Apple, chicken pot, steak and ale, lemon meringue... ’tis the season for warming pies with light, crispy pastry tops and bases.
Pastry isn’t difficult to make once you get the hang of it, but there are plenty of rules to follow on the way, which can make it seem daunting. It needn’t be.
5 tips for better pastry
No matter what recipe you choose, the reasoning behind a good pastry is pure science, predominantly based on the gluten (a protein) in the flour. Here are some tips to revolutionise your pies and tarts:
1. Don’t overwork your pastry
When making pastry, the key is not to overwork the dough, whether by hand or in a food processor.
Over kneading creates strands and tough pastry.
2. Keep pastry cool
Starting with thoroughly chilled ingredients is a must and the finished pastry dough should be rested adequately so that it doesn’t shrink and toughen in the oven.
When the fat in pastry melts, it turns dough greasy; not advisable when you’re trying to roll it out and shape it, so keep your pastry well chilled throughout. An added advantage is that as the pastry chills and rests, the gluten strands in the flour also get a chance to relax.
3. Roll your pastry wisely
Rolling the pastry out between two sheets of non-stick baking paper means you don’t have to add extra flour (which could toughen the pastry).
It also means you can pick up the pastry, paper and all, and slide it into the fridge for 10 minutes if it seems to be getting too soft.
4. Don’t stretch pastry
Never stretch the pastry when rolling or lining a dish, as that causes the pastry to shrink during cooking; so be patient and don’t force matters.
Another trick I often use is to trim the edges of a tart or pie base after baking it blind. That way, you don’t have to worry about the pastry shrinking away from the sides. Simply trim the pastry flush with the dish rim, using a sharp knife.
5. Blind bake to avoid a soggy bottom
To keep your pastry bases crisp, despite wet fillings, bake blind first, removing the baking beans for the last 5-10 minutes, until the pastry is a pale, biscuit brown. Immediately paint the inside of the hot pastry case with lightly forked egg white to seal it and form a protective barrier. Preheating a pizza stone or sturdy baking sheet in the oven before baking your filled tart or pie on it helps too. That whoosh of heat to the base should keep it crisp.
If all else fails…
Of course, if none of these pointers improve matters, you can always resort to buying ready-made pastry. I have no qualms in using a bought, all-butter pastry when time is tight and nearly always buy puff off the shelf. Dorset Pastry and Waitrose both make very good, buttery versions.
Classic shortcrust pastry
This shortcrust pastry is perfect for tart cases as well as pie tops and bottoms.
Makes enough for a 20cm (8in) tart tin
- 100g (4oz) unsalted butter
- 170g (6oz) plain flour
- Pinch of salt
- 1 egg yolk
- Just enough iced water to bind (and no more – too much water results in a tough dough)
- Optional: Add 2 tablespoons of icing sugar to make a sweet pastry.
Sift the flour into a bowl. If you’re making a sweet shortcrust pastry add the sugar too.
Cube the chilled butter and add to the flour. Rub with your fingertips until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs.
Add the egg yolk and iced water (or vodka and water – see below!) and mix until the dough starts to form.
Shape the dough into a ball and wrap in clingfilm. Store in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
When thoroughly chilled place the dough between two sheets of baking paper and roll. This method means you don’t need to flour the rolling pin and the dough can easily be transported to the fridge to cool it down, if it starts to get a bit too warm.
Use pastry as instructed in the recipe you are following.
Variation: vodka pastry
Recently, I’ve been experimenting with a new pastry method, introduced a few years ago by America’s Cook’s Illustrated Magazine. It uses the revolutionary ingredient vodka in place of half the water, which evaporates as the pastry cooks to create a flaky, shortcrust. It’s a very good pastry, despite being a rather wet dough when raw.
The trick is to chill it thoroughly and work quickly. Generally though, I prefer the refined texture of a classic shortcrust pastry and always come back to a foolproof recipe as above.
Delicious shortcrust pies and tarts
Lemon meringue pie
Leek, venson and mushroom pie
Mini cheese and bacon quiches
Cheese and caramelised onion tart
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