I can be almost certain that your holiday schedule is somewhat like mine in the sense that you don’t have a whole lot of down time between festivities, shopping, wrapping, untangling lights, propping a dead tree up in your house, decorating the tree and the house, splendid family visits and getting out to Christmas carol with your neighbors — all whilst the regular rigamarole that has us busy enough when it’s not the holiday season is happening around us.
As I was thinking about the wonderful chaos that is the Christmas season, I thought to myself: It’s too early to write about the Christmas season. But then realized that the stores have been selling us Christmas since October, so I should be OK. And since I was not ready to roll out my 2011 “Gastro Gifting” hot list for the foodie in or near to all of us, that will be the next column.
I felt it would be nice to actually give you a gift that could, in fact, save you this and every holiday season to come.
When I think of the aforementioned blessed pandemonium that comes with this holiday of giving, I had the usual visions of sugar plum fairies dancing in shimmery pink tutu’s and my two youngest daughters dancing their hearts out on stage with this year’s production of “The Nutcracker” at the Sunset Center. Yes, tickets are still available for all of the shows, and yes, I know that was a shameless promotion, but it is truly the best performance between San Francisco and LA — and not just because two budding Broadway dancers with the last name Fisher are performing.
Oh yes, back to your gift. Yep, flakey, buttery, delicate puff pastry for all my friends. Look for it in your mail box, but don’t open until Dec. 25.
Well, obviously I am not sending you a sheet of labor-intensive puff pastry, but I am giving you the endowment of all the ways this French confection can save your life during the holiday season. First, however, what is puff pastry? It’s a light, flaky dough made by repeatedly layering pastry dough and butter or another solid fat, called laminating, to form a thin dough that puffs in the oven. The puffing occurs when the moisture in the fat creates steam and the fat keeps the layers from sticking together. Puff Pastry is said to have Spanish roots and be a relative of phyllo dough. However, more often than not it gets credited with having been invented in about 1645 by a French pastry chef’s apprentice named Claudius Gele. At the end of his apprenticeship, Claudius wanted to bake a delicious loaf of bread for his sick father, who was prescribed a diet consisting of water, flour and butter.
Claudius prepared a dough, packing the butter into it, kneading the dough out on the table, folding it, and repeating the procedure ten times, after which he molded the dough into a loaf. The pastry chef, who had watched the procedure, advised Claudius against baking the loaf as he thought the butter would run out of it. Nevertheless, the loaf was put in the oven, and as the loaf baked, both the pastry chef and Claudius were more and more surprised at the shape and the unusual size it attained. And with this, a star was born.
The production of puff pastry dough is uber time-consuming, because it must be kept at a temperature below or at approximately 60 degrees to keep butter or shortening from becoming runny, and must rest in between folds to allow gluten strands time to link up, thus retain layering. Now I know when too much information is too much, so I will not bore you with the equation that calculates the number of layers in puff pastry, divided by the number of folds. Just know that every croissant you have ever eaten was an algebraic equation before it was a flakey, delicate buttery snack. Culinary giant and legend Julia Child recommends 73 layers for regular puff pastry and a staggering 730 layers for p te feuilletée fine.
I have made puff pastry only one time in my career, and it was a less-than-spectacular offering. Thankfully, commercially made puff pastry is available in grocery stores. I hope you have a newfound respect for your local patisseries.
You know puff pastry in many forms, even if you didn’t know you knew: Croissants, palmiers, petite fours, napolean (a classic layered dessert), baked brie, beef Wellington, even salmon en crožte. Basically, if you need to bake something in a crust, puff pastry can do it, and with a little practice it is a very easy way to do it.
And it can do almost anything. I’m not kidding when I say puff pastry can do almost anything. Here are a few of the things I have used puff pastry for over the years, and yes, a few have them have been a stretch to the imagination but have played out well and, in some cases, have even become go-to items. As for appetizers: petite tart shells, cheese sticks (recipe to follow, great accompanying a cheese board), pigs in a blanket, mini empenadas, tiny calzones, Pissierade, savory Palmeirs; for covering pot pies, crust for a quiche, making any kind of meat pie, dumplings, even a bread crumb for coating (after it has been baked of course).
As for sweet treats, pie crusts, tart shells, cinnamon rolls, cookies, doughnuts, beignets and popovers: Sometimes the puffiness works to your advantage, sometimes simply rolling it out to keep the layers from puffing to the puffable maximum is in order, and other times baking it with a weight on top of it makes it act more like a pie crust, where it is still flakey and light but durable and absorbent. So when you are feeling the pinch this holiday season, make sure you have a box or two of puff in the freezer so you can puff like a rock star. Or is it shine like a rock star?
Till next time, when I give you my Gastro Gifting Hot picks !
Parmesan Cheese Straws
All-purpose flour, for surface
1 package (14 oz.) puff pastry
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 oz. Parmesan cheese, grated (1/3 cup)
¼ tsp. Malden salt
½ tsp. cracked fennel seeds
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment.
On a lightly floured surface with a lightly floured rolling pin, roll puff pastry into a 12-by-16-inch rectangle. With the long side facing you, lightly brush bottom half of rectangle with some of the beaten egg. Sprinkle ¼ cup Parmesan and the salt on top half. Fold bottom half over top half. Gently roll dough to seal. Cut rectangle lengthwise into thirds. (You should have three 2-by-16-inch strips.) Sprinkle remaining 1 T. Parmesan on one strip, fennel seeds on another, and cayenne on remaining strip. Cut each strip lengthwise into eight ¼-inch-by-16-inch strips. Transfer strips to baking sheets, spacing 1 inch apart. Working with 1 strip at a time, hold each end with your fingers, and carefully twist strip in opposite directions, forming a spiral. Press ends of strips against parchment to prevent unraveling. Freeze or refrigerate until strips are very firm and cold, about 15 minutes. Bake 1 sheet at a time, rotating halfway through, until straws are golden brown and cooked through, 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer straws to wire racks, and let cool.
Celebrity chef Todd Fisher is a Herald columnist, chef de cuisine at Stick’s at the Inn at Spanish Bay and a brand consultant. E-mail him at email@example.com.