Puff pastry is a great addition to any recipe. It’s the core of lavish delicacies like vol-au-vent and mille-feuille. A distinctive touch that puffs and glows, bringing your dish and your party to life. You may believe it’s impossible to pull off anything as simple as a blast of wind, yet even the best chefs utilise frozen food.
What is puff pastry? It’s a laminated dough, formed by stacking (laminating) many sheets of dough and buttering the layers. The result is crunchy, flaky perfection. Making puff pastry by hand requires hours of cooling between each “turn” to keep the butter in place. It’s nearly impossible. In fact, puff pastry is commonly part of a sophisticated cuisine. So, why not spare yourself a step and the bother of an extra variable?
Making puff pastry takes a lot of time, so John Denison, the chef at Portland’s St. Jack, outsources 99 percent of his puffs. In the South of France, he fell in love with fresh puff pastry while shopping for galette des rois and cooking sea bass en croûte with three-Michelin-star chef Michel Guérard. Denison realises that the only way to make these famous meals at home is to buy the pastry. He uses a local bakery to keep up with demand, but Dufour and Trader Joe’s seasonal sheets are great options for retail.
For a richer flavour, Denison warns against store-bought puffs prepared with vegetable shortening. The little amount of water that butter contains (but vegetable shortening does not) is what makes puff puff. As the pastry bakes, the water between its delicate sheets generates steam, puffing up the layers. Without the structure that butter offers, vegetable shortening produces a less-puffed pastry that tends to be mushy and oily rather than crisp and buttery.
Anything wrapped in pastry makes a dramatic, exciting presentation: crusty, shiny, ornate. Puff pastry shines in big savoury presentations like Guérard’s entire fish wrapped in the stuff—and pastry-wrapped fish is within reach even if you’re not a three-star chef. Wine, Food, and The Picnic Andrea Slonecker recommends salmon en croûte to wow your friends: “It looks elegant but uses frozen puff pastry.”
Slonecker chooses frozen “because it’s a simple and quick method to produce a crust when I want one.” Amen. This is an excellent (and painless) technique to get high-quality all-butter puff pastry. She uses it for impromptu desserts, quiches, and savoury tarts.
Handling puff pastry, whether homemade or not, is a project in itself. It’s all about temperature and time, so don’t feel bad about buying it. Keep the puff pastry frozen until the day before you want to use it, and thaw it carefully in the refrigerator overnight to prevent disrupting the delicate balance of suspended butter.
Defrost the pastry and carefully roll it to smooth out the thickness. Brush off any extra flour to produce a strong seal when attaching pieces and a glossy, bejewelled surface. When cutting the pastry, keep it cool and use a sharp knife to cut through the layers rather than smooshing them together.
Brushing the surface with an egg before baking ensures a glossy finish, but a rich, professional finish may be produced after baking. Sugar is the key as usual. Brush the hot surface of your freshly cooked puff with maple or simple syrup for a glossy finish that will crackle as it cools. Also, don’t be afraid to sugar your savoury pastries. The thin layer will provide the shattering crunch you need without overpowering the savoury taste character.