How to Make Pastry
Pastry-making is not as difficult as it seems, as long as you understand the ingredients and terminology involved.
What is Pastry?At its most simple, a pastry is a mixture of flour and fat, bound together with a liquid. Beyond that simple definition there are a bewildering number of varieties:
ShortcrustShortcrust pastry is the simplest pastry to make and can be used for sweet or savoury dishes. Usually shortcrust is bound with water, but for richer versions of the pastry, you can bind it together with beaten egg.
Pate SucreeThis is basically a shortcrust that has additional sugar and eggs to make it richer and sweeter.
Puff PastryThis pastry is high in fat. The technique is to roll and fold the pastry many times, creating thin layers of dough with air trapped in between. When cooked, at a high temperature, the air expands rapidly, pushing apart the pastry layers, and creating many ‘leaves’ or layers which give an impressive rich and light texture.
Flaky Pastry/Rough PuffThese are both rather like puff pastry, yet easier to make. If you’re not confident about your pastry making abilities, these varieties are a good interim step to master before trying out the complex requirements of puff pastry.
Suet-CrustThis is a highly traditional British pastry – made with suet, it is used to create both savoury dishes like steak and kidney pudding and dessert ones such as roly-poly and spotted dick. It can be steamed or baked, and new ingredients such as vegetable suet mean that it can be eaten by vegetarians too.
Hot Water CrustThis famous pastry is used for pork pies. It’s remarkably easy to make, because you use hot water to construct a dough that is pliable enough to be hand-shaped around a heavy and solid filling.
Choux PastryAnother famous pastry, choux pastry, is considered difficult but actually very simple to make as long as you ensure that you keep the water content and oven temperature high. It contains eggs, and is made in a pan with a blend of boiling water and butter. Choux is used to make éclairs and profiteroles, but can equally be used for savoury dishes. Whatever form of pastry you make, it has to be slit open as soon as cooking is over, to allow the steam to escape, which crisps the outside of the pastry and creates a space into which you insert a filling.
Making Perfect PastryThere’s an old saying ‘Cold hands, fine pastry’ and there’s a lot of truth to this – pastries such as shortcrust, puff and so on require cool temperatures both during their creation and after. If your hands are naturally warm, it’s worth getting a pastry blender, which is a series of metal bands held together with a handle so that you can mix your pastry without using your fingers.
To achieve perfection it’s also a good idea to chill the fats and the bowl before use, to make sure your water is chilled, and to work on a marble or glass slab. It’s also sensible to make pastry early in the day, before the room heats up through sun or using the oven for other purposes.
It’s vital to make pastry swiftly, because, unlike bread, you don’t want to develop the gluten bonds. Gluten makes flour elastic and difficult to roll. Too much handling also gives the fat a chance to soften and can make the finished pastry feel and tasty greasy. For these reasons, you might want to try mixing these pastries in a food processor to minimise heat and handling, but if so, watch it carefully and ensure that as soon as it moulds into a ball, you remove it from the processor.
Chilling is vital to stop the action of the gluten in the flour, so as soon as you have moulded the dough into a ball, put it in a plastic bag or cling film and place it in the fridge for thirty minutes. All pastries can be kept refrigerated for three days, but should be allowed to come to room temperature before rolling out and using. Puff pastry may need to be chilled up to four times during the construction process.
Fats and Flours for PastryOrdinary plain white flour is a good choice as it gives a light texture. You can use a percentage of wholemeal flour, but not more than 30% and you’ll need to add extra water – some recipes made with wholemeal flour also contain baking powder to lift the texture. Because ‘strong’ or bread flours have very high gluten levels, they create a pastry that is very elastic and tough, so they should not be used.
Ideally, use half butter and half lard to make shortcrust or flaky pastry – you can use vegetable shortening instead of lard if you are cooking for vegetarians. Using butter gives pastry an excellent flavour and crisp texture but can be less malleable than a butter/lard blend. You can use margarine but it will not have the clean taste of butter, although some hard margarines are specifically designed to use in pastry because they have elastic qualities that improve the texture of the pastry.