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Recipes and Stories

20 November 2012: Mastering Thanksgiving VII—The Pastry Cook

The elements of pastry are very simple: low-gluten pastry flour (a good all-purpose will do), a bit of salt, cold butter, an ounce of chilled lard (for tenderness), and ice water to bind it

You’ll notice that up till now there’s been no mention of pastry-making (which I’d normally be doing either today or tomorrow). Happily, thanks to the gentle art of delegation (also known as sweet-talking), someone else is making the pies and dinner rolls.

If, on the outside chance the pie-making still falls in your lap, today is not too soon to make the pastry, especially if you’re a novice. It will give you a chance to practice and perfect your technique, and leave plenty of time to make more if your first batch falls short of your expectations. But even if you’re experienced, it’s good to get one more slightly messy job out of the way before things get hectic.

If you are a neat freak, that’s one thing that you have to accept going into this: pastry making is messy. But isn’t that true of so many things worth doing?

The secrets to success are few: low-gluten pastry flour, well-chilled shortening, a light hand, and practice. There is no such thing as a born pastry cook; even the greatest among them had to learn the techniques and practice them until it became second nature.

Basic Pastry

This is what the French call Pâte Brisée—and doesn’t it sound so much more elegant than “basic pastry”? But that’s really all it is—a good, basic all-purpose dough that every cook should have in his or her repertory.

Both the hand and food processor methods are given here. If you own a food processor and have been intimidated by pastry, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how simple it is. When using the food processor, it’s best not to try to double recipe when more pastry is needed, but to make one batch at a time.

Makes enough for 2 9-inch pie shells

8 ounces (about 1-3/4 cups) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
5 ounces (1-1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small bits
2 tablespoons chilled lard or vegetable shortening, cut into small bits
About 1/3 to 1/2 cup ice water

1A. Simple food processor method (the easiest for a novice to master): Put the steel blade of the food processor in the freezer for 5 minutes, then insert it into the work bowl of the machine, add the flour and salt, and pulse to sift. Add the butter and lard and pulse until the fat is cut into the flour and the mixture is the texture of coarse, damp meal with little lumps of butter the size of very small peas. Add the ice water a little at a time, starting with ¼ cup, pulsing between additions until the pastry is just holding together but still a little crumbly.

1B. The hand blending method: Put the flour and salt in a mixing bowl and whisk to blend them. Add the butter and lard to the bowl and, using a pastry blender, cut them into the flour until the texture of the mixture is like coarse, damp meal with little lumps of butter the size of very small peas. Gradually stir in enough ice water, starting with ¼ cup and adding more by tablespoons as needed until the pastry is just holding together but still slightly crumbly.

2. Now lightly dust a wooden, marble, or plastic laminate work surface with flour and turn the pastry out of the work bowl onto it. Gather the dough into a loose ball and, with the heel of your hand, press and it away from you, smearing it across the work surface. Fold and repeat this 2-3 times until the dough is uniform, dusting lightly with flour as needed. It should be cohesive but not elastic, malleable but not sticky. Gather the pastry into a ball, cover with plastic wrap, and chill at least 20 minutes. You may make it up to four days ahead.

3. When you’re ready to roll out the pastry, let it sit at room temperature until it is just softened enough to handle but still cool to the touch.

4. To roll out the pastry: the really key thing is to keep the pastry cool, but not so cold that it won’t roll, and to remember that what you are actually doing is slowly flattening the dough rather like a steamroller on the highway. You should never stretch it (and if you suspect that you have done just that, lay it on a baking sheet and refrigerate it for 20 minutes or so to let it relax again). The reason you want to gradually flatten and not stretch is because stretching activates the glutens, which chain together and become like little rubber bands within your pastry: when they’re stretched, they’ll snap back to their original shape. That’s why pastry sometimes seems to “shrink” in the oven. Lightly flour a work surface (any of the ones above or a pastry cloth), rub flour on your rolling pin (or lightly dust the dough with flour) and, working from the center, slowly flatten it to a disk of the thickness called for in the recipe, turning the pin regularly to flatten it evenly in all directions. The standard thickness for most pie shells is 1/8-inch.

5. To transfer and trim it: dust with flour, brush off the excess, and fold the dough in half, and then in half again. You’ll have a point at one end. Lay this point on the center of your dish or pan and gently unfold the dough, never letting it stretch, but allowing it to fall into the dish. Gently lift the edges and let it fall into the edges of the bottom of the dish, gently pressing (again without stretching) the dough into the crevice. Then lay the dough against the side and over the top. You can fold over the excess and crimp it, but I find that the easiest way to make a pie look special, and insure that you don’t stretch the edges in shaping them, is to cut off the excess dough with a sharp pair of kitchen scissors, then cut little decorative shapes from the excess dough—leaves, mini stars, etc. Brush the edge of the pastry with cold water, then lay the decorative cuts over them. Voila. It will look as if a professional pastry cook made your piecrust.

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