Saturday 20 January 2007

The Case for Pastry....

Making Pastry was one of the first things I learned to do in the kitchen, and it has always remained for me one of the most satisfyingly tactile processes in cooking. I regret the fact that these days I very rarely do it. As part of the strategy for maintaining a respectable distance between my age and my waistline, I have been converted to the use of Phyllo pastry for almost all recipes where previously I would have used Pate Brisee - and for the most part it's a translation that works extremely well. For high days and holidays, however, I still allow myself the occasional lapse......

Puff pastry has never become a item in my repertoire, partly for the 'life's too short' reason, and partly because the method I've developed over the years for shortcrust produces such a light result that it's halfway to Puff pastry all on its own. Julia Child does have a quick method for rough Puff pastry in, I think, 'Julia & Company', but even that I could never really be bothered with. On the rare occasions when Puff pastry has been an absolute sine qua non, then I've either resorted to the supermarket variety (Waitrose used to have one that was made with butter - not sure whether they still do; if it isn't made with butter, it tends to have no character) or else I would brave the 'Gels' in Baker & Spice to get some of their freshly produced Puff pastry, which is pretty good. Having been through a peripatetic phase, Baker & Spice now appears to have come to rest in Elisabeth Street, just a few doors down from the Chocolate Society shop.

For Choux Pastry, I follow the method described by Mr Le Notre, which is infallible.

For shortcrust, I have developed the following process. It works.

For enough pastry for two 8" tart shells, use 8 oz butter, 10 oz plain flour, pinch salt, pinch sugar, water to mix.

Being fundamentally a luddite, I rejected the idea of making pastry in a food processor for years, and would resolutely and laboriously cut the fat into the dried ingredients by hand. Thank heavens I finally recognised the value of technological progress! It certainly produces better results.

The technique is simple:
1. Freeze the butter in the freezer until it is rock hard. This is imperative.
2. Grate the butter straight from the freezer using the grater disc on the food processor; add the remaining dry ingredients to the processor bowl and process using the blade until it has resolved itself into large flakes.
3. Add water in very small increments through the top opening, whilst the processor is running. Be very careful not to add too much.
4. As soon as enough water has been added, the mixture will form itself into one large solid lump and will adhere to the blade as it goes round. Stop the processor at this point.
5. Remove the pastry from the bowl and perform the fraisage - using just the heel of your palm, push the mixture six inches or so across the work surface in half a dozen or so bite-sized pieces, then gather them back together into a ball and wrap in cling film. Only do the fraisage once - the success of good pastry lies in limiting contact with your hands to a bare minimum, as otherwise the heat from your hands will cause the butter to melt within the pastry, and it will lose its shape as it cooks.
6. Preferably leave the pastry to rest in the fridge for 24 hours before rolling it out for use - again, this allows it to relax, and reduces the risk of it sliding out of shape or shrinking as it cooks.

That's it. Oh, and if you make enough pastry for two shells but only want to use one of them initially, you can always roll out the second one and freeze it as an uncooked shell; it will blind-bake perfectly directly from the freezer.

Today's out of my hands, since we are dining out. However, I have given below the recipe for last night's Beef in Soy and Honey.

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