Since around this time of year, I reckon there’s a fair few people thinking about mince pies, I thought I would write something about pastry. It seems to be a lot of people’s cooking nemesis, and while I sympathise, I’ve also learnt a few tricks to make life that little bit easier. So read on, all ye who fear to bake, and I will try to enlighten you.
First of all, there’s no hiding it but compared with throw-it-in-a-pan cooking, pastry is a nuisance. And while I stood in a 35C kitchen trying to roll a whole block of butter into my puff pastry for the Leiths final exam, fat melting everywhere as the sun streamed down, I pretty much vowed never to touch the stuff again. Certainly when I got my mark sheet back and they declared ‘good rise, but a little too greasy’ I felt like I might just give up altogether. But that was Leiths and their expectations of pastry are frankly impossible, not to mention totally impracticable. For us mere mortals, a lower standard of perfection will suffice.
So, a few good pointers. Mainly, it mustn’t get hot. This is essential, and really the best piece of advice I can give you. If in doubt, stick it in the freezer for 10 minutes, and avoid the temptation to knead it. It’s not bread, it’s not Playdough, so leave it alone. If you’re making shortcrust or puff (which is more hassle than it’s worth), you should chill the pastry once you’ve brought it all together – it will make rolling it out much easier if it’s cold and firm. You should also chill it once it’s been shaped. It must always, always go into the oven cold – it is the butter melting in the oven and creating steam which, in shortcrust, will help it to stay tender and essentially, short, and with puff, will make it rise (and not be greasy…hmph.) And don’t think if you’ve used bought you can ignore all of this. It’s exactly the same principle, just without the initial mixing process.
Another very important point is that if you’re making pies, then the filling has to be cold when it goes in. A hot filling will melt the pastry, and anyone who has struggled trying to shape soggy, raw pastry will understand. Chill, chill and chill again. It will be worth it in the end. If you’re making a pie that has a bottom and a top shell, always use a metal tin, preferably with a removable bottom. Those ceramic things your granny gave you may look lovely, but they’ll never heat up enough to give you a crisp base and you’ll end up with a grey, flabby bottom. And nobody likes those…
And so on to blind baking. If anyone’s seen this in a recipe and wondered what it was all about, it simply means baking a pastry case before adding a filling. To do this, you have to weight it down otherwise it will balloon and you’ll be left with a very wonky base. Most cookbooks tell you to use baking parchment to line the pastry case before adding the baking beans (NB. These don’t have to be the proper ceramic beans that cookshops charge a fortune for – I’ve used rice, split peas, even flour very successfully – as long as it’s heavy enough and won’t melt you’ll be fine), but we always line ours with tin foil – you get a sharper right angle and the metal foil heats up and cooks the pastry from the outside too. Always use plenty of baking beans – a small scattering won’t do – the case needs to be almost full. Also, always leave an overhang of pastry rather than trimming it to exactly fit the case. Pastry can have a nasty habit of shrinking in the oven, and the overhang will mean that you’re not left with a case that’s only a cm high in some places. After blind baking trim the edges with a serrated knife flat on the edge of the tart. You’ll end up with a lovely, neat blunt edge. Very cheffy.
If the recipe tells you to blind bake something for 15 minutes, it will almost never be long enough. An 8-inch tart case will take at least 25 minutes on about 190C, plus another 10 minutes at 170C with the foil and beans removed. These are just estimates – so keep an eye on it, the pastry should be completely sandy coloured, with no grey patches. Once your pastry is cooked, if you want to be really fancy you could glaze the inside with some beaten egg yolk and return it to a low oven for 10 minutes to dry out – this will form a waterproof barrier, and make sure your pastry stays completely crisp and delicious. I would really recommend this with custard based fillings – quiches and lemon tarts especially.
So there you go, the Truefoodie Guide to Pastry Making in under 900 words. I realise all of the above sounds quite complicated, but I promise it isn’t once you get into the habit, and the difference in your results will be extraordinary. Just don’t try and make almond pastry. If the Roux brothers find it tricky, then the rest of us have no chance…