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Frozen Puff Pastry
by Elliot Essman
As a cook I'm always on the lookout for "secret" ingredients: items I can keep for long periods of time in cupboard, refrigerator or freezer, then pull out to quickly stun unexpected guests with what seems like culinary brilliance. For this purpose there's nothing more luxurious (with the possible exception of a jar of caviar or tin of goose liver pâté) than frozen puff pastry sheets. You can find Pepperidge Farm's frozen puff pastry sheets in any supermarket freezer case. I've produced wonderful lots of puff pastry made from scratch, but it's an arduous process requiring two days of rolling, pounding, letting the dough cool and rest, then rolling and letting rest again. If fine restaurants purchase their puff pastry dough from outside suppliers, as many do, then I shouldn't feel remorse about keeping the frozen variety on tap for when I need it in a hurry.

What exactly is puff pastry? Think flaky. Think multiple layers. Think buttery and rich. When baked, puff pastry rises to several times its original height, all without any yeast or leavening. Puff pastry is all physics. When heated, the butter in the dough melts, causing the layers to separate. The water in the butter turns to steam, puffing up the pastry with air bubbles that become trapped to form air pockets. In the classical French pâte feuilleté recipe, which requires a full six "turns" (requiring the above-mentioned two days) the finished dough will boast nearly 1500 layers of butter and flour.

Puff pastry is a product that must be treated with care, even if you buy it frozen. First rule: work with the puff in a cool area, less than 80 degrees, or the butter will melt and the layering effect will be ruined. Over-handling, or too much heat from your hands, will also compromise the result. Most frozen puff pastry comes folded in three, like a business letter. If you try to unfold the pastry right out of the freezer, it will probably snap. The best thawing trick is to fold a clean kitchen towel around the tri-folded sheet, then leave it on top of a wooden cutting board. The towel will wick off excess moisture as the puff warms. Give the puff a preliminary unfolding test after about fifteen minutes; leave it partially unfolded and wait a little longer if necessary. Once you have a flat sheet, gently crimp the seams together, dust with a little flour (for savory pastries) or sugar (for sweet pastries), and roll out with very gentle pressure. (Too much rolling encourages gluten formation, which destroys puff's evanescent lightness.) If the puff seems to be warming up at any stage--rolling, cutting or shaping--refrigerate briefly to protect your delicate layers.

Because nearly all ovens heat unevenly, and because puff pastry items often have exposed edges, you risk burning both the tops and bottoms. A doubled baking sheet takes care of the bottoms; strategically placed bits of crimped aluminum foil can protect the tops. Chefs in the know also gently score the tops of their puff pastries with a knife so the steam pressure inside the pastry doesn't distort the final result. When cutting puff pastry dough, cut it clean, using your sharpest knives or cutters, otherwise you compromise the layering at the edges. When you then work with it, always flip it bottom up, so the layers least damaged by cutting rise first.

Before you start creating with puff pastry, keep in mind that the trimmings from your masterpieces are reusable. You can roll them out for mini turnovers, gently mix in grated cheddar or Parmesan for cheese twists, or cut into decorative shapes and bake as they are for accents to your other dishes.

A classic yet simple sweet puff pastry is the fruit tart, which you can make in any size and with a number of different kinds of firm fruit (berries, apples, pears, mangos nectarines, plums and peaches). Compact disks make good templates for cutting single-serving tarts. (Don't use your favorite Frank Sinatra anthology; America Online gives out perfectly serviceable CD's for nothing, and they double as coasters.) Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Carefully cut out CD-shaped circles without pressing too hard on the CD, place on the sheet bottom side up, cool in the refrigerator a few minutes.

The next step is simple to do yet essential. Using a fork, poke a few holes in the center of the circle (not the edges, which you want to rise) as an outlet for steam. This process is called "docking." You don't have to poke all the way through to the bottom; be gentle. Sprinkle with a modest layer of sugar, then add your fruit on top. The fruit layer should be thin, at most an quarter of an inch thick. To prepare apples for this (Braeburn, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, and York apples work best for pies and tarts), first peel and core the apple, then carve off thin slivers using a vegetable peeler or food processor attachment. While doing your prep, soak the apple slices in water mixed with the juice of a lemon to prevent them from browning. Pat dry your fruit before arranging it, preferably in a decorative spiral, on your tart circle. Leave the edges of the circle clean. By all means refrigerate, covered, if you want to do the baking at a later time.

A CD-sized tart should bake in the middle of a four hundred degree oven for fifteen to twenty minutes. Smaller, bite-sized tarts will of course require less baking time. You'll know the tart is done when the crust doesn't give when poked with a knife. To prevent the edges from burning while the fruit-covered center bakes, you may have to crimp some aluminum foil over the edges for part of the baking time.

A good glaze, added after the tart comes out of the oven, is simple to do, and adds a professional look. The standard glaze is apricot. You can cook apricot jam on your stovetop with some corn syrup until it reaches the consistency of a glaze, but the easiest way to create a glaze is to microwave a few tablespoons of apricot jam for thirty seconds. You'll carefully dab the glaze onto the tart, since if you brush it on, you'll disturb the fruit arrangement. Cool the tarts at room temperature for at least a few hours.

Just as you can make tarts any size, any topping, so too can you make turnovers. A turnover begins as a square, say, a quarter of a sheet rolled from standard frozen puff. Place a tablespoon of your filling (jam, yesterday's leftover fajitas) into the middle of the square, brush the edges with beaten egg to act as an adhesive, fold diagonally so the edges meet, then crimp the edges with a fork to seal. With a sharp knife, cut two one-inch vent holes in the top of the turnover to let the steam escape. For extra browning, dab the top of the turnover with a modest layer of beaten egg. Bake at four hundred degrees until brown, about thirty minutes.

Puff pastry has literally thousands of applications; some pastry chefs spend entire careers occupied with little else. Follow the basic rules for handling puff and you'll get quality results even in recipes that seem, at first glance, extremely complex. Making your own puff from scratch can be supremely therapeutic, but don't think you'll then qualify for the rights to www.puffpastry.com. Pepperidge Farm has got that one sewn up, and it's a good source for recipes and techniques that use this versatile "secret" ingredient. Top -- Food Articles Home

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