First, a disclaimer: this post reveals my excessive baking nerdery (not a word, but it should be), and will probably bore most of you to tears in the fist paragraph. Should that happen, I encourage you to scroll down to the awesome recipe for Apple Tarte Tatin at the bottom and visit your grocer’s freezer section for the puff pastry part. But for anyone still reading after paragraph one, I swear that with a tiny smidge of patience, making your own puff pastry can be a rewarding and even enjoyable process.
That said, let’s talk about laminated dough. Things like croissants, good Danish, and puff pastry get their light and puffed texture from a process of intricate rolling known in the baking world as lamination. It generally goes something like this: take a big piece of butter and sandwich it between two layers of dough; now roll this out into a long rectangle and then fold the rectangle like a business letter; then roll that and fold it in the same way; and so on, the process continues, paused for rests in the refrigerator now and then, until you are left with very thin layers of dough-butter-dough-butter-dough-butter. Needless to say, it’s not the easiest thing to wrap your mind or hands around.
So what’s going on here? Why does this laminated dough puff up anyways? From what I’ve read, it’s the water content in the butter which, when it hits the heat of the oven, evaporates, creating steam. This steam pushes the surrounding layers of dough apart to create a light, layered, buttery pastry. The same principal applies when you’re making pie dough or scones: big pieces of butter in your dough will give your finished product a tender-flakey texture.
Most bakeries (or I should say those few that actually make this kind of thing from scratch instead of buying it in frozen) speed the process along by using a big machine called a sheeter. Sheeters are delicate and adjustable electric rollers with some form of belt that can pass dough through. Sheeters not only make lamination a whole lot easier when you’re working in big quantities, but they also keep the layers of dough and butter perfectly even. Even layers mean better rise and texture in your finished product.
I mention sheeters because this is how I learned to make laminated dough. Over the years I’ve tried to make puff pastry, and even croissants, at home using a rolling pin with limited success. It tastes great (anything made with that much butter always does), but I haven’t been able to get the same explosion of layers that you see with puff pastry made on a sheeter. Long and short, I eventually threw in the towel.
Until recently that is, when I discovered the joy that is “quick puff,” and found myself back in the kitchen rolling away again. Also known as “blitz puff,” or “rough puff,” quick puff pastry uses the same rolling and folding technique as classic puff, but skips the dough-butter sandwich part. You start with a big pile of flour, and to this you add an insane amount of diced cold butter, which you then cut into your flour ever so gently. To this, you add just enough cold water to barely hold your dough together. To anyone who bakes, this should sound a lot like making pie dough, and so far it is. Then, and here’s where things start sounding more like puff, you start folding and rolling your dough to build your layers.
I’ve always been a little skeptical of this process – the idea that you can build any actual layers of dough and butter from something that starts out as one big mess has perplexed me. But, it works! And I offer you these photos as proof – check out those layers! Somehow, and I think the key here is those big pieces of butter again, the rolling and folding works its charm and you are left with some seriously tender and delicious puff pastry.
The recipe I’ve been using is taken from Not Without Salt, and since Ashley does such a great job of describing and photographing the process there, I decided not to reproduce the recipe here on Simmer.
Instead, seeing as it’s almost October and all, I’ll give you a recipe for Apple Tarte Tatin, aka the absolute best fall desert ever, and the perfect way to use up some of that lovingly rolled puff pastry. For anyone not familiar with Tarte Tatin, it’s a classic French dessert (created by the famous Tatin sisters) which calls for simmering apples in homemade caramel on the stove and then topping the pan with puff pastry and baking until golden crisp. The whole thing this then flipped upside down, and you’re left with a buttery crisp crust piled with caramel poached apples and dripping sauce. Add a little maple whipped cream or ice cream and you’ll be fighting for the last piece.
Thanks to John for taking almost all the photos in this post!
Makes 1 large tart, enough to feed 8-10.
Apple Tarte Tatin
- 1 10 or 12 inch heavy oven safe skillet (I like caste iron)
- ½ recipe Not Without Salt’s quick puff pastry here or use one package bought puff pastry (make sure to find an all butter brand like Dufour and defrost it in the fridge overnight before using.)
- 6 tbsp unsalted butter
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 6-8 firm medium sized apples, peeled, cored, and quartered
- maple whipped cream or ice cream to serve
Roll the Puff Pastry:
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Carefully roll out the puff pastry to a diameter slightly larger than your skillet – do this slowly and evenly on a well-floured surface so as not to break all those layers you’ve so carefully created. Using a paring knife, trim around the edge of the puff to create a circle roughly the size of your skillet. Cutting away the edge of the puff will help it rise more evenly. Scraps can be cut into small pieces and sprinkled with either sugar or parmesan cheese and baked on a sheet tray for 10-15 minutes until golden brown – this makes a very tasty reward for the baker! Once the puff pastry is rolled and cut, place it on a sheet tray and refrigerate while you prepare the apples.
Prepare the Apples:
Melt the butter in your skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sugar and stir well. Cook the butter-sugar mixture until the sugar begins to melt and caramelize, turning pale brown – there may still be some solid sugar.
At this point, add the apples, rounded outer side down. If all of your apples do not fit in one layer, add the remainder in a second layer towards the middle of your pan.
Let the apples sit undisturbed for about 2 minutes, and then, using a soup spoon, gently press the apples into the syrup mixture. Spoon a little syrup over the apples and watch them continue to cook. If you notice any unevenness in cooking (almost inevitable), gently move the apples around in the pan to accommodate. As the apples cook and shrink down, any which were on a second layer should settle into the caramel.
Continue cooking and basting your apples until they are well-caramelized, but not falling apart – depending on the apples, this usually takes 12-15 minutes total.
Bake the Tarte:
Top your pan of apples with the prepared puff pastry round. Bake until the pastry is risen and golden brown about 20-25 minutes. Cool 10 minutes. Then, and here’s the terrifying part, place a large serving platter (larger than your pan) over the tarte and carefully (use oven mits!) flip the whole thing over. Use a spatula to nudge out any apples which have clung to the pan. Serve immediately with maple whipped cream or ice cream.