Autumn is the time to get into muscle toning activities such as lifting more red wine to your lips, making rabbit terrines where you chop everything by hand and rip the hazelnuts open with your bare teeth, and pasta and pastry making. The great thing about making good pastry at home, is that you feel powerful and in control of your universe. It’s not easy to make, therefore your friends and family know without a shadow of doubt, that if you turn up with an apple tart encased in home made, hand made puff pastry, you are expressing truly, madly, deeply, how much you love them. Either that or you are a big fat show off and quite frankly, if you come from a family like mine where my diabetic siblings call themselves the prick brothers, your game needs to be right up there. Anyone can make short pastry – you just work half the amount of butter into whatever amount of flour you have chosen and stop looking for attention. But the thought of making the justly dreaded puff pastry is, for most folk, buttock-clenching to say the least.
Real puff pastry requires secret codes, precise turns, subtle finger marks and the Knights Templar handshake. Originally pastry was made from just flour and water and was the container in which a stew was cooked – like an oven within an oven. It was hard and inedible, you cracked it open when the food was cooked, ate the stew and threw away the pastry. Because the peasants were so hungry, they started eating the pastry case which was horrible, so the cooks added salt and some sort of fat like goose fat, lard, oil or butter to make it more palatable. The rest is history – pastry making became an art form and there are chefs in France who have only ever been patissiers all their lives.
It’s the job of an anally retentive mathematician as there is no guess work – everything is precisely measured, worked and timed. There’s no pinch of this and pinch of that sort of anarchy. The reason puff pastry puffs is because the cold butter is not worked into the flour with the fingers; it is folded and ironed in in layers, bit by bit, with a cold rolling pin and rested in the fridge between each roll. When heated in the oven, these invisible layers expand and puff up, producing that most refined of culinary experiences – light, sensitive, delicate pastry, unlike any other kind. It is so worth it though.