Monday, August 21, 2017

Southern-style puff pastry

Today is all about a wonderful secret: Chinese puff pastry. Why it's a secret I do not know. But few people make it anymore, even bakeries, depending instead upon the convenience of commercially made puff pastry. 

And it's true, you definitely can use frozen puff pastry for many Chinese recipes. It’s all right in a pinch.

But you won’t have something spectacular on your plate as a result. And you want spectacular, right? Right.

People generally think of Vienna or Paris when puff pastry is mentioned, but I’m here to tell you that the two Chinese varieties are every bit their equal. 

Southern-style puff pastry is richer than what is made in the North (think of the shaobing 燒餅 that taste almost oil-free). The southern version is intended for light pastries like Macanese custard tarts or as flaky wrappers for heftier items, like brined yolk pastries (dànhuáng sū 蛋黃酥).

Macanese custard tarts
I will probably show you how to do those brined yolk pastries before long, since a Nanjing friend with a major sweet tooth has been bugging me to make them. I mean, like every time he sees me, it's "I have a great idea for you." 

I was thinking of using date paste instead of red bean in them so that there is a touch of tartness against the sweet and salty. Anyway, if you are interested in this idea, too, please let me know.

Now, you *can* use frozen puff pastry as a substitute for many Chinese puff pastry recipes, and that is what way too many restaurants, dim sum parlors, and bakeries are doing. I understand: it's cheap, it's easy, and most people won't complain. But if you ever get a chance to try old school puff pastry, you will be one of the complainers.
Front: high fat, back: low fat (Steps 1 & 2)

For example, in next week's custard tart recipe, if you go to the minor extra trouble of putting together some homemade pastry, you will taste the difference. These crusts won't be buttery or sweet, but rather layer upon layer of delicately flavored shards that focus all the attention on the filling. They reheat well and turn crisp with the least bit of encouragement. They hold up admirably as cups without being in the least hefty... in fact, I've tried rolling them out as thin as possible, and they still did the job without popping a sweat.

But the real wow factor comes, though, when you bite into a really well-made custard tart and feel the contrasts against your lips, teeth, and tongue. There really is nothing like it, so I find it hard to explain. It's like trying to describe a color. Just try this and you'll see. 

The key to making a successful batch of puff pastry is to roll out this dough without additional flour so that it stays light and flaky. Instead of flour, lightly oil everything (the surface, the rolling pin, your hands), rather than adding the usual dusting of flour, to help the dough resist drying out and cracking. Again, this is harder to explain than to do, and once you've done it, all the fear will dissipate. I have photos to accompany every step, so feel very encouraged to make this. 
Layered pinwheel (from next week's recipe)

I gave my good friend Chiaying a couple of these tarts yesterday. Chiaying is one of the hardest people I know of to please when it comes to food. She is persnickety with a capital P because she is a great cook and because she was raised on incredibly good homemade food. But she took a bite of these tarts and practically swooned. She'd never had such a perfect custard tart, she said, and to me that was the most amazing praise I've ever gotten from her.  

In All Under Heaven, I designed this recipe for individual pastries. But when it comes to Macanese custard tarts, I’ve found that coiling up the dough and then slicing it, so that you roll the dough out into pinwheels (see the photo to the upper right), gives the pieshells a chance to release hot air and not puff up too much. This way, the custard doesn’t spill all over. (I’m really, really, really proud of this discovery. Please cue the Nobel Prize and MacArthur Foundation folks.)

Here are a few more tips for making these pastries fast and hassle-free:
High-fat dough on the low-fat (Step 4)

·      Keep the high-fat dough and any high-fat fillings chilled, especially in hot weather, so that they roll out easier and the short dough won’t squish out of the sides.

·      Cover the dough at all times when you aren’t working with it, as it dries out quickly, especially in dry climates. Breakage leads to squishing.

·      Whole-wheat flour does not work here as well as unbleached refined flour. Although whole-wheat pastries are tasty, the dough dries out quickly and tears easily, so whole wheat is not recommended for either the high- or low-fat dough.


Special southern-style puff pastry for Macanese custard tarts
The first rolled-up carpet (Step 5)
Púshì dàntá de tèzhì yóusūpí  葡式蛋塔的特製油酥皮
Makes a little over 1 pound (500 g) dough

Low-fat dough:
Either 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons (140 g) Chinese flour, or 12 tablespoons (115 g) all purpose plus 5 tablespoons (35 g) pastry flour
1 tablespoon sugar
2½ tablespoons (25 g) white shortening or lard  
¼ cup cool water

High-fat dough:
5 tablespoons (50 g) white shortening or lard  
1½ cups (150 g) unbleached pastry flour  
Neutral vegetable oil (like canola), as needed

Coiled into a snail (Step 6)
1. A food processor makes life considerably easier here, so if you have one, use it for both kinds of dough. If not, use an electric mixer or make it by hand. First make the low-fat dough by mixing together the dry ingredients, then work in the shortening or lard, and lastly add the water to form a soft dough. Work it lightly in the machine or on a board, cover it tightly with plastic wrap, and let it rest for at least 20 minutes.

2. To make the high-fat dough, mix the fat into the flour until it is fully incorporated and you have a soft sand that easily comes together when you press it. Cover it tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.

3. Have a pastry scraper and your oil ready. If the dough starts to feel too sticky or soft at any time during these final steps, chill it for about 20 minutes before proceeding: Roll the low-fat dough out on an oiled, smooth surface into a more or less 12-inch (30 cm) square. 

4. Pat the high-fat dough on top of the low-fat dough, leaving a small border on each side, and then pat the fatty dough out with oiled hands. 
Envelope fold (Step 7)

5. Use your pastry scraper to roll the dough up into a carpet shape. 

6. Then, coil it up like a snail. Keep your hands, rolling pin, and surface oiled throughout this process.

7. Use your fingers and the heels of your hands to flatten the snail into a 10-inch (25 cm) square, and then fold this up like an envelope. (From this point on, as the doughs turn thin, you will see some breakage. Don't worry about it. If the crumbly high-fat filling pops out, scatter it back in. If the low-fat dough tears, just gently push it together. Remember: this is just pastry and nothing to lose sleep over.)

8. Flatten it out once again into a rectangle that is about 12 x 6 inches (30 x 15 cm). 

Final rolled-up carpet (Step 9)
9. Roll this up from the short end into a carpet, wrap in plastic, and chill for at least 20 minutes, or freeze it if you want to bake the pastry later. Just before you cut it, use your fingers and the heels of your hands to gently roll the dough out into a bar about 12 inches (30 cm) long. You now have approximately 7 zillion layers of pastry ready to go.

The rest of this recipe on how to fill and bake these tartlets will be found on next week’s blog post…

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