Author Archives: joepastry

A Short History of Pie

Murcian meat pies are relics from time when pie wasn’t a food so much as it was a strategy: a way to preserve edible odds and ends that you might otherwise lose as a result of spoilage. They were the original Tupperware in other words: handy, portable containers you could eat from. Notice here that I said eat from. For early pies weren’t meant to be eaten crust-and-all. That’s newfangled modern thinking…but more on that in a moment.

Food historians make the case that pie-eating dates to Greece and Rome. Here it really depends on what you mean by a pie. Pies of the ancient world were more akin to modern tarts: open-faced, made for immediate consumption. The Arabs also made pie-like pastries with top and bottom crusts yet they were not, at least to my way of thinking, true pies (though Murcian meat pies are definitely Arab influenced). For pie is as much a lifestyle — dare I say an attitude – as it is is type of baked good, one that evolved in the Middle Ages in Europe.

Everyone who’s ever prepared food has confronted the same problem: what to do with leftovers. The dilemma was especially vexing in the days before refrigeration, when fresh food degraded in an eye-blink. Cooking (which deactivates enzymes and kills harmful microbes) was one way to prevent such degradation. And if you could find a way to keep air away from your food, so much the better. Pies accomplished all these tasks at a single go, extending the shelf life of whatever was put into them for up to a week. More functional than delectable, they could be up to several feet across.

Of course you couldn’t make a behemoth like than out of any old crust. Today’s flaky-tender pâtes brisées are absolute sissies compared to the workhorse crusts of old. These brutes — called “coffins” among English speakers — started out as thick pastes of flour and water, pressed into deep, straight-sided pans or bottomless iron or wooden hoops to a thickness of an inch or more. They’d bake for hours in a low-heat oven and emerge like clay pots: stone-like in their hardness, probably with a flavor to match. Eating a pie like that simply entailed cracking it open, scooping out the contents and discarding the exterior, which presumably made a loud, hollow thunking sound when it hit the ground.

What did Medieval pies contain? Like Tupperware, just about anything. Fruits yes, but far more often meats and vegetables. Custards could go in, as could sauces which, combined with “meat-and-potatoes” ingredients created what could be thought of as early casseroles. Oh yes my friends, pie history is both broad and deep. I could easily drown!

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Murcian Meat Pie Recipe

Like virtually all meat pies, these can contain just about any mixture of meat scraps or leftovers you have handy: ground or shredded meat, organ meats, sausages, ham, whatever’s around. The crust is a two-part affair. The top is made from roll-laminated dough, the bottom from short crust, puff pastry or puff pastry scraps. Short crust is the most common bottom crust, or so I understand, but do as you wish. Obsessing about ingredients is against the spirit of savory pies, which are all about making do with whatever’s available. Note that if you’re using pre-cooked shredded meat you’ll probably want some sort of a binder to hold the filling together, like a beaten egg.

Please be a little patient with the quantities here since I’m not sure how much filling my pies will require. This recipe is a working draft.

For the Crust

1 recipe “roll” laminated dough
16 ounces short crust pie dough, puff pastry or puff pastry scraps
egg wash

For the Filling

12 ounces uncooked ground meat (veal, beef, pork or a mixture)
3 ounces shredded cooked meat (beef, chicken, pork, what-have-you)
3 ounces cooked sausage, preferably spicy, Spanish chorizo if you can get it
3 ounces chopped ham (Spanish or Italian preferred)
3 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
fresh ground pepper to taste

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Assemble six 4-inch tart or mini quiche pans. Roll out the dough — whatever it may be — for the bottom crust and lay it into the pans and let it rest as you prepare the filling.

For the filling combine all the ingredients save for the sliced hardboiled eggs in a large bowl. Lightly mix it all together — don’t knead it into a paste — and portion it out among the pans. Lay the egg slices on top of the meat.

Brush egg wash around the rims of the bottom crust. Slice and shape the laminated dough and place the rounds on top of the filling. Let the pies rest for 10 minutes then bake for 35 minutes until deep golden brown.

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Let’s Press On to Murcia

Murcian meat pies were the whole reason I got interested in this dough to begin with, and I still have some left. So why not do this thing? We’re going to get another big snow here in Louisville today, so some dinner pies will go well with the weather. Hit it!

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Making Sfogliatelle

Hey yo, howzitgoin’? It’s me your boy Paulie P again. Joey had another thing he had to go do, so he asked me over for the day, and just in time, too. Those sfwee-a-dells down there are pretty friggin’ sad if you ask me, pardon my French. Time for a pro to step in and take care of business, knowadimean?

Ya wanna get your oven preheated to 400 degrees, and that’s Fahrenheit, Einstein. Next go get yourself a roll of dough and some filling. Trim the end off since it’s gonna be a little uneven on the edge there. Pitch that piece out.

Now you wanna cut your slices. For a regular sfwee-a-dell you’re gonna cut about half an inch off, right? Maybe a little more than half, I dunno, do what you want.

So now — and this is the trick of this whole thing — you wanna get the slice all nice and slippery with melted butter, ’cause that’s gonna help you fan those layers out, which is gonna make the sfwee-a-dells look all nice. Do both sides, or are you some kinda moron?

Now start rubbing. Push with your thumb from the middle of the slice out to the edge. Do it with both hands and spin the slice round and round while you go. The slice is gonna start to stretch out.

The outside edge is also gonna start to lay down, which is what you want, right? The whole thing is gonna start going flat, then turn almost inside-out.

Hello. You’re with me, right?

As you go you’re gonna wanna push up a little in the middle so you start to get sort of a cone thing going. This one is looking a little cockeyed, but then so are you am I right? Ah, lighten up.

Anyway, pinch the edges hard to make sure that layers there spread out all nice too.

So now we got a nice disk of buttered dough with the layers all spread out.

Now you wanna flip that thing over to your other hand so it’s sorta like a fat ice cream cone. This one could be stretched out a little more. Eh, whaddya gonna do.

Now plop a nice big spoon full of filling in there. And I mean a big one. Fill this thing up as much as you can, ’cause everybody likes a nice fat sfwee-a-dell, am I right?

Lay those out on a sheet pan that’s got some paper down on it.

And bake ‘em about 25 minutes at 400 degrees. Put’em out all nice on a plate and sprinkle a little powdered sugar on top. When these are warm they are friggin’ to die for, knowadimsayin?

Now that I’m looking at these I could have filled ‘em up a little more. Eh, whaddya gonna do.

I should add, if you wanna go a little nuts with these, do like they do out on the Coast and fill’em up with choux paste.

They’ll bake up into something called a lobster tail. Repeat after me: lawb-sta. You can sorta see why they call it that, right? Mine could be a little longer at the back end but this is the general idea.

Fill that up with pastry cream and you’ll think you died and went to friggin’ heaven, pardon my French again.

Oh yeah, that’s it.

My job is done. See you jokers later, ahrite? Ahrite.

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“Roll” Laminating

Laminating via a roll — instead of a series of folds — is a very old technique. It likely predates folding lamination by several centuries. Introduced to Europe by the Arabs sometime around the high Middle Ages, it found favor in the more fashionable courts of Spain and Italy during the Renaissance. Over time it’s mostly faded from view, though it still hangs on in a few odd corners of the culinary world. I think it’s ready for a comeback.

Lamination by roll, just like lamination by folding, takes practice to truly master. I certainly haven’t mastered it, but now that I’ve more or less nailed down a formula and a process I think I’ll be doing it a lot more. I formulated and mixed the dough in such as way as to maximize gluten development. What results is an unusually soft yet elastic dough that can stretch even beyond what’s necessary for most roll-laminated projects. But that extra pliability makes it a lot more forgiving than other formulas I tried, and that’s always a nice feature.

Try this and I think you’ll quickly see the advantages of this method over pasta machines and store bought filo. Not only is this a lot closer to the original Arab technique (and that’s fun from a historical perspective) there’s a lot less fuss and fiddling with machinery. It’s both faster and cheaper than using store bought dough, and delivers a better end product. What’s not to love? To make this dough you’ll need:

16 ounces (3 cups) all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
9 ounces (1 cup 2 tablespoons) lukewarm water
3 ounces lard or butter, or a combination of both, soft
about another six ounces of butter and/or lard for spreading on the dough sheet

Combine 14 ounces of the flour — not all of it in other words — and the salt in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle. Add the water and stir until everything is moistened.

Switch to the dough hook and knead for five minutes…

…until the dough is smooth. At that point knead in the fat ounce by ounce until it’s all incorporated.

A spiral dough hook is really a poor tool for this. If you find that your dough hook is just smearing the dough around on a slippery film of fat, switch back to the paddle for about three minutes until the fat is incorporated and the dough is more or less smooth again.

At that point switch back to the hook and knead in the last of the flour. Why do it this way? Because if I put all 16 ounces of flour in at the beginning the dough would be too stiff to take up the fat easily. Adding it in stages makes the whole process easier.

After about two more minutes you’ll be done. Let that rest at room temperature for an hour. It can really rest all day if you feel like waiting.

When you’re ready to roll, lay a sheet out on a dining room or card table that’s at least 36″ x 36″. Sprinkle flour all around and rub it into the fabric. Yeah you’ll probably get butter on it. Make sure it’s an old sheet. Also, set the 6 ounces of butter and/or lard in a small pan on the stovetop, get it melting on the lowest possible heat. By the time the dough is stretched it’ll be ready.

Plop down the dough in the center, flour it, then get out your biggest pin and roll.

The shape isn’t terribly important, just get it to about 18″ x 18″ before you start stretching it. You’ll find this easy, I promise. In fact if you want to make a double batch of dough, just so you have one batch to play with and destroy first, I highly recommend it. There’s nothing like wrecking something to give you confidence…and this dough is cheap to make.

Reach your hand under, extend your fingers, and pull steadily and slowly from the center. Note that by going very, very slow you get a nice, even stretch. Do this two or three times just because it’s cool.

Pull from the flat sides…

…pull from the corners. As you pull you’ll notice the sheet getting bigger. You’ll also notices variations in color between the very thin regions (whitish) and the thicker regions (grey/brownish) which will give you clues about where to stretch next.

You want your finished sheet to be 36″ long by 32″ wide — or so.

When you’re more or less there, trim off an inch from all sides…which will be thick and doughy…we don’t want those. Don’t press too hard or you’ll put scratches on your dining room table and your wife (or husband) will kill you.

Now for the fun part: the fat. Pour it on about an ounce at a time, being methodical in the way you apply it: first a corner, the a side, then a far corner. The reason is because you want to get a fairly even coat on. If you pour it all in the middle at once and start to smoosh it around you’ll get an extra-thick layer in the center as the fat starts to firm — and the fat will firm unless you’re making this in an 85-degree kitchen. Get it right out to the very edges. You want a good smear of fat on everything, get me? You may not use all 6 ounces, but you’ll want to use at least 5.

Lard is traditional for this sort of laminating, but butter works every bit as well. Combine the two if you want to split the difference. I did and loved it.

Now for the rolling. If you’ve watched YouTube videos of burly Italian guys stretching their sfogliatelle dough while they roll AND smear fat all at the same time…don’t do it that way. That works for an industrial quantity of dough. For a small quantity like you and I will use at home, you don’t want to stretch — at all — after the fat is applied, as that will mess up your layers later. You just want to roll.

So…looking down the dough sheet from the narrow side — the (now) 30″ wide side — make little hash marks every six inches. Then using a long ruler and a pizza cutter, cut the dough into five equal strips. Again, look out not to press too hard lest you have to explain later that you made the mistake of listening to Joe Pastry one day and the result was a ruined table top.

Starting with the first strip, start rolling. It doesn’t have to be crazy tight, so don’t go nuts here. Just…roll.

When you finish with one strip, just pick up the roll and place it at the end of the next one. Don’t try any fancy joinery here, this is pastry, not master woodworking. Just plop it down and roll, damn you, ROLL!

The roll will keep getting fatter, obviously. Don’t stress if the very ends aren’t perfect, that’s normal.

When the dough is all rolled up your log should be 3″ thick, which is just about perfect for sfogliatelle or whatever else you want to make.

So what if you decide you want the layers thinner? Easy, just stretch your sheet out to 38″ instead of 32″. Trimmed, you’ll be able to cut six 6″ strips. For thicker layers, do the reverse. But this dough can get ridiculously thin, just pull slowly and steadily. I got it this thin with very little effort and not a single rip.

I may substitute this for my brik pastry and strudel dough!

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Almost There…

I initially thought these were the ones, but it seems that a.) I didn’t put enough filling in them and b.) my filling needs to be thicker. Also I think I need still more layers (I’m pretty sure I can stretch the dough a little thinner). Where are Jo, Jo, and Joan when I need them? Daddy has a pastry emergency!

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Getting Better…

I’m zeroing in on a more promising dough formula. I still have some technique issues (I think I need to lubricate the layers a bit more) but the trajectory is in the right direction. Patience, please!

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Lots going wrong here, but the problem at the center of it all is a lack of elasticity in my dough. This stems from the fact that it’s so darn rich. All the fat is lubricating the gluten (protein) molecules in the dough, preventing them from linking up with one another and forming a stretchy network.

Without that elasticity the dough doesn’t pull out into a thin enough sheet, and that has implications for everything from the number of layers in the roll to the way the dough lays down when I shape my little shells here. It affects the browning and of course the taste which is short crust-like, not puff pastry-like. Too firm, too crumbly, too greasy. I’m gonna cut the fat in half and see what that buys me.

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Sfogliatelle Filling

This filling is mostly used for sfogliatelle riccia, but works nicely as a bake-in filling in other applications. It’s a touch on the fussy side, but the results are worth it. You’ll need:

2 cups whole milk
pinch salt
5 ounces (generous 3/4 cup) semolina
7 ounces (1 cup) ricotta cheese
4 ounces (generous 1/2 cup) sugar
2 egg yolks
3 ounces (about 1/2 cup) candied citrus peels or candied cherries, finely chopped
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Pour the milk into a medium saucepan and add the salt.

Bring the mixture to the boil. Sprinkle in the semolina, whisking gently all the while to keep lumps from forming. Cook the mixture for 2-3 minutes until it thickens to a paste-like consistency.

About like so. Remove it from the heat, pour it into a bowl and allow it to cool.

Meanwhile, press the ricotta through a fine mesh strainer, again, to eliminate lumps.

Like this. Huh. Looks pretty much the same. Oh well.

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl…

…and stir them together.

Cover the filling with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use it. It will store up to two days.

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Proto-Laminated Dough

The laminating technique that produces the dough for sfogliate riccia may be the world’s oldest. As you may have noted from the posts below, the method involves stretching a rich, flexible dough to paper-thinness, rolling it up into a log that’s about two inches across, then cutting it into slices. This method predates folding-style lamination by a minimum of 50 years, having been documented by the Belgian master chef Lancelot de Casteau in his book Ouverture de cuisine in 1603 (folded laminated dough was first mentioned in Le Pâtissier françois written by François Pierre de la Varenne in 1653). However it’s probable that roll-style lamination is much older than that.

For the interesting thing about Casteau’s recipe isn’t so much that it’s a rolled-up dough, but that he calls it “leaf” pastry “in the Spanish style”. This suggests that his roll-style lamination was an adaptation of a much older technique, one that was common in the courts of Renaissance Italy and Spain, that likewise involved rolling thin sheets of dough with fat or oil, then slicing it.

But the Italians and Spanish didn’t invent the method, they learned it from the Arabs who occupied Spain from 711 A.D. until 1492, and Sicily from 831 to 1072. The Arabs had been preparing dough in this way for who-knows-how-long, though it seems likely that the technique was refined over the centuries in Europe, with the layers getting thinner and thinner. The documentation for this theory isn’t impeccable, though it does explain, as I mentioned in an earlier post, why you still find this roll-lamination being used here and there in both Italy and Spain.

Why not anymore? Because folding really is a better method for making laminated dough. Not only can you produce thinner layers with it with less effort, it only takes one operator to do the job. As I’m discovering experimenting with this dough, roll-style lamination takes two people: one to stretch, one to roll. So folding has several major advantages over rolling. For those who prize ultra-thin and flaky dough, it’s more pleasing aesthetically. It’s more versatile in terms of the shapes and sizes of pastries you can create with it, and as I mentioned it’s also more efficient. No wonder pastry makers prefer it to this day.

Still it’s well worth making I think, if only to get a sense for how laminating was first performed way back when, before the technique was improved upon and roll-lamination faded into obsolescence.

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