Wednesday 14 August 2013

Puff Pastry Test: Little Mushroom Tartlets & Paprika-Thyme Sausage Rolls

I was so pleased to see two different brands of flat-packed frozen puff pastry in the shops last week. Puff pastry has always been sold in rolled cylinders in South Africa, which is  - when you think about it - a ludicrous way to package a product designed to be flattened out before use. I've hurled quite a few packets of cheap puff pastry into the bin over the years, infuriated at their tendency to crack as they're rolled out.

But, even so, frozen puff pastry is a convenience product that must not be sniffed at when you're in a hurry to put a pie on the table. I know how to make puff pastry from scratch (thanks to the elegantly beehived Mrs Pamela Maggs, who reigned over our school's shiny Domestic Science Laboratory) but I wouldn't dream of wasting a moment fiddling around with such a technical recipe.

So when I spotted the flat-packs, I snatched up a packet of each and took them home to play with. Here's what I have to report after several days of excitable pastry testing.

Flaky, crisp vol-au-vents made with Woolworths'
flat-packed All-Butter Puff Pastry, with a filling of ready-prepared 
spicy prawns.
Scrunchy little Piglets in Blankets with thyme and smoked 
paprika, made with Today's robust and idiot-proof
 flat-packed pastry sheets.

My verdict: a draw. I can't choose a winner because each brand has its own attractions. But what I can say is that they are both very good, and that the brand best suited to you depends on your budget, on your level of skill with pastry, and on what you're planning to make.

Pastry stars made with Woolworths' feather-light
 All-Butter Puff Pastry, and filled with tiny creamed Shemeji
mushrooms dusted with smoked paprika.

Woolworths' All-Butter Puff Pastry (R39.95 for two sheets) is delicious, with a distinct buttery taste and a whisper-light texture. However, it's quite tricky to work with. The pastry, being so delicate, warms up quickly and becomes sticky and stretchy, making it unsuitable for finicky cut-outs (unless you are an expert with pastry, and have fingertips of ice). As a topping for a pie, however, it is matchless. I used this product (in rolled form) for all the pastry dishes in my cookbook, and it is my first choice for any special-occasion dish, such as Beef Wellington or a complicated Chicken Pie.

The Today brand of puff pastry (which comes in a hefty 800g pack of four square sheets; a snip at R27.99) doesn't score as high in the taste department, having a slightly synthetic, margariney under-taste, but it is a vast improvement on the old cylinder-shaped variety. It doesn't crack, it rolls out beautifully, it rises well, and it is very easy to handle. Because the sheets are so robust in their raw state, they're really easy to cut into shapes, and they don't stick. I can recommend this brand for making budget food to feed a crowd, such as sausage rolls, cheese straws, small pot pies, and the like.

I made several dishes with the pastries, and here are two of them (I'll post more in future blogposts).

First, some scrumptious Piglets in Blankets, consisting of partly-cooked pork chipolatas rolled up in Today pastry with a scattering of smoked Spanish paprika and thyme.

These are so easy to make that a child could manage them. My teens formed a team and churned out a few hundred of these for my oldest son's birthday party last Saturday, and we kept the trays on the counter for four or five hours before slinging them, in batches, into a hot oven.

You can add embellishments of your choice to these: perhaps roll the chipolatas in bacon before you fry them, or add a shower of Parmesan or poppy seeds. Serve these piping hot with a selection of mustards, or try them with my Whipped Mustard Sauce.

Paprika-Thyme Sausage Rolls

2 square sheets of puff pastry
32 pork chipolatas
2 Tbsp (30 ml) olive oil
a small bunch of fresh thyme
good quality smoked paprika, for sprinkling
1 egg, lightly beaten, for glazing
salt and milled black pepper

Lightly brown the sausages before you
wrap them in pastry.
Set the oven to 200 ºC. Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium-high flame.

Add the olive oil and fry the sausages, in several batches, for about 6 minutes, or until they are lightly browned here and there, but nowhere near cooked through.

Drain on paper towels and set aside to cool. Line an oven sheet with baking paper and set to one side.

Lightly dust a board or your kitchen counter with flour and place the pastry sheets on top. Using the tip of a sharp knife, mark off two-thirds of the pastry. Cut this larger portion into long, narrow triangles, as shown in the picture, left.

You can use a ruler for this if you like, but don't worry too much about accuracy, because no one will notice any discrepancies once the pastry is cooked. (The base of the triangles, however, should be slightly smaller than the average width of the sausages.)

Now cut the remaining strip of pastry into similar triangles. You should be able to cut 16 pieces from each full sheet.  Arrange the triangles on the paper so their thin ends are pointing away from you.

Dust the triangles fairly generously with paprika (and anything else you fancy), and scatter lightly with stripped-off thyme leaves. Season lightly with salt and pepper, to taste.

Wrap the sausages in the pastry
 triangles, brushing them all over
 with egg as you go.
Place a sausage at the base of a triangle and gently roll it away from you towards the thin end of the the triangle, brushing it lightly all over, as you're rolling it, with beaten egg.
Just before you get to the apex of the triangle, tuck in a tiny sprig of thyme (as shown in the picture on the left), and seal with a dab of beaten egg.  Repeat with the remaining pieces.

Transfer the rolls to the paper-lined baking sheet and place in the oven. Immediately turn down the heat to 180 ºC, and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the pastry is puffed and golden, and the sausages a lovely burnished brown.  How long these will take to cook depends on your oven, so do keep a close eye on the pastry so it doesn't burn.

Serve hot or warm, with a mustardy tip of your choice.

Note: you can make these a day ahead, and keep them in the fridge ready for baking, but make sure that the sausages are completely cold before you roll them up.

Makes about 32 sausage rolls.  

Little Pastry Stars with Creamed Shemeji Mushrooms

These were tricky to make, as I mentioned above, because I struggled to remove the excess pastry between the cut-out shapes. The second time I made them, I used a chilled marble board and placed the cutters in the fridge an hour ahead. Press the cutters very firmly into the pastry to make clean cuts, and tear away most of the excess before you lift the cutter away.  There is, admittedly, some wastage when you use fancy-shaped cookie cutters, so this isn't a recipe to make for a crowd. However, you will be rewarded with cries of pleasure when you present these feather-light vol au vents, with their delicate, creamy mushroom filling, to your dinner-party guests.

For the stars: 
2 square sheets of best-quality butter puff pastry
1 egg, lightly beaten, for glazing

For the filling: 
150 g shemeji mushrooms, or similar tiny mushrooms
2 Tbsp (30 ml) butter
1 tsp (5 ml) olive oil
salt and milled black pepper
black pepper
3 Tbsp (45 ml) white wine
1 small clove garlic, peeled and crushed
4 Tbsp (60 ml) cream
fresh herb sprigs or micro leaves, to garnish

Delicately flavoured
 shemeji mushrooms cook
quickly, and are gorgeous
 with a touch of thyme,
wine and fresh cream.
Start with the filling. Heat a frying pan and add the olive oil and butter. Toss the mushrooms over a medium-high heat for about 2 minutes, or until just softened (don't leave them too long - they they cook very quickly!)

Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for another 30 seconds, without allowing the garlic to brown.

Now add the wine and continue frying the mushrooms until almost all the liquid has evaporated. Pour in the cream, allow to bubble furiously for 30 seconds, then turn down the heat and simmer for another minute.

Season with salt and plenty of black pepper and set aside.

Heat the oven to 190 ºC.

Place a large sheet of baking paper on your kitchen counter, dust very lightly with flour and place the pastry sheets on top.  Using a star-shaped cookie cutter, stamp out as many stars as you can fit into one sheet. Now lightly press a smaller, round cutter into the centre of each star, making sure not to cut all the way through the pastry.

Brush the stars all over with lightly beaten egg. Carefully lift the paper and transfer it to a large baking sheet. Bake at 190 ºC for about 25 minutes, or until the pastry is well-risen and golden brown.

Use sharp cutters with this
 delicate pastry, and keep
 everything very cold.
Remove the sheet from the oven, let the stars cool for a few minutes, and then use the tip of a teaspoon gently to prise off the centre circles. Pull out any soft pastry layers from the centre of the stars and discard.

Place on a wire rack to cool. Immediately before you serve the dish, gently reheat the mushrooms in their sauce, and then arrange them in the centres of the stars. Trickle over some of the creamy sauce. Scatter with some baby leaves and take straight to the table.

 Makes about 10 vol-au-vents, depending on the size of the cutter. 

Testing notes:  
  • This is an independent and unsolicited test.  Disclosure: I am one of the Woolworths bloggers for the South African MasterChef series, and I'm paid for the recipes I contribute to Woolworths for the duration of the show. I have no association with Heinz.
  • I deliberately didn't read the list of ingredients for each brand of pastry because I wanted to be guided by my tastebuds alone.
  • I removed both packs from the freezer a few hours' ahead of time and thawed them on my kitchen counter, on a chilly day. Both were very cold to the touch, but thoroughly thawed, before I opened the boxes.
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1 comment:

Kit said...

Your pastry stars really are pretty, not surprised they get oohs and aahs. Thanks for testing out the pastry for us. I've never known which brands are worth buying so hardly ever do use puff pastry, which is a shame because I love it.