Upper Crust

 A spring-form pan means you won't feel compelled to hold your breath while plating.  

A spring-form pan means you won't feel compelled to hold your breath while plating.  

   A rich, sturdy pastry is invaluable.  Of course, like scones, or the poor martini, it is particularly susceptible to innovation, that constant vulture of the modest and pure.  Or, too often, pastry becomes merely the vehicle--an edible utensil--and as such, isn’t thoughtfully constructed.  And though there are expensive examples from France, frozen pastry is roundly an abomination.  Pastry must be made by hand.

    The ideal is toothsome, capable of encasing country pate, or stew, or whole roasted pears.  The hardiness of your pastry will depend upon the flour you use and you might vary your choice depending upon your intended application.  All-purpose flour has the highest gluten content and will, at the expense of some tenderness, make the hardiest pastry.  Cake flour has the lowest gluten and, at the expense of structure, will make tender pastry.  I prefer a mixture of the two in equal proportions.  In fact, one occasionally sees a similar mixture sold as “pastry flour.”  

    Pastry must also be flavorful; while lard or high-grade shortening might help the flake, neither contributes much in the way of flavor.   I recommend cultured, unsalted butter made in the continental style.  Not only does it seem to hold up to the required folding; it adds a desirable lactic zip to your finished dough.  

    Coldness is crucial.  Make everything very cold: mixing bowl, flour, butter, utensils, water--salt even.  In fact, coldness is perhaps the most important ingredient.  I measure and sift the flour into a bowl with the salt, reserve the cubed butter in another bowl and, along with the water, put everything in the refrigerator for an hour prior to preparation.  Use the hour to clean a countertop.  A clean countertop goes a long way toward successful pastry.  

    Pastry is often associated with the holiday season, when it holds savory fillings alongside cocktails, or cream and fruit at the end of a meal.  It features prominently at my table from Thanksgiving through New Years, but there is no reason it should be ignored the rest of the year.  Roasted end-of-summer tomatoes sing in a deep-walled pastry tart, and it will do well atop a spring vegetable fricassee.  And, of course: quiche.  While its deployment varies, the ingredients and method do not.  Which returns us to the subject of innovation.  Pastry should not be considered a blank canvas to doctor according to a theme.  If your pastry is to hold chorizo, there is no reason to incorporate Manchego into the dough in a clever nod to Spain.  Resist the urge to season your pastry with cinnamon for your one-bite apple-pies.  Incorporating herbs, as innocent as it seems, will, perhaps only at the molecular level, alter the exquisite balance otherwise evident between pastry and beef in your wellington.  

    Permit pastry its rich neutrality.   It is a familiar expert that can improve the ungainliest partner, but that ability fades the moment one begins monkeying about with the spice rack.  Recipe/Method below photo.

 The bottom leaf reveals the toothsome layers achieved by folding the pastry.  Some, but not too much puff.  

The bottom leaf reveals the toothsome layers achieved by folding the pastry.  Some, but not too much puff.  

Ingredients:

1 Pound of cultured, unsalted butter, cubed

2 Cups of all-purpose flour, sifted

2 Cups of cake flour, sifted

2 Cups filtered water, cold

1 Pinch of salt (fine)

Method:

Remove the bowl of flour and the bowl of cubed butter from the refrigerator.  Distribute evenly the butter in the flour, coating each cube.  If you haven’t done so already, add the salt.  Working quickly with two cold butter knives, start cutting the butter into the flour.  This is efficiently done by plunging the knives into the center of the mass and pulling in opposite directions toward the rim of the bowl repeatedly.  The goal is very course bread crumbs, as one might expect from pulsing stale bread in a processor.  

Put the bowl of cut-in butter and flour back in the fridge for a few minutes to regain its coldness.  Use the time to ensure your work surface is clean.  Remove the bowl and the chilled water to the side of your clean work surface.  Using a wooden spoon or spatula, gently begin folding water, a little at a time, into your butter/flour mixture. The idea is to add just enough so a dough forms that will pull away from the bowl en masse, but not enough to make anything visibly wet.  You will probably have half a cup of water remaining.

Lightly flour your clean work surface; remove your dough from your bowl to your (clean!) surface.  Working quickly, begin packing your dough together until all scraps are incorporated.  Once formed, press your dough out in all directions using the heel of your hand.  Lift half of your flattened dough and gently fold it over itself.  Repeat two or three times until the dough seems capable of withstanding a rolling pin.  

Flour your rolling pin and your surface (if necessary).  Working quickly, roll your dough out to a thickness of half an inch, being mindful to retain a rectangular shape.  Fold your dough in thirds and roll.  Repeat half a dozen times.   Avoid overworking your dough; try and accomplish the above with as little contact with your dough as possible.  

Wrap in plastic and allow to relax and cool for an hour before further application.