Puff pastry (Recipe: asparagus and cheese tart)
I'm having fun updating some favorite posts from the archives, like this one, from the days when I didn't photograph the food I cooked. If you missed these posts the first time around, please enjoy them now. With photos and new links, too.
Just the thought of making something with such an elegant name scares the bedoodles out of me. If I hadn't watched Julia Child on television, smearing the butter and folding and turning and folding and turning again, making it all seem so utterly doable, I never would have tried to make puff pastry from scratch.
I did make it.
Then I discovered frozen puff pastry. Someone else does the smearing and folding and turning for you. Imagine that! Puff pastry any time, without devoting an entire day to making it.
What makes puff pastry puff are the many layers of blobs of butter sandwiched between layers of dough that, when baked, rise to several times their original height without any yeast or leavening. When heated, the butter in the dough melts, causing the layers to separate. The water in the butter turns to steam, puffing up the pastry with air bubbles that become trapped to form air pockets. In the classical pâte feuilletée recipe, made by folding and turning the dough six times, the finished dough has close to 1500 layers of butter and flour.
The two most available brands of frozen puff pastry are definitely not alike. Dufours, sometimes available at Whole Foods markets, is made with all butter; Pepperidge Farm, always in the freezer case of my local supermarket, contains no butter. Yes, Dufours tastes better, and rises higher when baked. It's also twice as expensive, and much harder to find.
To thaw, remove as many pastry sheets as needed (wrap unused sheets in plastic wrap or foil and return them to the freezer) and thaw in the refrigerator (approximately 4 hours per sheet), which ensures that the pastry will thaw evenly. If you're in a hurry, unwrap and separate the pastry sheets and thaw at room temperature for 30-45 minutes.
Puff pastry makes wonderful savory dishes like chutney cheese puffs and puff pastry baskets with artichoke and pesto filling, or the topping for a chicken pot pie, as well as beautiful sweet desserts like palmiers. And, as in the recipe below, it can turn the ordinary into something truly elegant, as befits the name pâte feuilletée.
Asparagus and cheese tart
Adapted from Great Food Fast, a great little cookbook from the kitchens of Martha Stewart Living. Try to find asparagus spears that are straight, and of uniform width. Makes one tart that serves 4-6 people for lunch, with a side salad or bowl of soup.
1 sheet frozen puff pastry
1-1/2 cups gruyere, Emmental or swiss cheese, shredded
1 pound medium asparagus
1 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 400°F. On a floured surface, open the sheet of pastry into a square. Trim uneven edges. Place the pastry on a baking sheet. With a sharp knife score the dough one inch in from the edges on all four sides, to form a border. Using a fork, pierce the dough inside the markings at half-inch intervals. Bake until golden, about 12-13 minutes.
Remove the pastry from the oven, and sprinkle the cheese inside the border. Trim the bottoms of the asparagus spears to fit crosswise inside the tart shell; arrange in a single layer over the cheese. Brush with oil, and season with salt and pepper. Bake 18-20 minutes, or until spears are tender. Serve warm.