Puff pastry is not just a riff on pie crust, although there are many instances where the pastry can be used in place of one. Puff pastry is a laminated dough that contains hundreds of thin layers of butter and pastry dough, which puffs up into a light, crispy pastry once it bakes in the oven. A laminated dough is one that has many layers, and puff pastry and croissants are the two best examples of this type of dough. Puff pastry is made by wrapping a block of butter in a very simple dough, rolling it out, folding it over and repeating the rolling and folding process for several “turns” of the dough, increasing the overall number of layers with every fold. It’s a fairly simple process, but it does require some patience, since you have to be careful that the butter stays cold as you work and never gets soft enough to squish out from inside all those layers. It’s not that difficult to make puff pastry, but it is time consuming, so store-bought versions are much more popular than homemade and can still be very tasty.
The layers are what make puff pastry so light and airy. When it bakes, the previously solid butter melts and produces a little puff of air as the liquids in the butter evaporate. This release creates little pockets, letting the layers stand out and giving the pastry its rise. The melted butterfat gives the pastry its flavor. Just as it is important to keep the pastry cold to keep the butter solid while you are making it, it is also important that the dough stay cool before you put it into the oven; if the butter is melted before it goes into the oven, you’re not going to get an impressive puff.
Puff pastry is incredibly versatile. One of the easiest – not to mention tastiest – things to do with it is to make palmiers, crispy cookies made with just puff pastry and lots of sugar. Other simple recipes include turnovers and tarte tatin, and I’ve also used it for a varition on baklava, shown above.