Online Butcher Pat Whelan writes on meat and food in general and this week he talks pastry.
When we consider pastry we always think of pies and sweet food as even the desert makers in kitchens are often known as pastry chefs. Of course the French and the Danish in particular, have made an art form of sweet pastries; often considered the dieters nemesis. Knowing both how to use and make pastry properly is an invaluable skill for any cook. It is actually quite simple but today the range of shop bought pastry available is a fantastic standby and works perfectly well.
It is hard to tell where pastry and its use, particularly with savoury foods, originated. One theory suggests ancient Egypt. Considering that they came up with the Pyramids that have mystified engineers forever, I can go along with the thought that a pie wouldn’t be beyond the bounds of possibility. The Egyptians passed the idea along to the Greeks. It then made its way to Rome and from there to the rest of Europe. The English thoroughly embraced the idea of the pie and there are many references to it from the middle ages. Originally the pastry wasn’t for eating but creating a natural casing or holder for the food. You would crack open the pastry shell and then throw it away once the contents were consumed. To be fair to our ancestors this isn’t too surprising as the pastry case, which was often made with oil, didn’t taste very nice. It was only when they started using lard and butter in the pastry that it became an edible addition. No doubt you’ve heard the saying ‘to eat humble pie’. This came from medieval England where a dish called ‘umble pie’ was served to the poor and less fortunate. The good meat was reserved for the pies of the King and the important guests while the entrails, of a deer usually, were minced up for umble pie. Say it with a cockney accent and you’ll get the idea.
It’s not all about full coverage pies; pastry is also useful as an open casing for savoury tarts and quiches, both large and individual. If the pastry is good then it really can stretch the meat quite substantially. Pastry based dishes also have a good ‘make ahead’ value and are great freezer standbys. During the cold snap in December I know several people that availed of the time to batch cook and several others who were delighted to find their freezers full of warming pastry encased meat, ready to go. If you are going to make your own pastry don’t forget to experiment a little and try adding some cheese to the mix for something different.
The two main types of pastry are shortcrust and puff, sometimes called flaky pastry. At James Whelan Butchers we would often use flaky for our individual meat parcels which are always popular, but stick with shortcrust for quiches and pies. I’m a little bit of a maverick in that I don’t believe in too many rules but definitely shortcrust works better as a base. Puff, as the name suggests, puffs up during baking becoming light and flaky. Making homemade shortcrust pastry is very easy and allows for experimentation but I recommend buying puff pastry unless you have time to be fiddling about with layers of butter and pastry and endless rolling.
From Delia to Darina, they will all tell you that one of the rules of pastry making is to keep everything cool. While it sounds like effort, always have a bowl of iced water nearby. I like to use plain white flour as shortcrust pastry tends to be quite crumbly when you’re making it. I have found that self raising flour makes it softer and more difficult to handle. The fat you use will determine much; the taste will be affected depending on the use of margarine, lard or butter but it also impacts on the texture. You can of course mix the fats also for different results; equal parts lard and butter is many a chef’s preference. The water used for combining everything together should be very cold and used sparingly. Water isn’t the only liquid as some specialist dishes call for milk or even yoghurt but hone your skill with water first.
If you see the words ‘double crust’ in a recipe this simply means pastry at the bottom as well as a pastry lid; encasing the whole dish. This is really good for stretching a batch of meat. The traditional apple tart would be considered a double crust. Usually if I am making a rich meat pie that only requires a pastry lid I am happy to use one of the many ceramic or Pyrex dishes that I have gathered in the kitchen over the years but a double crust really requires a metal dish. While enamel dishes are probably not considered as pretty as their ceramic cousins, metal is just a better conductor of heat and so will cook the pastry on the bottom so much better. Enamel dishes come in a range of sizes and while not necessarily all frilly, brightly coloured, chunky and sexy, they are relatively inexpensive. Many people stick fork holes in the top of the pastry before the oven. This is not purely for decoration but allows the steam to escape during cooking and prevents the pastry lid from getting soggy. If you are browsing a good cook shop some day try and find a pie funnel. This sits in the middle of the pie during cooking and lets the steam out very efficiently. Mine was a gift and I was very amused that it’s in the shape of a blackbird which always raises a comment if a pie is taken from the oven to the table. Talking of things sticking out of the pastry, for this reason lamb shank pies are also an interesting dish and don’t be afraid to use pastry strips to build up a lattice network.
For basic shortcrust pastry, put the flour in a bowl and add the fat, which I like to cut into small cubes. Using your very cold fingertips rub the fat into the flour, working quickly, until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the water very gradually, mixing it in with another cold utensil. Once you have a dough-like substance in the bowl turn it out onto a very lightly floured surface, knead lightly into a ball, wrap in cling film and pop it into the fridge for a minimum of 15 minutes. This resting period is very important. It will keep like this in the fridge for up to two days or you can freeze it. When rolling shortcrust it can fall apart a little but just patch up the gaps. However my final tip, particularly with quiches and open tarts is that shortcrust pastry tends to shrink during cooking. I always drape it over the pie dish and cut off the excess with a sharp knife after cooking rather than trimming it before it goes into the oven. If I have whetted your appetite for a savoury pastry but you don’t have the time to make it yourself drop by James Whelan Butchers today for some great inspiration. We’d love to see you.
We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Handweavers Rathcoole and Kilmacanogue, Dunnes Stores Cornelscourt, Rathmines and Swords in Dublin. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers