Saturday, June 04, 2005

Pastry Therapy

I make pastry so often not because I love the taste of it (which, incidentally, I do). I make pastry because I find the whole process soothing. The cutting-in of butter into flour, the trickling of a well-judged quantity of liquid, enough to just moisten and bind the little lumps, the gentle massing together of the clumps - I find these actions, a series of small steps carefully performed, therapeutic. I could, of course, let the mixer do everything for me. But why rob myself of the pleasure of touching the dough? Pastry, on the receiving end, responds well to the human touch (albeit a light and tender one). In the wee hours of the morning, W has on occasion walked into the kitchen, groggy from having just awoken, to find me flour-covered and butter-smeared - when I simply can't fall asleep, I make pastry. Which suits pastry just fine - there's no environment more nurturing than the nocturnal cool.

It's incredible how the exact same ingredients - butter and flour - can be transformed into products as myriad as pate brisee, pate sablee, and pate feuilletee, depending on the manner in which you've handled the dough, and the addition of other ingredients like sugar and eggs.

Of the various pastry doughs I enjoy making, pate feuilletee, or puff pastry, is the most challenging, and all the more enjoyable for it. A magical construct, this laminated dough comprises of many alternating sheets of paper-thin dough interleaved with equally thin sheets of butter, created through the layering process of making turns, or rolling and folding.

I didn't always feel this way about puff pastry - I've been reduced to tears by misbehaving dough more than I care to remember. But the more you practise, the more you intuitively understand how to avoid potential pitfalls. In this lies part of the gratification - the more you make it, the more you're better at it. No other pastry teaches you the virtue of patience like puff pastry does. Be impatient, or brutalise the dough, and puff pastry will retaliate by being cantankerous, a true nightmare to work with. Be patient, and meticulously accord every detail of the process the care it deserves, and puff pastry will reward by magnificiently rising in the heat of the oven, its airily delicate yet meltingly crisp layers a true pleasure to eat.

Julia Child and Simone Beck's Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol.II thoroughly describes the minutiae of the pate feuilletee process, with illustrations thrown in for added clarity. I recently bought a copy of Sherry Yard's fabulous book, The Secrets of Baking, and looked up her method (I do this with every baking book I buy - it's fascinating how every author has a different trick or enlightening fact to share), which is wonderfully detailed. As of late, thanks to my compulsive preoccupation with Pierre Herme (what a hero!), I've been using his Inside-Out Puff Pastry recipe (found in both his Chocolate Desserts and Desserts titles). His ingenious method defies conventional logic by placing the bulk of the butter on the outside, thus literally inverting the classic encasement of the beurre de tourage by the detrempe. On paper, it sounds like it would never work, but work it does, and does so beautifully.

6 Comments:

Blogger Rachel said...

Hi J,

From this post alone, I think you've just become my hands-down favorite food blogger. Though I want to say that it's all about the food, really it's your writing and the obvious pleasure you take in words that makes your blog so damn good.

I feel about bread the way you do about pastry--though personally, I think bread dough is a slightly friendlier and more tolerant teacher.

You have every right to your privacy, but I must say I'm rather curious about what kind of freelancer you are. Willing to share more of yourself?

12:43 am, June 10, 2005  
Blogger J said...

hi rachel

thanks for your wonderful feedback - really made my day! have made the occasional loaf of bread - it's something i would like to get more into. out of curiosity, what's your favourite bread book?

really love your blog title - a long time ago, tried making brown bread ice cream from an old Jane Grigson recipe - delicious! just like your blog...

i was the fashion/beauty editor of a women's magazine title but have since left to freelance as a writer and stylist.

by the way, your dog is super cute! i have 2 long-haired mini dachshunds myself...

cheers
j

7:10 pm, June 10, 2005  
Blogger Rachel said...

Hi J,

Recipe books are one luxury I sternly tell myself I can live without. I did receive Peter Reinhart's Crust & Crumb as a gift, but frankly, there was nothing in it that I had not already learned online. If you want some good links, just let me know.

Bread recipes are such a funny thing though because you simply can't follow any of them exactly--there are just too many variable factors. The only way is to do it often and let your fingers learn what feels good and right. I love the feel of bread dough!

Oh, you were in magazine publishing--me too! Stranger and stranger. I did notice you have dachshunds. They're lovely--very bright and sweet-looking.

12:12 am, June 18, 2005  
Blogger J said...

hi rachel

yeah, bread is a funny one isn't it?...know what you mean about letting your hands figure out what's right.

cookbooks are the one luxury i cannot live without ;) have peter reinhart's the bread baker's apprentice; must say as a novice at bread baking, have learnt heaps from it. would love to know which links you turn to!

cheers
j

10:17 pm, June 19, 2005  
Blogger Rachel said...

Hi J,

I didn't want to swamp you with links, but these three are fantastic:

1) http://www.pbs.org/juliachild/free/baguette.html - This is a baguette recipe, but there's also an online video demonstrating how to make baguettes by hand. I learned so many valuable bread lessons here that don't apply exclusively to baguettes. If you browse the other videos, there's a croissant-making episode that's great fun as well.

2)http://www.progressivebaker.com/class/outline.htm - This takes you through the entire process, telling you what's happening to your ingredients at every step.

3)http://forums.egullet.com/lofiversion/index.php/t52832.html - a very informative discussion here regarding turning the dough.

12:28 am, June 23, 2005  
Blogger J said...

hi rachel

thank you very much for your hit list...will be sure to check them out. particularly like the sounds of the julia child one - am a big fan of her "baking with julia" book, based on her pbs series. croissants sound cool too - would be like watching an animated version of the lovely illustrations in "mastering the art of french cooking"!

cheers
j

6:55 am, June 23, 2005  

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