– flour, salt, fat, water (sometimes sugar) –
Cultures all over the world have teamed-up ground flour with a pinch of salt, some liquid and an animal fat to turn these simple ingredients into a paste that can be rolled and shaped to preference – there are hundreds of different pastry varieties to choose from; from the standard short crust pastry, to choux pastry, filo pastry, millifeuille and puff pastry. The later few are more suited to the master chef than the master cook. Unless you have an army of sous chefs to help you roll and fold your pastry over a dining room table or unless you have lots of time and a particular itch to turn your hand to puff pastry I wouldn’t recommend you engage in these delicious, though fancy pastries. For the purpose of simple home cooking it is perhaps easiest to stick to the basic recipes set out below. From these simple ingredients thousands of different pastry varieties are born and thousands of mouth-watering pies. For savoury pies I like to use lard or suet; for sweeter pies butter. This is a general rule of thumb and not set in stone. It is perfectly possible to mix and match the fats but I find that suet and lard compliment savoury pies whilst a sweeter pie calls for butter. One final tip: it is worth using chilled fats and leaving the pastry for an hour or so in the fridge before rolling out. It’s easier to handle a chilled-out pastry than a warm, gooey, messy one. Once you get used to making pastry regularly these recipes will become familiar and easy.
For a simple short-crust pastry
500 gr plain white flour
200 gr chilled butter or 4 heaped tbs. of lard or suet
1 tsp. salt
2 beaten eggs
A dribble of cold water if necessary
(Note: this is the amount for a standard pie dish top and bottom. If you feel like it you can add spices and herbs to flavour the pastry such as chives, parsley, finely chopped rosemary, cumin, caraway seeds etc. Also, I tend to use tbs. for measuring lard and suet rather than scales. It’s just easier.)
Put the flour, salt and fat into a mixing bowl. If doing by hand run the fat between the fingers until you have fine bread-crumbs. If using a food processor mix the flour and fat until the from bread-crumbs. Add the beaten eggs and any other herbs or spices you might decide to use. Bring together until a dough is formed. If it is too dry add a dribble of cold water. If it’s too wet add some more flour bit by bit. Leave to chill in the fridge for 30 – 60 minutes. When ready, sprinkle some flour over the kitchen surface and your rolling pin and begin to shape the pastry into your desired shape. Traditionally, the pastry is around the depth of a £ 1 coin. If you are making pie with a bottom as well as a lid oil the pie dish with some butter or olive oil, lift the pastry up on the rolling pin and place over the dish. Cut the edges away but leaving a bit of an over-hang – the pastry shrinks in the oven. Blind bake for 15-20 minutes before taking out of the oven. Add the filling before placing the lid on top. If you’re feeling creative you can use some of the left over pastry to cut out some different designs and shapes to decorate the pie. Glaze the lid with a beaten egg for a nice crusty, brown pie.
For a simple sweet pastry
250 gr. plain white flour
120 gr. chilled butter
A pinch of salt
80 gr, sugar
1 egg, beaten
A dribble of cold water or cultured milk if necessary.
(Note: this is the amount for a standard pie dish bottom only since most sweet pies are open. If you are intending to bake a closed pie use the amounts set out above. If you feel like it you can add spices to flavour the pastry such as cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla etc. You can also add some ground nuts such as hazelnuts or almond but be aware the pastry will be slightly drier so you may need some more moisture in the form of chilled water or cultured milk.)
Some notes on pastry (if you’re interested)….
Pastry recipes are pretty over looked these days in most cook books. Possibly because everyone is shying away from grain or because saturated fats were once thought to cause heart disease or perhaps for the more mundane reason that rolling out pastry is too much of a hassle in the same way that making bread is considered too much of a hassle for the everyday cook to engage in.
Even celebrity food writers and chefs swat pastry away with a quick – buy a roll of pastry – before proceeding to set out how to make the filling. What a pity! Most commercial options, tempting though they are and heaven knows I’m often tempted to buy them, are made from cheap vegetable fats and lack the flavour and texture of a comforting, delicious home-made pastry using only heritage, natural ingredients.
Worst of all the general decline in home-made pastry making means it can be hard to find lard or suet. Suet is still available in the UK but not lard. Lard can still be bought in some butcher’s shops in Belgium but not suet or beef drippings. No one buys or uses these once common fats. Ever since the saturated fat scare a decade ago many butchers have stopped stocking these delicious animal fats relied upon to form a key part of our staple diet for thousands of years. Where once the butcher would render the fat into big tubs for making the best ever chips, frietjes or savoury pastry baking now it is discarded or fed to the dogs. I swear if we go on like this in a couple of generations our pets will be healthier, stronger and more intelligent then us!
The one fat I would recommend you never use when making your own pastry are vegetable shortenings. I can think of no solid, heritage, vegetable fat (other than coconut fat) which is not artificial, patented or a fake. Worst of all modern vegetable shortenings coat the mouth in what can only be likened to a fine layer of cloying plastic. Unlike butter, lard or suet which are packed with flavour vegetable shortenings have neither.