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Perfect puff pastry starts with good butter

Resting time, chilling, fat content add to perfection of multipurpose dough

C.W. Cameron

Make your own puff pastry? Sure you can. There's no reason to be afraid of this dough, described by Julia Child as a "marvel of buttery goodness that literally melts in your mouth."

The French call it mille-feuille, a pastry made of "leaves," with many layers of dough each separated by a paper-thin layer of butter. The ingredients are simple: flour, butter, salt and water. The process is simple. A mass of softened butter is spread on an initial dough and the dough is folded to enclose it and make a sandwich. The two are rolled out together. Folded and rolled, folded and rolled, each turn of the dough multiplies the layers.

To learn about puff pastry, I turned to Jonathan St. Hilaire, the owner of Midtown's Bakeshop in Atlanta. St. Hilaire is classically trained, having studied at the French Culinary Institute. He and his staff make puff pastry every day for a rotating selection of items that include classic apple turnovers, pear almond tarts and even as the shell for his seasonal offerings of quiche. At Bakeshop, they might go through 20 pounds of puff pastry a day.

"Making puff pastry doesn't have to be a big chore," St. Hilaire said. "You can make the dough and shape the butter today, then put in all the folds tomorrow. Store it in the freezer and it's good for a month."

One of his secrets for perfect puff pastry is to use butter with a high butterfat content. "Cheap butter will make your pastry greasy," he said. Another secret is to give the dough plenty of time to rest between turns to make sure the butter doesn't get too warm and start leaking. Rest the dough after assembling the pastry so everything will even out in the dough and the pastry will puff as much as possible.

St. Hilaire didn't expect to become a pastry chef and baker.

"I had been doing savory cooking, but I went to work for a bakery for six months. I was absolutely horrible. But then suddenly everything started clicking and I found I enjoyed the simplicity of baking. I knew that's what I wanted to do," he said.

Now he's keeping those bakery hours you hear about, getting to the shop at 3 or 4 a.m. to bake pastries and make dough for baguettes and ciabatta. And to make up another batch of puff pastry to satisfy the customers of his neighborhood bakery.

Puff pastry is a great building block for many dishes, sweet and savory. Whether you choose to go the classic route or try our quick and easy recipe, the result will be shatteringly crisp and delicious. Wait for a cool fall day and give these recipes a try.

Classic Puff Pastry

1 lb. unsalted butter, divided

41/3 cups cake flour

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 cup ice water

Melt 1 stick butter. Allow to cool. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine flour and salt. Add melted butter and mix to combine. Add water in small quantities until mixture forms a dough. You might not need all the water.

Soften the remaining butter into an 8-inch-by-8-inch square by working it with the heels of your hands until it's smooth and spreadable but still cool.

Lightly flour working surface. Roll dough into an 18-inch-by-9-inch rectangle. Spread butter across the center of the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch margin at the top and bottom.

Fold one unbuttered side of the dough toward the middle. Fold the other unbuttered side toward the middle. Seal the edge where the sides meet, as well as the top and bottom unbuttered edges. If the dough is soft, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

To make the layers: If the dough is still workable, turn the dough 90 degrees and roll into an 18-inch-by-9-inch rectangle. Fold the two ends so their edges meet in the middle, then fold in two like a book. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 40 minutes.

Turns 2,3 and 4: If the dough is cold and hard, beat it evenly back and forth and across for a minute or more to soften the butter and start the dough working. It's very important to soften hard butter at this point or it will flake and break up rather than spreading itself evenly across the length of the dough. Repeat the steps of the first turn to make 4 turns total, refrigerating between turns as needed. You can use the dough at this point, or continue to make turns until you've finished 6 turns.

Refrigerate the dough for at least 2 hours before using. It also can be refrigerated for several days, or frozen for several months.

Reconstituting puff-pastry leftovers: Arrange the scraps on your work surface so they are in a single layer, cutting and shaping to form a rectangle. Use cold water to seal the edges together. Roll to a rectangle, spread the surface with 2 Tbsp. softened unsalted butter, and fold into thirds like a business letter. Chill an hour. Give 2 more turns and chill 2 hours before using. Use this dough to make savory or sweet puff pastry sticks. Roll out the dough about 3/8-inch-thick, then cut into strips and sprinkle with grated Parmesan or cinnamon sugar. Bake at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes or until golden brown.

— Adapted from a recipe from Jonathan St. Hilaire

Fast and Easy Puff Pastry

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into pats

1/2 cup sour cream

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse flour, salt and baking powder for 12 pulses. Add butter and pulse 20 times or until no piece of butter is larger than pea size. Stir in sour cream and pulse 12 more times. Turn dough out onto floured work surface. It won't be cohesive yet. Give dough a few quick kneads.

Pat dough into a rough log and roll it into an 8-inch-by-10-inch rectangle. Dust both sides with flour. Starting with the shorter end, fold dough in thirds like a business letter. Flip the dough over, turn it 90 degrees and roll it into an 8-by-10-inch rectangle. Fold it in thirds again.

Chill dough for at least 30 minutes before using. If you have time, repeat rolling and folding process one more time for an even flakier pastry.

Remove dough from refrigerator about 5 minutes before ready to roll out. Divide dough in half and roll each half to a 12-inch-by-12-inch square. Cut to desired size.

— Adapted from a recipe at kingarthurflour.com

Apple Danish Turnovers

4 large Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, diced, divided

1/4 cup granulated sugar, plus 2 Tbsp. for sprinkling after turnovers are assembled

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1 star anise

1 ( 1/4-oz.) package gelatin

1/4 cup water

1 Tbsp. vanilla paste

1 recipe puff pastry (classic or fast and easy, see recipes)

1 egg, beaten

2 Tbsp. granulated sugar

To make apple filling, in a medium saucepan, combine half the diced apples with sugar, lemon juice and star anise. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and cook 20 minutes or until apples are completely softened. Remove from heat and purée apples with an immersion blender or in a food processor or blender. Return apple purée to pot and add remaining diced apples. In a small bowl, dissolve gelatin in water. Add gelatin mixture and vanilla paste to apples and bring mixture to a simmer. Cook until apples are tender, about 15 minutes. Allow to cool before using.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Roll dough to about 3/8-inch thick. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

For turnovers: Cut out 8 (5-inch) circles. Place 2 Tbsp. Apple Danish filling in the center of each circle. Brush edges with beaten egg. Fold pastry over filling and press edges firmly. Arrange turnovers on prepared baking sheet. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes. When ready to bake, brush top with egg wash and sprinkle with sugar. Bake 20 minutes or until turnovers are golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool 5 minutes before serving.

— Adapted from a recipe from Jonathan St. Hilaire