This post is in memory of my Granma whose baking was (as far as my cousins and I are concerned) second to none. I remember that I loved her coconut sponge, but my little brother was a chocolate cake fan so whenever we came to stay she’d have baked both. The cakes were good, but it is the pastry I remember best. How flour, butter, and the carrier bags full of blackberries we’d picked walking in the Northumbrian countryside were transformed into golden crusted deliciousness was magical. She had a belief that a person could either make pastry or they couldn’t, and would always tell me I’d inherited her pastry-making hands. Whether or not this is true I’m not sure but I find the methodical act of rubbing in butter to flour wonderfully soothing; and bringing a golden, flaky (usually slightly leaking) pie from the oven for your loved ones is so good for the soul.
Pastry making can be traced back to ancient times, both Greek and Roman cuisine featured sweet pastry delicacies and the use of basic dough to create a case in which to cook meat goes back even further. The etymology of the word pastry seems simple enough, but its use in modern English may have a more convoluted journey. It, of course, has the same Latin origins as our word paste, the French pâte, and the Italian pasta but what’s interesting is that in English paste and pastry seem to have entered the language at different points. Paste is a Roman leftover and serves as a more general description of any soft, granular substance, but it seems that pastry entered the lexicon courtesy of the Normans. It is in fact an Anglicisation of the Old French pastairie (itself a derivative of the Latin pasta that became, in turn, pâté). It initially referred more to the finely chopped and seasoned meat than to the simple dough casing in which it was cooked. We know that the dough used for cooking was often eaten by the servants after the meat was served, so it makes sense that the Anglo-Saxon speaking natives would use the Norman word to refer to the part of that particular dish they got to eat.
So what of those pastry-making hands? When one makes pastry, the tiny grains of the flour are encased in the fat which stops long strands of gluten forming when water is added and the mixture is cooked – the opposite of bread dough. This is what makes the crumbly, flaky goodness known as being ‘short’. Though if the flour is too well coated then the pastry will have no structure at all, and so it’s important that the fat doesn’t become too warm. Whilst I have little experience of making many of the variations of pastry, the simple shortcrust I’m writing about today seems perfectly suited to my long-suffering, poorly circulated, perennially cold hands!
I apologise for the vagueness of today’s recipe but I don’t think I’ve ever measured amounts for shortcrust pastry. Despite my fond memories of Granma Fenwick’s blackberry and apple pie, it was my mum who taught me to make pastry. She would stand me on a chair and let me help with the rubbing in. The thing I most remember about making pastry with mum is that there was always plenty left over which I was allowed to mix with honey and form into shapes, so it would appear that non-adherence to strict quantities may be a family trait!
(Simple shortcrust pastry is far more forgiving than some would have you believe, it’s actually quite hard to get wrong – the worst you’ll have is something mediocre and as long as the filling’s tasty no one will notice! So while my recipe is pretty vague it shouldn’t matter too much and you’ll very quickly get a feel for it. It’s roughly half the amount of fat to flour. Also, remember, if you make too little then make a lattice top rather than a whole lid and if you make too much, it will always freeze.)
Plain flour – to make a decent-sized fruit pie, I fill a large mixing bowl just less than half full
Unsalted butter – fairly cold, but not so chilled you can’t work it. For this quantity of flour I use around 3/4 of a 250g pack.
1 large egg – yolk and white separated
– Cut the butter into small cubes (around 1cm squared) and add around half into the flour. (I love dropping it in from a height and making little craters… This might be just me.).
– Using thumb and first two fingers rub the butter and flour together, adding more cubes of butter as you go. This is hard work but kind of hypnotic. Eventually the mixture will come together and look a bit like breadcrumbs – I find if I reach my hand right to the bottom of the bowl and stir there’s always a either a rogue patch of unadulterated flour or lump of butter, so it’s worth a check.
– With a pallet knife (or, you know, the knife you cut the butter with because it’s one less thing to wash up) mix in the egg yolk
– Make a well in the middle of the mixture and pour in a little of the water. Using that knife again fold the sides of the well on top of the water and very gently mix inwards from the sides.
– Add and mix in more water a tiny amount at a time until the mixture starts to come together then use your (cold, cold) hands to begin forming the dough into a ball.
– Once you have a (minimally handled) fairly smooth ball of dough, lift it from the bowl, wrap in cling film and refrigerate. Leave it for at least an hour (I usually give it the time it takes me to prep and cook my filling) so the fat can firm up again. If your dough seems really sticky when you lift it out then sprinkle it with more flour.
– Preheat the oven to 180 degrees
– After resting the dough it’s time to roll it. It’s still important to avoid handling it too much so I find it’s best to portion it before rolling: cutting it into slightly inaccurate halves – the larger for the base and the smaller for the lid. Flour the surface and the rolling pin and roll to around 1/2 cm thickness or thinner if you dare!
– Grease the pie dish and gently lay the pie base over it. Using your knuckles press the pastry into the edges so it covers the dish. Prick holes all around with a fork to allow air to escape whilst baking (it looks pretty cool if you don’t but is rather useless as a pie crust).
– Cover with baking parchment weighed down (if you have those little pottery beans then great, I use a plate) and put in the oven for around 20 minutes, taking away the parchment for the last few minutes.
– Add the filling (cooked fruit, meat and gravy, mincemeat, four and twenty blackbirds…)
– Slick the edges with the egg white to help the two edges stick together and lay the lid on top.
– Glaze the top with the egg whites and cut a couple of slits for the steam to escape (do it in this order or the egg wash will cover the slits up)
– Bake for another 20 minutes or until the perfect colour.
As I said, these are rather vague directions and there are dozens of recipes put together by far more competent cooks than myself if you need a bit more accuracy. I just feel that making pastry is so simple, that everyone should do it and it shouldn’t be a scary thing to attempt. Also, I believe that it’s the imperfections that make a home made pie so appealing – there’s something ‘come hither’ about the tantalising glimpse of escaped filling bubbling out of the top; and the more ragged the overhanging edges are, the more opportunities for breaking off bits of hot, buttery pastry en route to the table.
As well as the family members mentioned here, I also got some help from the excellent ‘Lab Notes’ blog on The Guardian website and its post by Andy Connelly called ‘Science & Magic of Pastry’ which does include a possibly more helpful recipe than mine. (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/feb/20/recipe-fat-flour-water-science-pastry)