How to Make Pastry Dough

Renaissance Pastry Innovations

A puff pastry can puff up to hold just about anything.
A puff pastry can puff up to hold just about anything.

­The Renaissance era ushered in renewed interest in learning, lush furnishings and expressive art. Pastry dough also got a rise when the Arabs came up with their own recipe for puff pastry. This extravagant and labor-intensive creation quadrupled its height during baking, rising up into hundreds of microscopically thin layers separated by air. Of course, this result required the fat, traditionally butter, to be worked into the dough through six successive bouts of folding, rolling and chilling. It took the better part of a day.

Traditional Puff Pastry Recipe

  • 2 parts flour (3 cups or 300 grams)
  • 1 part ice water (1.5 cups or 0.7 liter
  • 1 to 2 tsp (5-10 milliliters) lemon juice, if desired
  • 1 part unsalted butter (1.5 cups) [149 grams], brought to room temperature but firm enough to roll flat

In a large bowl, mix the flour with water and lemon juice to form moist dough. Turn it onto a lightly floured board and form a square. On a separate work surface, use a rolling pin to flatten the butter into a rectangle with the same consistency and width of the dough, but half the length. Place the butter rectangle on the bottom half of dough and fold the top half of dough over it, pressing the dough edges together to seal air inside along with the butter. Roll the dough-butter rectangle to one-fourth of an inch (6.4 millimeters) thickness. Fold the dough in half from left side to right and refrigerate for one hour. Repeat five more times, alternating the direction of folds from left-to-right and top-to-bottom. Changing the direction of the fold helps ensure that the butter gets worked through all layers [source: Editors of Cooks Illustrated, Farmer, McGee].

The point of all the turnings is to work the dough into 729 layers of dough suspended between 728 microscopic layers of butter [source: McGee]. Puff pastry relies on steam escaping from the boiling butter layers to lift it up as it bakes, so it needs a fully preheated and consistently hot oven temperature. If you cut the dough before baking, be sure to use a very sharp knife. Otherwise, you'll mash the layers together and the pastry won't rise at the edges.

More challenging but irresistible pastries that originated during this time are on the next page.