[Ed.: The magnificent Della is back to guest blog with her views on Pastry today…. drumroll please……]

Pastry, as defined by the Food Dictionary at Epicurious.com is:

1)    Any of various unleavened doughs, the basics of which include butter or other fat, flour and water.  Examples include puff pastry, pate brisée and pate sucrée.

2)    A general term for sweet baked goods such as Danish pastries and Napoleons.

It is amazing to me that such an unremarkable set of ingredients can produce such remarkable results.  I absolutely love pastry and I mean the pastry, not the filling.  While many will salivate at the sight of a deep dish apple pie, I am seduced, not by the apple filling but by the crisp golden crust.  In my humble opinion, the perfect pie is a perfect crust with a scant smear of something sweet.  A single crust pie is wasted on me… not enough pastry.  I have been known to nibble on raw pie dough and to bake the scraps with just a sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon.  But, in light of Deana’s fabulous Pieappaloza blog from December 1st, I won’t dwell on pie today.  Instead I’ll gush about some other favourite pastries and the amazing things you can do with them.

Puff pastry is the ultimate convenience food.  I always have a box of puff pastry in my freezer.  I am comforted in the knowledge that I am never more than a couple hours away from an amazing appetizer, a beautiful dessert or a sophisticated entre.  I buy pre-rolled pastry to save time thawing, but the little blocks of puff pastry are almost as quick.  I stock up before the holidays knowing that many supermarkets will run out during this period of peak demand.  I would never dream of buying a premade pie crust, nor would I dream of making my own puff pastry.  The quality and consistency of store bought makes it difficult to justify the extra effort of homemade.  There is no mystery hidden in its flakey layers but it elicits amazement nonetheless.  The science is simple; as the pastry cooks the butter melts and the water contained in it creates steam.  The expanding steam builds between the hundreds of layers of dough creating small pockets.  The water evaporates and the flour proteins harden around the air pockets leaving delicate crispy layers of pastry.

Puff pastry is the embodiment of simplicity and elegance.  The dough is not sweetened so it can be used for both sweet and savoury dishes.  One of my favourite uses for puff pastry is “Baked Brie (or Camembert) with Caramelized Onions.”  On one not so distant Boxing Day, my husband, daughter and I ate and entire wheel of baked brie while watching the World Junior Hockey Tournament and playing Scrabble.  It is days like this that make dieting the ubiquitous New Years resolution.  You might want to share with a larger group, but I’m sure you’ll enjoy it just as much as we did.  Sorry, no photos.  I’m only cooking for two this week.

Bake Brie with Caramelized Onions

1 box puff pastry

1 kg round of brie or camembert cheese

2 eggs, lightly beaten

6 large yellow onions

1 tbsp olive oil

¼ tsp salt

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

Caramelized Onions

Slice onions into a thin julienne.  Heat deep sauté pan with olive oil.  Cook onions on med-low heat until translucent.  Add salt and continue to cook until onion are deep golden brown and very soft, 20 to 30 minutes.  Stir in balsamic vinegar and cook until vinegar has evaporated.  Remove from heat and let cool completely.

Don’t turn your back on your onions! From the point that they begin to caramelize they can burn very easily.  Stir frequently and be patient.  The result is worth the effort.

Assembly:

Cut cheese wheel in half crosswise to create two layers.

Roll puff pastry into two 12 inch squares.

Using the cheese as a guide cut a round of pastry the same size as the cheese from one sheet of pastry.

Place half of brie, cut-side up, in the center of the other sheet of pastry.

Spread caramelized onions on the cheese.

Cover with second layer of cheese, cut-side down.

Place round sheet of pastry on top of cheese.

Brush perimeter of pastry with egg wash.

Trim bottom sheet of pastry into a round that will overlap the top by about 1 inch.

Pull bottom sheet of pastry up over top of assembly and press lightly to seal perimeter.

Flip the entire assembly over and place on a parchment or sillpat lined baking sheet, seam side down.

Decorate the top of the pastry with leftover pastry cut into leaf, berries, stars or other shapes if desired.

Cut three or four vents into the top of the pastry.

Brush top and sides with egg wash.

May be covered and refrigerated for up to a day.

Baking:

Bake in preheated 425 degree oven until golden brown, about 20 minutes.

I used to be intimidated by phyllo pastry but decided several years ago that I had to face my fears once and for all.  I learned that my fears were largely unfounded.  It does require a little special treatment, but nothing terribly arduous.  Unlike puff pastry, which is rolled to create hundreds of layers, phyllo is stretched to create one, paper-thin layer.  Phyllo is also an unsweetened dough, making it an ideal vehicle for both sweet and savoury preparations.  It is best known uses are probably baklava and spanakopita but its neutral flavour and crispy texture make it ideal for many applications.  Phyllo dough makes an excellent strudel and is a great substitute for and eggroll wrapper if you want to avoid deep frying.  Another great attribute of phyllo is that it lends itself to a make-ahead menu.  I like to make a large batch of dinner-sized spanakopita and freeze them individually.  Baked from frozen they are done in half an hour, the same time it takes to make a nice rice pilaf and a quick tzatziki.   Made in miniature they are perfect for cocktail parties.  And, they never fail to impress.  I remember one party guest in particular that refused to believe that I had made my little spinach triangles from scratch.  I’m still unsure whether I should be flattered or insulted by his incredulity.  Maybe he would believe more people make their own.

Spanakopita

1 – 10 oz package of frozen, chopped spinach (yes, frozen… perfect for this application)

2 tbsp olive oil

1 small onion, diced small

1 cup scallions, chopped

2 cloves garlic

½ lb feta cheese, crumbled

1 cup ricotta cheese

1 egg

2 tbsp fresh dill, chopped

¼ tsp salt

¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper

Pinch nutmeg

1 box Phyllo pastry – thawed overnight in fridge

1 stick butter, melted

½ cup olive oil

Thaw spinach and squeeze out as much water as possible.

Sauté onions and scallions in olive oil until soft.  Add garlic and sauté for another two minutes.  Remove from heat.

Combine spinach, cheese, egg and seasonings in a mixing bowl.  Add onions and garlic and mix thoroughly.

Combine melted butter and olive oil in a bowl.

Lay a sheet of parchment  on your work surface.  Place on sheet of phyllo on parchment (cover remaining phyllo with a damp towel to prevent it from drying out) and brush with butter/oil mixture.  Lay another sheet of phyllo on first and brush with butter/oil.

Cut buttered phyllo into 8 – 2 inch wide strips.

Don’t worry about small cracks or tears.  There will be several layers by the time you are done.

Place a heaping teaspoon of spinach filling near the end of the first strip.  Fold phyllo over filling to form a triangle of dough.  Continue folding phyllo until you reach the end.

Place on a parchment or silpat lined baking sheet seam side down.  Brush top with a little butter/oil. Repeat with remaining filling.

Bake at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes until golden brown.

Yields about 4 dozen triangles.

~Della

Advertisements