PUFF THE MAGIC PASTRY? A VERY DARING CHALLENGE
I once worked as a Culinary Guide and Interpreter, colleague and assistant to the late great Robert Noah of Paris en Cuisine. For 4 extraordinary years, I accompanied small groups of clients, no more than 2 to 6, to the top Michelin-starred restaurants, the crème de la crème of pastry shops, fromagers-affineurs (cheese sellers/ripeners), chocolatiers, bakeries, caves (wine shops/cellars), introduced them to chefs, bakers, sommeliers, etc, translated during cooking demonstrations and private classes and tastings, shared the history behind the most famous and illustrious Parisian dining spots and chefs, walked them through kitchens and down into underground food havens, chatted with bakers as they stoked their ovens and rolled out pastry or shaped baguettes, shivered as cheesemongers explained the ripening process and sliced off slivers of cheese for our tasting pleasure, talked with and questioned everyone from top chefs down to dishwashers in some of Paris’ best restaurants, helped clients choose handmade chocolates, popped corks, sipped wines and champagnes and related how one pairs which cheese with what wine and in what order they should be eaten, déguster.
I was also handed over the duty of interpreter for the Anglophone section of the Parisian professional cooking school Ecole Grégoire Ferrandi, which had been created a few years earlier by my boss. Wine classes, sausage-making classes, bread baking and fish/seafood instruction fell into my lap and were a joy to follow. The teachers were all passionate, exuberantly passing on their knowledge along with all kinds of interesting tidbits to the students. It was truly an exciting time for me, spending almost 4 years working in such an environment as I soaked up knowledge and experience. I must admit that it was a fun challenge for me in many ways; not only was I learning so much about French cuisine and wine, as well as scrambling to learn not only the French cooking vocabulary AND learning French tout court, but each and every chef, men all, and so very French, had, at first, an extremely hard time accepting me into their world. I was not only a woman – and at that time it was still rare to find a woman in the kitchen of any French cooking school or restaurant – but I was American as well. Can une américaine really know anything about French gastrononomy? Luckily I earned both their acceptance and their respect well before I showed up heavily pregnant with my second son after summer vacation. Now that was a doozy!
The absolutely best time I had was pastry class. Every Monday I stood and worked alongside Chef B (as he shall be referred to here), Pastry Chef at Ecole Ferrandi. 6 hours once a week for 4 years I watched and interpreted, asked questions for the students and translated the answers along with the instructions and learned pastry making (by osmosis!). It was both inspirational and invigorating, students and chefs alike lined up military-style in their chef whites, toques and clogs, the passion and energy oozing from every pore in their bodies. The atmosphere was electric as they rushed around the kitchen in their student quest to master the fine art of pastry making. Chef B was great fun to work with. Demanding and exacting, he was, nonetheless, extremely kind and fairly patient, he never yelled or threw dishtowels across the work space as I often saw other chefs do, never getting hysterical if someone put a wooden rolling pin under running water or wiped a wet towel across the marble work surface just before smearing melted chocolate, as I had seen the other pastry chef do. Once he found out that I was pregnant, he always made sure there was a stool for me to perch on and was constantly running over to me and pouring a handful of chocolate nibs into my cupped hands, offering me slices of whatever was being made in class that day and watching over me as we joined the other chefs for lunch everyday, making sure that I wasn’t eating something that could possibly make me ill.
And every week during those glorious 6 hours of class I watched egg whites being whipped to perfection, dough being rolled out just so, molds lined and sugar spun. Even though I didn’t get the hands on experience, I saw the same recipes, watched the same maneuvers over and over again, watching as crêpes were flipped, creams were cooked, thickened and cooled, batters piped out and glazes made. Some of the recipes I made at home, but some I have yet to try even though I feel like I have already made them a hundred times. Puff pastry is one. How many times have I watched Chef B whack a block of butter flat, fold it up envelope-style into the prepared dough, roll, fold, turn, roll, fold, turn? I close my eyes and I’m reliving it again and again. Yet I have yet to make puff pastry at home.
Last month I finally scrounged together the courage to join The Daring Bakers, that amazing group of food bloggers from every corner of the world who get together once a month and bake. Gently teased and pushed on all sides by my food blogging friends, I joined and, lo and behold, the first challenge is puff pastry. Vols-au-vent to be exact: puff pastry formed into “cups”, baked until they are puffed up, light as air and flaky good, and filled with whatever one chooses, either savory or sweet.
As my friends and blog followers (friends one and all!) know, I flew to the States just after the recipe was announced and couldn’t take part in this challenge until I returned to France. I could, in theory, just skip this first challenge, but I have so been waiting for an opportunity to try my hand at this magical creation that I have decided to go ahead with this before heading into the October event. May the Daring Bakers gods and goddesses forgive me for this head-butting of the rules, but puff pastry and Vols-au-Vent I must make. I hope they understand the reason behind my lateness.
And thank you, Chef B, for teaching me everything you know. I feel you watching over me, I hear you whispering instruction and encouragement in my ear as I measure, whack, fold and roll. And sorry if occasionally I run my wooden rolling pin under running water.
The September 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon. She chose the French treat Vols-au-Vent based on the Puff Pastry recipe by Michel Richard from the cookbook Baking With Julia by Dorie Greenspan.
Lisa of La Mia Cucina and Ivonne of Cream Puffs in Venice, the fun and talented creators of The Daring Kitchen, commented on this challenge ... 'The September 2009 Daring Bakers' Challenge has been chosen by Steph of a whisk and a spoon. Steph chose Vols-au-Vent, which we are pretty sure in French means, “After one bite we could die and go to heaven!” Actually, Vol-au-Vent literally means “Flight in the Wind” and refers to the light-as-air quality of this delicate pastry. It's inventor Carême said it should "be so light it flies out of the oven as soon as the door is opened." Break apart a perfectly baked croissant from the finest French bakery and you’ll understand.
I first had a Vol-au-Vent, actually a Bouchée à la Reine (a Queen’s Mouthful) at my then-future in-laws so many years ago. According to gastronomic legend, these “Mouthfuls” or small Vols-au-Vent were named after Queen Marie Leszczynska, wife of Louis XV, who came up with the idea of serving an individual vol-au-vent. A Bouchée à la Reine is traditionally a single-serving puff pastry case or cup filled with a salpicon, anything, whether chicken or seafood or vegetable, cut up into tiny pieces all in a rich cream sauce. I fell in love with them from the first, well, mouthful.
I have always been afraid of Puff Pastry, it is so light and airy, so divinely flaky and crisp, the most perfect little pastry around for either savory or sweet delights, it seemed so complicated to make. Yet when I finally made it, maybe thanks to my time spent watching Chef B, I discovered that it is such a snap to make, very easy and not even time consuming considering most of the time it is resting in the refrigerator. Cutting it out into the round Vol-au-Vent shapes was delicate work, but all it takes is a bit of patience. I think I’ll be making puff pastry on a regular basis now.
I made one savory filling and one sweet for my Vols-au-Vent which I served for dinner. For the savory, I went with a filling that reminded me of that first Bouchée I ever had, but with an American twist: poached chicken and vegetables in a roux-based cream sauce, very like what I make for that All-American favorite, Chicken and Biscuits, although in smaller quantities and without the peas. For the sweet filling, I simply piled the casing high with fresh raspberries and chocolate whipped cream. Divine. And fit for a Queen!
PUFF PASTRY or PÂTE FEUILLETÉE
Yield: 2 ½ pounds (1 kilo) dough
-about 4-5 hours to prepare the puff pastry dough (much of this time is inactive, while you wait for the dough to chill between turns…it can be stretched out over an even longer period of time if that better suits your schedule)
-about 1.5 hours to shape, chill and bake the vols-au-vent after your puff pastry dough is complete
2-1/2 cups (12.2 oz/ 354 g) unbleached all-purpose flour (type 55)
1-1/4 cups (5.0 oz/ 142 g) cake flour (regular French flour)
1 tbsp. salt (you can cut this by half for a less salty dough or for sweet preparations)
1-1/4 cups (10 fl oz/ 300 ml) ice water
1 pound (16 oz/ 454 g) very cold unsalted butter
The détrempe or the basic dough can easily be made in a food processor, but I did this by hand in a snap.
Blend the 2 flours and the salt in a large mixing bowl. Add the chilled water all at once and stir until all of the dry ingredients are moistened and the dough starts to pull together. Scrape out onto a well-floured work surface and knead for just a few minutes until the dough is smooth and pliable.
Form the dough into a ball and, with a small sharp knife, slash the top in a tic-tac-toe pattern. Wrap the dough in a damp towel and refrigerate for about 5 minutes.
Incorporating the Butter:
Place the butter between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and beat it with a rolling pin until it flattens into a square that's about 1" thick. Take care that the butter remains cool and firm: if it has softened or becomes oily, chill it before continuing.
Remove the dough from the fridge. Working on a well-floured surface, roll out the dough into an approximately 10” square. Keep the top and bottom of the dough well floured to prevent sticking and lift the dough and move it around frequently. Starting from the center of the square, roll out over each corner to create a thick center pad with "ears," or flaps. Place the cold butter in the middle of the dough and fold the ears over the butter, stretching them as needed so that they overlap slightly and encase the butter completely. (If you have to stretch the dough, stretch it from all over; don't just pull the ends) you should now have a package that is 8" square. Make sure it stays cool at all times; if need be just pop the whole thing in the fridge regularly for a few minutes until it firms up again.
Making the Turns:
Gently but firmly press the rolling pin against the top and bottom edges of the square “package” thus ensuring the dough stays square. Keeping the work surface and the top of the dough well floured, roll the dough into a rectangle, perpendicular to your body, 3 times as long as wide (24” long, the width may vary between 8” and 9” but don’t worry).
Brush off all excess flour from the dough and fold the bottom of the dough up (mark off 8” down from the top and align the edge of the folded dough to this). Again brush off excess flour from the folded up portion and bring down the top remaining third so the edge comes to the bottom edge (the dough is now folded into thirds, all edges even and no gaps. Pull gently on the corners if need be so there are no gaps. Gently but firmly press the rolling pin on the edges to “seal” so when rolling again the edges stay aligned.
Rotate the dough so that the closed fold is to your left like the spine of a book. Repeat the rolling and the folding process one more time (you’ll now be rolling in folding in the other direction). Once it is rolled out and folded again into thirds, you have just completed the second turn.
If the dough is still cool and no butter is oozing out, you can give the dough another two turns now. If the condition of the dough is iffy, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes. Each time you refrigerate the dough, mark the number of turns you've completed by indenting the dough with your fingertips. It is best to refrigerate the dough for 30 to 60 minutes between each set of two turns.
The total number of turns needed is six. If you prefer, you can give the dough just four turns now, chill it overnight, and do the last two turns the next day. Puff pastry is extremely flexible in this regard. However, no matter how you arrange your schedule, you should plan to chill the dough for at least an hour before cutting or shaping it.
You will need :
- well-chilled puff pastry dough
- egg wash (1 beaten egg)
- your filling of choice
- 2 round cookie or biscuit cutters, I used 3” (7 cm) and 2” (5 cm)
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
Using a knife or metal scraper, cleaning slice the puff pastry dough into 3 equal portions. Work with one section at a time, keeping the rest well wrapped and chilled.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to a thickness of 1/8 to ¼ « (3 – 6 mm). Transfer the dough to the lined baking sheet and chill for 10 minutes. Remove from the fridge after the 10 minutes and cut out an even number of circles, larger circles for a main course, smaller circles for hors-d’œuvres. Make clean, stright cuts down into the dough, trying not to twist your cutters. Half of the rounds will be for the bases, half will be for the sides and tops (caps, « chapeaux »). Save any and all dough scraps by stacking – not wadding up – the extra pieces and putting with the remaining dough.
Using your smaller cutter, cut out smaller circles from the centers of half the dough circles and carefully separate these small rounds from the rings (vols-au-vent sides).
Prick both the bottoms of the casings (large circles) and the caps (small circles) with a fork, being careful not to go all the way through the dough. Lightly brush the large base circles with egg wash then gently place the side rings on top, matching up the outside edges. Carefully brush the edges of the sides with egg wash making sure that the egg wash doesn’t drip down the sides (which will inhibit rise). Brush the caps lightly with egg wash making sure none drips down the sides.
For the casings that I would be using for the dessert vols-au-vent, I sprinkled sugar onto the side edges and the caps after brushing with egg wash.
Refrigerate the assembled vols-au-vent while you preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). If not baking them right away, they can be covered and refrigerated for several hours.
Once the oven is heated, remove the tray from the fridge, cover the pastries with either a silicon baking mat or a sheet of parchment paper and bake for 10 – 15 minutes until the cases rise and start to brown. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F (180°C), remove the baking mat or parchment, press down the center of the cases gently with your fingers if they have risen too much and continue baking for 15 – 20 minutes more. The layers should be golden.
Remove to a rack to cool. Cool to room temperature for cool fillings, just cool down to warm for warm fillings.
CREAMY CHICKEN FILLING FOR VOLS-AU-VENT
Enough to fill 6 – 8 vols-au-vent
4 Tbs (60 g) unsalted butter + 1 Tbs (15 g) for the mushrooms
3 Tbs flour
3 cups (750 ml) chicken broth
3 single chicken filets (about 14 oz/420 g total)
1 large carrot, trimmed and peeled and cut into thin coins
1 medium onion, chopped
8 medium-sized white mushrooms, cleaned and cut into large chunks
½ cup (125 ml) light cream or half-and-half
A few branches fresh thyme
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
Bring the chicken broth/stock to a simmer and slide in the chicken filets and cook through. With a slotted spoon, lift out the filets, shake off the stock excess and put aside on a plate. Put the carrot coins into the broth and simmer for a few minutes until tender but not too soft. Remove to a plate with a slotted spoon and remove the pan of stock from the heat. When it cools slightly, measure out 2 cups of the broth, which will be used for the white sauce.
Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces.
In a small saucepan, sauté the mushroom chunks in the 1 tablespoon of butter until golden. Give a good squeeze of lemon juice over the mushrooms, toss around for another minute, then remove from the heat.
In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, melted the 4 tablespoons of butter. Add the chopped onion and sauté until soft and golden. Add the carrots and sauté for another minute or so. To make the roux, add the 3 tablespoons flour and stir quickly into the butter and vegetables until smooth then cook for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly.
Slowly and gradually pour the 2 cups of broth into the roux and, stirring constantly, cook until all of the broth has been added and you have a thick, creamy sauce. Add the chicken chunks, the sautéed mushrooms, about 2 tablespoons of finely chopped parsley, the leaves from about 3 branches of fresh thyme, salt and generously pepper. Add another squeeze of lemon juice, warm through, taste and adjust seasonings as desired. Do not bring to a boil, just a gentle simmer. Stir in a few tablespoons of the cream until desired consistency and taste.
Place one puff pastry casing on each plate and spoon in the chicken in cream sauce into the cup. Cover with a “cap” and serve. Place the remaining chicken in cream sauce in a bowl and place on the table for those who want more.
CHOCOLATE WHIPPED CREAM
1 to 2 cups heavy whipping cream or as needed
¾ cup granulated sugar
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
Whisk together the sugar and cocoa powder in a bowl until blended and no more lumps remain.
In a chilled bowl using chilled beaters, whip the heavy cream on high speed until it starts to thicken. Add the sugar-cocoa mixture tablespoon by tablespoon until you have the desired sweetness and darkness. (I used just under 1 cup of cream and beat in almost 4 heaping tablespoons of the mixture as I wanted a lighter chocolate flavor. JP thought it was too light a chocolate flavor so I could have added a bit more dark cocoa powder to the whipped cream itself.) Continue to beat until thick.
Place one vol-au-vent on each dessert plate using the casings that had been topped with sugar before baking. Pile fresh berries into each cup and mound on the whipped cream. Place a cap on top of each and serve with more berries and chocolate whipped cream if desired.