Although it’s widely believed that pastry is one of the more challenging culinary techniques to master, our guide is here to show you there’s no mystery when it comes to making mouth-watering pies, pasties and patisserie treats.
Not sure of the difference between shortcrust and puff? Can’t tell your flaky from your filo? If you really don’t have a ‘choux’ when it comes to pastry, our guide is here to clear things up. And once you’ve decided to give pastry a go, our step-by-step guides are full of hints and tips to help you master the techniques right from the start.
Shortcrust pastry is the classic pastry used for pies, tarts and quiches and is made from flour, fat and salt, with water added to bind the dough. This simplest and most common form of pastry is made by mixing the flour and salt with the fat – either by rubbing in with fingers or using a food processor – adding water to make dough and then rolling out the paste. Mixing the flour with the fat at the start inhibits gluten formation and results in a ‘short’, or crumbly, tender pastry.
Sweetcrust pastry, also known as paté sucrée, is similar to shortcrust but replaces the water with sugar and egg yolks to bind the pastry.
Flaky pastry is a crisp, buttery pastry, often used for pie toppings. It’s made by leaving larger pieces of fat in the dough which, when baked, melt to create flaky layers and release steam, causing the pastry to puff up.
Puff pastry has many thin layers of butter in the dough, created by repeated rolling and folding. When the butter melts on baking, it adds crispness to the pastry and releases steam that puffs the layers up. Used to make Danish pastries, it comes out of the oven light, flaky and tender.
Choux pastry takes its name from the French word for cabbage, which shape it closely resembles after baking. The initial mix is enriched with egg that is vigorously beaten in to make a more watery mix, closer to a paste than a dough, which steams and then solidifies on baking to form a light, hollow pastry. Its texture means it can be piped into shapes like eclairs and profiteroles before baking.
Filo or phyllo is a paper-thin pastry dough that is built up in many layers, generally wrapped around a filling and brushed with butter before baking to make very delicate, flaky pastries like strudel and baklava. However, because it’s so difficult and time-consuming to make by hand, most recipes recommend using ready-made sheets, so it’s perfectly acceptable to ‘cheat’ by buying it!
Easy as pie…
The simplest pastry requires very few ingredients but, when combined and cooked correctly, they let you conjure culinary magic. Follow these three simple rules and there’s no reason why you can’t create light, excellent pastry of your very own.
Using good-quality ingredients gets you off to the best possible start. Remember that different brands of flour may absorb more or less water, and lower-quality butter will more than likely have an inferior flavour and a lower melting point, making it harder to work with.
As a general rule where pastry’s concerned, the cooler the better: you want the fat to stay firm enough to work with, so your dough doesn’t turn into a paste. If you’ve ever heard it suggested that pastry be made with quick, cool hands at an open window, it’s good advice.
Remember that the more you knead your pastry, the greater the development of gluten, the protein that holds dough together. Less kneading and rolling results in a lighter dough.
The preferred method for many pastry-makers, as you can ‘feel’ the pastry coming together.
Sifting isn’t essential, but most pastry-makers do sift their flour and salt together at the start of a recipe. Use a wide-topped bowl and, if it’s a hot day, chill both bowl and flour before use.
Chop your chilled fat (usually butter, though your recipe may also use lard) into 1cm cubes. Add these cubes to the bowl and toss to coat them in flour. The fat must be cold when you add it as it needs to be rubbed into the flour without melting. Using your fingertips – the coolest part of your hands – rub the fat into the flour. Lift your hands out of the bowl to rub and then drop the crumbs back into the bowl; repeat until your mix has the texture of breadcrumbs.
If the recipe calls for it, add lemon juice to water before adding to the pastry mix. Mix in using the fingertips of one hand, to avoid overworking the dough. Very cold water is best – chill in the fridge or freezer beforehand. Use the amount stated in your recipe, but you can always add a little more if necessary: you should have just enough liquid to moisten the dry ingredients.
When the dough sticks together in small clumps, form it into a ball. Turn it out onto a cold surface then knead very gently until the ingredients are gathered together and almost smooth. Be careful not to overwork the dough. Test by rolling a small piece of pastry out – if it cracks easily, it will need a little more kneading to develop the gluten.
It’s important to rest and chill your pastry dough for about half an hour before baking: this firms up the fat and lets the strands of gluten relax, both of which will improve the end result. Pat it into a flat shape, wrap in cling film and place in the fridge. If it’s left for longer than 30 minutes it may be hard to roll out – in which case just let it stand for a while at room temperature to soften and then try again.
Food processors are useful as they help save time and effort when mixing the ingredients together, but you will still have to knead your pastry by hand.
Add the dry ingredients to the bowl and then the fat, cubed as above. Pulse until the fat has barely cut through the flour. Do not leave the processor on unattended as this will overwork the dough and bring the ingredients together too soon.
Add liquid to the bowl and pulse again until the ingredients have been mixed into a ball then remove the dough from the processor.
Knead the dough as in step 4 of the ‘By hand’ method, and then rest in the fridge as before. Don’t worry if your processed dough looks smoother than handmade: this is because the processor distributes the fat more evenly through the flour.
Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl. Dice butter (and lard, if your recipe calls for it) into small cubes 5-10mm square and place in a separate bowl. Add one quarter of the diced fats to the dry ingredients and rub in with your fingertips.
Add any lemon juice required by your recipe to very cold water and mix lightly into the rubbed-in mixture, using one hand, to form a very soft dough.
Roll the dough out into a rectangle and dot the remaining cubes of fat over two-thirds of the dough. Fold the empty top third down over the centre of the dough, and then fold the bottom fat-covered third up over it to create an envelope. Seal the edges by pressing down with your fingertips.
Turn your dough envelope through 90° and roll out again into a similar size rectangle as before. Again, fold the bottom third up and the top third down over it, pressing the edges down with your fingers. Repeat this rolling and folding twice more. If your pastry starts to soften at any point of this process, wrap it in cling film and chill in the fridge for about half an hour before removing and continuing.
Wrap your finished dough in cling film and chill in the fridge for at least half an hour before removing, rolling out and using.
The key to a good puff pastry is to chill both dough and butter before bringing them together. If the butter becomes too soft, it will ooze out as you roll and fold, and if the dough gets too warm it will stick and become difficult to work. Using a high-gluten bread flour will help give the pastry the strength needed to maintain all the thin layers.
Mix flour and salt in a bowl and add enough chilled water to make a tight but kneadable dough. Turn out and knead for 5-10 minutes until smooth, then form into a rectangle, wrap in cling film and place in the fridge for at least 7 hours.
Bash your chilled butter with a rolling pin to flatten it into a thin, roughly rectangular sheet, then wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge.
Take the chilled dough and roll into a rectangle. Lay the chilled butter sheet over the bottom two-thirds of the dough. Fold the exposed dough down over half the butter and then fold the butter-covered bottom half over the top, creating a sandwich of three layers of dough with two layers of butter. Seal the edges by pressing them together with your fingertips, wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for an hour.
Remove the dough from the fridge and roll it into a long rectangle, then fold the top quarter down and the bottom quarter up so they meet in the middle, then fold in half along the line where they meet. Rewrap and return to the fridge for an hour then remove, roll into a long rectangle, fold the top third down and fold the bottom third over it. Press the edges to seal. Rewrap and return to the fridge for another hour. Repeat this last stage of rolling, folding and chilling – your pastry will then be ready to use.
Put your diced fat, salt and water into a large saucepan and heat gently until the butter has melted. Once melted, bring the mixture briefly to the boil. Remove the pan from the heat as soon as it starts to boil and then add the flour.
Beat the mixture with a wooden spoon until it thickens and you can form a smooth ball of dough, leaving the sides of the pan clean. Transfer into a cool bowl and allow to cool for a couple of minutes, then add beaten eggs one at a time, beating them into the dough vigorously. Stop adding egg if the mixture starts to loosen, but otherwise carry on adding until your dough forms a stiff, glossy paste.
Pipe or spoon your mixture into moulds to make puffs, buns, profiteroles or eclairs, then place in a hot oven (about 200°C) as quickly as possible.
After removing from the oven, transfer your crisp, golden pastries to a cooling rack and split one side of each open, allowing steam to escape to prevent the pastry becoming soggy. Cool on a wire rack and only add your cream or chosen filling once fully cooled.
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