Thursday, April 11, 2019

Is puff paste really that hard?

Guess what we at A Book of Cookrye are attempting! Here's a hint: The recipe has three ingredients, but the directions run for two pages.

Puff Paste
2 c flour, plus extra for dusting on the countertop when rolling
Pinch salt, optional*
1 c butter, cold enough to be firm but not rock-hard
Cold water
Note: These are half of the original recipe amounts.

Sift the flour and salt into a big bowl. Then divide the butter into four equal parts. Cut up one of the quarters into the flour; and divide the remaining three quarters in half for a total of six pieces. Then divide each of these into small bits, but keep them in separate piles.
Mix the flour and butter that you already added to it (the original recipe says to use a knife, but honestly you can just use your hands), adding by degrees a very little cold water till you have made it into a lump of stiff dough. Pat it into a disc about 1-1½" thick.
Sprinkle some flour on your rolling surface (Miss Leslie thinks you should have a marble slab). Take the dough from the pan and coat it well on all sides with the flour. Roll it out the paste into a large thin sheet. If you're one of those rare people who can control what shape the dough rolls out to, try to go for a square or rectangle. Or at least something symmetrical.
All right, we've made an ordinary pie crust. Now we're going to turn this into puff paste. With the knife, put all over half of it, at equal distances, one of the six pieces of butter which you have divided into small bits. Fold the dough up and over the butter, flour the dough and the table if the dough even tries to stick, and roll it out again. For some reason, it works better if you only push the rolling pin away from you, instead of rolling it back and forth. Add in the same manner another of the portions of butter.
Whenever the dough even makes the slightest attempt to stick to the table put flour under it or else you will go nuts trying to deal with it. Similarly, dust the top of the dough with flour if it tries to stick to the rolling pin.
Repeat this process till the butter is all in. Then fold it once more, lay it on a plate, and set it in a cool place till you are ready to use it.
Then divide it into as many pieces as you want sheets of paste; roll out each sheet, and put them into buttered pans.
The original recipe says "Bake in a moderate oven, but rather quick than slow" (which is probably about 375°). No air must be admitted to it while baking.
The edges of paste should always be notched before it goes into the oven. For this purpose, use a sharp penknife, dipping it frequently in flour as it becomes sticky. The notches should be even and regular. If you do them imperfectly at first, they cannot be mended by sticking on additional bits of puff paste; as, when baked, every patch will be doubly conspicuous when it rises up and turns into a huge wart of flour. There are various ways of notching; one of the neatest is to fold over one corner of each notch; or you may arrange the notches to stand upright and lie flat, alternately, all round the edge. They should be made small and regular. You can form the cut-off scraps into leaves or other shapes with little cookie cutters.
Puff paste freezes well, but the homemade stuff tends to go a bit stiff in the refrigerator or freezer. You might want to freeze it as a flat sheet instead of folding it up. Also, as Miss Leslie notes in the introductory note to the pie chapter, it comes out better if made in the cold. The butter you're folding in is less liable to melt while you're making it, so it will keep its layers better and then rise better when baking.
If the above directions for puff paste are carefully followed, and if it is not spoiled in baking, it will rise to a great thickness and appear in flakes or leaves according to the number of times you have put in the butter.
It should be eaten the day it is baked.

*The recipe doesn't mention adding any salt, but pie crust without it tastes like nothing.
Or into nine; and roll it in that number of times.
This way looks really cute after baking. The folded-over bits turn into puffy triangles all around the edge.

Slightly adapted from Directions for Cookery in its Various Branches, Miss Leslie, 1837

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you've gotten to witness my progression of pie crust skill- from this:
Back when we made individual fruit-and-kidney pies in a muffin tin.

To middlingly-skilled like this:
It nearly landed in the pan in one piece!

To, finally, this:
My own success terrified me.

In fact, after we'd gotten about as skilled as the last picture, we once semi-accidentally made puff paste with cheese, which (once cut into squares) made lovely biscuits.

And so, we decided to look at one of the longest recipes in the entire book. One that has scared us for a long time. After all, when you can barely roll out a pie crust once without ripping it to shreds, why would you be so stupid as to try to keep folding it--- and then rolling it again?
As we so often do when trying intimidating recipes, we decided to follow absolutely all of the instructions- even the ones that we usually skip in the name of laziness. Things were happening in the Kitchen of Cookrye that never happen.
I don't think I've actually sifted flour when a recipe said to since before I could legally drink.

Following every minute instruction means that whatever happens, we are clear of blame. No one can say something like "Your cupcakes turned into hockey pucks because you forgot to spin the bowl thrice widdershins like the recipe says!" If this fails, we can blame Miss Leslie for faulty recipe-writing, not ourselves for skipping half of the steps. Speaking of steps, let's get to the part of this recipe where all the butter makes the kitchen start looking like Thanksgiving!
As you gaze upon the butter, you should know that we're cutting this recipe in half.

In addition to using a sifter, we got out... this thing! I'm kind of surprised we still have it. When I was a wee tot learning how to cook, I asked Our Mom of Cookrye if we still had it in a drawer. The trouble was I didn't know what it was called. Our Mom of Cookrye didn't know either, which made an interesting experience out of finding what long-abandoned corner of the kitchen it had gotten to.
In case you too are wondering, it's called a "pastry blender."

All right, so far this looks like we're making regular pie crust, doesn't it?

Now, this is the point where it starts to look less like pie crust and more like puff paste. Miss Leslie thinks we should have a marble slab for this purpose. As it happens, we actually have one! Sort of.
Flat-top stoves work great for a lot of purposes. However, heating pots of food is not one of them,

This prompts the question: Was marble cheaper in 1837? Granted, Miss Leslie was from Philadelphia which is near(ish) to a lot of quarries, so maybe marble was cheap where she lived. But how many families embarking on the long journey west carried marble slabs with them?

All right, so here is the last point where we're making a nice, normal, easy(ish if you know what you're doing) pie crust. Note that we've cut the recipe in half and it's still enough to cover a lot of the stove if we were to roll it out as thin as it would be if we were about to bake it. While bulk production makes sense from the 19th century perspective where kitchen sinks didn't have running hot water and a little bottle of soap, where were you supposed to store the extra without a freezer?

And now, we finally get to turning this into puff paste. What we're basically going to do is repeatedly encase butter in the dough. So first, we fold it over into a sort of dough-butter sandwich.
And once you've got that rolled out flat again, you keep adding more butter and folding it on itself, again and again and again. It helps to give the dough a quarter turn every time you repeat this. Otherwise, you end up rolling it into an annoyingly long rectangle.

Believe it or not, re-rolling this actually got easier as we kept doing it. The dough got springy and almost rubbery. It seemed a lot more resilient against tearing every time. Like, the first few times the dough as almost like semi-delicate cookie dough, but as we reached the last few butter portions, the dough had gotten so tough we could have hung it off a coat hanger without it tearing.

You may be surprised what a difference repeated encounters with a rolling pin made. The dough got really smooth and kind of elastic toward the end of this. It even looks different. To our own surprise, this entire process (that goes on for two pages in the book) was really fast once we started rolling all those layers of butter in.

And now we've got all the little butter pieces encased in the lovely pie dough! See how you can see them kind of peeping through the translucent layers? That's a good sign. It means the butter's still in separate layers rather than just mixed into the dough.

And that, dear readers, is how to make puff paste like it's 1837! Let's revisit the question we started today's perpetration with: Is puff paste really that hard? Well, if you can roll out pie dough once without cracking and tearing it, rerolling it a few more times to turn it into puff paste is easy. If on the other hand you can't, perhaps this recipe is not good for your sanity.
 You may be wondering what you might do with this now that you've got it made. Now, you can make a lot of super-fancy dessert things easily (the hard part was making the damn puff paste). But our favorite (at the moment) is... these!

As the recipe promised, the puff paste did indeed expand in the ovn, giving us these lovely cookies.

Let's snap one open and BEHOLD THE FLAKINESS!

Assuming you can make the puff paste (or just buy it frozen), these buttery sugar-bombs are surprisingly easy to make. That post is forthcoming!


  1. I take one look at those little swirly cookies and think, "That really needs some marzipan or something to become not-baklava."

    Either way, I may try this soon. Like a lot of things, I suspect that reading the instructions may be the most intimidating part, and that actually executing them is surprisingly simple.

    1. I've actually done something like that with marzipan- except it was cookie dough instead of puff paste. The marzipan that was in contact with the pan sort of caramelized and hardened up.

      And indeed, reading this was a lot more intimidating than actually doing it. Even the simplest instructions get overwhelming if the recipe gets long enough. And if you decide to make your own puff paste from this recipe, you can sincerely tell people "Oh, I learned how from a 19th-century cookbook."