Pies, tarts, puff pastry, oh my!

Stainless steel counters and fluorescent overhead lighting don't make for pretty pictures. But that's okay since my hands were covered in flour for most of the day. Today we learned the art of dough making with acclaimed pastry chef Jim Dodge. The recipes included tart dough, flaky pie dough, and the most complex of them all—puff pastry.

Nowadays, most home cooks don't go through the trouble of making their own puff pastry. It's easy to buy good quality dough in the freezer aisle. But understanding how the laminated dough is made is crucial to learning the science behind what makes those trademark flakey layers.

The process involves first making a strong stretchy dough from flour, water, salt and a little butter. It is kneaded until smooth and then left to rest in the refrigerator for about an hour. When the hour is almost up, an entire pound of Plugra butter is pounded with a mallet until pliable and combined with a bit of flour to make the "butter pack". This then chills out in the refrigerator while the first dough is rolled out into a perfect rectangle. It's important to keep the dough from sticking to the surface while rolling. As chef said, "when it doesn't stick to the counter, it reveals its true shape." Chef Jim showed us how to flour the counter as if we were throwing dice, grabbing small fistfuls and tossing to create even distribution. The butter pack is then rolled out to a shape that equals about 2/3 the size of the dough rectangle (minus a 1" border). And from then on, a series of folds and tucks creates a package of dough-encased butter. We rolled, folded into thirds, chilled, and repeated until we had completed a total of 3 cycles.

In the end, butter is sandwiched between many folds of elastic dough. We will find out first hand tomorrow, but chef assured us that when baked, the butter will melt and give off steam. This raises the dough and creates voids between layers of crisp and tender pastry. It's not an easy project, but with patience it's certainly doable.

Puff pastry - encasing the butter pack.

Puff pastry - encasing the butter pack.

Easier projects included the tart dough (done entirely in a cuisinart-like machine called a Robocoupe) and flakey piecrust. I've made a few pies in my day, but I have never seen the mixing technique that chef demonstrated. Instead of cutting butter into flour with a fork or pastry blender, the cubes are gently coated then dumped in a pile on the counter. Distinctly separate butter and flour is blended with a large heavy rolling pin. The goal is to flatten and stretch the butter pieces into long strips. Like a rustic puff pastry, it is those layers of fat and flour that will transform the dough into delectably flaky crust.

There were more tips and techniques that were peppered throughout our busy day of dough making. Chef Jim zipped back and forth between workstations to rescue misshapen rectangles, correct students' rolling techniques, and test the elasticity of dough. One tip I'll never forget is the method of creating an overhang on tart crust. Have you ever blind-baked tart dough only to retrieve it from the oven as a shrunken, sunken mess? Well, gently pressing the dough up and over the edge of the tart pan creates a little hook that will prevent this from happening.

Chef Jim's tips and techniques will be put to the test tomorrow when we transform our various dough into classic apple pie, lemon and white chocolate tart, and napoleons. I must also mention how glad I was to see the absence of Crisco (yuck-processed!) from chef Jim's piecrust recipes. As he said in the morning lecture, "you can make a flaky piecrust with all butter, it just takes more skill and knowledge".