- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2009

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)

3/4 cup cold water

Sift the flours and salt into a large mixing bowl. Using a pastry cutter, mix the dry ingredients with 6 tablespoons of butter, working them together until they’re coarse and crumbly. Pour in the water and knead until a smooth dough forms.

Shape the dough into a rectangle, cover it with wax paper and refrigerate it for 45 minutes. In the interim, use an electric mixer to beat 2 sticks of unsalted butter until lump-free but still cold, about 60 degrees. Once it reaches this consistency, shape the butter into a 5-inch square.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and roll it out into a 10-inch square. Lay the butter square on top of the dough, centered, and fold the exposed edges of dough over the butter. Now it’s time to roll, fold and turn.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough into a large rectangle. Then fold the bottom edge up to the center and the top edge over this fold, so that you have 3 even layers. Turn the dough 90 degrees to your right, roll it out and fold it again into 3 layers, as above. Then wrap the dough rectangle in waxed paper, slip it into the refrigerator and chill it for 45 minutes.

Repeat this roll-fold-turn-roll-fold-chill process 2 more times. After the final chilling, you may either shape the pastry and bake it, or tightly wrap and freeze it for up to 2 months.

Stilton cheese puffs

Makes about 2 dozen puffs

5 ounces Stilton cheese, crumbled

1/4 cup walnuts, finely chopped

2 sheets (roughly 1 pound) of puff pastry

1 egg, beaten

1 tablespoon water

If using frozen puff pastry, defrost first. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a small bowl, mix together the crumbled cheese and chopped nuts.

Roll out the sheets of puff pastry until they are about 1/8-inch in thickness. Using a 2-inch pastry cutter, cut out about 48 circles of puff pastry. Half will be used as the bottoms of the cheese puffs. The other half will serve as the tops. Place the bottoms on ungreased baking sheets, spacing them 2 inches apart.

Add the 1 tablespoon of water to the beaten egg and set aside.

Place either a half or whole teaspoon of cheese-nut filling on the center of each circle. Taking one of the puff’s tops, apply the egg wash to the edges then place the moistened side on top of the cheese and press down on the edges to seal the puff. Brush the top of the puff with the egg wash. Repeat until all the puffs are assembled.

Bake in the oven for about 10 to 15 minutes, until puffs have risen and turned golden brown. For best results, serve immediately.

Cinnamon palmiers

Makes approximately 6 dozen cookies

1 cup sugar

3 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 sheets puff pastry

If using frozen puff pastry, defrost first.

In a small bowl mix together the sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg and then set aside.

Roll out the puff pastry sheet into a rectangle roughly 12 inches by 16 inches in size. Spread the cinnamon-sugar mixture over the pastry rectangle and then fold in the pastry’s 2 long sides so that they meet in the middle. Fold the same sides in again and then fold the pastry in half. Cover the pastry with waxed paper and refrigerate for 45 minutes. Repeat these steps for the second sheet of puff pastry.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Using a sharp knife, cut the puff pastry rolls into 1/4-inch thick slices and lay each slice, cut-side down and 2 inches apart, on ungreased baking sheets. Bake for about 10 minutes. By this point, the palmiers will have risen and fanned out on the baking sheets.

Using a spatula, turn the cookies over and allow them to bake another 5 minutes or until the cinnamon-sugar has caramelized and the pastry has turned golden brown. Remove the palmiers from the sheets and cool on wire racks. Serve with coffee or tea or as an accompaniment to ice cream.

Gingered pear tart

Makes 6 servings.

5 pears, peeled, cored and sliced

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 sheet (roughly 1/2 pound) puff pastry, cut to fit a 9-inch frying pan

If using frozen puff pastry, defrost first. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Peel, core and slice pears.

Melt the butter, sugar, ginger and cinnamon together in a 9-inch, ovenproof pan.

Arrange the pear slices in the pan and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes or until a light-colored caramel has formed in the pan.

Place the pastry over the pears. Tuck in any extra pastry and then place the pan in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes or until the pastry has turned golden brown. Remove the pan from the oven and allow it to cool.

Invert the pear tart onto a large serving dish and serve warm.

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