In Praise of Puff: A box or two of frozen puff pastry can help you “keep calm and carry on” over the holidays
The holidays are all about family, fun and friends, and that’s the way it should be. Still, there’s no shame in admitting that sometimes it can feel like too much of a good thing. In fact, that feeling hits most of us when we’re trying to put together yet one more tray of sweets or appetizers, or when the phone rings to say that another car full of relatives are “in the neighborhood” and plan to drop in. At moments like those, having a few sheets of puff pastry in your freezer can be a real lifesaver.
Puff pastry is one of the handful of basic doughs professional pastry chefs use to work their wizardry. Making it from scratch is not hard, if you want to give it a try some time, but it does require time and a bit of practice. Alternatively you can find prepared puff pastry in the freezer section of most supermarkets, or you can try to sweet-talk a local bakery into selling you a few sheets. Either way, look for a variety that’s made entirely or mostly with butter, rather than shortening. Butter-based puff tastes better, and won’t leave an oily feeling in your mouth.
You can thaw a frozen sheet of puff on your kitchen counter in 20 to 30 minutes when you’re in a hurry, or pop it in your fridge overnight if you have the luxury of time. The thawed sheet should still be slightly firm; if it’s soft and floppy put it back in the fridge to chill for a few minutes so it’s easier to work with. The unbaked dough is unimpressive, but it puffs dramatically to about eight times its original thickness in the oven (hence the name). Once baked it’s crisp and flaky, with literally thousands of fine layers.
More importantly, it’s tremendously versatile. You can use it to make sweet or savory pastries from almost anything you have in your fridge or pantry, from jam to last night’s leftovers. Just cut the sheet into squares, and fold the square over your chosen filling to make triangles. Moisten the edges with water or beaten egg, then press them together to seal them. For sweet pastries use jam, preserves, fresh fruit or even Nutella as your filling. For savory pastries you could use leftover meats moistened with gravy or sauce, or cooked vegetables (broccoli, spinach, asparagus) with shredded cheese or cheese sauce. Any filling you use should be cold when it goes into the pastry.
The same basic squares can be cut and folded to make more interesting shapes as well, such as pinwheels or oblong “fruit sticks” (those mini-strudels you see in coffee shops). If you have slightly more time at your disposal, cut the puff pastry into equal numbers of rounds and doughnut shapes. Moisten the rounds with beaten egg and top them with rings, and bake them to make puff-pastry shells for appetizers. Fill them with shrimp, with crab-and-avocado dip, or anything else tasty.
If you want the crispness of puff without the actual puffiness – say, as a shell for tarts – prick the dough thoroughly with a fork before you bake it, then cover it with a sheet of parchment and add dry beans or pie-baking weights to keep it from rising. Once it’s set and lightly golden, remove the weights and add your filling and return it to the oven to finish baking.
If you’re really in a hurry, one of the simplest things to make with puff pastry is a traditional cookie called a “palmier” (recipe below). Named for the palm leaves old-time pilgrims brought home from the Middle East, they were originally an Eastertime treat. Like Handel’s “Messiah,” another Easter creation, the cookies are now commonly enjoyed at Christmas as well (and throughout the year, for that matter). Spanish “palmeras” share the same shape and symbolism, but are less flaky and more cookie-like.
2 sheets puff pastry, 10” X 10” (25 cm X 25 cm) or larger
1/2 cup coarse sugar or 1/3 cup granulated sugar, or more for larger sheet
1 tablespoon vanilla sugar (optional)
1 teaspoon cinnamon or other spices (optional)
Dust your work surface lightly with flour, to keep the puff pastry from sticking, and set them side by side. Unroll them carefully and flatten them, if they’re rolled up.
Toss the sugar in a bowl with the vanilla sugar or cinnamon, if you’re using them. They aren’t necessary, but they do add flavor to the finished cookies.
Sprinkle about 2/3 of the sugar over the sheets of dough. It should make a light, even, thinly-spread layer over the entire surface of the pastry. Roll it lightly with a rolling pin, to embed the sugar crystals into the pastry.
Fold each side of the first sheet inward, so they meet in the middle and cover the sugar. The dough should now vaguely resemble a book. Repeat with the second sheet. Brush off any visible flour with your hand or a pastry brush, and sprinkle the remaining sugar over the top.
Roll over the sugar with your rolling pin once again, then fold from the edges to the middle once more. You should have two very long, thin rectangular strips of dough with a seam down the middle. Fold these lengthwise again, at the seam, to make slender “logs” of sugar-studded pastry.
Refrigerate the pastry logs for at least 30 minutes until they’re firm again and well chilled (you can make them up this far, then wrap them in plastic wrap and keep them in the fridge for hours or even overnight).
Position an oven rack in the middle of your oven, then preheat it to 425°F (215°C). Use a sharp knife or a thread to cut each log into rounds approximately 1/2” (1 cm) thick. If you started with 10” sheets of puff, this should give you 40 pastries.
Line two sheet pans with parchment paper and arrange the cut pastries on the parchment, with the cut sides facing up and down. Fan them slightly, so the folded sides have plenty of room to expand. Leave lots of space between them, because they’ll be up to three times as wide when they’re done.
Bake the pastries for 12 to 15 minutes, until they’re golden-brown and flaky on top and the sugar is lightly caramelized on bottom. If your pan is dark or your oven is especially hot at the bottom, you might need to turn them after 8 to 10 minutes to keep them from getting too dark on the underside before the top if fully baked.
Let them cool completely (you might have to leave the kitchen…they’re going to smell really good) and then arrange them on your serving plate or cookie tray. They’ll stay crisp for up to a week if they’re sealed in an airtight container.
Palmiers are best when they’re fresh-baked, but they’ll keep for several days in a cookie tin or an airtight bag. If they begin to lose their delicately crisp texture, refresh them in a warm (200°F) oven for 10 to 12 minutes before serving.
Supplement the sugar with finely chopped almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pistachios or pecans to give the palmiers added flavor and crunch. Alternatively, use a fine microplane zester and add a teaspoon or two of lemon or orange zest to the sugar.
You can use the same basic technique for savory versions of palmiers as well. For a cheese version, sprinkle the sheets with finely shredded Parmesan, or a combination of Parmesan and a softer cheese such as cheddar or Monterey Jack (Tip: Use a sprinkle of smoked paprika or cayenne pepper for added zip). Savory spreads such as pesto sauce or tapenade also work beautifully.