My time working in kitchens was mostly spent on the dessert section, hence I see myself as a pastry chef. Although none of the other chefs were particularly keen to work this section, I found it a joy. Since I'd never had any formal training, I endeavored to teach myself. One of my first cookbooks was James Martins' Desserts. I quickly realised the need for measurements and patience when it came to baking. This led me to wanting to learn more about the one of the most important components in baking: pastry.
What I have written here is just a bit of what I'd learnt. I had originally included a lot more. Things like how fat coats the protein molecules in flour to prevent the formation of gluten. But I thought that might be a bit too boring. Enjoy...
Pastry was not always used in the way it is today. From medieval times, it was used primarily as a preserving agent, “meat [was] brought to a simmer inside a thick, durable crust would essentially be pasteurised and protected against contamination” (McGee, On Food And Cooking).
The art of pastry was gradually refined over the years to produce 4 different types of pastry: crumbly pastries (this is where short pastry falls into), flaky pastries, laminated pastries and laminated breads, each of which are formed by a varying permutations of flour, water and fat.
Plain flour is most commonly used in pastry making, but wholemeal or self-raising can also be used, resulting in a distinctly different outcome.
As a rule of thumb for short pastry, the less liquid added the better; there are two main reasons for this. Firstly, during cooking the liquid will evaporate causing the pastry to shrink. Secondly, the less liquid added the more crumbly the pastry will be. Vice versa, the more water added the harder the pastry will be. So, there should only be enough to hold it together. Some recipes call for no liquid at all. Either water or milk can be used in pastry making, but it largely depends on the required pastry.
The way in which fat (usually butter) is added to the flour is very important; as with everything else in pastry making, the fat should be as cold as possible, but still workable.
Additional ingredients can include eggs, sugar, spices and herbs, depending on the use of the pastry. Eggs can add an extra richness to a pastry and can also go towards some of the water content of it. Sugar adds sweetness, while spices and herbs can flavour a pastry.
‘Rubbing in’ is the term given to combining the flour and fat. The process can be started by using a knife and finished by using the fingertips to ‘rub in’ the fat. When rubbing in it is useful to do so with a little height so more air can be added and the resulting pastry is lighter.
Remember to keep everything as cold as possible. Some pastry chefs go as far as chilling their equipment before use. 'Relaxing' is part if this chilling process. The pastry is wrapped in clingfilm and refrigerating for at least 15 minutes. This decreases the formation of gluten. If too much gluten develops then the pastry can become too elastic and not keep its shape when rolled, and the cooked pastry can become hard. This is why it is important
When rolling out the pastry, it is important to flour the work surface as lightly as possible so ratio of flour to water and hence the consistency of the pastry is maintained. The pressure that is applied should also be minimal so the gluten has less chance to develop.
Simple Shortcrust Pastry
160g plain flour, sifted (plus extra for dusting)
80g unsalted butter, cubed
Pinch of salt
1 egg, beaten for glazing
1. In a bowl, rub the butter into the flour and salt by using fingertips, until it resembles breadcrumbs.
2. Make a well in the centre and add 1 tablespoon of the water. Gently work your fingers through the mixture, until a dough forms
NB. Be careful not to add too much water, if too much has been added then compensate by adding a little flour.
3. Shape the dough into a ball and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes.
4. Lightly dust a clean work surface with flour and gently roll out the pastry using a rolling pin.
NB. Only roll in one direction, turning the pastry around.
5. To line a tin (for pies, quiches, etc.), roll the the pastry on to the rolling pin then slowly unroll over the tin. Softly press the pastry into the edges.
In order for the pastry base of dish such as a pie to be crisp, blind baking is recommended. When a filling is put on top of a pastry base there is limited heat getting to it. This results in a soggy pastry. Blind baking allows the pastry to start cooking and be crispier.
Preheat oven Gas 6 (200C/400F)
1. Once the dish has been lined with the pastry, use a fork to prick the base all over.
2. Scrumple up a sheet of grease-proof paper. Then unscrumple and line the pastry.
3. Use ceramic beans to weigh the paper down.
NB. Dried beads work just as well.
4. Bake for 10 minutes then remove paper and beans and bake for further 5 minutes.