Wednesday 4 March 2009

Croissants can lick my plums

Today was one of the hardest days yet. Very testing of patience. We began easily enough with the cooking of yesterday's tart. Despite liberal lemon-juicing it had still gone a bit brown overnight (but that's simply a result of too many things to cook in too few ovens, not a planned hiatus). Those brown bits coloured a little more than one might like but, well, here it is:

This kind of apple tart is a great way of using up puff pastry trimmings. We work a lot with puff pastry so end up with oodles of offcuts. If you are the same, here's how to make the tart above:
Assemble the trimmings into a pile. Do not ball, simply layer the pieces on top of each other. Bash the pile flat with your rolling pin, roll out (c.2-3mm) and prick very generously (so the thing does not rise in the oven). Butter and line a tart ring of any size (above is 220mm). You can then put a fine layer of either crème d'amandes or apple compote before lining with the fine apple slices. The similar tart we made at Aurillac had a layer of crème pâtissière which I thought worked supremely well as it added a lovely texture. Cook around 200°C until lightly coloured then lower the oven to 180°C to dry the tart out gently. Glaze generously (this can be done with a melted, slightly diluted, clear apricot jam).

Here is the enormous Opéra we started assembling yesterday. Today we cut it into four rectangles to share between the four people in my group and iced them with a poured chocolate icing. They'll be finished tomorrow.

So, the heartache: our first pâte levée feuilletée, the kind of pastry used for croissants and pains au chocolat. In a classic puff pastry or pâte feuilletée, you create layers of a simple water and flour dough (called the détrempe) and fat. In a pâte levée feuiltée, that simple dough is replaced with a leavened dough. This gives croissants &c. their unique texture and is why you can't make croissants with shop bought puff pastry.

Here's the catch. The gluten in a leavened dough is much more excited than in a normal pastry. Gluten is an elastic protein-combo released from the flour when pastry is kneaded. It enables the pastry to stretch without breaking and also traps the CO2 released by the fermenting yeast, causing the dough to rise. But the gluten makes the dough so elastic that whenever your roll it out, it pings right back. So when you're trying to roll out a large flat (e.g. 60 x 50cm for our croissants), this is hugely difficult. You roll with all your (in my case significant but diminishing) bodyweight only to watch the pastry slowly creep back into its previous dimensions when you step back to admire or catch your breath.

The only way to lessen the effect of the gluten is to refrigerate the pastry, but the action of rolling it creates friction which warms it up again. So every few minutes you have to stop, put the pastry in the fridge for 15 mins and weep when it comes out smaller than when it went in. It is a constant and infuriating battle. I nearly smacked someone round the head with a rolling pin with sheer frustration since it took me 5 or so fridge dips (with all the time in between) to roll out my pastry and that does not count the rest time while making the ruddy thing in the first place.

Still, I got it out to 60 x 50 in the end, cut out my triangles and rolled the bad boys. After all that effort, the croissant I marked for munching was bound to taste good. And it jolly well did. Here are the ones I brought home for my surrogate family:

P.S. I just presented the apple tart to my host family. They asked if I used a machine to cut the apples so finely. I liked that.

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