Field Report:
Adventures of a Culinary Padawan
École des Techniques à la Cuisine
Lesson TwentyOne: Puff Pastry and Pot Au Feu


Dear Foodie Voyeur,

The puff pastry, or feilluté was actually started during Lesson Twenty, since it's a time-consuming dough to create. It's not difficult, but does require strict adherance to certain rules:
  1. keep the dough chilled but not so cold it cracks if you try to roll it out, and use the refrigerator as often as you need to
  2. keep the gluten relaxed, but not so much you end up with cake instead of a soft dough
  3. do not do more than 6 turns
  4. do not use more flour than necessary
  5. do not rush it
If you can't help but work with warm dough, have no patience, need it now, forget stuff, etc. then just buy the frozen stuff in the grocery store. Or make something else. These, of course, are not options when a culinary padawan!

Gluten, or wheat protein, is what gives bread dough it's stretchiness and elasticity. The "sheets" of stretchy protein trap gases, which are generated by yeast fermentation, so the baked loaf ends up airy. Also called "strong" flour, gluten protein is also critical in making pasta or couscous, where a dough that absorbs a lot of water and results in a chewy texture is desirable. A low-protein flour like cake flour has so little gluten it in that it creates a "short" texture -- non-stretchy, crumbly, not chewy -- which is, of course, desirable for cakes.

Puff pastry actually requires sheets of dough that hold together within themselves, alternated with layers of butter to separate those sheets, so you need a bit of the properties of both strong and weak flours. One Pastry Jedi recommended mixing both strong and weak flours. Another recommended using all-purpose flour only, which has an "average" amount of gluten, with "combined" properties, rather than strong or weak flour properties. The Jedi Master ended up experimenting and recommended all-purpose flour in the end. She had a lot of trouble with the mixed flours dough.

There are two parts to this dough: détrempe which is the flour-based dough, and beurrage, which is the butter part. They are prepared separately, then brought together to form pâte feuilleuté, or "leafed paste" -- puff pastry. When baked, the water in the butter layer will be released as steam and force the layers of dough to split apart, puffing it up. It's called mille feuille -- thousand leaves, or pages.

To prevent too much gluten from being formed in the dough, the flour is sieved onto a cold work surface (chilled marble is best, but any cold surface will do -- to chill, put ice water in a metal bowl and move it around on your surface before making the dough). The disc of flour is about 12 inches in diameter. Take a measuring cup and make a well about 10 inches wide in the center, so that there is a ring of flour with a hilly "lip" surrounding a mostly clean counter surface. Then just on the outside of the "hill," trace a ring down to the counter top, so you have a double ring of flour, the inside one piled up.

In pastry, the ratio of dry to wet to fat ingredients is important, so measure or weigh precisely. Take cool water -- not chilled -- and pour into the center well. Carefully flick the tip of the hilly ring of flour into the center, and using your fingertips, make a smooth paste of flour and water. Keep going till it's viscous enough to prevent melted butter from flowing into the dry ring of flour -- you will pour a bit of melted butter into the flour and water paste and work it with your fingertips till it's entirely incorporated. Then add a bit more, work it in, etc. You do not want the flour and melted butter to touch each other in the absence of water, or they will seize up and not mix properly. The flour has to absorb liquid freely, and coating it with oil will prevent that.

Use the pastry/dough scraper to flip the remaining flour on the countertop into the wet mixture and cut it in, like for a tarte dough. When it's cohesive enough to form a loose kind of lumpy looking dough, form it into a ball. This is pastry, not bread, so don't touch it too much from this point forward. Using the pastry cutter, cut an X into the top surface, to about halfway down the dough ball. This breaks up the gluten strands, helping to relax the dough (remember rule number 2?). Wrap tightly in plastic wrap, mark it with the time (this helps with rule number 1), and place in the refrigerator for an hour.

Prepare the butter -- between two sheets of plastic wrap, use your rolling pin to beat it down into a square about 3 inches square and about ½ inch deep. Wrap it up and stick it in the refrigerator. Optimally, both the butter and the dough should have the same "texture" when they are put together.

When the dough is chilled, flour your work surface and rolling pin very well, and place the dough ball on the flour. Don't worry about rule number 4 for now -- not sticking is more important at this point. Rolling from the center of the ball outward, make a four-lobed shape. The center of this shape should be slightly mounded. Using your pastry brush, brush off excess flour on the surface of the dough (this is the application of rule number 4), then place the butter square on the mound. Like an envelope, put each lobe over the butter; brush the flour off the exposed dough surface, place the next lobe over, etc. Press the seams lightly -- your butter is now encased by the dough, and should not be exposed again during the whole rolling process.

At this point, if your dough is "stretchy" or "comes back" at you when you roll it, wrap it up in plastic wrap and put it back in the refrigerator for half an hour to "rest" (rule number 1 again). Otherwise, using your rolling pin, press down (without rolling) five or six times along the length of the dough to flatten it. Then using strokes from the center-to-away-from-you and center-toward-you, make a long, thin rectangle. Continue to flour well, both above and below the dough. On the exposed surface, visually divide the dough into thirds. Brush off excess flour, then fold the dough like a business letter: bring the top third segment down, brush off the flour from the exposed surface, then fold up the bottom third, and brush. This process is called a "turn" and you've just made one turn. Wrap up in plastic wrap and stick it in the refrigerator for half an hour.

To do the next turn, hold the dough with the "closed" side to the left, with the top "open" edge to the right. You've basically made a 90° clockwise turn. Repeat the turn, making sure you flour the counter and the pin -- you don't want the dough to stick to anything. When you roll it out, it should "slide" over the surface of the counter on the flour -- the flour should behave like ball bearings, carrying the dough. If it sticks, the layers of dough and butter will not stay flat, and you won't get a good, high "puff" to the pastry when it's baked. Whether you can do one or two turns before you have to wrap it up and chill it again really depends on the dough and butter. The butter must remain "plastic" and the dough should not "contract" after it's rolled out. If it does, wrap it up and put it back in the refrigerator. And rule number 3 -- no more than six turns total. To do more will compress the flour and butter layers together, so they are no longer separatable, and you'll get very little puff on baking.

After the final turn, chill the dough very well. In fact, the dough could be frozen at this point -- double wrapped in plastic wrap -- and held till you need it. Well, actually, you can freeze it at any point in the process, but be sure to mark how many turns were done, so you don't exceed rule number 3. Before rolling again, be sure the dough is thoroughly defrosted. A dough that is too cold will crack on rolling, which will expose the butter, and then you don't end up trapping steam, and thus you get reduced puffing. This is all about the puffing, right? It's a very glamorous dough, but you have to follow the rules and not do dumb things. Being impatient (rule number 5) is the ultimate in dumb stuff you can do to puff pastry.

Okay, more flouring, rolling ... you roll out the dough to about 1/8" thick. It's best to roll from the center outwards, then spin the dough 90°, roll outwards again. Eventually, you end up with a slap of dough; again, it is started to go stretchy or the beurrage or détrempe become now equal in texture, you know the drill -- cover in plastic wrap and chill. But don't fold it up or do any more turns. We placed ours on a parchment paper-lined sheetpan, covered in plastic and stuck that in the refrigerator. (You can consider buying half-sheet pans that will fit in your fridge, of course.)

You must cut the dough while it's chilled. If it isn't, the tendency is to "squish" the layers together, which will seal them and make the rising uneven. So flour a sharp knife, and cut straight down the pastry layers -- no sawing motions. Any scraps should not be rolled up -- instead, they should be set aside, flat. When the time comes, put them side by side and roll them together. No more turns, but you can season and cut, roll, twist this dough for cheesestraws, palmiers ("elephant ear" cookies), etc. To season, sprinkle stuff like sugar, spices, finely grated cheese, herbs, etc. in any combination your desire. As the text says, "this is a time-consuming dough, so use all of it." Your guests will be impressed!

Bande de Tartes aux Fruits
We cut ours into a rectangle about 12" long by 8" wide. Then ¾" strips were cut from the long ends so that we could build up a "lip" of puff pastry over the "base" rectangle. Put eggwash over the base, being careful not to get the eggwash down the sides (again, it could seal the edges and skew the shape of the pastry), then dock the bottom, or pierce the pastry repeatedly with a fork or skewer. This keeps the pastry flaky, but reduces the height of the puff. Place the "edge" pieces on the edge of the base, and with the back of a paring knife. press down along the length of this in order to "glue down" these pieces to the base. These pressing marks can be decorative, and we were instructed to use a lattice pattern. Eggwash is carefully applied to the tops of these edge pieces, and the whole is put into the refrigerator to chill again.

Heat the oven to 400°F then place the cold pastry into it. The butter should melt and the liquid boil, forming steam and forcing the pastry to puff up. When the surface of the pastry becomes brown, reduce the heat to 325°F to dry it out. The initial high heat is needed to force the quick generation of steam, and to create the dark brown surface color. The lower temperature cooks the dough. The pastry is done when it feels very light and hollow; uncooked dough will be heavier and wetter. It's also unpleasant to eat.

When done, cool the pastry completely. If the base puffed up more than you wanted, you can use a force to perforate the top layer of the base along the edges. When completely scored along that seam, you can press down on the base to flatten it. Sneaky, eh? Even sneakier, if you got way too much puff, you can lift off the top surface of the base and scrape away some of the dough underneath before replacing. This can also be done if for some reason you didn't cook the dough completely.

By the way, even a par-cooked base can be cooled, wrapped and frozen or refrigerated till you need it. I discovered this because the class decided to heat two ovens to the two required temperatures. You start in the hot one, then carry the pan to the lower heat oven. I was rather tired and frazzled and so did the reverse. I let it cool, took it home and forgot about it for a few days. Tonight, I needed to bake a dessert and saw the bases. I put them into a 400° oven till they were browned and light and took them out. They were less puffy than they could have been, but they were perfectly serviceable, even delicious!

Prepare pastry cream as we did back in the custard lesson and chill it. Place cream in a thin layer over the base, then top with sliced fruit. Cut crosswise into slabs to serve. If you put the fruit across the tart along the long axis, when you slice it everyone gets a bit of each fruit -- thus bande de tarte aux fruits. Be sure you put some thought into shape and color contrasts.

The closer to serving time you can do the assembly, the crisper the base. However, I also served this after an overnight stint in the refrigerator; the crust was chewier, but no less good. Both sets of guests raved. So do as you wish or need to for your party.

Pot Au Feu
As I'd mentioned, we started the puff pastry the lesson before, since so much time is required to chill between turns, cutting, baking, etc. The lesson before, we made a génoise and decorated it beetween turns. This lesson, we made a classic French Sunday dinner, which one padawan pointed out was very might like pot roast. The process wasn't difficult, but it introduced some new ingredients and concepts.

Beef short ribs, a cheap and tough cut, are braised for many hours till tender and the bones slip out easily. The stringy meat becomes very tender but bland, so is normally served with strong sauces, like Dijon mustard, cornichons (tiny pickled gherkins), coarse sea salt and sauce Raifort, a creamy horseradish sauce. A garniture of turnips, carrots and potatoes cut in a tournage are cooked in a marmite till tender and served with the beef and sauces.

The French rarely waste food, and so the trimmings from the vegetables and herbs went into the stockpot. The stock this time is a marmite, a word which describes the stock and the pot it's cooked in. It's a white veal stock, but onions are halved and pan-roasted in a skillet without oil till absolutely black. This is where the marmite gets it's characteristic color. Other vegetables and bouquet garni are simmered with the beef.

The sauce raifort is a velouté: make a roux, then add the marmite you used to cook the vegetables. Add grated fresh horseradish to taste. Since this meal is bland due to it's long cooking, it's best to overdo it, I think. And plenty of salt and pepper, of course.

To serve, the rib bones are removed from the meat and the membranous meat the surrounded them can be trimmed away. Cut the meat on a bias and place in a bowl. Surround with the cooked tournage vegetables, and pour over with some of the marmite to moisten. Present the four condiments in what, in the restaurant trade, are called "monkey dishes" -- these are very small ramekins. In many American places, they are replaced by plastic condiment cups -- exactly what we use as mise en place cups in class. This dish is eaten with alternating bites of meat dipped in the sauce of choice, and of the cornichons. Some of the bread that is ubiquitous for every class is eaten alongside; some people took more stock just for mopping up with the bread.

It's all coming together, and it's all pretty second-nature now, having done tournage and sauces for many lessons already. One more class to go ...

With Love,
Susu, the Culinary Padawan

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