Sweet Technique: Puff Pastry
Puff pastry. Just hearing those words gives cause for most pastry chefs to grimace. It's not that we don't love the way that puff pastry creates a perfect, shattering, flaky package for so many of our favorite desserts; we absolutely do. What we don't like as much is all of the work that it takes. We're haunted by our memories from pastry school of sore rolling arms, unruly dough that always seems to be either too cold (impossible to roll) or too warm (melting butter panic time), and the repetition of rolling, folding and waiting. Most chefs today demand a very expensive sheeting machine to do the work, or otherwise, leave puff pastry off the menu all together.
Many home cooks steer clear of puff pastry for the same reason. Unfortunately for them, the pre-made, frozen options can also be quite poor. One must choose between either buying a brand that's laden with preservatives and additives, or paying through the nose for the all-butter stuff. When faced with these options, making it at home suddenly seems not so bad. And think of the bragging rights!
Puff pastry contains only five ingredients: bread flour, pastry flour (all-purpose is fine to substitute), salt, butter, and water. What it lacks in complexity of ingredients, it makes up for with labor, and getting puff pastry right is all about technique. The process of making puff pastry starts with a dough called the detrempe, which is made by mixing the dry ingredients with some very soft butter until the mixture is quite homogenous, then adding water to bring the dough together. While the dough relaxes and chills in the fridge, you make the beurre pack, which is cold butter that has been pounded out flat, brought back together, and then pounded out again, until it is extremely flexible but still cold. The soft butter is formed into a square in preparation for the next step.
Next comes the real work, the part that pastry chefs hate. The butter is folded inside the detrempe, and the package gets rolled out in a long rectangle, which creates a thin sandwich of butter between layers of dough. The dough is folded like a letter, in thirds, turned 90 degrees, and then rolled out and folded again. Once two turns have been completed, the dough is returned to the fridge to rest and chill for at least 30 minutes. This process is repeated two more times, for a total of six turns and folds and three 30 minute rests. Only after all that can the dough be rolled out and used to make palmiers, turnovers, Wellington, or any one of the dozens of French pastries that use puff pastry as a base.
If you save the project for a rainy (and not so warm) day the project doesn't feel stressful and can be very rewarding. Just put on a movie, set a timer and hit pause to stop and do the folds and turns, and soon enough you'll be done. Then you'll have the dough you'll need to make my Pumpkin Spice Palmier recipe.
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About the author: Lauren Weisenthal has logged many hours working in restaurant kitchens and bakeries of Brooklyn and Manhattan. She is a graduate of the Artisan Bread Baking and Pastry Arts programs at the French Culinary Institute. You can follow her on Twitter at @evilliagekitchen.