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.
Puff pastry (pâte feuilletée) is something you probably would buy frozen at the grocery store or (for more instant gratification) already baked and filled as a treat from your favorite bakery. Why not try making it yourself? Coming away from this challenge, I can earnestly say that it is surprisingly easy and satisfying to do so--very much well-worth the effort! In preparation, I watched the on-line video from the PBS show “Baking with Julia”. This was a pure treat to see Michel demonstrate making the pastry under Julia’s watchful eye and quite honestly a great confidence builder to observe the technique of an expert. Ever since watching the movie Julia and Julie and reading her memoir My life in France, I am admittedly enamored with the passion for good food and genuinely lovely personality of Julia Child. So this for me was an exciting challenge to complete!
Much like Danish dough and croissant dough, puff pastry is a laminated dough, which means it consists of a large block of butter (the beurrage) that is enclosed in dough (the détrempe). This dough/butter packet (termed a paton) is rolled and folded repeatedly (a process known as “turning”) to create the crisp, flaky, parallel layers you see when baked. Unlike Danish or croissant however, puff pastry dough does not contain yeast in the détrempe, and relies solely on aeration to achieve its high rise. The turning process creates hundreds of layers of butter and dough, with air trapped between each one. In the hot oven, water in the dough and from the melting butter creates steam, which expands in the trapped air pockets, forcing the pastry to rise. Another essential for achieving rise is to use a low-gluten flour. American all-purpose flours typically contain a lot more gluten then French “equivalents”. While in France developing recipes for her cookbook that was to be used in American kitchens, Julia Child had to take this difference into account. For this reason, a blend of cake flour and all-purpose flour are suggested in order to reduce gluten content.
Vols-au-vent are typically served hot and filled with a creamy, savory filling (often poultry or seafood-based), but cold fillings, such as chicken or tuna salad, are used as well. Sweet versions tend to include whipped cream or pastry cream with fresh or stewed fruit. Wanting to keep things savory, I tapped the finest local resource I knew for an appropriate filling that would pair well with the pastry. I purchased a delicious braised pork shoulder from Durham's Tracklements, a local culinary artisan of fine-quality, custom smoked meats and fishes. For those of you who know me, I know what you’re thinking…yes, I cook (for the most part) vegetarian, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know how to order and enjoy a superb piece of meat! Excited about the project, I told Mr. Durham about how I planned to use his pork and about the concord grape, macoun apple, quince, and ginger chutney I was making to accompany the pastry. He told me that was the "fanciest way [he’d] ever heard of pulled pork being served". TR, I think I might just have to agree with you on that one!
Michel Richard’s Puff Pastry Dough
Yield: 2-1/2 pounds dough
2½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1¼ cups cake flour
1 Tbs salt (you can cut this by half for a less salty dough or for sweet preparations)
1¼ cups ice water
1 pound very cold unsalted butter (frozen for 20 minutes or so)
plus extra flour for dusting work surface
Mixing the Dough:
Put the all-purpose flour, cake flour, and salt in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse a couple of times just to mix. Add the water all at once, pulsing until the dough forms a ball on the blade. The dough will be very moist and pliable and will hold together when squeezed between your fingers much like Play-Doh.
Remove the dough from the machine, form it into a ball, with a small sharp knife, slash the top in a cross hatch pattern. Wrap the dough in a damp towel and refrigerate for about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, 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. This can be great fun, especially after a stressful day, but take care not to mash your fingers like I did…ouch! The butter must remain cool and firm: if it has softened or become oily, chill it before continuing.
Incorporating the Butter:
Unwrap the dough and place it on a work surface dusted with all-purpose flour with your rolling pin, press on the dough to flatten it and then roll it into a 10" square. Keep the top and bottom of the dough well floured to prevent sticking and lift the dough and move it around frequently. (This will allow for the gluten to rest.) Starting from the center of the square, roll out over each corner to create a thick center pad with flaps.
Place the cold butter in the middle of the dough and fold the flaps 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.
To make great puff pastry, it is important to keep the dough cold at all times. There are specified times for chilling the dough, but if your room is warm, or you work slowly, or you find that for no particular reason the butter starts to ooze out of the pastry, cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate it. You can stop at any point in the process and continue at your convenience or when the dough is properly chilled.
Making the Turns:
Gently but firmly press the rolling pin against the top and bottom edges of the square (this will help keep it square). Then, keeping the work surface and the top of the dough well floured to prevent sticking, roll the dough into a rectangle that is three times as long as the square you started with, about 24" (don't worry about the width of the rectangle: if you get the 24", everything else will work itself out.) With this first roll, it is particularly important that the butter be rolled evenly along the length and width of the rectangle; check when you start rolling that the butter is moving along well, and roll a bit harder or more evenly, if necessary, to get a smooth, even dough-butter sandwich (use your arm-strength!).
Brush off the excess flour from the top of the dough, and fold the rectangle up from the bottom and down from the top in thirds, like a business letter, brushing off the excess flour. You have completed one turn.
Rotate the dough so that the closed fold is to your left, like the spine of a book. Repeat the rolling and folding process, rolling the dough to a length of 24" and then folding it in thirds. This is the second turn.
Chilling the Dough:
Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 30 or up to 60 minutes before repeating the rolling and folding process to complete the next set of turns. Each time you refrigerate the dough, mark the number of turns you've completed by indenting the dough with your fingertips.
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.
Forming and Baking the Vols-au-Vent:
Line a baking sheet with parchment and set aside.
Using a knife or metal bench scraper, divided your chilled puff pastry dough into three equal pieces. Work with one piece of the dough, and leave the rest wrapped and chilled. On a lightly floured surface, roll the piece of dough into a rectangle about ⅛ to ¼-inch thick. Transfer it to the baking sheet and refrigerate for about 10 minutes before proceeding with the cutting.
For smaller, hors d'oeuvre sized vols-au-vent, use a 1½” round cutter to cut out 8-10 circles. For larger sized vols-au-vent, fit for a main course or dessert, use a 4” cutter to cut out about 4 circles. Make clean, sharp cuts and try not to twist your cutters back and forth or drag your knife through the dough. Half of these rounds will be for the bases, and the other half will be for the sides. (Save any scrap by stacking—not wadding up—the pieces…they can be re-rolled and used if you need extra dough. If you do need to re-roll scrap to get enough disks, be sure to use any rounds cut from it for the bases, not the ring-shaped sides.)
Using a ¾-inch cutter for small vols-au-vent, or a 2- to 2½-inch round cutter for large, cut centers from half of the rounds to make rings. These rings will become the sides of the vols-au-vent, while the solid disks will be the bottoms. You can either save the center cut-outs to bake off as little “caps” forr you vols-au-vent, or put them in the scrap pile.
Prick the solid bottom rounds with a fork (do this lightly so as not to go all the way through the pastry) and lightly brush them with egg wash (1 egg mixed with 1 Tbs warm water). Place the rings directly on top of the bottom rounds and very lightly press them to adhere. Brush the top rings lightly with egg wash, trying not to drip any down the sides (which may inhibit rise). If you are using the little “caps,” stack and egg wash them as well.
Refrigerate the assembled vols-au-vent on the lined baking sheet while you pre-heat the oven to 400ºF.
Once the oven is heated, remove the sheet from the refrigerator and place a silicon baking mat (preferred because of its weight) or another sheet of parchment over top of the shells. This will help them rise evenly. Bake the shells until they have risen and begin to brown, about 10-15 minutes depending on their size. Reduce the oven temperature to 350ºF, and remove the silicon mat or parchment sheet from the top of the vols-au-vent. If the centers have risen up inside the vols-au-vent, you can gently press them down. Continue baking (with no sheet on top) until the layers are golden, about 15-20 minutes more. (If you are baking the center “caps” they will likely be finished well ahead of the shells, so keep an eye on them and remove them from the oven when browned.)
Remove to a rack to cool. Cool to room temperature for cold fillings or to warm for hot fillings.
Fill and serve.