Puff pastry: rich with butter yet light and flaky, shatteringly crisp. One of the defining features of French patisserie. Classically intensive in preparation. You can see why I was intimidated! There are more daring things that one can attempt in a home kitchen, but for me this was challenge enough.
Though traditional puff pastry is very time-consuming to prepare (you not only have to roll out the dough but also the butter, and then roll them together in stages, resting after each turn in the fridge to keep the butter cool), I learned how to make a quick puff pastry at my baking class last fall at the CSCA. Though the results were fantastic (and between sampling my cardamom elephant ears and everyone else’s creations, I was sick on butter by the end of it), I wasn’t sure I could achieve the same success at home without the watchful eye of our instructor Elise.
As I found Nick’s (can I call him Nick?) recipe for instant puff pastry as I leafed through the Modern Baker, I felt pleased: now I would have to make it on my own–it’s part of the Modern Baker Challenge! I kept meaning to, after all, but was always a bit nervous. I think I have my friend Amber to thank for putting my nose to the grindstone–though I didn’t make it until after she left, it was our reminiscing about palmeras when we were on study abroad together in Spain that finally got me to buy the jaw-dropping quantities of butter necessary to make puff pastry dough. (Palmeras, a.k.a. palmiers, a.k.a. elephant ears!)
Puff pastry is a base for various recipes, both savory and sweet, but elephant ears were a great “test drive” for my first attempt flying solo–and for reasons other than the nostalgia factor I mentioned above. They only require a dusting of sugar and a few foldings of dough before going in the oven. Thus you haven’t invested too much time in case it turns out your puff falls short.
The basic idea, and I think this is where your puff pastry may fall flat, (so to speak) is getting the butter processed into the flour just right. You don’t want the dough to look like crumbly sand, as you do when making a pie dough. You want large shaggy pieces of butter as well as finer pieces, and it’s these larger chunks that roll out into streaks of butter in the dough. (Classic puff is built on layering dough and butter–wrapping dough around squares of butter and rolling out over and over again. In the instant version, the large streaks approximate this process). I’m glad I had the experience of my class as I knew what things were supposed to look like (though I unfortunately didn’t get a visual for you).
Nevertheless, once I had completed all the steps I knew I was on the right track: see the layering in the cross-section of my raw dough below? That’s butter and dough–the layers of butter will expand under heat, creating the “puff”.
Now the test run: On to the palmeras! After rolling out a rectangle in sugar (that’s right, rather than flouring your pastry mat, you sugar it), you fold each long end a quarter of the way in, and then in again to get this:
Slice (I used a serrated knife so as not to distort the shape too much) and arrange on a baking sheet:
And bake. It’s amazing to see how these expand under the heat of the oven, and see them take on the lovely honeyed color, glistening with caramelized flavor.
You can make these with flavored sugars as well–cinnamon sugar is a classic, but I prefer cardamom sugar.
I have quite a bit of puff pastry dough in the freezer for when the urge hits. That’s the other wonderful thing about puff pastry–once you have a stash it’s relatively easy to whip up all sorts of recipes.