Introduction to pastry doughs

Pastry doughs seems so easy on paper.

There’s a minimal list of ingredients and the instructions are so straight forward – mix dry ingredients together, add the butter, sometimes add in water or flavourings such as milk, vanilla or lemon rind, then roll out.

But the end results can differ enormously and one wrong turn could result in a soggy base, a shrunken case or in the worst case an inedible flavour.

To get a proper handle on how it all works you have to get a bit scientific and properly understand what each ingredient does.

In simple terms, it’s all about taste and texture.

Michel Suas’ book Advanced Bread and Pastry provides a really in-depth insight into the science behind pastry and this is my simpleton’s version.

Flour
Different types of flours are used to create different doughs and it really comes down to the amount of gluten in each. Gluten it should be said early on is the enemy of pastry but the best friend of other doughs like pizza – it creates elasticity and strength, not usually things you want in a light, crisp or crumbly pastry. Generally all-purpose flour is fine to use but some recipes may call for pastry flour.

Fat
Fats serve two purposes when it comes to pastry – they are shortening agents (i.e. stop gluten strands from developing by coating the flour) and provide flavour. When it comes to flavour, you can’t beat butter but it also has its downsides due to its low melting point which can make it difficult to work when if it gets too soft. Shortening can also be used, but you will compromise the flavour and upset some purists along the way. It will however be easier to work with and will hold its shape better.

Liquid
Water is frequently used in pastry dough recipes but you may also see other liquids such as milk, sour cream and buttermilk. The purpose of the liquid is to help form the dough, but also add flavour or work as a dissolving agent for ingredients such as sugar and/or salt.
Eggs can also be considered a liquid and are included in a number of doughs – sometimes in addition to and sometimes instead of water or milk. The proteins in whole eggs coagulate during the baking process and help to create structure which means that egg-based doughs should provide crusts that don’t fall down at the sides or shrink.

Sugar
Sweet pastry doughs will always include one type of sugar – confectioners (or powdered) sugar, caster (or superfine) sugar or granulated sugar. Again it comes back to taste vs texture – if you use confectioners sugar, you will get a nice smooth dough with the sugar fully incorporated but it will lack taste. On the flipside, granulated sugar will taste great but will be very hard to work with and will result in a grainy dough. The happy medium is caster sugar, but it will depend on the recipe.

Other
Salt is generally used to add flavour and improve shelf life.
Acids such as lemon juice or vinegar can help relax the gluten in the flour and provide flavour.
Even alcohol (vodka in particular) has been used in a number of recipes recently as an alternative to water – this is one I’ll be interested in testing.
Finally, flavour enhancers such as vanilla, ground nuts or spices can also be included.

So that’s the very simple overview of pastry dough theory. The next step is going to be putting it into practice…

Starting somewhere

The idea for Project Pastry came to me months ago but it’s taken until now to actually publish my first post.

It’s certainly a daunting task ahead of me, and has required a fair bit of planning and purchasing to make sure I am good to go – kind of mise en place for the project.

My first step was to get the kit together that I would need. I’ve collected a range of pastry odds and ends over the years but wanted a fresh start for this challenge so put together this collection including ceramic pie weights, crank spatulas in different sizes, a balloon whisk, plastic and metal scrapers, nested cookie cutters, piping bag with nozzles, measuring cups and spoons, and finally a pastry brush.

Pastry tools
Pastry tools

Next step was to make sure I had all of my textbooks in order. Again, some I already had but some I needed to buy because I never thought I’d need a 5kg volume on pastry techniques and formula.

My curriculum so far comprises the following books and I’m sure I’ll be adding more along the way.

Pastry books
Pastry cook books

My plan at the moment is to start with pastry doughs and then expand out to biscuits, cakes, chocolate, plated desserts, jellies, frozen desserts, mousses and creams over a period of time.

I’m sure the blog will evolve as my learning does, but hopefully it will be a good record of my experiences and may even help inspire someone else.

So this is officially the start of my pastry education…wish me luck!