Saturday, November 13, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Puff Pastry

Baking class, week twelve. Puff pastry, like croissants and Danish pastry, is prepared from what’s called laminated dough. The word “laminated” means layered, and when I say layered I mean, literally, a thousand or more layers in a properly-prepared pastry. The layers consist of butter, dough, and pockets of air, which make the final pastry slightly crisp on the outside, but tender inside and easy to bite through.

Top: Bear Claws. Bottom: Feuilletées. All filled with almond cream, some of which
spilled out during baking. These looked much better after the burned bits were
cut away; unfortunately we devoured them so quickly I didn't get another photo.

The process of making classic laminated dough involves rolling out a solid block of chilled butter until it’s about 8” x 11” and 1/4” thick. This is sandwiched between layers of prepared dough that are slightly larger than the block of butter. The edges all around are sealed to completely encase the butter in dough. This sandwich is in turn rolled out into a long rectangle measuring 10” x 24”, then folded over twice so there are four layers measuring about 10” x 6”. There’s a “spine” on one side, sort of like a book.

The process of rolling and folding is repeated three to five more times, and is what gives the finished pastry its characteristic layers. The dough needs to be handled quickly to keep it as cold as possible. As it warms it becomes stickier and more difficult to work with; to avoid this it’s chilled for an hour between each turn of rolling and folding. After all the turns have been completed, the dough is chilled overnight before shaping and baking.

With several hours chilling time, it’s impossible to prepare classic laminated dough in a five-hour class period. Thankfully there is something called quick puff pastry, which does not rise as high as the classic version but is perfect for introducing students to the rudiments of laminated doughs. (Just as importantly, the students will have fresh pastries to take home at the end of the evening.) For the quick version, instead of using a solid block of butter, cold butter is cut into 1/2" cubes and briefly mixed into the flour. The rolling process is the same, but there are only three turns instead of four or six, with no chilling between turns.

Puff pastry can be shaped in many different ways. Classic shapes include horns (as for cream horns), and vol-au-vents, cylindrical pastries that are hollowed and filled. For the class we’re shaping the dough into feuilletées, which are kind of a funny diamond shape (see photo), and bear claws. Our filling is almond cream, a heavenly sweet mixture of ground almonds, flour, butter, eggs, and lots of sugar.

As you can see from the photo I over-filled my pastries. The dark brown bits are almond cream that flowed out and over the pastry during baking. I was disappointed when I first saw these, but cutting away the burned filling dramatically improved their appearance and made them look downright appetizing. They also tasted great.

Take home: four almond bear claws, four almond feuilletées.

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