Simple pastry doughs are combinations of flour, butter and a liquid with other ingredients added for flavor (salt, sugar, cocoa powder), richness (eggs in place of water), or performance (baking powder).
Use unbleached all-purpose flour unless specified. In hot weather, refrigerate the flour before making the dough to prevent the butter from melting.
Use butter that is slightly softened by pounding it with a rolling pin so it is malleable and plastic but still cool. It mixes more readily into the dough. Do not soften the butter to room temperature.
Whether you use water, eggs or a combination, make sure that the liquid used to moisten the dough is as cold as possible. After working the butter into the dry ingredients, the slight chill of the moistening ingredient helps to keep the butter as firm as possible through the final mixing stage. If you use a warm liquid to moisten a dough, even butter which was incorporated successfully will melt and ruin the texture of the dough.
Quick, careful handling makes the difference between a fragile-textured and a leaden dough. Rub the butter into the dry ingredients quickly and deftly to prevent it from melting and "burning" the dough, thus rendering it heavy and sodden after baking. Using butter for the doughs presents a small difficulty in that butter contains water. While rubbing in the butter, the water reacts with and develops some gluten in the flour. Another type of fat would present less of a problem, but not contribute as delicate a flavor.
Be careful not to overmix when moistening the dough. Overmixing causes the liquid to react with the proteins and develop a strong gluten. I prefer to mix the liquid into the dough using a fork, then gently press the dough together, keeping the gluten development to a minimum. These precautions mostly concern the flaky dough, with less importance to the sweet dough because of its high sugar content and no application to the cookie dough because cake flour is used in the recipe.
After mixing the dough, wrap and chill it. This accomplishes two things: It allows the butter to reharden so that the dough is firm when rolled; and it allows the gluten developed during mixing to relax (some always develops, no matter how careful you are). For most doughs, an hour or two in the refrigerator will suffice. When I make doughs in large quantities, I prefer to let them rest overnight.
Everyone's ability to handle doughs, both the mixing and the rolling, increases with experience. If your first efforts at pastry doughs are not successful, refer to the corrective measures described below. Above all keep practicing. The rewards will be beautiful tarts and pies, appealing to the palate as well as the eye.
Although these measures will help to correct inaccuracies in mixing the doughs, the texture of the baked dough will suffer as a result of the extra handling. If any of the following remedies is used, be sure to allow additional resting time to relax the gluten developed by the extra handling.
1. The flour and butter mixture becomes pasty (the butter is melting). Proceed as quickly as possible to moistening the dough. Since the dough is pasty, it will absorb much less liquid. Force the dough to accept at least three quarters of the liquid called for by gently stirring the liquid in with a fork. The dough will be excessively soft. Flour the outside of the dough generously (1 to 2 tablespoons flour), wrap and chill it.
2. There are large lumps of butter left in the dough after moistening. Flour a work surface and turn the dough out on it. Without flouring the dough, press it into a rectangle about 3/8 inch thick. This will flatten the lumps of butter somewhat. Fold the dough over on itself once, gently mold it into a disk, wrap and chill.
3. The dough is still very dry after moistening and being pressed together. Return the dry dough to the bowl and gently tear it into particles using two forks. Scatter drops of water on it and toss them in with a fork until the dough coheres better. Wrap and chill the dough.
Nick Malgieri's Perfect Pastry
Create Fantastic Desserts by Mastering the Basic Techniques
By Nick Malgieri
338 pages, with black & white how-to photos throughout
Reprinted by permission.
This page created December 1998
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