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Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

Puff Pastry

Puff Pastry Graces a Ham Pie

Puff pastry is that light, multilayered, buttery dough that rises impressively when it is baked and causes your guests to say "Oooooh!" It can be used as a pie dough, baked as a shell for sweet fillings such as ice cream or strawberries and whipped cream, or stuffed with lobster or chicken salad for an elegant lunch. Or it can simply be rolled and twisted into shapes such as twigs or pinwheels, sprinkled with a bit of sugar and cinnamon, and baked for a hand-held treat. In other words, puff pastry can be used in any number of ways to enhance both savory and sweet dishes.

Despite their deceptively plain recipe titles, Catharine Beecher's 1846 "Pastes Made with Butter" and "Directions for Making Paste" combine to offer both a great basic puff pastry recipe and an equally terrific technique for an easy way to make this impressive dough.

Here's a summary of the basic procedure, along with the ingredients and quantities needed to make one good-sized sheet of dough (enough for a single 9-inch pie crust): First make the foundation dough from Beecher's "Pastes Made with Butter" by using 1 stick of butter crumbled into pea-sized pieces in 2 cups of flour; moisten with ¼ cup or so of ice water and press into a ragged ball. Then following her "Directions for Making Paste," cut up the remaining butter (3 sticks) into ½-inch pieces, form them into rectangles (about 10 inches by 16 inches) on a floured board, dredge them lightly with flour, and roll them into thin sheets. Next roll out the foundation dough into a rectangle about 12 inches by 18 inches. Put a sheet of butter on the dough, dredge it lightly with flour, fold the dough in thirds like a letter, give it a 90˚ turn, and roll it out again. Then repeat the process until all the butter sheets are used up. It's that easy.

For those who prefer more detailed instructions, what follows is the process given step by step. But the preceding recipe snapshot illustrates that puff paste, made according to Catharine Beecher's method, is (almost) a cinch. Beecher's original recipes, along with comments by us, can be found in Northern Hospitality (page 252).

Here's what we did to make one sheet of puff pastry (enough for a single 9-inch pie crust).

The ingredients:
1 stick (4 oz.) butter, chilled, plus 3 sticks (12 oz.) butter, chilled
2 cups flour plus 1 cup flour
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup ice water

The equipment:
1 rolling pin
1 large flat surface for rolling
1 mixing bowl plus two knives or a pastry blender, or a food processor with a multipurpose blade, or a standing mixer with a paddle attachment
2 sheets of plastic wrap (each about 18 inches long)

The steps:
Slice 1 stick of butter into pieces about 1 inch thick.

Measure the 2 cups flour into a bowl or the bowl of a food processor or standing mixer. Add the salt. (Catharine Beecher doesn't call for salt in her recipe, but because we used unsalted butter we added a little salt at this stage. If you use salted butter, omit this additional salt.)

Toss the butter with the flour until the butter is completely coated.

Cut the butter into the flour until the pieces are about the size of peas. You can accomplish this in a number of ways—by hand using two knives in a scissors motion or using a pastry blender, by pulsing the butter and flour in a food processor, or by mixing the ingredients together briefly in a standing mixer.

Slowly pour ¼ cup of the ice water into the flour mixture and gently work the dough with your hands (or mix the dough briefly with your machine), just until it comes together in a ball.

If the dough doesn't come together quickly, drizzle in a bit more water. Stop adding water as soon as the ball forms. You don't want wet dough, and you don't want overworked (and therefore tough) dough. (It's better if you've got ragged bits coming out of your ball--you can tuck them in later--than if you've got a smooth but overhandled ball.)

Once formed, place the ball of dough on a piece of plastic wrap, cover it, and chill it for 30 minutes. This allows the dough to rest—and chill out. After resting and chilling, the dough will be just the right firmness to take the added butter in the next steps. You can skip this step if you're in a hurry (Catharine Beecher omits it), but it will be easier to work with your dough if you take the time to let it rest and chill.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Lightly dredge your board with some of the 1 cup of flour and roll out the dough into a rectangle approximately 12 inches by 18 inches and about ¼-inch thick. The length and width don't have to be exact, but you should aim for a rectangular shape so that the butter sheets can easily fit on top. Set the rolled dough aside.

Cut the remaining ¾ lb. of cold butter into roughly ½-inch pieces. Dredge your board well with some of the remaining flour. Place pieces of butter on the board, enough to form a rectangle slightly smaller than your dough (about 10 inches by 16 inches). Spread a bit of flour on your rolling pin, and lightly dredge the top of the butter rectangle with flour. Now roll it into a thin sheet, trying to retain the shape of a rectangle as much as possible. Sprinkle on a bit more flour if the sheet sticks to your rolling pin. If the butter is too soft to roll out, chill it for 5 or 10 minutes and try again.

Once you have one butter sheet rolled out, place it on top of the rolled dough, fold it in thirds like a letter, turn the dough 90˚ and roll it out, again forming a rectangle. Continue with rolling in the butter sheets, placing them on top of the dough, folding the dough in thirds, turning 90˚, and rolling, until all the butter is used up. Work as quickly as possible so that the buttery dough remains cold. If any of the components gets warm, you can place them in the refrigerator for a few minutes to re-chill. After the last sheet of butter is rolled in, fold your dough again into thirds, cover it with the second sheet of plastic wrap, and place it in the refrigerator to rest for another 30 minutes of so.

That's it! Take out your dough, and get to work making pie crusts, tart shells, pastry twists, or whatever shape or purpose takes your fancy. And a tip for using the inevitable leftover bits: After you've cut your dough, you can gather the scraps together, roll them out one more time, sprinkle the circle of pastry with sugar and cinnamon, cut it into strips, and bake it on an ungreased baking sheet in a preheated 375˚ F. oven for about 15 minutes, or until the pastry begins to brown and the sugar melts. Remove and cool the pastry on a wire rack. Now serve these scrumptious cinnamon strips to your admiring family!

Makes a single 9-inch pie crust.

Note: Beecher's technique of making sheets of butter to place on the dough simplifies the most difficult part of making puff pastry--the sometimes messy step of getting all that extra butter (¾ lb. in this case) into a fairly small foundation dough. And while the butter sheets are being rolled in, the dough is getting its necessary, layer-forming series of turnings and rollings. Although there are many fine modern instructions to be found for making puff pastry, Catharine Beecher's 1846 "Directions," combined with her "Paste Made with Butter," tops our list.

The original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 252.  Read More 
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Cod Chowder with a Puff Pastry Crust

To Make Chouder, A Sea-Dish

"Chouder, a Sea-Dish" is an elegant fish stew made with cod, oysters, mushrooms, wine, spices, and herbs. As if that weren't enough, it's topped with a puff paste crust. First published in 1758 by Hannah Glasse, this opulent dish is one of the earliest chowders in print. You can find the original recipe, and a few remarks about it by us, in Northern Hospitality (page 125). What follows is how we made it by pretty much following Hannah Glasse's instructions and ingredients list, but baking it in a modern oven.

We cooked ours using

The ingredients:
1½ lbs. fresh pork belly
2 lbs. cod fillets
½ cup flour
½ teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons dried sweet herbs (rosemary, thyme, marjoram, basil, oregano)
4-6 large common crackers (about 4 oz.)
2 yellow onions
1¼ cups water
1 9-inch puff paste crust, either homemade (see our next blog post) or store-bought and thawed
1 package (10 oz.) Baby Bella mushrooms
2 tablespoons butter
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ cup plus 1 cup Madeira
8 fresh oysters

To bake the chowder, we used a 5 quart, enameled cast iron stewpot with a cover. Any heavy, lidded pot will do—Dutch oven, French oven, or casserole.

In our local markets, we couldn't find the pickled pork belly called for by Glasse, so we substituted fresh pork belly. It worked fine.

The steps:
Preheat the oven to 300° F.

Cut the pork belly from the rind, then chop the pieces into ½-inch chunks, separating out the fattier bits. As Glasse advises, toss the fattiest pieces on the bottom of the stewpot so that when it's heated the fat will melt and coat the bottom of the pot.

Set aside the remaining pork belly pieces for layering with the cod, crackers, onion, and dried herbs.

Slice the onions about ¼ inch thick.

Break up the crackers into roughly 2-inch pieces. (Any bland, not overly salty or overly sweet cracker will do.)

Add the allspice, sea salt, and black pepper to the flour and mix lightly.

Cut the cod fillets into roughly 2-inch chunks. Dredge with the flour mixture.

As Glasse recommends, start layering with the the onion slices first. Then add the herbs, pieces of cod, bits of pork belly, and broken-up crackers. Repeat the layers until all the ingredients are used up, or until you reach a few inches from the top of the stewpot. Don't overfill the stewpot. Otherwise, when cooking, the bubbling mixture might spill out. Plus, you still need room to top the chowder with the puff paste.

Glasse says to pour in the water after the puff paste covers the pot. We found it easier to pour the water in at this point in the recipe, before putting on the puff paste. That way, we didn't have to cut a large slit in the paste to pour it in. But of course you can do it in the order Glasse describes if you're so inclined.

Carefully cover the chowder with the puff paste, crimping the edges of the paste to fit the shape of the stewpot. Put the paste directy over the chowder—don't lap it over the edges of the pot as you would with pie dough over a pie plate. You want to be able to remove it after it bakes.

Cut several slits in the center of the paste to allow steam to escape.

Our take on Glasse's instructions to "lute down the Cover of the Kettle" (seal it) was simply to put the cast iron lid on over the stewpot. With the puff paste already in place, this forms a sufficiently tight double seal for the chowder. In Glasse's day, covers often didn't fit as securely on pot bottoms as they do now--thus the need for "luting." Plus, Glasse was baking her chowder over a hearth fire, with hot embers placed on the lid, so she needed to be sure nothing untoward fell into the chowder!

Bake at 300° F. for 2 hours.

After the chowder has baked for about 1½ hours, you can begin to make the mushroom mixture that goes into the final dish.

Start by slicing or roughly chopping the mushrooms. We used Baby Bellas, but white mushrooms would work well too. Glasse recommends a fancy type of red mushroom called morels. We looked for them locally without luck. We found them online—at $100 a pound. Certainly use them—and truffles too—if your budget allows!

Shuck the oysters and set them and their liquor aside in a bowl. If you don't want to—or can't—find fresh oysters (or you don't want to shuck them), leave the oysters out of the recipe altogether. Don't substitute canned oysters. Less is more in this instance!

Sauté the mushrooms in the butter until they begin to soften. Add the cayenne pepper.

Add to the mushrooms the ¼ cup of Madeira (or other good-quality sherry if you can't find Madeira), and cook a bit longer, stirring often, until the mushrooms release some steam. When the mushrooms are cooked down and soft but not mushy, set the pan aside.

After baking the chowder for about two hours, increase the oven temperature to 400° F., remove the the lid, and bake for an additional 15-20 minutes, or until the puff paste turns a golden brown.

When the paste is golden brown and looking delicious, remove the stewpot from the oven and let it cool on a wire rack for 5-10 minutes.

Next, run a knife around the edges of the paste to separate it from the sides of the stewpot and carefully remove it in one piece, if you can. But don't despair if the paste breaks; you can reassemble it later. Or you can serve individual portions of chowder with pieces of puff paste on top. Once it's removed from the chowder, set the paste aside on a dish or platter.

Transfer the chowder (sans the paste) from the stewpot to a serving dish.

Add the oysters and their liquor to the mushrooms, return to a low heat, and stir to blend. Do not bring to a boil! Overcooked oysters become hard and rubbery, and make one regret the time and money spent on them.

Heat the remaining 1 cup of Madeira in a small saucepan until steaming hot but not boiling and add it to the mushroom mixture.

Pour the mushroom mixture into the chowder, mix lightly, and place the paste on top.

Voilà! You're ready to serve up some 1758 Chouder, A Sea-Dish.

6 servings.

Note: We think that this eighteenth-century chowder is well worth the bother to make it. There are a number of steps to follow, but none of them is complicated. (Except perhaps for the puff paste. But that can also be purchased ready-made. To go all out and make your own, see our next blog post.) There's a bonus to this recipe: Making it will give you practice in shucking oysters, always a useful skill!

The original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 125.  Read More 
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