Michele Curtis

First step is to mix the butter and flour. Click for more photos

Kitchen basics: How to make pastry

First step is to mix the butter and flour. Photo: Rebecca Hallas

  • First step is to mix the butter and flour.
  • Water is added to the mixture.
  • The mixture is placed on the bench and kneaded together.
  • The mixture is rolled out.
  • The mixture is rolled onto the rolling pin, then rolled over a pastry tray.
  • Mixture is pushed to the sides of the tray.
  • Rolling pin rolled on top of pastry tray to remove excess mixture.
  • Use a knife to remove excess patry to level with the edge of pastry baking tray.
  • A fork is used to pierce the bottom of the pastry tray.
  • Baking weights (beans or rice) is poured into the pastry tray for blind bake.
  • Make sure the pastry is sufficiently weighed down to prevent air pockets.

IF THERE is one culinary challenge that sends shivers down the spine it is making pastry. This is not a good thing; I firmly believe pastry can sense this fear, like dogs or horses do, and play up to it. It is much better to tackle your fear head-on and conquer the technique of pastry-making once and for all. Practice does make perfect.

There's a knack to making pastry. You may be lucky and get it right first time, but for many people it takes a few attempts before they master the technique. The basic principle to making pastry is a ratio of half fat (butter) to flour, with just enough water to bind it together. However, the more fat you can work into your pastry the richer and flakier it becomes. You could add more butter, or enrich your pastry with other fats such as cream, cream cheese or creme fraiche. Pastry-making is heavily influenced by the weather, to add further confusion, and requires cool working conditions.

To start, the flour and a pinch of salt should be sifted together into a large, stainless steel bowl. The cold butter is then added; you may like to grate it into the flour, or just dice it - whatever suits you best. Then, using just your fingertips, rub the butter and flour together until it forms a breadcrumb texture. Ensure your hands are not too warm - rinse under cold water if necessary or the butter will soften too quickly.

Try to lift the flour and butter up out of the bowl as you work, allowing the air to get in to the pastry. It is important to do this quickly and thoroughly. If you "work" the pastry too much it will cause the gluten strands in the flour to toughen and this in turn will cause the pastry to shrink during cooking.

Once you have a bowl of breadcrumb-like mixture, make a well in the centre and add the water. This water also needs to be cold; some suggest chilled, but for me, cold water from the tap always does the trick. Add just 1-2 tablespoons at a time, incorporating flour into the water. When most of the pastry has come together as a rough mass, tip the entire contents of the bowl onto a lightly floured surface. Knead the pastry 3-4 times to bring it together as a smooth mass. Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. This is called resting the pastry - it allows the gluten strands in the flour to relax and will prevent shrinkage.

Once the pastry has "rested", you can roll it out. Always dust your work surface and rolling pin with flour to stop the pastry sticking. But try to keep this dusting light: too much flour will affect the quality of the pastry. Roll the pastry evenly, rotating it 90 degrees every roll or two to prevent it sticking to the working surface. It is also ideal to roll the pastry loosely around the rolling pin, lift it up, re-dust the working surface and return the pastry the other side up, just once, halfway through the rolling process. Try not to roll pastry too thinly: 3mm is perfect.

Lightly butter your flan tin. Then, to check you have rolled out your pastry to the right size, place the tin on top of the pastry and allow an extra 2-3cm for the sides.

To line a pastry tin, place a rolling pin on top of the pastry at the edge closest to you. Pick up the edge of the pastry and roll the pin away from you, bringing the pastry with it. Position the rolling pin at the edge of the tin and unroll the pastry onto the tin. Loosely push the pastry down into the tin, easing it over the edges. Using your knuckles, push the pastry into the bottom corners of the tin. Then, using your fingertips, fit the pastry up the sides. Roll the rolling pin across the top to trim off excess pastry.

Lastly, work your fingers around the side of the tin, making sure the pastry is pushed down into the corners and up the sides. Trim off any excess pastry using a small knife.

You now need to return the pastry shell to the fridge to rest for at least another 30 minutes, but you can cover it and leave overnight in the fridge if preferred.

The last stage of pastry-making is to "blind bake". This phrase can cause some confusion, but it is the easiest part of the whole experience. If we don't blind bake, when we add the filling and cook our tart, the pastry will not cook properly and will remain soggy. Thus, for crisp pastry, always blind bake.

Prick the base of the pastry a few times with a fork - this allows any air to escape and prevents the pastry rising up. Cut a circle of baking paper, ensuring it is big enough to cover the base and sides of the pastry shell. Use it to line the pastry shell, and fill with baking beans (you can buy special pastry weights, or simply use rice or any type of dried beans. These can be reused many times over for this purpose).

Place pastry shell in pre-heated oven and cook for 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven, lift up one edge of the paper to see if pastry is cooked through. If not, return to the oven for a further 3-4 minutes. Check again. Once you are satisfied the pastry is cooked through, carefully remove the cartouche - another name for the lining - and beans, taking care not to spill them into the pastry. Return pastry shell to oven for 2-3 minutes to crisp the pastry slightly.

From here, add your chosen filling and cook as directed in the recipe.

Shortcrust pastry
This is the basic pastry used for all savoury tarts. It can also be used for sweet tarts, especially if the filling is very sweet.

INGREDIENTS

300g (2 cups) plain flour
pinch of salt
150g butter, diced
3-4 tbsp cold water
plain flour for dusting

METHOD
Sift the flour and salt. Rub in the butter to produce a breadcrumb texture. Add enough water to bring the pastry together and knead briefly. Wrap in cling film and chill for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 180C.

Roll the pastry on a lightly floured board to 3mm thickness. Line a buttered 25cm flan tin with the pastry, working your fingers around the side of the tin to make sure the pastry is pushed down into the corners. Trim off any excess pastry using a small knife.

Prick the base of the pastry shell with a fork and rest for 30 minutes.

Line the pastry with greaseproof paper, then add baking beans, pastry weights or rice. Bake blind for 15 minutes. Remove the paper and pastry weights and bake for a further 5 minutes to crisp the pastry.

Makes 1 x 25cm savoury pastry shell.

Sweetcrust pastry
This is much easier to work with than shortcrust because the sugar breaks down the protein in the flour and makes the pastry more supple. Use for sweet tarts.

INGREDIENTS
300g (2 cups) plain flour
150g soft butter, diced
pinch of salt
1 medium egg
55g (1/4 cup) castor sugar
plain flour for dusting

METHOD
Place the flour, butter and salt in a bowl and rub together until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Break the egg into a separate bowl, add caster sugar and mix lightly. Add to the flour mixture and mix until the pastry comes together. Wrap in cling film and chill for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 180C.

Roll the pastry on a lightly floured board to 3mm thickness. Line a buttered 25cm flan tin with the pastry, working your fingers around the side of the tin to make sure the pastry is pushed down into the corners. Trim off any excess pastry using a small knife.

Prick the base of the pastry shell with a fork and rest for 30 minutes. Line the pastry with greaseproof paper, then add baking beans, pastry weights or rice. Bake blind for 15 minutes. Remove the paper and pastry weights and bake for a further 5 minutes to crisp the pastry.

Makes 1 x 25cm sweet pastry shell.

Originally published in Epicure in 2007.