I began my restaurant career at a very elegant French bistro in downtown Louisville, L'Artiste, in the early 80s. When I was hired, they first trained me as a pastry chef.
About the French: Love the food, hate the frogs. I'm a Francophobe from long, long before it became fashionable, from even before I started working for them (and working for the French will make you hate them if anything will). When Carter was President, I was fond of saying that the neutron bomb was made for France (the neutron bomb left buildings intact, you see).
Food aside, French pastry is the most overrated food item on the planet. First, the frogs didn't know anything about making pastry until Marie Antoinette brought her Austrian chefs with her to France — in fact, the Austrians taught the whole continent of Europe to make pastry. But the frogs learned the least, no doubt due to French laziness.
If you go into a pâtisserie, the shelves will be full of variations on three, and only three, themes: génoises filled with various items (and the frogs learned to make génoise from the Italians — hence the name); endless variations on pâte à choux filled with crème pâtisserie or crème au beurre (éclairs, réligieuses, etc.) which all taste the same, but look different; and endless variations of pâte feuilletée (puff pastry), again filled with crème pâtisserie or crème au beurre (napoleons). The frogs have no imagination when it comes to pastry; they have three little tricks, which they do over and over again, changing the shape and hoping that fools you into being impressed with their artistry.
Oh, four tricks. I forgot the boring French tarts.
The Danes, on the other hand, learned more from the Austrian chefs. What we call Danish pastry, the Danes call Viennese pastry (wienerbrød). The Danes produce a far larger variety of pastries than do the frogs, though it is less sweet than most Americans are used to. But even the Danes cannot compare to the Austrians (and Hungarians) for great pastries — who in turn learned much of what they knew from the Turks. It's no accident that you see phyllo dough used so frequently in Austrian pastries, you know.
The king of pastry, however, is pâte feuilletée, or puff pastry. The frozen pastry is passable, but it doesn't have that buttery flavor homemade does — and it really isn't that hard to make. I always make my own. Similar is so-called Danish pastry. Make your own, and you won't go back to frozen ever again (and it's really not difficult).
Pâte Feuilletée (Puff Pastry) — makes 2 lbs. 12 oz.
Puff pastry contains no yeast. Butter is encased in the dough, and then it is rolled and folded repeatedly, forming many layers of butter in between dough. As it bakes, the butter melts and evaporates, pushing up the dough into many layers. If you make this correctly, the pastry will rise quite high.
1 lb. 2 oz. cold unsalted butter
4 1/2 oz. all-purpose flour
2 t. salt
1 c. cold water
2 oz. unsalted butter, melted
1 t. lemon juice
14 1/2 oz. pastry flour, or 1/2 cake and 1/2 all-purpose flour
Trick number one is to work the butter and flour together to the right consistency: Too warm, and it will not layer well, and too cold, and it will break through the pastry. Let the butter sit out to soften a bit and work the flour in with a pastry knife. Shape into a 6-inch square, and refrigerate.
Now make the dough. Sift the flours together, then cut the butter into the flour (not the butter block!) until it resembles coarse meal. Make a well in the center, add the salt and most of the cold water. Mix the flour into the water using your fingers. Add more water if you need to to make a dough that holds together, but is still rough and sticky. Form the dough into a ball, handling it as little as possible. Flatten the ball, cut a deep cross from side to side in the top, cover, and let rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Take the butter block out of the refrigerator 20 minutes before you do the next step.
Now for the fun part. Open the ball of dough into a square by pulling open the cross you cut in the top then roll it until it is slightly larger than the butter block. Place the butter block, which should be firm, but not rock hard, diagonally on top of the dough (corner to side). Pick up the corners of the dough and fold them over the butter block, pinching the dough together to seal the butter inside the dough.
You are now going to do FIVE single turns. Each time you make a turn, you increase the number of butter-dough layers. If you do this too much, the layers will be too thin to puff up. If you don't do it enough, the layers will be too thick. FIVE turns, and ONLY FIVE turns.
Also, if you don't refrigerate the dough between turns, the butter will get too warm and instead of remaining in its own layer will mix into the dough. If it's too cold, it will tear through the dough. So follow the instructions.
At L'Artiste, we used a French pin especially designed for puff pastry, which I have never seen here. It had grooves cut along the length all the way around, and the grooves helped avoid squishing the butter all the way to the ends. When you roll for the turns, first gently press the pin along the length, creating little depressions. This will help keep you from rolling the butter to the ends of the dough (that, and refrigerating it sufficiently between turns).
Roll into a rectangle 15×9 inches. Fold the left third over the center, then fold the right third over the center, forming a rectangle, and brushing off any excess flour from the dough as you fold. Refrigerate for 20 minutes. Roll into a rectangle 15×9 inches and again, fold into thirds and refrigerate 20 minutes. Do this FIVE (and ONLY five) times, and again refrigerate for 20-30 minutes before you roll it out and use it.