Light, buttery, crisp and flaky, puff pastry, also known as pâte feuilletée or “leafed pastry,” is the queen of pastries.
If you’ve eaten a French mille feuille, cheese straws or beef Wellington I’m sure you’ll agree. (Croissants are made from a different, yeast-leavened puff pastry.)
Classic puff pastry is a time consuming project requiring the dough, a butter block, six to seven “turns,” and a lot of rolling and refrigerating. This results in 729 to 2,187 layers that when baked, billow up to eight times the original height. Flaky indeed!
Until recently puff pastry was left to experienced pastry chefs. No more. American and French chefs have devised a quick method for home cooks that needs only a food processor, refrigerator and rolling pin.
Puff pastry’s first requirements are a moderate gluten flour (unbleached) and low moisture, unsalted butter (Plugra).
Gluten is one-part protein and two-parts water; it provides structure for the delicate pastry layers and when heated, the water turns to steam causing the layers of dough to rise. As with pie crust, butter is best for flavor; vegetable shortening excels for texture. Lemon juice or white vinegar relax the gluten enough for rolling and help to preserve the dough.
Puff pastry’s most important caveats: Work on a cool surface like marble or quartz. Don’t rush; relax the dough between each rolling out or turn. It will be easier to roll. Be sparing with flour; use just enough to roll dough out and brush off excess. Measure or weigh accurately. Most importantly, roll pastry evenly without squashing the edges and your puff pastry will rise evenly. Always bake puff pastry in a hot (375 to 425 degree F) oven. With a cooler temperature the butter will melt out before the puff pastry has a chance to rise. Thaw frozen puff overnight in refrigerator. Keep your dough chilled, do not leave it longer than 15 minutes in a warm room. When cutting dough to a desired size or shape, cut directly through the pastry with a very sharp knife; don’t drag the knife, it will tear the dough.
Puff pastry is best made during cool, dry weather so Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year are ideal times to prepare this festive treat. If you’ve tried and had poor luck, I encourage you to try this quick puff pastry recipe. It comes from a former colleague, Nick Malgieri, who was head of pastry at the Institute for Culinary Education in Manhattan.
Classic puff pastry is quite technical; a single try is not enough to tame it. Quick puff pastry cuts the technical aspect into a manageable effort, not much more complex than pie crust.
Quick Puff Pastry
Keep all ingredients cold. Puff pastry may be refrigerated 3 days and frozen up to one year well covered.
Yields 1-1/2 pounds dough
20 T. (10 oz.) cold unsalted butter
2 C. unbleached, all-purpose flour (preferably not Southern brands), 9 ounces by weight
1 t. kosher salt or 3/4 teaspoon fine salt
6 T. ice-cold water, 1 tablespoon more if necessary
Cut 1 cup (2 sticks) butter into 1/4-inch cubes. Place in an even layer on a plate and transfer back to refrigerator to chill.
Place flour in food processor bowl fitted with steel blade. Place flour and salt in food processor and pulse to combine. Cut remaining 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter into thin slices and add to food processor; pulse to combine well. Add the 1 cup of cubed chilled butter to flour mixture; pulse 3 times, 1 second each pulse. Add half of the water and pulse once; add remaining water and pulse twice. Dough will not form a ball.
Remove blade from processor by lifting up with the handle. Scrape dough from bowl onto a lightly floured work surface. Lightly flour dough and, using your hands, squeeze and shape dough into a cylinder. Press down to flatten into a rectangle. OPTIONAL: Place dough on top of a sheet of floured plastic wrap measuring 12-inch-by-18-inches. Lightly flour top of dough and cover with another sheet of plastic wrap.
Starting with the narrow end furthest away from you, use a rolling pin to press the dough firmly in parallel strokes close to one another. If there are sticky pieces of butter on the surface, cover with a large pinch of flour and press with the rolling pin to combine. Clean off the rolling pin as you go to make sure nothing sticks to the dough. Continue pressing with the rolling pin, working towards the narrow end closest to you. (Remove plastic wrap from top.)
Roll dough into a 10-inch-by-20-inch rectangle. Fold the 10-inch ends over the middle (like a letter) to make three layers. Position one of the (about) 6-inch ends to face you and roll up dough like a jelly roll. Place dough on a lightly floured work surface, seam-side down. Sprinkle top of dough lightly with flour and press down using your hand to form a rectangle.
Wrap dough in plastic wrap and transfer to refrigerator for at least 3 hours and up to 3 days before using.
Cheese straws have two ingredients: cheese and puff pastry, but you can add so many more depending on your tastes. Experiment with minced fresh herbs, spices, or infused salts. Sprinkle a teaspoon or two over puff pastry along with the cheese. Roll and cut strips as long or as short, as thick or as thin, as twisted or as delicate as you like. Prep the straws and refrigerate one hour or until you’re ready to bake them. You may bake them ahead, but they’re best served within a couple hours from the oven.
Yields about 6 dozen 8-inch long cheese straws
1 C. grated mixed hard cheese, such as Parmesan, Pecorino Romano, or aged cheddar
1 to 2 T. paprika or Spanish smoked paprika
1-1/4 lb. quick puff pastry (refreeze any remaining dough for another use)
1 large egg, beaten lightly
Mix cheese and paprika together in a small bowl and set aside. Line two sheet pans with parchment.
Cut chilled dough into two equal pieces. On a lightly floured work surface, roll 1/2 chilled dough into a large rectangle about 1/8-inch thick measuring about 7- by 10-inches. Brush dough with egg and sprinkle evenly with 1/4 of the cheese-paprika mixture. Press it into the egg. Flip the dough, brush off excess flour and repeat process with 1/4 of the egg and the cheese mixture. Fold dough into 5- by 7-inch rectangle. Repeat full process with remaining half of dough and cheese mixture. Place each on a sheet pan and refrigerate 1 to 8 hours.
Cut dough into 5-inch long, 3/8-inch wide strips. Unfold each into 10-inch strips and, holding by the ends, give each 3-1/2 twists. Place on prepared sheet pan. Press ends down to hold the twist. Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate 30 minutes.
Twenty minutes before baking, preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven. Place pans in oven and reduce heat to 400 degrees F. Bake cheese straws until browned and crisp, 10 to 12 minutes. You may leave the strips as is or trim into shorter lengths. Good 2 to 4 days stored in airtight container in cool place.
Apple Puff Pastry Galette
This thin apple pie is made on a base of puff pastry. Golden Delicious apples, though not the most flavorful, are tender and bake quickly. The lemon juice adds a delightful zing.
Yields 4 to 6 servings
8 oz. chilled puff pastry dough
2 to 3 large Golden Delicious apples
1 to 2 T. melted butter
2 T. packed brown sugar
1 T. granulated sugar
1 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice
Optional: 1-1/2 T. flour
½ t. cinnamon
2 to 3 t. granulated sugar
Preheat oven 375 degrees F. Line sheet pan with baking parchment paper. Remove and use this parchment as a base upon which to roll out puff pastry. Roll dough out into a 10-inch circle on the parchment and transfer both to sheet pan.
Peel apples, cut in half and remove core. Lay apple halves flat and thinly slice with a chef’s knife. Gently toss apples with butter, brown sugar, sugar, lemon juice, flour and cinnamon.
To assemble the galette, arrange apple slices in a rosette pattern starting in the center of the dough, evenly on top of the puff pastry. Leave 2 inches around edges free. Pack apple slices in closely. Fold excess puff pastry back from the edge of the pan to form a rim. Sprinkle apples and edges of dough with 1 tablespoon sugar.
Bake until pastry is golden brown and apples are tender, 30 to 45 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature as is or with a scoop of ice cream or whipped cream. Or drizzle caramel over the top.