I am not a big believer in “convenience foods”. My Mother frequently said to us “Quid Agas Agis Bene.” In case your Latin isn’t what it used to be, that translates as, essentially, “whatever is worth doing is worth doing well.” So, I am perfectly happy to spend hours making cakes, doughs, kimchi, smoked salt, and butters etc. from scratch. But I do understand that many folks not only do not have that kind of time, but may not even have the interest.
That said, I have finally discovered a convenience food that, I believe, is not only worth the hype, but may allow people to try things they might not otherwise be willing to attempt.
To make puff pastry from scratch is either a labor of love or a sign of madness, depending on who you are. It is a multiple hours long process that includes making a dough, softening butter just enough to shape into a square, chilling the butter square—again, just enough—rolling out the dough so it’s large enough to fold around the butter, and then rolling the whole package to a very precise size. You then have to accomplish a series of “turns” which consist of folding in overlapping thirds… which is usually referred to as being “like a business letter.” Does anyone under 50 have any idea what that means? Between most turns, you chill the dough in the fridge. And remember, you still haven’t baked it! Are you beginning to see why I feel this may be too daunting for most folks?
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But frozen puff pastry! Now there’s a convenience food that’s perfectly useful for all cooks of all skill and commitment levels.
There are a few requirements, though. First and foremost, you must buy all-butter pastry. Why? Taste,taste,taste. Yes, the other stuff is cheaper but it simply does not taste as good. I have always had great luck with Dufour, and it’s around $10. Each brand will have specific instructions on how and how long to thaw the frozen puff pastry dough sheets. One of the cardinal rules with puff pastry, whether homemade or store bought, is to keep it cold and bake it hot. That way, the butter layers remain distinct until it hits the hot oven. And then the liquid in the butter turns to steam, which expands—et voila, tall layers of crisp, delicate, golden pastry. And all you have to do is cut it and bake it!
As a child of the 50s and 60s, I remember a very fancy “company” dish called Chicken a la King, served in puff pastry shells. I realize very few people are going to serve Chicken a la King. But, there is no need to be held hostage by one retro dish. Make small shells as a holder for any great spicy filling as an hors d’oeuvres. That’ll get your guests talking. Make a vegetable tart. Make a tomato tart to show off the last of the season tomatoes. Cut the pastry in strips and cover with Parmigiano for the best and most elegant cheese straws anyone has ever tasted. Or seen, for that matter.
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Bake rectangles and sandwich them with whatever you want, sweet or savory, and watch your guests swoon over Napoleons that look like they came from a French patisserie. I frequently make an arguably silly, high-end chicken pot pie that is essentially a delicious chicken stew topped with shatteringly crisp squares or circles of separately cooked puff pastry. And an elegant soup has never looked more elegant than when topped with tiny puff pastry “croutons.”
This is really a case of a convenience food that allows your imagination to run wild. Any filling that’s not too wet can be enclosed in the pastry. And so you can have something as elegant as mini beef wellingtons or as weeknight as pizza bites. Flatbreads, topped as you wish. Tiny or gigantic elephant ear cookies. Or make those cookies savory with prosciutto and cheese.
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The point is, too often, convenience foods seem to be a not too tasty end in themselves. But frozen puff pastry swings the oven doors wide open, and allows you to make things you would never have thought of. Have fun with this. Experiment. Up your game without the time commitment that making just one of the ingredients, puff pastry, would have entailed.
I hate to say this, but your parents were wrong. And this is the perfect example. I WANT you to play with your food!