Time was running out. Our friends Jamie and Andrea had invited us over for dinner on...
TIME WAS running out. Our friends Jamie and Andrea had invited us over for dinner on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. I had been charged with bringing dessert, and it was late in the day. My husband took the kids out to play while I began peeling apples. Andrea’s favorite dessert is apple tart with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce. It was too late for a pie crust made from scratch, so I had to improvise.
Never experiment on friends? That is one rule I love to break. This was finally my chance to try puff pastry, and I just happened to have a new box in the freezer.
The classic recipe I have for tarte tatin — from “Chez Panisse Desserts” — involves an upside-down maneuver with an iron skillet. Since I didn’t have an iron skillet (shame on me), I considered various other baking dishes before settling on a cookie sheet. Less is more. I thawed and rolled out the frozen pastry, cut it in a circle and placed it on the sheet. I cut the apples in thick slices, tossed them with sugar and cinnamon, then arranged them on the pastry. The recipe called for 30 to 35 minutes in a 400-degree oven. The pastry rose into light, pillowy layers, crunchy on the edges but soft under the juicy apples.
Andrea’s dream, or close to it.
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This was perhaps the easiest dessert I’d ever made. Its decadent look is deceptive: with the frozen variety, cooking with puff pastry is unbelievably easy; in fact, it’s more like assembling than actual cooking. How thrilling to discover such a simple-but-impressive way out of making my own crusts. As for my first attempt at homemade caramel sauce, well, that’s another story.
Puff pastry, or pâté feuilletée in French, is thought to have been invented centuries ago by a French pastry chef called Feuillet, but others believe the light, delicate pastry actually dates back to ancient Greece. According to “Larousse Gastronomique,” puff pastry cakes were mentioned as early as 1311.
Homemade puff pastry is a labor of love, which transforms just four simple ingredients into luscious golden layers that melt in your mouth. The ingredients are flour, butter, salt and water. No sugar, no leavener. The dough is rolled, folded and turned, over and over, each time incorporating more butter. When heated, the melting butter and cooking flour create air pockets and hence the puff. The pastry expands six to eight times its prebaked height. It can be used for savory or sweet dishes, including croissants, turnovers, vol-au-vents, bouchées, pies and en-croute masterpieces.
When working with the pastry, keep ingredients and surfaces cold. Work quickly with one piece at a time, and handle it as little as possible. Use a hot knife to cut the pastry and cut straight down, not at an angle. Frozen pastry must be thawed before use. Pepperidge Farm recommends two methods: the “quick thaw” is for one sheet at room temperature for 30 minutes; the preferred “refrigerator thaw” takes about four hours, but sheets can be held this way for up to two days.
Bellevue home chef Florence Verburg, a bonafide foodie, prefers to make puff pastry from scratch because it’s flakier and lighter. Verburg uses “The Gourmet Cookbook” recipe, although she shaves off some time by using a food processor.
Verburg uses the pastry for appetizers, pies and, in a pinch, even quiche. Her favorite creation is a sweet-savory oozing combo she calls Baked Brie with Caramelized Nuts, and it’s as pretty as it is delicious.
As for me, I’ve reached for the frozen stuff again, once more on the spur of the moment. It was last Thanksgiving, when we hosted our extended family at our house. In the past, our clan typically has had three pies for the big feast: pumpkin, apple and mincemeat. This year, I wanted to simplify. In early November, I sent out an e-mail, asking everyone to declare their pie preferences. It turned out that no one voted for mincemeat except my husband. Of course I fretted — how could I deny my husband his mincemeat in his own home? But I was determined: we’d have only the apple and pumpkin.
Then on Thanksgiving Day, I started feeling guilty. Turkey roasting in the oven, time to kill watching the Macy’s parade . . .
Puff to the rescue. My mother-in-law and I crammed some puffed pastry shells into muffin tins, filled them with mincemeat and stuck them in the oven.
My husband got his mincemeat. I never had to touch the stuff.
Catherine M. Allchin is a Seattle freelance writer. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.