Okay, so it's not magic, it's chemistry. But puff pastry is still one of the most satisfying items to bake.
About the Pastry
Puff pastry is leavened by water in the layers of butter and dough evaporating in the hot oven, causing the layers to separate. Classical puff pastry has close to a thousand separate layers of butter and dough: the "thousand leaves" of millefeuille.
A traditional variant that doesn't puff as high is called blitz puff pastry (demi-feuillete). It's easier to master at home than classic puff pastry: rather than having a block of butter that you envelop in a square of dough, you make a kind of glorified pie crust. The technique of "blitz" (lightning!) puff pastry isn't especially fast. Plan to spend much of a weekend afternoon rolling and folding dough.
A Word of Advice
This is an ambitious project. It helps if you're familiar with dough, like making pie crusts. It can, however, be tackled successfully if you're an enthusiastic beginner. The dough can smell your fear, so be confident! This recipe will look like a complete disaster when you begin, but by the time you're rolling out the dough to shape it, you'll declare yourself a culinary genius.
(See? It's not pretty.)
Before You Begin
Unlike pie pastry, you don't want the butter to be stone cold. It should be at a cool room temperature, almost waxy, but not too soft. I recommend using the paddle attachment on a stand mixer or using a food processor's "pulse" function. You can also make this dough by hand, using a kitchen knife or a baker's bench knife.
- Basically, you want big, big chunks of butter: cut the sticks horizontally, so you've got pieces about a quarter inch thick and as long as your butter stick.
- They'll break up a bit in the mixer, but you're really trying to keep long flakes of butter that will be distributed throughout the dough (mimicking the effect of a solid sheet of butter in classic puff pastry).
Use the Blitz Puff Pastry recipe.
- Turn out the butter and flour mixture onto a large work surface or big mixing bowl.
- Make a well and add the liquid (the tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar helps tenderize the dough and keep it from oxidizing or turning gray).
- Stir gently to combine, keeping the butter pieces large.
- The dough will look terrible: all floury and "shaggy," not like a nice pastry at all.
- As best you can with dough that's falling apart, roll it out into a long rectangle. Depending on the quantity, you're probably looking at a 8 x 14" block. Fold it in thirds, like a business letter. (Again, the pastry will look a mess. Don't worry, it'll shape up.)
- Wrap it in plastic, and refrigerate for an hour. This will allow the flour to fully absorb the liquid and will let it relax after the first roll-out.
- Return the dough to your work surface and roll it out into a rectangle again. but fold it so that the short edges are in the fold. Basically, you've done a quarter turn of the dough.
- Chill and repeat one more time, again turning the dough to fold the edges inside.
- Chill before rolling, and again after cutting the dough into shapes (to keep the edges sharp) or before baking (this prevents shrinkage).
Puff pastry is a wonderful component in desserts, but it's also spectacular for breakfast. For a special occasion brunch or tea, make almond-filled Bear Claws. Our step-by-step tutorial makes it manageable--and you can make the components or the filled and shaped pastries ahead of time, and bake them the morning of your event.
When you make your own puff pastry, you can get creative with compound butters. Fat distributes flavors better than, say, flour: spices, citrus zests, and herbs really pop when they're layered into your pastry dough. An orange butter is delicious in Palmiers. A cayenne pepper butter will turn your dough a gorgeous red-orange color; it's perfect for making cheese straws. Or try an herb butter with Puff Pastry Salmon or on a pot pie.
While I think this dough recipe works well in both sweet and savory applications, you can cut the sugar to about 1 tablespoon if you're making savory tarts or other dishes.