Puff pastry is a sublime demonstration of the power of mathematics. You begin by layering a block of butter between two layers of dough. Fold the dough in thirds, and now there are 3 layers of butter between the layers of dough. Let it rest, roll it out, fold it in thirds again and now there are 9 layers of butter. Repeat – 27 layers of butter. Repeat – 81 layers of butter. Repeat – 243 layers of butter. And one last time – 729 layers of butter, and 730 layers of dough (including the top and bottom layers).
As the puff pastry bakes, the butter fat melts, which separates the layers of dough, while the butter liquids turn to steam, forcing the layers apart and causing the pastry to rise in a spectacular fashion. And unlike a soufflé, which must be served immediately before it falls, properly baked puff pastry will maintain its loft even after it cools.
When golden brown and fully cooked, puff pastry is a delight in the mouth, melting almost as soon as it hits the tongue into rich, delicate shards. And rich as it is, puff pastry provides a neutral backdrop, working well with both sweet and savory fillings.
I think puff pastry’s reputation for being tricky to make has more to do with the cultivated mystique of the pâtissier than the reality of the recipe. It’s actually a pretty straightforward process, though it does require a cool kitchen and patience through all the resting and rolling. It also requires care in choosing ingredients – the butter needs to be cold, the flour needs to be bread flour.
It also requires care in measuring. I recommend weighing ingredients whenever you’re baking, for this recipe in particular. If you don’t have a scale, make sure you fluff up the flour, dip a measuring cup designed for dry ingredients into it, and then use a knife to level the cup (rather than tapping it on the counter, or pushing it down with your fingers, which compacts the flour).
Below is the basic recipe for puff pastry. On separate pages, you’ll find recipes using it as an ingredient, including Vol-au-vent, Spinach Tart and Maple Tarte Tatin.
- 1 pound, 2 ounces cold unsalted butter (4-1/2 sticks)
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- pinch of salt
- 4-1/2 ounces bread flour (1 cup measured by the dip-level-pour method)
- 15 ounces bread flour (3-1/3 cups measured by the dip-level-pour method)
- 2 ounces cold unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
- 1 cup cold water
- 2 teaspoons salt
For the butter block:
Cut the butter into pieces and put it into a large bowl or the bowl of a mixer. Add the lemon juice and salt and use your fingers to mix them into the butter a bit, or use the paddle to of the mixer to combine them a little. Add the bread flour and continue mixing until the mixture becomes fairly homogenous. Don’t let the mixture get warm and soft; rather, it should have the consistency of clay.
Put the butter mixture on a large piece of plastic wrap. Pat it into a 6 inch square and cover completely with the plastic. Refrigerate the block while you make the dough.
For the dough:
Cut the butter into small pieces. Put the flour on a work surface, (a clean countertop will do), sprinkle the butter over the flour, then use your fingers to work the butter into the flour until it has the texture of corn meal with a few butter-peas floating around in it.
Make a well in the center of flour-butter mixture and sprinkle the salt into the well. Pour about half the water into the well, then use your fingers to begin swirling the flour mixture into the water. When there’s a thick paste in the well, add a little more water and then stir in more of the flour-butter mix. Continue adding water and mixing in the flour mixture until you’ve used up almost all of the water.
Gently knead together the dough, adding the rest of the water if necessary to finally arrive at a messy, slightly sticky ball of dough. Don’t knead it too much – just so that it all holds together and isn’t dry.
Use a sharp knife to cut an X about halfway through the dough ball, then loosely wrap it in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour so the gluten in the flour relaxes a bit.
To make the puff paste:
Ideally the butter block and the dough will be about the same consistency. Pull the dough ball apart at the X to open it into a rough square. Shape it until it’s about an 8 inch by 8 inch even square.
Place the butter block on the dough, juxtaposed to it so that the butter is a diamond to the dough’s square. Fold the dough over the butter so the corners of the square meet in the middle. Pinch the seams together firmly so that the dough completely surrounds the butter.
Turn the dough so that it sits like a square again, sprinkling a little flour on the counter and on the dough so that it won’t stick as you roll it out. Roll the dough into a rectangle 12 inches wide by 16 inches long, keeping the sides as straight and even as possible, sprinkling more flour as necessary to keep the puff paste from sticking.
Fold the dough into thirds so that it becomes a three-layered rectangle about 5 inches by 12 inches. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 1/2 hour.
Repeat the process 4 more times, rolling the dough out to a
rectangle 12 inches by 16 inches and then folding it in thirds, wrapping it in plastic wrap and refrigerating for 1/2 hour.
After the final rest period, roll the dough out into a 20 inch square (trim the sides if necessary, reserving the scraps) and then, if desired, cut that square into 4-10 inch squares (this is a convenient size for storage and works well for most recipes). Wrap each of the squares in plastic, place on a baking sheet and freeze until needed. You can also freeze the scraps; thawed and rolled out, this can be used just like regular puff paste, except that it won’t rise quite as high. The dough will keep frozen for several months.