pithiviers, incising a perfectly even sunburst pattern on the top one. He put it into the oven and discouraged any peeking until it was ready. When the moment came, the class was impressed—almost as impressed as Healy, who immediately got out his camera. As he started shooting, Mary Taylor looked in the freezer for the batch of fast puff pastry that the class was to use that afternoon. “It isn’t here,” she said to Healy. “You just used rapide.” Healy looked stunned. “All right, all right,” he said to the class after a moment. “You still have to learn to make classique.”