recipe

Credit: Photography by Earl Carter

Puff pastry

Annie Smithers is the owner and chef of du Fermier in Trentham, Victoria. Her latest book is Recipe for a Kinder Life. She is a food editor of The Saturday Paper.

Credit: Photography by Earl Carter

Of all the pastries I’ve made over the years, it is puff pastry that truly has won my heart. Even after nearly four decades of preparing it, my breathing still quickens with the fear of it not being as good as it could be. Then as I taste it my heart skips a beat in delight as the flaky, transparent layers almost dissolve on my lips.

Making puff pastry takes a little time and patience, some skill and a lot of passion. The passion comes in when you decide to actually tackle it. There are plenty of good and not-so-good alternatives on supermarket shelves but, while most people take the easy option, it’s well worth giving it a go.

The premise is simple. You take a lump of dough (known in French as a détrempe) and a lump of butter (beurrage), and with a series of rolls and folds you end up with a pastry that comprises hundreds of layers of dough and butter.

The cooking mechanics are equally simple. When subjected to intense heat in an oven, the butter melts between the layers of dough and the resulting steam pushes up each thin layer, creating the flaky, risen appearance and texture of puff. It’s simple yet exquisite.

And the uses – oh, there are so many. You can roll out a sheet of pastry, cut a series of rounds and rings, and glue them together with an egg wash to form a vol-au-vent case. You can roll the scraps into a sheet and then coat that sheet in castor sugar. Roll slices of the pastry into a pinwheel, then flatten it to create palmiers. Or you can roll out a sheet, sprinkle it with cayenne and Gruyere, cut it into ribbons and make cheese twists.

For this photo shoot, I have made a version of an Australian delight – the matchstick. But instead of a sugary pink icing, I have placed some roasted rhubarb between two layers of the cooked pastry.

My favourite use for puff pastry, though, is in making a mille-feuille, whether it be sweet or savoury. It is the creation of the cooked sheets that is one of cooking’s almost sadomasochistic techniques. First you labour over your pastry with love and passion to create your hundreds of layers. Then you roll it into a sheet. Then it is baked between two heavy trays that allow you to crush it into submission at various times during the bake, removing the space and light between the layers and leaving you with a flat surface that can be dressed up and decorated, and that will dissolve in the mouth.

Ingredients

Makes about 1kg

Time: 1 hour preparation, excluding resting time

  • 500g plain flour
  • pinch salt
  • strained juice of ½ lemon or 1 tsp vinegar
  • 500g salted butter, cold
Method
  1. Make a dough from the flour, salt, lemon juice/vinegar and 300 millilitres of cold water. Knead for a minute or two and then place it on a plate, cover with cling wrap and refrigerate for a couple of hours or overnight.
  2. Turn the dough out on a lightly floured surface – a marble slab, if possible. Without kneading it, roll out the dough to a rectangle of 15 centimetres by 35 centimetres.
  3. Take the block of butter and beat it into a rectangle of 15 centimetres by 23 centimetres. (Beating the butter with a rolling pin makes it more malleable without heating it up too much.) Position the butter to take up two-thirds of the dough, leaving one-third uncovered.
  4. Fold the naked third of the dough to the centre, and then fold the other third up. Seal the edges by pinching the dough together. You should have dough, butter, dough, butter, dough. Turn 90 degrees and then roll out to a rectangle that’s 35 centimetres long. You then make your first “book turn”. Bring both ends into the middle and then close like a book. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes. Do not chill for longer, as the butter will become too hard and will break through the dough when it is rolled out.
  5. Unwrap the chilled dough and place it on the floured surface with the short ends to the top and bottom. Roll out and fold as before, then wrap and chill for another 30 minutes. Repeat this process two times more for a total of four “book turns”. (Keep note of how many times you have folded the dough by making a small mark on a scrap of dough with your fingertip each time.)
  6. When folded for the last time, wrap the dough in nonstick baking paper, put it into a plastic bag and refrigerate until required. It will keep well in the refrigerator for two or three days, or can be frozen for up to three months.
  7. When ready to use, roll out into the desired shape and bake in a hot oven (220ºC) until golden and then turn the oven down to 180ºC to cook through, depending on the shape, size and thickness.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 3, 2022 as "Puff piece".

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