Puff pastry treats rise to the occasion

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In these times of lower budgets and sagging spirits, it’s nice to know that one thing still rises to expectations - puff pastry. This buttery, flaky, multilayered dough serves as the base for such delectable sweets as turnovers, palmiers and napoleons (or, as the French refer to these cream-filled delights, mille-feuilles). It likewise acts as the enclosure for such savory foods as vol-au-vents, bite-sized bouchees and my own blue cheese puffs.

Puff pastry gets its delicate, feathery texture by alternating layers of chilled fat and a dough of flour, water, salt and a minimal amount of butter. Unlike with traditional pastry, the fat and dough are not incorporated. In fact, the baker needs to take great pains to stop the two from melding together.

When puff pastry dough is baked, the moisture from the fat turns into steam. This causes the dough to swell and separate into hundreds of light, crisp leaves. If made properly, the pastry will rise to 8 times its original thickness. No wonder it’s been called “the king of pastries.” Of course, it might also be described as the most difficult of pastries, but the baker’s care and patience are richly rewarded.

Perhaps the best guide to creating lofty homemade puff pastry comes from the grande dame of French cooking, the late Julia Child, in “The French Chef Cookbook” (Knopf). The dough recipe that follows is an adaptation of her step-by-step instructions.

To create a good puff pastry, you need a cool room, a flat work surface and several hours to devote to rolling, folding, turning and chilling the dough. In the end, you should have roughly 730 microscopically slender layers of dough and 730 layers of fat. It’s no wonder that the French call their puff-pastry dessert “mille-feuilles” or “a thousand leaves.”

Once you’ve made a batch of this ethereal dough, you have a long list of possible dishes to create. It might be something as simple as allumettes, matchstick-sized strips of baked puff pastry topped with royal icing or grated cheese, or as complicated as vol-au-vent. The latter is a pot-shaped puff pastry filled with chicken, fish or meat, and a cream sauce.

Since I suffer from a terrible sweet tooth, I usually go the dessert route. French for “palm leaves,” palmiers are easy and delicious cookies. For these, I sprinkle granulated sugar over rolled-out puff pastry and then fold the dough, roll and refrigerate it. Once chilled, the pastry is cut into thin strips. When baked, the strips rise and fan out like palm leaves or elephant ears, as palmiers are also known.

Another relatively simple dessert is the mille-feuille or napoleon. This French classic consists of two layers of pastry cream, custard or fruit preserves sandwiched between three oblong layers of baked puff pastry. Blanketed with powdered sugar or white fondant, the mille-feuille is decorated with delicate lines of dark chocolate and cut into individual servings with a serrated knife. It’s a beauty to behold but even better to eat.

Perhaps, after laboring so long over the pastry itself, you’d like to create something that requires little extra effort. Tarte Tatin, the famous French upside down dessert, is your ticket. First, simmer sliced apples, butter and sugar in an ovenproof frying pan until the mixture has caramelized. Place a circle of uncooked puff pastry over the apples, slide the skillet into an oven preheated to 425 degrees and bake for 20 minutes. Once the pastry is fluffed and browned, invert the tart on a plate and serve.

Puff pastry dough

Makes about 2 pounds of dough, or 4 sheets

1 cup cake flour

3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons salt

6 tablespoons of unsalted butter, plus 8 ounces (two sticks)

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