At its most basic, pastry is a mixture of flour and fat bound with water to form a paste. Historically it was used as a case for baking other items, but people eventually realised the pastry was worth eating too.
The wide range of pastries made today vary in texture and taste according to the proportion of fats used, the way in which it is incorporated with the flour, and the method used to shape the dough.
There is an old cooks' saying that people with cold hands are good at making pastry. Short crust, puff pastry and their relatives need to be kept cool for best results. This means chilling the ingredients and the utensils before making the pastry, and working on a cool surface - marble is ideal. Traditionally, pastry was made first thing in the morning, before the kitchen had a chance to get hot in the heat of the sun or the ovens.
Similarly, pastry needs to be mixed quickly. This helps keep it cool but also minimises development of the flour's gluten content, otherwise the pastry may become too elastic, difficult to roll, inclined to shrink, and tough in texture. Too much handling can also make the fat soft and the finished pastry greasy.
When making short crust, a food processor can be an advantage in that it can help minimise handling. However it is important not to let the machine overwork the pastry - take it out as soon as it forms a lump.
Once the dough is formed, chilling it for 30 minutes or so helps relax the gluten and set the fat, making the dough manageable and less likely to shrink. Chilling the dough between each stage of making puff pastry is vital. Raw short crust, puff and flaky pastries can be kept wrapped in cling film in the fridge for two or three days before rolling and baking. They can also be frozen for up to three months.
Flours for pastry
Regular white plain flour is the best choice for most pastries, giving a light texture and crisp finish. The high gluten content of strong or bread flour makes the pastry too elastic so should be avoided. Italian type '0' and '00' flours, which are soft and finely milled, are also good for making pastry.
Pastry made with wholemeal flour usually requires a little extra water, and some recipes will include baking powder or bicarbonate of soda to help lighten the texture.
People with allergies to wheat and gluten need not forgo pies and tarts thanks to the ready availability of gluten-free flours. While they are not suitable for pastries such as puff and flaky, they can be simply substituted for the wheat flour in short crust recipes.
Fats in pastry
Using equal quantities of butter and lard is a good idea for short crust and flaky pastries. Butter gives pastry an excellent flavour and crisp texture. Lard does not add flavour but makes pastry short and flaky.
Margarine can be used to make pastry but it will not taste as good as that made with butter. Vegetable shortening (a solid fat made from hydrogenated vegetable oils) lightens the texture and is a vegetarian alternative to lard.
Some recipes incorporate oil, usually in an effort to replace the saturated fats of butter or lard with healthier polyunsaturates and monounsaturates. However, oil can make the dough difficult to handle and its use also compromises the flavour and texture of the cooked pastry. The greasy finish means it's best suited to savoury recipes.
Ground nuts have a high fat content but also give flavour and body to a pastry, effectively replacing some of the flour as well as fat. Walnuts, peanuts, hazelnuts, almonds - even peanuts - can be used.
Pastries made with cream cheese or sour cream in place of some of the fat will tend not to be flaky but will have rich dairy taste.
Suet is a rich form of solid white fat that is usually derived from the fat surrounding beef kidneys. It's sold ready-grated and dusted with flour. Vegetarian alternatives are readily available, although people who wish to avoid the hydrogenated vegetable oils from which they are made may like to try finely ground brazil nuts as a substitute.
Working with pastry
When rolling pastry you need a cool work surface dusted with flour to prevent sticking. Marble is ideal. Alternatively, you could roll the pastry out on a special pastry cloth that shows the dimensions required for various tart tins, or between layers of cling film or greaseproof paper.
Turning the pastry occasionally as you roll it will help to give an even circle. Dust the rolling pin and pastry lightly with flour to prevent it from sticking. Aim for a thickness of 0.3cm and try to flatten and smooth the pastry rather than pull or stretch it, as the latter will just lead to tearing and shrinkage.
When lining a tart tin, it's a good idea to curl your rolled pastry over the rolling pin and use that to help you transfer the pastry to the tin. Gently ease the pastry into the corners of the tin and allow it to rest again before trimming off the excess pastry - resting helps prevent the pastry shrinking excessively while baking.
Pie and tart shells are often part- or fully-baked before adding the filling. The term 'bake blind' means to line the raw pastry shell with greaseproof paper and fill with baking beans (or rice) to stop the base from rising while in the oven. This will also help the pastry stay crisp if a saucy filling is added. Another way to ensure a crisp pie base is to place the tart tin on a preheated baking sheet while cooking.
Basic types of pastry
Short crust pastry
Short crust pastry is the easiest type of pastry to make. It's also very versatile as it readily incorporates other flavourings. It can be used for sweet or savoury pies and tarts, pasties and other pastry parcels. Regular short crust pastry is bound with water but for a richer version the water is replaced with egg.
Pate sucree is a French sweet pastry similar to short crust pastry but with high sugar content and egg yolks for richness.
Faults in Short and Sweet Pastry
Shrinkage of baked product
Not enough fat, eggs or sugar
Flour used was too strong
Not rested long enough before baking
Dough over mixed
Dark in colour of baked product
Too much sugar
Oven temperature too hot
Pastry too crumbly
Too much sugar
Too much fat
Dough under mixed
Puff pastry has a much higher fat content than short pastries and uses a special rolling and folding technique to create fine layers of dough that trap air between them. The pastry then puffs up on baking, creating scrumptious leaves with a light texture and rich flavour. This is one pastry that really impresses. Flaky pastry and 'rough puff' are both similar to puff pastry but easier and quicker to make. They are ideal for recipes where you want a flaky texture but do not need the pastry to rise impressively.
Puff paste consists of many fine layers. The crisp and flaky structure is achieved by the folding and rolling techniques used to make it. Between every layer of dough is a layer of fat. During baking, the melting fat will be absorbed by the dough. The moisture from the dough is converted into steam and the expanding air lifts the pastry, keeping the layers separated. The increased volume of the pastry produces the characteristic structure and the desired appearance.
Different types of puff paste can be made, each one for a particular use.
- the proportion of fat to flour
- the type of fat and/or flour used
- the ingredients and the recipe structure
- the differing methods used for folding and rolling
Commercially prepared puff paste can be purchased in pieces or ready pinned out in rolls. Baked and unbaked (frozen) vol au vent cases and bouchees are also available. Products made from puss paste include vol au vents, bouchees, fleurons, cream horns, palmiers, cream slices, puff pastry pieces with various fillings, turnovers, millefeuille, pithivier, pie crust, sausage rolls and pieces of many different shapes as a garnish.
The main ingredients for puff paste are flour, fat, water and salt.
By recipe we basically differentiate between Full Puff, 3/4 Puff and Half Puff. It refers to the amount of fat used in relation to the amount of flour. Therefore, if 1000g of flour to 1000g of butter is used, the product will be a full puff pastry.
The rolling out and folding of the paste is referred to as giving turns, or lamination. A three-fold (single turn or half turn) means rolling the paste out and folding it into 3 layers. A four turn (double turn or book fold) means turning the ends in to meet in the centre and then folding over like closing a book. A combination of the two methods can be used.
After every 2 turns, at least 20 minutes rest should be given, with a further 20 minutes before the final use and before baking. The paste may otherwise contract in the oven or lose its shape. Over rolling (too many turns) will break down the even and properly insulated layers and will result in a product similar to short paste.
How to count the layers
1st turn = 3 layers
2nd turn = 3×3 = 9 layers
3rd turn = 3×9 = 27 layers
4th turn = 3×27 = 81 layers
5th turn = 3×81 = 243 layers
6th turn = 3×243 = 729 layers
1st turn = 4 layers
2nd turn = 4×4 = 16 layers
3rd turn = 4×16 =64 layers
4th turn = 4×64 = 256 layers
* 5th turn = 4×256 = 1024 layers
With more than 1000 turns, it will cause over rolling and thus the puff paste would result to be similar to a short paste. So ideally, 6 single turns would produce a good amount of layers.
Common faults in Puff Pastry
Lack of lift
Usually due to insufficient expansion of the dough layers during baking, caused by having the oven too cool. During baking, the steam develops too slowly and the pastry sets before expanding fully. Lack of lift may also result from damage to the laminated structure. To avoid this, make sure the fat and the dough are similar consistency (fat in room temperature) Roll evenly without undue forcing and avoid rolling too thinly between turns, especially where weak flour is suspected.. Maintaining evenness in the alternative layers of dough and fat is extremely important
Shrinkage during baking
This is caused by a contraction of the dough layers. The gluten develops elasticity and toughness during preparation of the dough and during the rolling processes. The gluten must be given time to rest and relax at various stages, so that during baking, it will expand without shrinking. The answer to shrinking is therefore correct resting. The better the flour quality (more gluten) the longer the resting time required. Weak flour (less gluten content) needs lesser resting time
Butter / margarine runs out during baking.
This results when the butter / margarine layers are too thick. Make sure you are giving the correct number of turns. Ensure that the margarine will plasticise (be at room temp and same consistency with dough). Don’t use a soft-dough with a firm-grade margarine.
Pastry topples during baking
Usually due to excessive and uneven expansion of dough layers. It is nearly always associated with some shrinkage and therefore can be improved by adequate resting periods. Again, it will happen if one of the turns is omitted, or if the pastry is cut out too thickly. Another frequent cause is careless enclosure of the fat at the start of the pastry process
Suet-crust pastry is a traditional British pastry that, despite being made with shredded beef suet, can be used for sweet or savoury dishes such as steak and kidney pudding or jam roly-poly. Suet-crust pastry is steamed, rather than baked, to give a light spongy texture and can also be used for dumplings.
Hot water crust
Hot water crust pastry is used almost exclusively for Britain's traditional raised pies, such as pork pies. Hot water is used to create a pliable dough that can be shaped by hand and is solid enough to hold a heavy pork filling.
Choux pastry, famously used in profiteroles and éclairs, is unusual in that it has a high egg content and is made in a saucepan with a mixture of boiling-hot water and melted butter. The raw mixture is sticky, so it is piped or spooned rather than rolled. Its high water content creates steam during cooking which forces the pastry to expand in volume, leaving it with a hollow centre and a light texture Once they are cooked, profiteroles and éclairs need to be pierced or slit to allow the steam to escape and create a pocket that you can fill with a luscious mixture.
Possible reasons for faults in choux pastry
Greasy and heavy
Basic mixture overcooked
Soft and aerated
Flour insufficiently cooked
eggs insufficiently beaten in the mixture
oven too cool
Thin-leaved filo and finely shredded kadafi pastry from the Mediterranean require so much skill and time to make that most people prefer to buy them ready-made. Unlike other pastries, homemade filo needs flour with a high gluten content (gluten is a protein found in some grains, particularly wheat, that gives bread dough its elastic texture), so that the elastic dough this gives can be stretched into very large, very thin sheets. Strudel pastry, famously used in central Europe for apple strudel, is very similar.
Even when purchased ready-made (fresh, or frozen), filo pastry's gossamer-thin sheets need careful handling because they're fragile and dry out quickly. They must be brushed with melted butter or oil prior to shaping and baking. Try to keep the unused sheets covered with a damp cloth as you work, too.