Joanna Masters-Maggs, our resident Food Gossip, is back with her monthly column for like-minded food gossips.
This month, Joanna comes clean about the reasons for her dissatisfaction with the world today. Who knew that pastry (that’s pie dough to Americans) could be such a contentious subject?
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You know how it is when you have known someone for a while. Not long, but a while. Things are so pleasant, and positive and fun, you can’t imagine ever getting irritated with them. Then one day, you just are. I’m afraid, my darlings, it is the day of revelation of a certain grumpiness in my personality. A grumpiness that I usually do backbends to hide, but now I feel our relationship demands a little more honesty.
What on earth, you must be asking, could make Sunshine Lady feel less than, well, sunshiney? Well, if you must know (and you know you must) — it’s the sad state of the world’s flaky pastry. We have come to a point in our culinary evolution where we have all but lost respect for the art of pastry making. Supermarket shelves are heaving with the frozen stuff, and ready-made pie-crusts are to be found in abundance. Marie-Antoine Carême, that French master of the art of the Mille Feuille or thousand leaves of pastry, must be turning in his grave like a poorly controlled rotary whisk. That his peaceful rest is being tampered with can only make me feel justified in my fury.
Child’s play (doh)
Flaky pastry is a subject dear to my heart. I first learned the rudiments of the art at the tender age of 12. It was the pinnacle of a year’s pastry training. We began with scones, worked up to shortcrust, then rough puff or cheat’s flaky, and then to flaky. By the age of 15 or 16 we were all capable of producing a three course meal which included bread, a béchamel or similar sauce and pastry from scratch in a space of but 2 ½ hours. Having survived this exam it’s difficult to be impressed by the stresses of Masterchef, or indeed the controlling of flight patterns at Heathrow. I may be exaggerating with the Air Traffic Controller bit, but I stand by my comments on Masterchef. You see, flaky pastry wasn’t even the star of the show, it was just a skill to be demonstrated alongside the rest — in a very short space of time.
Nowadays, I like to make a day of my pastry making. I download some good Radio 4 programmes to listen to. In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg always hits the spot, and I take far longer than 2 ½ hours to make a large batch to use and freeze. I find the rolling, addition of butter, folding and rolling, a therapeutic, meditational and endlessly gratifying process. Best, is that the end, the product, homemade, without additives and addictively light, is without parallel.
I’ll repeat that. Homemade pastry is without equal — and I dare to write that, albeit behind locked shutters, in France.
A pastry protest
A few years ago I cancelled my subscription to BBC Good Food magazine. It was in protest against their increasingly habitual calls for frozen pastry in their recipes. Not “or you can buy some frozen pastry if pushed for time”, but brazenly, “2 sheets of good frozen pastry” as if it was the most reasonable thing in the world. “Good frozen pastry” should be a shocker of an oxymoron to anyone who takes their food even halfway seriously. For heaven’s sake, that their readers bought a magazine with the title “Good Food” suggests not only they have an interest in GOOD Food but that they might be open to the gentle suggestion they make their own pastry? Indeed, BBC, it is possible that they expect to make their own pastry and require a recipe for it?
If I am wrong — and in this mood it’s hard to own the possibility — might I politely suggest the title is renamed BBC OK, But Not Quite Good Enough Food. BBC Good Food is not the only transgressor, of course, but it is the only magazine for which I had a subscription and thus the opportunity to register my grievances.
French frozen pastry — it’s got to be better, right?
I can understand why you would buy pastries from a patissier here in France. A qualified patissier is well-trained and takes a pride in being in the van of pastry production. A patissier’s products are worlds away from frozen products mass-produced in some factory on the outskirts of Dijon. I believe the patissiers of France share my outrage at the frozen product of which I speak. (Surely, surely they must?)
In the spirit of fairness and a desire to appear reasonable, I decided to try a few samples of available frozen pastry here in France. The stuff has taken over in the same depressing way the Nespresso machine has sidelined truly great coffee, and the world seems to be willing to accept mediocre as long as it is reliably so.
I tried to pick out the pure butter pastries or the ones that advertised themselves as Granny’s best, as if I were a BBC Good Food reader searching for two good sheets. I took them home, baked them, carefully labeled them to avoid mix-ups and then herded my four kids into the kitchen for the taste test. I had some misgivings about that last part. They can be annoying at times, but they are my own, and by now, I had read the ingredients on the packets. Despite the promises of “sans additives” and “pur buerre” I was perturbed by some of the contents. What flavourings do you need in a butter pastry other than butter itself ? As for Granny, well — she evidently swapped the butter for palm and sunflower oil, and spent the savings on gin. She certainly wasn’t sober when she made the thick and flabby batch I sampled, which cooked up into an oily mess.
Happily the kids survived, and the general consensus was that the pastry samples were all “OK” — just not very tasty. Generally, the pastries rose into crisp puffs with an empty hollow where 947 leaves would have been expected. But OK, I take the point that not all of us have the time or inclination to spend a day listening to Melvyn in the kitchen, no matter how divine he might be. If that is your case and pastry-making is a bother to you, I think it would be better to whip up a simple bowl of pasta or salad with some nice bread and forget about the quiches and tarts.
Homemade — it really is best.
Mass produced, marketed, and well-travelled frozen flaky pastry doesn’t have a hope in hell of bettering anything made at home. If you are going down the frozen route, just be sure to read the packets carefully. Even some of the pure butter brands slip in various extras and a great deal of salt, if my raging thirst that night was anything to go by.
But stop! Why issue advice on how to buy this stuff? The top advice is to get into the kitchen and discover that most of the hours involved in making this kind of pastry are actually spent waiting for it to chill in the fridge between rollings. An ideal time for a cup of tea or a glass of rose – and you’re still, technically, ‘working’.
It’s a win-win situation.
“If a Bunch of 12 year Old Girls Can Do It, So Can You” Flaky Pastry Recipe
I can’t accept any credit for this recipe. It’s the first I learned. Since then I have tried many other wonderful recipes and many methods of making flaky pastry, but this one is delicious and reliable. The lard gives the pastry the short crispiness which one should demand in a flaky pastry, while the butter gives the flavor. Lard is fat from the stomach of the pig. It is clarified for use in much the same way as ghee is clarified. If you are American, you might well be asking if Crisco is lard. The short answer is “no”. Crisco is vegetable based and lard is an animal fat. Neither should be eaten in vast quantity, but at least lard is natural. Use Crisco if you will, but use lard if you want excellence.
I should have mentioned that if you are worried about the fat content, you are in the wrong place. It’s the fat that gives the flavour and texture. If you are unhappy about it, go and buy a lettuce.
You will need:
- 225 g plain flour pinch of salt
- 80 g lard
- 80 g butter (blend both fats together and chill well)
- Chilled water — about 120 mls
- Dash of lemon juice
Rub a quarter of the fat into the flour and salt. Then slowly add enough chilled water (about 120 mls) with a dash of lemon juice to bring the mixture together into a messy ball. Now roll out into a rectangle shape about the size of a brownie pan. Use a knife to score lines 1/3 and 2/3 down. Use about a ¼ of the remaining butter to “dob” over the top two-thirds. Fold up the bottom layer and down the top layer to form an envelope. Turn the dough around to the vertical and repeat the process twice, but without butter. Wrap in cling film and chill for 10 minutes.
Repeat the process until you have used up the remaining two quarters of fat. Wrap well and chill for at least an hour.
After the first few rollings you will find this pastry very easy to handle. That’s the thing about flaky pastry, despite its reputation — it is very easy-going.
You can use this basic flaky for any recipe that calls for frozen pastry! I love to make beef pies with it, but it is equally useful for sweet recipes.
Once you have mastered it, you can start to explore other methods. This, though, is a good start.. Do try it and, please, never go back to frozen. I hope that my work is done here.
Joanna was displaced from her native England 16 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself and blend into the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”
Images: Joanna’s daughter, Catherine, proving that even 11-year-olds can make flaky pastry