[Sca-cooks] Bread Yeasts

Phil Troy / G. Tacitus Adamantius adamantius1 at verizon.net
Sat Jan 19 07:32:28 PST 2008

On Jan 19, 2008, at 9:08 AM, Georgia Foster wrote:

> Kimberly Vallance wrote  " I just fail at pastry crusts ..."
> Me too. (insert heavy sigh with deep emotion).  Never could get the  
> hang of a decent flaky shortcrust.  Just not in my abilities list,  
> and I have been trying for 35 years.  Cookies : sure, Cakes : no  
> problem, complicated directions written in some foreign language :   
> difficult but not insurmountable, Convert from sugar to Splenda for  
> my diabetic friends : can do, "Well, just add a spoon of flour and a  
> half-spoon of sugar and cook it till it's done: I can manage.  Never  
> been able to produce a pastry crust that was edible by modern  
> standards.  Mother on the other hand, says "... well ... just do  
> THIS ... " and hers turns out beautifully.
> Finally, in abject desperation, I started using Pillsbury.  not the  
> same .. not as good ... but better than any I have ever been able to  
> turn.

I'm nowhere near as good as my mom with her arthritic old hands, but  
my pastry is not only decent, but I was able to bring in a regular  
paycheck for several months doing it, until I asked my employers to  
find a replacement and let me cook "real food" again.

My experience on this is that yes, there are a bunch of tricks of the  
trade that people will try to teach you, and mostly they're good, apt  
and applicable, but they're not really going to be much help until you  
understand fully what pastry is, and when that happens, all those  
little rules are really only one rule.

Isn't there a bad Frankenstein movie with a line that sounds like  
this? Something  about gall bladders; I forget.

But with pastry of nearly any type, it's all about the structure. Yes,  
it's nearly always flour and water, with or without other stuff, but  
it really is all about the way it's put together, and most of those  
little rules and hints people try to teach you are really addressing  
that. The hints are partial glimpses of what that structure is  
supposed to look like when you're done. Big lumps of fat make big  
flakes when you roll it out. Small ones, small flakes. Little crumbs  
make mealy dough. And mealy dough isn't bad; it just has different  
applications. Then there's a lot of stuff about temperature; using  
cold or even ice water, or monitoring and controlling the heat of your  
hands, is largely about not unduly softening or melting that fat, so  
an instruction in some older recipes about "using light hands" or  
"using only the tips of the fingers" is really about not putting your  
big old blood-warm palms in contact with the melty shortening for any  
period of time, because they'll transmit a good deal more heat than  
the rest of your hands.

I hadn't intended to let this become a textbook, or even a primer, on  
pastry-making, so I'll summarize all this by suggesting that every  
good pastry cook has had that great epiphany on exactly what it is  
they were trying to accomplish and create, and that it is possible to  
jump-start that epiphany and make it happen.

One of the most fun incidents I've had in the SCA occurred at an event  
where I was making a batch of puff pastry, and three or four fighters,  
two of them squires (who, it would later prove significant, had mostly  
made their own armor) wandered into the kitchen (there was a break in  
the fighting), and began to watch me work. I explained how I had  
formed a pound of butter into a flat cake, which I was wrapping in a  
sheet of dough. When they asked how I had formed the butter into that  
shape, I showed them how I had hammered it with my rolling pin to get  
the basic shape. They seemed just a bit impressed. We then wrapped up  
the dough in plastic and chilled it briefly, and I believe I joked  
about how we didn't want any case-hardening to occur. Not much of a  
joke, but they exchanged glances; apparently they'd heard that line  
before. I took a previous batch  out of the fridge and began to roll  
it out, then fold it into thirds, then roll it out again, and fold it  
into thirds again, wrap it, and put it back in the fridge after  
marking it. I explained this was called a turn, and then took out the  
package I had been working on when the guys arrived, and did the same  
thing. Every so often there'd be a lull, they'd peel some onions or  
something, until it was time for another turn of the pastry. At some  
point one squire says to another, "Hey. I think I get it. The fridge?  
It's really a forge. Remember what he said about case-hardening?" The  
other one says, "What, we're making Damascus steel? That's silly!"  
First guy says, "No, I mean it. Think about it..." He turns to me and  
asks me how many layers of dough and butter we'll have when we're  
done. I took him through the math and said it varies, but especially  
if you fold in four instead of three, you can get way up in the  
thousands pretty easily.

When we finished working on that turn, they went back out on the  
field, and I went back to doing what I was doing. A while later they  
were back. I'd forgotten to watch the clock, but they were absolutely  
right. It was time to do another turn. I can just imagine them out on  
the field in their armor, explaining to their knight that they needed  
a few minutes because it was time to turn the puff pastry.

And when it was time to cut, assemble and bake the pastry, they  
brought their knight with them.



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