Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Essence of Shortcrust Pastry

I realised I needed to do an Essence of pastry when my mum was making a casserole.

It's to do with dumplings, actually. I expect some of you are already aware that the essence of pastry is the same as the essence of dumplings.

If you aren't, you might find it hard to believe. I wouldn't be surprised, I was certainly doubtful at first. But it's really true! I'll explain more when we get there.

Pastry is actually one of the simplest baked things you can make. In fact, it's pretty much the simplest. It only has two ingredients, and the ratio is extremely simple too. It's just flour, and fat. Nothing else except a splash of water.

I really can't think of anything else to say here, so I'll just get right onto it.

2 flour : 1 fat

  • The type of fat you use will effect the flavour and texture of the finished pastry. The most commonly recommended type is to use half lard, and half butter. When I made mine, I used all butter, and it came out fine for me. You can experiment to see what different the different fats make. For the dough to mix to the right consistency, the fat should be cold and solid when you put it in. The smaller the pieces, the easier it will be to mix (I grated my butter), but melting it will stop it from doing it's job properly. In fact you want the pastry to stay as cold as possible all the way through the mixing process. If it's a hot day or your kitchen is warm, it might be an idea to chill the bowl in the fridge before you start, to keep the temperature of the ingredients down.
  • Because the butter is so cold and solid, just trying to mix it with the flour using a spoon won't do much at all. You need to get in there with your fingers. The technique is called 'rubbing' - you just take pinches of the mixture and rub your fingers together to break the fat into smaller pieces and get it coated with flour. Keep doing this until it's broken up into fairly small breadcrumb-looking bits. Some of the bits will be bigger than others, that doesn't matter.
  • This is when you need to add just a teensy bit of water. Without water, the dough will never pull together properly, it will just stay as crumbs and you won't be able to do anything with it. Start off with just a spoonful or so, and mix it in with your hands. You'll know when you've added enough water because it will start to come together into a ball of dough (which will look remarkably like pastry). If you add too much, it will be wet and sticky. Ideally, don't add too much - add it in small increments. But if you do, you can probably just about rectify it by adding more flour until the consistency is right.
  • The next stage is to let it rest for a little while. Put it in the fridge for a minimum of 30 minutes (or up to a few days). This allows the gluten in the flour to develop. Gluten is the thing that we're developing when we knead bread, and it helps the structure and texture of the pastry. Putting it in the fridge for a while also cools it down again and makes it easier to shape and roll out when the time comes.
  • After it's rested, we're pretty much done! You can do almost anything you want with your pastry. Roll it out, cut it up, and you're away. You could make tart cases, pie cases, pasties, appetisers... Oh! And this is where dumplings come in too. In fact, you don't need to do the resting stage with dumplings. As soon as your dough has come together (you could add seasonings before adding the water, if you want), you can pull off chunks, roll them into balls and drop them into a stew or casserole. They'll cook in about 20 or 30 minutes.
  • If you're using your dough as pastry, the cooking time will depend on what you're doing with it. If you're planning to use it as a pie or tart case, then it's a good idea to 'blind bake' it first. This isn't complicated in the slightest - my brother managed to work it out, with no baking experience whatsoever. It just means, baking the pastry case before adding the filling. This is done so that the case doesn't end up soggy or underdone by only having cooking time when it's been covered with filling. The trouble with blind baking is that the pastry will probably have small bubbles of air underneath it when you lay it in the dish, and these bubbles will want to puff up with steam when they get hot. So it's a good idea to weigh down the bottom of the pasty with something while it's cooking. If you conveniently have a dish that fits just inside, then that's fine. But a more general method is to line the pastry case with baking paper, and then fill the paper with something heavy - rice, pulses, or specially designed ceramic 'baking beans'. Then just cook the pastry at a medium-ish temperature (175-185 or thereabouts) for maybe ten minutes, but check on it every now and then and make your own judgement. You might also want to remove the weight for the last couple of minutes, to let it go slightly brown on the top, although this isn't necessary. When that is done, you can add your filling, add the top pastry (if you're having a top bit) and go right ahead. It's a brilliantly simple way to turn something unremarkable like a stew, into something really impressive - a huge, shiny pie. Wonderful.

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