I’m never surprised to hear that home cooks are intimidated by puff pastry. With 729 layers—yes, really—puff pastry can make you feel like you have 729 opportunities to mess up. But it isn’t only amateurs who shy away from the extravagantly layered pastry—puff pastry strikes fear into the heart of professional cooks as well. And with mechanically perfected puff pastry available from the freezer section of most grocery stores (or one from a trusted purveyor, if you’re a professional), it’s easy to avoid ever using the technique yourself.
Classically, puff pastry is made by “laminating” dough. Used to make croissants, Danish, and any other flaky, buttery pastry, laminating dough involves wrapping a block of butter in a lean dough made of water and flour. The layers are created by a series of “turns,” wherein the dough is rolled thin and folded over itself. This process stretches and stacks the butter and dough until there are 729 paper-thin layers.
There are two types of turns performed when laminating dough: a book turn and a letter turn. The book turn requires you to fold the wide edges inward to meet at the center, then fold the dough again over the center line, as if closing a thick book. A letter turn asks that you fold the dough over itself in thirds, much like you would fold a sheet of letter paper to fit in an envelope. The choice between book or letter folds depends on the pastry: croissants, for example, are letter-folded, while Danish are typically book-folded.
I first “learned” how to make laminated dough in baking and pastry school, where I made puff pastry a grand total of two times. Early professional attempts were disastrous, leaving me with greasy, butter leaking, flat, crackery results. These malformed pastries told me my efforts were so far away from a perfect result it would take months, maybe years to get it right. So I let months, maybe years go by before I attempted to laminate a dough again.
This is puff pastry’s greatest lie. While first attempts may produce such poor results it seems a hopeless cause, subsequent attempts will achieve a better product, quickly.
Classically, puff pastry is made by wrapping a block of butter in an enriched dough. The layers are created by a series of “turns”, where-in the dough is rolled thin and folded over itself. This process stretches and stacks the butter and dough until there are seven hundred and twenty seven paper thin layers. There are two types of turns performed when laminating dough, a book turn and a letter turn. The book turn requries you to fold the wide edges inward to meet at the center, then fold the dough again over the center line as if closing a thick book. This creates 4 layers. A letter turn asks that you fold the dough over itself in thirds, much like you would fold a sheet of letter paper to fit in an envelope.
The family of laminated doughs also includes croissants and danish pastries, and each has a unique perscription of turns to give it a specific amount of layers. The seven hundred and twenty seven layers in puff pastry are achieved by performing 6 letter turns. Professionally, this is often done with the assistance of a machine called a sheeter. This large contraption moves the dough back and forth across two belted wings, passing it through a pair of rollers in the center. With each pass, the rollers are moved closer together, and the dough becomes thinner. I learned to laminate doughs on a sheeter in school, a fact that I can only assume led to the failure of my early attempts.
While the sheeter makes quick work of the lamination process, it left me without much feel for the dough itself. When I began to make puff pastry with a rolling pin instead, the lenghth of time I kept the dough on the counter caused the butter to soften and squish around, and my arms struggled to roll the dough correctly.
My true education in laminated doughs came 10 years into my career, under the care of Sherry Yard’s pastry department at Spago. I used a sheeter to produce the puff pastry we baked to make strawberry mille feuille desserts and pretzel crusted vol-au-vents. This time I paid attention to the look and feel of the dough as the machine did the work. When I took the helm at Blackbird and decided to add puff pastry to our own menu, the rolling pin no longer reduced my chance for success.
At spago I learned to make inverse puff pastry. Developed by an icon of french pastry, Pierre Herme, inverse puff pastry requires the dough to be wrapped in butter instead of the classic butter wrapped dough. When I came to blackbird, I decided to employ not the classic puff pastry technique, nor the inverse method. Rather, we make something called “rough puff”. With this method the butter is cut into 1 inch cubes, and added to the flour before the dough is made. Water is added and tossed evenly, until a dough wiht big chunks of butter suspended within it forms. We also made the decision to employ 4 book folds instead of 6 letter folds, reducing the amount of times the dough is brought out and stressed.
With an equivelent amount of layers, our quick enrobing of the butter and expedient turning process has brought fantastic results to our kitchen, while increasing the success rate and shortening the learning curve.
There are a few things that will make or break your puff pastry. If the dough isn’t rolled out far enough between each turn, the layers never gets thin enough. Second, if the doughy half of the puff pastry contains too much moisture, it will be crackery and tough, and the layers will stick together as it bakes.
Most importantly however, the butter has to stay cold, cold, cold. If the butter warms up, the fat will begin to smear with the flour. Imagine the dough that makes a butter cookie, the fat and flour combined to a paste. This paste bakes into a beautiful, flat, crumbly delight, not something you want in puff pastry. The engine that drives puff pastry upwards is the steam released from the butter, which is by weight about 20% water. f the flour smears with the butter, that water is absorbed by the flour, locking it away and never letting it fulfill it’s puffy destiny.
Protecting the butter’s temperature is quite possibly the most difficult part of making a laminated dough. The warmer your kitchen, the more the butter wants to melt. You can use a sheet pan of ice water to ice down the counter you are using, or freeze the flour you use to dust the counter and dough with while rolling. If you have an ellegant marble rolling pin, you can chill that too. Every little bit helps. Finally, take the time to clear out a dedicated space in your refrigerator, and jocky the dough in and out as necessary.
I hope any early trouble puff pastry gives you doesn’t deter you from trying your hand again. You’ll get the knack sooner than later. And I’ve found there is hardly a flaw in puff pastry a little whipped cream and fruit won’t make completely servicable.