Baking challenge: petit four and mini pastry challenge (Part I)

Running a bit behind on the updating-the-baking-challenge front – I baked the following challenge when the weather was still cool and miserable and when making puff pastry was conceivable. Right now, Andy Murray  won Wimbledon (!!! – also, obligatory reference) a few days ago and we’re in the midst of the hottest, sunniest and driest days of the year (happy days), meaning any butter would puddle in slithery pools (appetising) rather than staying cold and hard and providing structure to the pastry. Still, onwards: this was the showstopper challenge for the ‘pastry’ week of series one of the Great British Bake-Off, and I was slightly nervous.

I have made cakes before, obviously, and biscuits and pastry. But I had never made any version of puff pastry before, and the prospect was a little scary, especially as I was planning to make the canapes for a book club meeting: I didn’t want them to be a greasy and unpuffy mess. The directions for the challenge were to make pastry canapes: three different savoury rough puff pastries and three different little sweet tarts (split across two posts because otherwise it would be way too long and tedious). I’m not superwoman so I had to split the challenge into sweet and savoury, making the savoury offerings first (blog imitates life, I guess!).

I used Michel Roux Snr’s recipe for rough puff from his Pastry book (I added an extra turn, and next time I want to try Paul’s book turn), which uses a proportion of 1:1 butter to flour; other rough-puff recipes I looked at used 50% of butter to flour or even used a mix of butter and white vegetable fat. I’m quite interested in trying that nexttime, but maybe the high quantity of butter was what made the puffs so crisp, light, flaky and wonderful to eat. Really, they were great; people only stopped eating them when I mentioned the butter to flour ratio. My three savoury concoctions were za’atar palmiers, olive straws (from Michel Roux’s book, which I obviously highly recommend!) and ad hoc caramelised red onion tartlets, which were the most popular (they were all made from one batch of pastry as I wasn’t about to make more than one batch, and there was plenty to go round). I’ve tried to give an approximation of the recipe below but really I just winged it on this one.

One of my friends referred to the za’atar palmiers as ‘moustaches’ which I thought was a beautiful description and captured the look of the palmiers. Given the popularity of novelty moustache items, these could be an interesting addition to the selection, or a suitable offering at a party with a vintage feel. I was most pleased with them because the appearance was really sharp and tight and honestly, for my first attempt at palmiers and at puff pastry, I thought they would be much more rough-and-ready looking. Instead they were impressive. Ditto with the olive straws, although they weren’t as popular as the moustaches or onion tarts.

Za’atar, by the way, is a blend of (wild) thyme, sumac and sesame seeds, used in Middle Eastern cookery, and it’s getting much more widely available than even a few years ago. You can find it in regular supermarkets, but since the recipe below uses 45g you might want to get a bag from a Middle Eastern shop rather than a diddly supermarket jar. Oli’s on Walworth Road usually stocks it (but not always), and the Middle Eastern shops in Lewisham town centre sell it also. A friend says shops in Walthamstow sell za’atar and I’ve seen it sold in those Oxfam shops that sell foodstuffs. Ottolenghi sells it too. So there are lots of options in London, at least. My za’atar came pre-salted, but if yours hasn’t been you might want to add a pinch of salt to the mixture.

One final thing: yes, making the rough puff was a little time consuming, but most of the time was spent chilling. I’ve always raised my eyebrows when people claim making it is no bother, but it was much simpler than I expected. Definitely not a weeknight thing, and probably not easy, but much less fuss and faff than I expected – and I really abhor faff, although I don’t mind complicated things.

Rough puff pastry
From ‘Pastry‘ by Michel Roux

  • 500g plain flour
  • 500g very cold butter, cut into small cubes
  • 1 tsp salt (I used fine-grain)
  • 250ml ice-cold water
  1. Put the flour in a bowl (Michel Roux says in a mound on a work surface but I really hate doing that because it’s messy) and make a well. Add the cubed butter and salt and rub it into the flour using your fingertips – or do as I did and cut it in with a pastry cutter. Keep  drawing the flour into the centre of the flour to ensure the butter is cut in and coated evenly
  2. When the cubes of butter have been cut into small pieces by your pastry cutter or fingertip action and the dough appears grainy, gradually add the cold water and mix until incorporated. It’s important to avoid overmixing the dough so mix until only just combined. If it’s a tiny bit crumbly this is okay. Pat the dough into a ball and wrap in cling film; refrigerate for 20 minutes.
  3. Flour a clean work surface and roll out the pastry into a 40x20cm rectangle (I did this on my silicon pastry mat which is such a godsend when measuring things out). Fold it into three (like a business letter) and give it a quarter turn (i.e. 90 degrees). Roll out into a 40x40cm rectangle again, fold into three again and give it another quarter turn. Do this one more time to make three extra turns (Michel did two). Wrap the block in cling film and refrigerate for 30 minutes
  4. Take out of the fridge and repeat the three quarter turns as above, to make a total of six quarter turns. The pastry is now ready; just wrap and chill it for at least thirty minutes before using

Olive straws
From ‘Pastry‘ by Michel Roux

  • 375g rough puff pastry (you can also use classifc ‘full puff’)
  • Large green pimento-stuffed olives, about fifteen
  • Egg wash made of 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 TBS milk)
  1. On a lightly floured surface, roll the pastry out to a 32x15cm rectangle, about 3mm thick (thank God for that pastry rolling mat is all I can say. No, I am not sponsored by a pastry rolling mat company. I got mine at Lidl anyway). Using a sharp knife, cut the rectangle into two pieces, one 14x15cm and the other 18x15cm. Place on a baking sheet (or do as I did and pop it on a small plate) and cover loosely with clingfilm; refrigerate for 10 minutes (or longer if convenient)
  2. Take the smaller piece of pastry and, starting about 1.5cm from the edge, lay five (or more if you need to) olives end-to-end along the shorter (14cm) side of the rectangle, leaving the 1.5cm border at the other end. Leave a 2cm gap in between and repeat to make three lines of olives, remembering to maintain the 1.5cm border ad the 2cm gap between each.
  3. Brush the pastry between the lines of olives with the egg wash. This is a bit of a pain but if the olives start rolling, just nudge them back into place. Cover the pastry with the larger piece, pressing down firmly on the pastry between the olives with your fingertips (and also at the border to seal it). Refrigerate, loosely covered with clingfilm, for at least 20 minutes
  4. Preheat the oven to 220C or, as per Michel’s preference, a 200C fan oven (a fan oven apparently makes the puff layers rise better. I do have a fan oven but I forgot this and it was all fine and puffily layered).If you want to bake them later (see step six) you obviously don’t need to preheat the oven right now.
  5. Use a very sharp knife to trim and neaten the edges of the pastry – you can chuck them bake up the scraps for a solitary kitchen nibble. Cut the pastry crossways (i.e. NOT following the lines of the olives but cutting across the 15cm side of the pastry) into straws about 6mm wide (mine were a little wider. I guess practice makes perfect on these). If these instructions are a little confusing, there is a diagram below showing how to cut, though obviously the olives wouldn’t be exposed but covered by the other pastry sheet – this is for illustration purposes! The straws from the end of the pastry might be plain pastry straws without olives – again, kitchen nibbles!
  6. You can bake them immediately or, as these are best served warm, cover up the prepared straws in the fridge with some cling film and bake them when you’re ready. To bake, lay the straws flat side down onto a baking sheet and bake for 5-10 minutes. As soon as you remove them from the oven, carefully transfer them to a wire rack to cool for a few minutes – a flexible palette knife is useful for this.
Cut along the dotted line, and repeat
Cut along the dotted line, and repeat

Za’atar palmiers
Adapted from the Sweetsonian blog

  • About 250g rough puff pastry
  • 45g za’atar
  • pinch salt (optiona)
  • 80ml olive oil
  1. Mix together the za’atar, salt (if using) and olive oil in a small bowl to make a paste.
  2. Roll out the rough puff pastry to a sheet measuring 35cmx25cm. Spread the za’atar paste evenly over the pastry, leaving a 1cm border round the egdes.
  3. Roll up the long (35cm) end of one side of the pastry halfway down the width of the pastry, as tightly as you can. Repeat with the other side of the pastry. There’s a picture below of unbaked palmiers sliced which shows how the roll works. Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate overnight (or 20 minutes in the freezer)
  4. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 180C. Lightly grease a baking tray – just dab a little olive oil on a paper towel and wipe it over the tray, that’s how lightly. Unwrap the logs and slice them into palmiers, about 0.5cm thick. Place on tha baking tray about 1.5cm apart. Bake for 15 minutes or so until just golden round the edges.
  5. Lift off the baking tray with a palette knife and let cool a little before nibbling.
Za'atar palmiers before baking
Za’atar palmiers before baking

Red onion tartlets

  • About 300g rough puff pastry
  • 2 large or 3-4 small red onions, peeled, halved and finely sliced (this doesn’t have to be paper-thin)
  • 2 TBS olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • 120ml white wine
  • 1-2 TBS balsamic vinegar
  • Egg wash (optional)
  1. Heat up the olive oil in a frying pan over a medium-low heat and add the sliced onions and dried thyme. Give them a stir to coat all over and then cook for about 15 minutes, until quite softened, stirring occasionally. You can cook them for longer, 15 minutes is really the minimum
  2. Add the white wine and let bubble for a few minutes until completely evaporated. Add the balsamic vinegar and stir to mix. Continue to cook for another five minutes or so, then switch the heat off and let cool.
  3. Preheat the oven to 200C. Roll out the rough puff pastry until about 0.5cm thick and stamp out circles using a 5cm cutter. Very lightly grease a baking tray and add the circles, about 1.5cm apart. If desired, brush them over them with the egg wash which will make them lovely and golden
  4. Bake for about 10-15 minutes until just barely golden. Then, remove the tray from the oven and add a tablespoon or so of cooked onions on each pastry circle and bake for another 3-5 minutes to let the pastry cook fully and the pastry and onions meld. You may need to bake in batches.
  5. Lift off the baking tray in batches and let cool for maybe five minutes on a wire rack before serving to acclaim.
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