I once made puff pastry from scratch. That’s why I now buy it at the store.
When done right, puff pastry is almost supernatural. You take a thin, flat piece of dough, bake it, and it puffs up into a work of art many times its original size, with hundreds of the thinnest, flakiest, most delicate layers of pastry suspended ethereally in its buttery goodness.
All that, and it’s delicious, too.
Making it at home takes time, dedication and not an inconsiderable amount of effort. And until you develop the right touch for it, you can end up (like I did) with a flat, leaden plank of pastry. Mine was buttery, but it wasn’t puffy at all.
So I take the store-bought shortcut, and I am not ashamed. You can find puff pastry in the freezer section of your local grocery store.
Once you get it, the question isn’t what you can do with it, the question is what can’t you do with it. It’s good for sweet dishes and for savory, you can use it for appetizers and desserts, and Beef Wellington just wouldn’t be Beef Wellington without it.
I used it for four dishes and could not have been happier about the way they turned out. Whether the recipes were ridiculously simple (ahem, doughnuts) or somewhat more complicated (chicken pot pie), the store-bought puff pastry made making them easy.
And they all tasted great.
I started with chicken pot pie, because I have fond memories of eating it at the Walnut Room in a Chicago Marshall Field’s store before the store acquired the much less romantic name of Macy’s. It was, in my memory, the best chicken pot pie I had ever had. I liked it so much I bought the Marshall Field’s cookbook just so I could have the recipe.
That was years ago, but I never made the recipe until now. That’s because I was a little daunted by the calories, and more than a little disappointed that the published recipe appeared to leave out a number of ingredients.
But I made it, and I added the missing ingredients (though it’s fewer than I thought) and now the pot pie is back to being one of the best I have ever had. The secret is that it uses a veloute sauce, which is easier to make than it sounds. You simply stir together melted butter and flour, and slowly add hot chicken stock until you get a sauce that is rich and velvety (“veloute” is French for “velvety”).
The delicate puff pastry on top is just icing on the cake – a very rich cake, with an incredible veloute sauce.
Next up were the pretzels, but these are not ordinary pretzels. These are called Puffzels, I’m sorry to say, because they are made with puff pastry. The resulting pretzels are lighter in texture than you might expect, but they are also heavier because of a surprise lurking inside the dough.
The pretzels – sorry, Puffzels – are stuffed with cheese, sausage and a smear of mustard. They are hearty, which is not a word typically associated with puff pastry, and utterly delicious.
If that is the savory side of puff pastry, it shines just as brightly with the sweet. Puff pastry is a natural for desserts, so I made two.
The first was doughnuts, and they were easier to make – and took less time – than driving to a doughnut shop and back. I just cut big circles out of the puff pastry dough, cut smaller circles out of the middle of those, dropped them (both the bigger and smaller circles) in hot oil and fried them for maybe two minutes at the most.
They still needed sugar, so I put powdered sugar on some and a cinnamon-sugar mix on others. Then I put cinnamon sugar on top of the ones with powdered sugar, which was best of all. I could have dipped some in a simple glaze, too, but why bother with that when you can coat them in a mixture of powdered sugar and cinnamon-sugar?
And for the dessertiest dessert, I made Wrapped Pears With Vanilla Bean Sauce. These take some effort – and a lot more time than the doughnuts – but they are absolutely worth it. It is the type of dessert to serve at a dinner party.
First, you briefly poach pears in a vanilla syrup (water, sugar and vanilla bean). Then you refrigerate the pears until they are cold again, all the while adding a bit of cream to the vanilla syrup and reducing it until it is slightly thick and tastes like heaven.
Then you wrap the pears in strips of puff pastry like a mummy and bake until they are golden brown. Serve them with the vanilla cream syrup and a scattering of raspberries, and you have one of those great flavor combinations that are too often forgotten.
It’s a puff pastry dessert that will make you puff up with pride.
Chicken pot pie
Adapted from “Marshall Field’s Gourmet: A Taste of Tradition”
Half of a 17.3-ounce package (1 sheet) frozen puff pastry, thawed and unfolded
5 tablespoons butter, divided
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
5 cups chicken broth, heated and divided
1/2 teaspoon salt, if needed
1 pound chicken breast meat, cooked
1/4 cup leek (white part), washed and sliced thin
1/2 cup carrots, cut in 1/4-inch dice
1/2 cup cooked peas (frozen is fine)
One 8.75-ounce can sweet whole kernel corn, drained and rinsed
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Pull out the individual casseroles you will be serving the pot pies; assuming they’re all the same size/type, use one like a cookie cutter to cut out four circles of puff pastry dough. (If you won’t be able to get all 4 out of a single sheet of pastry dough, roll it out first with a rolling pin until the dough is large enough to accommodate all 4 circles).
Place circles on prepared baking sheet and bake until the pastries turn golden brown, about 10 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.
Melt 4 1/2 tablespoons of the butter in a medium pot over medium heat. Add flour and stir to make a roux. Gradually add 3 cups of the hot chicken broth, whisking constantly. Cook until velvet-smooth and the flour taste has disappeared. Taste, and add salt if necessary. Set aside and keep warm.
Dice the chicken into 1/2-inch cubes and keep moist and hot in the remaining 2 cups hot chicken broth. Set aside.
Melt the remaining 1/2 tablespoon butter in a medium nonstick pan over medium heat. Add the leeks and carrots and cook until tender, about 7 minutes. Add the peas and corn and cook until heated through, about 1 minute.
Add the vegetables to the sauce and stir in the pieces of hot chicken (reserve the stock for a future use). Divide this filling among 4 individual casseroles, top each one with a circle of puff pastry, and serve immediately.
Per serving: 579 calories; 33 g fat; 17 g saturated fat; 103 mg cholesterol; 39 g protein; 47 g carbohydrate; 6 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 1,769 mg sodium; 47 mg calcium.
Recipe from Pepperidge Farm.
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 teaspoon garlic powder or dried, minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon onion powder or dried, minced onion
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
2 tablespoons German-style mustard
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Half of a 17.3-ounce package (1 sheet) frozen puff pastry, thawed
2 cups shredded muenster cheese
7 ounces smoked pork or turkey sausage or kielbasa, coarsely chopped, about 1 1/2 cups
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Mix the poppy seeds, sesame seeds, garlic powder, onion powder and black pepper in a small bowl. In another small bowl, beat the egg and mustard with a fork.
Sprinkle some of the flour on the work surface. Unfold the pastry sheet on the work surface. Cut the pastry sheet into 3 strips along the fold marks, then cut each strip in half lengthwise, making 6 strips in all.
Roll each pastry strip into a 16-by-3-inch rectangle (this will be easier if you begin rolling lengthwise). Brush half of each strip, lengthwise, with the egg mixture (reserve any remaining), then top with about 1/3 cup cheese and about 1/4 cup sausage. Starting on the side with the filling, roll up the pastry to form a long rope, pinching the ends and seams to seal. Shape the rope into a pretzel shape (not too tight – it will need space to puff), brushing a bit of egg mixture on the ends to help them stick. Place on the prepared baking sheet.
Brush the puffzels with the egg mixture and sprinkle with the poppy seed mixture.
Bake for 25 minutes or until deep brown. Let them cool on the baking sheet on a wire rack for 10 minutes.
Per puffzel: 470 calories; 34 g fat; 16 g saturated fat; 94 mg cholesterol; 21 g protein; 20 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 946 mg sodium; 305 mg calcium.
Half of 17.3-ounce package (1 sheet) frozen puff pastry, thawed
Vegetable oil, for frying
Powdered sugar or cinnamon-sugar mix
Cut 4 large circles out of pastry dough, then cut 1 much smaller circle out of the middle of each one. Pour oil to a depth of at least 2 inches in a large pot and heat to 375 degrees (at that temperature, a small cube of bread will brown in about 35 seconds). Fry the doughnuts, no more than 2 at a time and flipping at least once, until golden brown on both sides. Fry the doughnut holes until golden brown on both sides.
Cool on a wire rack. Sift powdered sugar over both sides, or roll in cinnamon-sugar mixture.
Per doughnut: 351 calories; 26 g fat; 8 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 4 g protein; 30 g carbohydrate; 10 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 168 mg sodium; no calcium.
Wrapped pears with vanilla bean sauce
Adapted from Pepperidge Farm
3 cups water, plus more for brushing
3/4 cup plus 1/2 tablespoon granulated sugar, divided
1/2 vanilla bean, split
4 Bartlett or Bosc pears, cored and peeled
1/2 cup heavy cream
Half of 17.3-ounce package (1 sheet) frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 cup fresh raspberries
Heat the water, 3/4 cup of the sugar and vanilla bean in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved, stirring occasionally.
Add the pears and cook for 10 minutes or until tender, turning occasionally. Remove pears from pan, leaving the sugar mixture in the saucepan. Cover pears and refrigerate 1 hour or until they are cold.
Stir cream into the saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook until the mixture is reduced to about 3/4 cup, stirring often. Remove the vanilla bean pieces; if desired, scrape their seeds into the sauce.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Unfold the pastry sheet on a lightly floured surface. Cut the sheet lengthwise into 8 strips. Brush the strips with water and sprinkle with about half of the remaining 1/2 tablespoon sugar.
Press the ends of 2 pastry strips together. Starting at the top, wind 1 pastry strip around 1 pear, slightly overlapping the edges of the pastry and tucking the end under the pear (if necessary, use a toothpick to hold the strip in place). Repeat with the remaining pears and pastry strips. Place the wrapped pears onto a baking sheet and sprinkle with remaining 1/4 tablespoon of sugar.
Bake 25 minutes or until the pastries are golden brown. Spoon the vanilla sauce onto 4 plates. Top each with 1 pear and garnish with the raspberries.
Per serving: 626 calories; 34 g fat; 26 g saturated fat; 41 mg cholesterol; 10 g protein; 96 g carbohydrate; 60 g sugar; 9 g fiber; 239 mg sodium; 48 mg calcium.