Flaky IDEAS Complex Napoleons and other well-stacked pastries

January 27, 1993|By Charles Britton | Charles Britton,Copley News Service

Greater love hath no cook . . . than making puff pastry for his heart's desire. It's among the most arduous of kitchen jobs, right up there with peeling chestnuts and filling and sealing your own ravioli.

And making this flaky pastry from scratch ranks as a tricky operation, too, for chances are that the stuff won't come out right the first time. Or the second. Successful practitioners of puff pastry are made, not born.

Fortunately, crass commerce has provided a shortcut to this culinary accomplishment. Instead of learning to make your own puff pastry, you can buy it frozen, ready to defrost and trim into whatever shape you have chosen for baking. The product can be found in the freezer cases of better-stocked supermarkets.

Is it just as good as the product of an experienced pastry cook? Probably not, but it is so much easier to use that it displaces most of the homemade versions, just as the widespread availability of fresh pasta has pretty much depleted the ranks of those who roll their own.

To give you an idea of what you're missing by using the store-bought item, making puff pastry is a process of interleaving paper-thin layers of dough with butter. When you bake it, the pastry rises and separates into flakes, thus the alternative name of "flaky pastry" or, in French, pate feuillete.

It shouldn't be confused with the cooked dough leavened with egg yolks, actually a very thick sauce, used to make cream puffs and the like. For true puff pastry, you begin with a dough made of flour, butter and water. This is called the detrempe, and don't ++ you forget it.

This then is wrapped around a square of butter that you have worked into the right consistency, not too hard and not too soft. There follows an exacting series of rolls and folds, interrupted by rest periods for the dough to relax so you can roll and fold it some more.

Do this right and you end up with pastry that rises impressively and separates into 172 layers -- not 171, mind you, but 172.

Do it wrong and you will have a lopsided object with melted butter leaking from it.

No wonder all but the most dedicated do-it-yourselfers resort to the freezer case. For those of us who have decided to take the easy way out, here are some recipes for puff pastry.

Laborious to prepare (at least from scratch), delicate yet sumptuous on the plate, any of these dishes would do well for a dinner, or any meal where you want an air of romantic extravagance.

Frozen puff pastry defrosts in about 30 minutes. Then all you need do is roll it out according to specifications of the given recipe. For best results, line your baking surface with parchment paper, available in cookware stores.

The most famous of all dishes made with puff pastry is the Napoleon. The same dessert is popular in France, where no such lese majeste is permitted; there, it is known as a Mille Feuille (Thousand Layers).

Napoleons

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

1 sheet puff pastry, defrosted (roughly 10 inches on a side)

pastry cream (recipe follows)

powdered sugar for dusting

1 cup cream, stiffly whipped, flavored to taste with sugar and vanilla (optional)

strawberries or other fresh fruit, cut up as needed (optional)

Heat to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line baking sheet with parchment.

On lightly floured surface, roll out sheet of puff pastry to 1/8 -inch thick, about 12 inches square. Brush off excess flour. Carefully transfer pastry to lined cookie sheet.

EPrick all over at close intervals with a fork. Bake 15 minutes, until puffed and golden brown. Cool on rack.

When cold, pastry may be kept, carefully wrapped, for a day, but it is at its best when fresh.

The desserts may be assembled an hour or two before eating, but the less time they stand, the better. To assemble, cut pastry into thirds along its longest direction. Place layer on serving dish, then cover with layer of pastry cream, not too thick. Proceed in this way, ending with layer of pastry. In bakeries, Napoleons usually are made with a sugar icing; this seems too sweet to me, and I think a dusting of powdered sugar is enough.

To serve, use serrated knife and gentle sawing motion to cut into servings about 1 1/2 inches wide. Garnish with whipped cream if you wish.

Although Napoleons may be eaten as they are, they are excellent with a garnish of fresh fruit, such as strawberries.

Variations:

* Substitute whipped cream for pastry cream layer. Before adding cream, lightly brush each pastry layer with fruit preserves; apricot or raspberry would be classic.

* Fruit such as strawberries or raspberries may be placed between layers along with cream; in this case, serve immediately or the pastry will become soggy.

* Serve the Napoleons with a puree as a sauce: in food processor, process soft fruit such as strawberries with sugar to taste until pureed. A touch of liqueur, such as kirsch, may be added.

Pastry cream Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

6 egg yolks

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup flour

2 cups milk, heated almost to the boiling point

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon vanilla

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