What's the difference between piecrust, puff pastry and pate brisee?
They are all pastry doughs, mixtures of flour, fat and liquid that are used to make pies or their French equivalent, tarts.
What makes pastry dough different from bread dough is that the latter is supposed to rise, while the former should just lie there. But pastry dough does have a job.
Besides encasing whatever it has been filled with, it also should bake to a crumbly or flaky texture. If you've ever made pastry dough, you'll remember being exhorted by the recipe not to mix the dough too much. Next, you're warned not to add too much water - "just enough so that the dough begins to come together."
The reason is that you don't want the fat to melt or disperse too much into the flour; you want it to stay in distinct little bits so that when the pastry bakes, the fat melts and creates the crumbly texture that distinguishes a good crust.
The dough I just described is what we in America call pie dough, pastry dough, piecrust or short crust. In France this same dough is called pate brisee, which means broken - as in crumbly dough.
Puff pastry is also a mixture of flour, fat and liquid, but the elements are deployed differently: First, you combine those three ingredients well into a smooth, supple dough. Then you roll out the dough into a rectangle, place a smaller rectangle of additional butter in the center of the dough, then fold the dough over the butter. Now you have a layer of butter enclosed by two layers of dough.
After repeating the steps many times, you end up with a thin dough that is made up of many alternating layers of butter and dough. When you bake puff pastry, the moisture in the butter puffs up the layers of dough so the baked product is made of incredibly thin but distinct leaves. It takes an enormous amount of skill to make puff pastry, and that is why nearly every supermarket freezer carries boxes of it.
Erica Marcus writes for Newsday. E-mail your queries to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send them to Erica Marcus, Food/Part 2, Newsday, 235 Pinelawn Road, Melville, NY 11747-4250.