PUFF PASTRY … MY ‘GO TO’

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but puff pastry is my absolute ‘go to’ when I want to make an impressive-looking dessert.  Take a peek in my freezer and you’ll always find a couple of packages.  All you need to do is take out a sheet or two, let it thaw in the refrigerator, and you’re only limited by your imagination.  Regardless of what I’m making, the results always look as if I’ve spent far more time (and money) than I actually have.

For this recipe, I wanted an elegant-looking tart … flaky, buttery puff pastry, filled with vanilla creme (referred to as creme patissière on the Great British Baking show), and topped with fresh strawberries.  I cut the pastry sheet into fancy envelope shapes for these.  Perhaps a little more time consuming, but I think the results were well worth it.  Let me know what you think.

(If you want to use packaged pudding mix for the pastry cream, go right ahead.  I’ll never tell.)

VANILLA CREAM TARTS WITH STRAWBERRY
Preheat oven at 425° for 20 minutes prior to baking.  Bake 18-20 minutes.  How many you get will depend upon the size you make.  Generally 12 from one sheet of pastry.
(This pastry cream recipe will make three cups and will keep up to three days.  Enjoy it in this recipe, other recipes, or alone with a dollop of whipped cream.)

1 package frozen puff pastry sheets (thawed in refrigerator)
1 pint strawberries, washed, dried and hulled (or any other berry)

3 cups milk
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
4 eggs
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons butter, softened

Make the pastry cream first to allow it to set in the refrigerator while you make the tart shells.

PASTRY CREAM
Sift together the flour and cornstarch and set aside.  In a good-sized bowl, beat the eggs.  Add the flour/cornstarch and continue to beat until a pale yellow color and thickened.  Set it aside.  Now its time to heat the milk and sugar.  In a large saucepan, over medium-high heat, bring the milk and sugar to a simmer (bubbles around the edge of the pan).  Stir constantly to prevent scorching the milk.

When bubbles begin to form, take the milk off the heat and slowly pour about 1/4 of the heated milk into the beaten eggs.  Continue to whisk.  Do not add all the hot milk at once or the mixture will curdle and the eggs will cook.  Once fully incorporated, pour the egg mixture back into the hot milk pan, and place it back on the heat, stirring constantly.  It may sound difficult, but it really is not.

Lower the heat and continue to cook the custard until thick and lemony-colored.  Scrape the sides and bottom of the pan continuously.  After it has thickened, continue to cook for another minute.  There’s nothing worse than that “flour” taste.  Yuck!

Remove from the heat and add the vanilla and butter.  Stir til smooth.

Place a strainer on top of a clean bowl and strain the custard, pushing down to remove any lumps which may have formed.  Then place plastic wrap directly on the surface of the cream.  Place the cream in the refrigerator to chill for at least an hour.  You can make this up to three days ahead.

TART SHELLS
Now its time for the tart shells.  This shape is called an envelope and I’m sure there’s an easier way to get the fold, but this is the way I did it.

Take the thawed sheet of puff pastry dough from the frig and place it on a lightly floured board.  With a floured rolling pin, roll the pastry out just a bit to even it out, and square it off.
Measure and cut 3″ squares from the sheet.

Now it’s time to cut inside each individual square.  Cut a 1/4″ border around each square except for two corners.  Leave two corners intact.  Take one cut corner and bring it over to the inside of the other side.  Now do the same with the opposite corner.  You should have a diamond pattern (or envelope).  Press down slightly around the edges.

Place the shaped puff pastry on parchment-lined baking sheets and place the baking sheets.  Square them off a bit and place the baking sheets into the refrigerator.  Puff pastry puffs up much better when its very cold.  This is when I preheat the oven.

Bake the pastry til golden brown, about 20 mins.  Remove from oven.  Now take a sharp knife and remove the center portion of each pastry, creating a pocket, or cavity for the pastry cream.  Place each pastry on a wire rack and let cool completely.

Now its time to assemble.  What could be easier … spoon (or pipe) a dollop of pastry cream into the center of each individual pastry.  Place a sliced strawberry on top and sprinkle with powdered sugar.  Arrange your pastries on a serving tray until ready to serve.  Then show them off to all your guests and wait for the oohs and ahhs.  You deserve it!


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STEAK AND MUSHROOM PIE

It’s all about the PIE in the U.K.  Whether it’s lunch time, tea time or a take-away, pies are everywhere … hot, warm, or cold … pork pies, steak pies, chicken pies, fish pies, even mixed veg pies.  Eaten at home, at a restaurant, or while walking down the street, the pie can be a complete meal, or just a snack.  From the pie shop to the butchers to the grocery store to Mom’s kitchen, everyone has their favorite and everyone loves their pies!!

We’ve just returned from England and the first thing hubby had to have while we were there was … a pie!  How many did he have during our week’s visit?  Too many to count.  Pies are English comfort food at its best.  I must say I do enjoy an occasional pie myself.  I’ve made them many times before, and have posted the recipe for, my favorite, Chicken and Leek Pie, but today it’s going to be the classic Steak and Mushroom Pie.  So, let’s get going!

I’m topping this pie with a puff pastry crust (yes, from the frozen food department of the grocery store).  You can top your pie with a short-crust if you’d like, or even a cobbler or biscuit topping.  It’s entirely up to you.  Whichever you choose, this is not a difficult pie to make at all.  Perfect for a cold Sunday afternoon.

STEAK AND MUSHROOM PIE
Stove top cooking for approximately 1-1/2 hours.  Preheated oven 400°F.  Bakes for approximately 25 to 30 minutes.  Serves 4 to 6.

2-1/2 lbs. chuck steak, trimmed and cubed
4 tablespoons flour
salt and pepper
2 or 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 lg. onion, chopped
2 lg. carrots, peeled and sliced
2 cups good beef stock
1 cup stout or ale
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 pint button mushrooms, quartered
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 egg, beaten

In a large plastic bag, put the flour and 1 teaspoon salt and pepper.  Shake it about to incorporate.  Then add the cubed, trimmed steak.  Shake the bag to coat the steak evenly.

On the stove, in a large, heavy pot, heat the oil over medium/high heat.  Add a few pieces at a time of the coated steak to brown.  If you add all the steak at once, the oil temperature will cool down too quickly and the steak will just steam.  Take the seared steak out, put it aside and brown more.  After all the steak has been nicely seared, put the onions and carrots into the pot, reduce the heat a bit and cook til softened – about 5 minutes.

Put the browned steak back into the pot.  Pour in the beef stock (homemade or store bought), the ale (Guiness is perfect) and tomato paste.  Combine well and then add the bay leaves.  Taste to adjust the seasoning – adding salt and pepper as needed.

Cover tightly, reduce the heat to low and let simmer gently for about an hour.  After an hour, add the mushrooms.  Let simmer again for about 15 minutes, leaving the cover off or halfway (depending upon how much liquid is in the pot) and  taste again to adjust the seasoning.  Meanwhile, prepare the crust.  Roll the puff pastry out on a lightly floured board just a bit.  Don’t roll it too thin.  You want a nice hearty crust.

If you are making one casserole, then nothing else needs to be done – except for cutting a hole in the middle for the steam to escape while baking.  If you are making individual servings, as I did, then cut the pastry for the amount of dishes you are making.  I made six ramekins – so I cut the pastry into six pieces – with a hole in the center of each one.

Preheat the oven now.  From the pot, fill the casserole dish or dishes.  Around the rim of each dish, brush on the beaten egg.  Now fit the pastry crust onto the dish, pressing tightly around the edges.  Trim away any excess pastry.  (Next time, however, I am not going to trim the crust.  I’m going to leave it hanging over the sides – shrinkage does occur  : ).  Brush the top of the pastry with the beaten egg.

Place the casserole dish or dishes onto a baking tray – leaking can occur.  Place the tray into the oven at 400° and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the pastry is nicely browned.  When it’s browned, it’s ready!  Remove from the oven and eat!

This hearty beef stew with its rich gravy and buttery crust is soooo satisfying … a complete meal in itself.  Serve this pie with a side salad and crusty bread and you have the perfect comfort food for a cold winter’s night.


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(MOCK) APPLE STRUDEL

I am continuing in what appears to be my “mock apple” series of desserts.  Yes, this uses zucchini and, yes, no one will ever know.  From all appearances this is a classic strudel, rich, fruity and delicious.  It just doesn’t have apples in it … which actually makes it more fool proof.  One of the problems I have with making apple desserts, such as strudels or turnovers, is that the apples can sometimes cook down too quickly and become mushy, making for ‘soggy bottoms’.  Zucchini stays firm for that right amount of crunch.

If you are still picking zucchini from your garden at the end of September, as I am, please give this recipe a try.  I know its a bit time consuming, but well worth it!   So, gather all your ingredients and prepare to make something your friends and family will be wow’d by!!

MOCK APPLE STRUDEL
6 cups zucchini – peeled and diced
1 lemon, juiced
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
2 cups fresh bread crumbs (not packaged seasoned)
1/2 cup melted butter
1 egg, separated (white only)
1 package frozen puff pastry dough, thawed

Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.  Preheat oven to 400°.  The strudel bakes for 30 minutes or til golden brown and cooked through.

In a large saucepan over medium heat, add the peeled, chopped zucchini.  Add the lemon juice, white sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt.  Cook til softened – about 15 minutes.  It will bubble up and appear very syrupy, add the cornstarch and continue cooking until very thick – about 5 more minutes.  Remove from the heat and add the raisins.  Set aside while you toast the bread crumbs.

Using old stale bread, toss it into your food processor or blender and shred it up.  You’ll need about 2 cups of bread crumbs.  In a saute pan, melt a half stick of butter (1/2 cup) and then add the bread crumbs.  Toast lightly til brown but not burnt.  Then set those aside.


From the frig, get a package of thawed puff pastry dough.  On a floured board, roll out one sheet of puff pastry until its  v-e-r-y  thin.  Yes, thinner than you think it can handle.  It won’t break apart.  Keep flouring and moving the pastry sheet around so that you can work with it.  I was able to get it 25″ long.  How about you?

Now working from about 3″ in from the long edge, spread the cooled, toasted bread crumbs, about 4″ or 5″ wide.   On top of the bread crumbs, sprinkle the chopped walnuts.  On top of the bread crumb/walnut mixture, drop spoonfuls of the thickened zucchini/raisin mixture.  Spread it out as smoothly and evenly as possible.

Now comes the fun part.  Pull the 3″ swath of pastry that you left without filling, up over the filling.  Press down.  Don’t be afraid.  It will work.  Fold each side in and over the filling – about 1″ or less.  Now put your hands under the filling (which has been rolled once) and roll that over onto the pastry.  Press down.  Now do it again.  You should be able to roll the pastry at least three times, resulting in a long, cylinder of filled pastry.

Lightly beat the egg white and brush it onto the open edge to seal everything.  Press it into the pastry roll tightly.  You don’t want anything leaking out.

Carefully pick up the strudel and lay it onto the parchment paper.  Don’t be alarmed if your strudel doesn’t fit onto your pan.  Forming a horseshoe shape is traditional.  Brush the top with the remaining egg white.  Put the strudel into the refrigerator to cool while you preheat the oven to 400°.

When the oven is ready, put the strudel into the center of the oven to bake – approximately 30 minutes.  Check it quickly at 20 minutes to make sure its baking evenly.  Turning the pan may be necessary for even baking.

When baked, cool the strudel on a baking rack.  It may be necessary to use two spatulas to lift it.  I know you’ll want to dive right in, but let it cool a bit.  Trim off the end pieces and then serve it up … warm with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream!   Rich, fruity, flaky … this is delicious!!!

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Palmiers

If you know me, you know that I adore elephants.  Elephants are my most favorite animal (which we can discuss another time), and for some reason my “cannot resist dessert” is Elephant Ears. Is there a connection?  I don’t know.  Elephant Ears, or Pig’s Ears, or Palm Leaves are names for what the French call “Palmiers“.  Palmiers are an elegant confection or cookie made using Puff Pastry.  Puff pastry (flour, butter and water) is known and used by many cultures from Europe to South America to the Middle East for everything from sweet to savory.

French painter Claude Gelee, circa 1630. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Because I couldn’t authenticate the origin, “legend” suggests that Puff Pastry was invented in France in 1645 by an apprentice pastry cook, Claudius Gelée. As the story goes, Mr. Gelée wanted to bake a butter cake for his father, who was on a special diet. With a recipe of just flour, water and butter, Claudius mixed the flour and water together, but realized he completely forgot to incorporate the butter into the flour.  Thinking quickly he ‘lay some Butter in litle Pecies’ onto the already rolled dough.  He then folded the dough over and rolled it out … and then he did it again and again and again. After folding and rolling the dough several times, he formed it and baked it.  When Claudius removed the cake from the oven, surprisingly, not only had it risen significantly, it was light and “puffy”.  The story continues with Mr. Gelée being hired by the famous Rosabau Patisserie in Paris, where he perfected his  ‘puff paist’, became quite successful, moved on to Florence only to have his secret recipe stolen from him by the Brothers Mosca Pastry Shop.  Fact or fiction?  Who really knows.

What we do know is that Puff Pastry is a near relative to Phyllo (Filo) Dough.  Phyllo Dough is used throughout the Middle East much like European Puff Pastry and seems to have existed long before Puff Pastry was invented.  Although the two can be used interchangeably, there are differences.  Puff Pastry has layers of butter incorporated within the pastry, which when baked, causes pockets of steam to form in the dough.  The dough then separates into flaky layers.  Phyllo needs oil or melted butter brushed onto each pastry layer before baking, usually requiring three or more layers, it then becomes tender and flaky.

Making Puff Pastry from scratch is doable, but it is so labor intensive.  If you’ve ever watched the Great British Bakeoff, you’ve seen the Puff Pastry challenge where the contestants are asked to make Puff Pastry from scratch in order to create their specialty desserts.  No thank you!  For me, it’s to the frozen food aisle in the grocery store.  Good quality puff pastry, using butter and not shortening, is available and it’s not overly expensive.  Because it’s handy for so many dishes from meat pies to desserts, I always keep a couple of boxes in my freezer.

This recipe is an easy, sure-to-impress cookie … perfect for tea time.  You can get as creative as you’d like by varying the fillings … a mixture of brown sugar and pecans, or a cinnamon sugar blend, or how about bananas and peanut butter.  Get creative and have fun!

CHOCOLATE WALNUT PALMIERS
1 sheet frozen puff pastry dough, thawed
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup chocolate spread (Hershey’s, Nutella, Biscoff)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, or any chopped nuts

Preheated oven at 400° (but only after the pastry is rolled and in the refrigerator).  Makes about 2 dozen.

Sprinkle 1/4 cup sugar over the pastry board and then unfold the thawed puff pastry dough on top.  With a rolling pin, gently roll the dough out just to smooth it and incorporate the sugar onto the underside.  Turn the pastry sheet over and sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup sugar on the board and roll it again.

Spread the chocolate (or Nutella or even peanut butter, if you’d like) over the entire sheet of pastry.  Sprinkle evenly with chopped nuts.

Starting from one long end, begin to tightly roll the pastry into the center.  Stop halfway. Then from the other long end, tightly roll that side in to the center.  You should have an equal number of rolls on either side, meeting in the middle.  Squeeze the middle together, then turn the rolled pastry over and place it seam side down onto a parchment lined baking tray.  Place the tray into the refrigerator for at least half an hour (or 15 minutes in the freezer) to chill thoroughly.

Now its time to preheat the oven to 400°.   Take the rolled pastry out of the refrigerator and place it onto a cutting board. Cut into slices about 1/4″ to 1/2″ thick.  It’s entirely up to you.  The thicker the slices, the longer they will take to bake.  Bake for approximately 20 minutes or until they are golden and cooked through.  Cool on a wire rack.

You can make a quick glaze using confectioners sugar and milk to drizzle over the top (or not).

With a steaming cuppa tea, a fruity glass of wine, or an icy cold glass of milk, these crunchy on the outside, gooey on the inside, sweet pastries are just delicious!  Enjoy.

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References:  The Foodie’s Companion, Fusion Chef, Great British Chefs

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ECCLES CAKES

What a strange name … Eccles Cakes (especially when you consider they aren’t cakes at all). On one of our early trips to England, hubby said “I know you’re going to love these things.  Don’t ask. Just try one.” Knowing me as well as he does, I fell in love with them.  These hand-held puff pastry confections are flaky and full of dried fruits.  Made well, they are delicious.  Made badly, they are cloyingly sweet and sticky.

These puff pastries were quite a success when they were first sold in a little shop in Eccles, a small town just west of Manchester, England, in 1793 by James Birch.  Mr. Birch is thought to have come across the recipe for “sweet patties” in the best selling cookbook of that time, “THE EXPERIENCED ENGLISH HOUSEKEEPER.  The original recipe for “sweet patties” consisted of a mincemeat filling wrapped with puff pastry and then fried or baked.  The mincemeat, which this recipe called for, was “the meat of a boiled calf’s foot, plus apples, oranges, nutmeg, egg yolk, currants and French brandy”.

Artist Joseph Parry, Manchester Art Gallery

But neither Mr. Birch, nor The Experienced English Housekeeper invented these flat patties.  It seems they date as far back as the 1500’s. Every year the townsfolk would celebrate the construction of the “Eccles” church.  As part of the church fair, these brandy and mincemeat “cakes” were served.  The fairs were so popular they attracted people from all over and became quite rowdy, often resulting in bloody mayhem.  But when the Puritan, Oliver Cromwell, came into power in 1650, he banned the Eccles celebrations and he banned the very popular Eccles Cakes.

I just love learning about the sometimes bizarre origins of traditional foods.  The next step, of course, is learning how to make them so we can enjoy them at home and not have to wait for our next trip to England.  I know Eccles Cakes are available in export shops and international food stores, but the packaged ones aren’t that good …. sorry!

Traditional recipes for Eccles Cakes call for a large circle of pastry, which is then filled, sealed, turned upside down and baked … hoping that they’ve been sealed tightly so that the filling does not run out of the pastry.  My recipe uses far less sugar than standard recipes and uses two pastry circles – one for the top and one for the bottom – which is then crimped and sealed (easier and less chance of seepage).  I think Eccles Cakes also need some crunch and a little acid (they can be cloyingly sweet), so I’ve added the zest of one lemon and toasted walnuts.  Now this is a recipe worth making!  Enjoy

ECCLES CAKES
Pre-heat the oven to 400°.  Makes 24 3″ pastries.

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
1-1/4 cup dried fruits (any blend of currants, raisins, sultanas, etc.)
½ cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons cane syrup or honey
½ tsp allspice
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp cinnamon
zest of one lemon
½ cup chopped walnuts, toasted

1 box (17.5 oz. package) frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 egg white, beaten
Demerara sugar (or table sugar)

In a small saucepan, over medium heat, melt the butter and stir in all the other ingredients.  After the sugar has dissolved, take it off the heat to cool and add the zest of one lemon.

Using one sheet at a time (put the other into the frig to stay cold), on a floured board, roll out the pastry to approximately 12” or ¼” thick.

With a pastry cutter, biscuit cutter, or whatever you like to use, cut out approximately 24 circles. One will be for the bottom, one for the top.  Brush all the pastry circles with the beaten egg white.  Place a heaping teaspoonful of filling in the center of 12 circles.   Take the top circle, place it on top of the bottom, covering the filling completely and then seal or crimp the edges together.

Place the filled, sealed circles of pastry onto a parchment lined baking sheet.  Brush the tops with more egg white.  With a sharp knife, make two slits into the top for the steam to escape. Sprinkle each with Demerara sugar.  Then place the baking sheet into the refrigerator to keep cold while you prepare the second sheet of puff pastry.

After you’ve finished the second sheet, you should have two trays with approximately 12 Eccles cakes on each … ready to bake.  Puff pastry bakes up lighter and fluffier when its really cold, so be sure to put the finished trays into the refrigerator while you preheat the oven.

Bake them on at 400° for about 15 to 20 minutes or until they are golden brown. Move to a wire rack to cool.  They’ll keep beautifully for about three to four days (but not in my house).

You can certainly make larger cakes, if you’d like, but for me, these sweet little confections are the perfect size for your afternoon tea.  And I must say one of these Eccles Cakes with a cup of one of my most favorite teas, a Golden Yunnan, is so satisfying!

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References:  Lancashire Eccles Cakes, Salford, Eccles Historic Society
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