Category Archives: Pastry

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
4.5 ounces (3/4 cup) semolina or 3.5 ounces (1/2 cup) durum flour
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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Blowing Up Cornbread

Reader Glenda writes to say that she recently made a mistake with her cornbread: she put in too much chemical leavening (exactly how much she doesn’t say). Yet the bread with the extra baking soda turned out virtually identical to the cornbread she makes with the normal, lesser amount. Why is that? she asks. It all has to do with gluten, Glenda. Or rather, the lack thereof.

Cornbread recipes typically call for lot of leavening. The reason: because corn flour has no gluten in it. In wheat flour doughs and batters, gluten creates an elastic batter that traps and holds little bubbles of CO2 and steam. As those bubbles continue to heat, they inflate, and the bread rises. A batter made from corn meal doesn’t have that elasticity, so its ability to trap and hold gas and steam is greatly diminished. Indeed, most of the gas and steam created during baking simply escapes out the top and sides. Yet it rises…why?

I think of rising cornbread like one of those obnoxious fan-driven inflatables you see in front of car dealerships on the interstate. Lots of air goes in and lots of air escapes. However as long as the fan attached to it keeps blowing, the thing stands up. Cornbread is a lot like this. Most of the CO2 created by the baking soda and/or baking powder simply bubbles right out of it. However as long as the batter keeps producing more than it loses, it rises. By the time the reaction is over the eggs in the batter have firmed and the bread remains standing.

This is why you need extra leavening to make most cornbread. It’s also why a little more leavening in the mix won’t make a whole lot of difference in the finished product, as the extra CO2 will simply escape like warm air out an open window. Of course that would only work within limits. Double the leavening in a cornbread recipe and the batter would bubble over the edges of the forms and create a mess. Though shapeless masses that resulted would probably still be delicious. Thanks for a fun question, Glenda!

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Sfogliatelle Recipe

Rendered leaf lard is an ideal fat for this, and is arguably the most traditional. However don’t hesitate to use butter since it performs largely the same. I’ll probably use a blend of the two since I like a little butter in a flaky pastry, knowadimsayin? But do what you like. Trying this recipe at all is a commendable deed, so why split hairs?

The recipe has tow parts: the dough and the filling. Don’t mind if I don’t write down the shaping directions yet, since I haven’t actually decided what I’ll do. I know I won’t use a pasta machine, that much is certain, but beyond that anything goes. Here’s what you’ll need:

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

Sift the flour and salt into the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle. Stir them together, then add in the softened butter. Stir until everything is incorporated, then add the water. When all the ingredients are moistened, switch to the dough hook and knead 5-7 minutes until the dough is smooth. Wrap the dough in plastic and let it rest at room temperature for an hour.

Shaping as I mentioned is TBD at the moment. However I know I’ll bake the shaped sfogliatelle on parchment-lined baking sheets at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 20-25 minutes until golden.

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Where do sfogliatelle come from?

The short answer is the region of Campania in southwestern Italy. Naples is the capital of that region, and sflogliatelle have been enjoyed there for at least several centuries. The Pintauro pastry shop in Naples says they invented sfogliatelle in the year 1785, indeed they’ve gone so far as to inscribe the claim on their building’s outside wall. However there is some debate as to whether the founder of the shop, one Pasquale Pintauro, wasn’t a better marketer than he was a baker, and whether instead of inventing sflogliatelle as he said, simply created a knockoff of a preparation that had been made for decades by nuns at the Santa Rosa convent in the nearby town of Conca dei Marini.

That may or may not be true, however I should also point out that some truly devoted sflogliatelle-o-philes believe that the nuns themselves knocked off the recipe, and that the first true sflogliatelle were in fact invented decades before — around the year 1700 — at the Croce di Lucca monastery in Naples proper.

We’ll never know for sure who pilfered what from whom. Any of those explanations could conceivably be correct, since laminating techniques — whether folding or rolling — were all the rage at the time, having arrived (probably) by way of the Arabs through Spain. That would certainly explain why Murcian meat pies and Italian sfogliatelle share the same technique.

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On the Two Kinds of Sfoglietelle

Several Italian readers have weighed in to point out that two kinds of sfogliatelle are made in Naples. There are riccia, or “curly” sfogliatelle (which is what I’m planning) and frolla, the “dough” style which is more like a cream puff. Had I known about the distinction I might well have chosen the much easier frolla style, declared victory and moved on to other things. But then the only sfogliatelle known in the States are the curly kind, so I probably wouldn’t have gotten away with it anyway. Sigh.

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Kentucky Hills + Chicago Snow = World’s Best Sledding

The snow may not be as thick as it is in Boston, but it’s amazing what a foot of snow will do to shut down the City of Louisville. Schools, businesses and government offices are closed. It would all be so depressing if the sledding wasn’t so fantastic. As a Chicago boy I’m no stranger to snow. Heck I spent almost six years of my life in Minneapolis where I saw snow almost 30 inches thick on Halloween. And while the climate favors snow, the topography is mostly indifferent to sledders. Oh sure you can find some decent hills here and there in the Midwest. The City of Chicago once maintained some wicked toboggan runs (all now taken down due to too many cracked tailbones — killjoys!).

However no place I’ve lived rivals Kentucky for the sheer number and variety of steep sledding hills. There are half a dozen within east reach of the house, probably the best being Dog Hill over in Cherokee Park, where if you get the right angle — and don’t hit a tree — you can go almost a quarter mile. Monday’s sledding was good. Yesterday’s, as the show was well packed by then, was blazing fast. Top speeds exceeded 27 miles an hour according to another father’s iPhone speedometer app.

This fellow was going particularly fast. Faster than myself, Mrs. Pastry or the girls, even though we had mostly the same sliding devices: plastic sleds and fabric-wrapped inner tubes. At one point I asked him about his speed edge. “Oh I spray all the bottoms of these things with PAM before we leave the house,” he replied. That, my friends, is a man who has his priorities straight. The girls are off again today. We’re going to hit the hills early before the deep cold sets in this afternoon. Geronimo!

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What sort of fat?

Here’s an interesting question. As mentioned below, lard is traditional for this type of rolled laminated dough. That’s probably because pig fat has traditionally been cheap and available in places where you find sfogliatelle and Murcian meat pies: Italy and Spain. The question is: will other types of fats work for this dough? My feeling is they will. Butter should work great even though it’s about 15% water (lard by contrast is only about 1% water). As we pastry makers know, butter works well with other types of laminated doughs, though the lower moisture Euro-style and “dry” butters are generally preferred. Why? Because more moisture means wetter dough layers, which tend to stick together instead of separate. In my research I’ve found recipes that call for a mix of lard and butter which I think is a terrific idea. That way you’d get good layer separation without too much “piggy” taste, assuming that’s a problem. It isn’t for me.

Shortening would work also I would think, though its higher melting point would probably make the dough a little harder to work with. One reader asked if ghee would work for sfogliatelle. My feeling is it wouldn’t for the same reason that liquid fats can’t be used for other types of laminated dough: it would soak into the pastry. Anyway, such is my thinking at this early stage of the game!

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