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If you happen to walk past a French cake shop early in the morning you will be irresistibly drawn by an intense fragrance of butter, with no other choice but to enter the shop and buy an assortment of croissants, shortcrust pastries, tartellettes and whatever else takes your fancy.
What all of these wretchedly tempting pastries have in common is butter. All it takes is butter, flour and water to make different types of pastries which lend themselves to numerous sweet and savoury interpretations.
The 3 main butter pastries
Butter-based pastries can be divided into 3 main types: puff, rich shortcrust and pie crust pastry.
Pie crust pastry is the simplest of all: 200 grams of 00-type flour go into a bowl with 100 grams of diced butter and a pinch of salt. Once the ingredients are reduced to a fine crumbly texture, water has to be added very gradually (about 50 g in all) until a smooth even dough is obtained.
Rich shortcrust pastry is a further development of this theme. In this case, our mixing bowl will contain 300 grams of 00-type flour, 100 grams of sugar, 2 whole eggs and 100 grams of diced butter. The ingredients are worked together by rubbing them quickly and lightly between thumb and fingertips, until they form a ball of dough.
Now we come to puff pastry, which is the trickiest of all. 30 grams of 00-type flour and 100 grams of diced butter have to be mixed together, possibly with a processor or wooden spoon to avoid heating the dough excessively with your hands. At this point the dough has to go into the fridge for half an hour. In the meantime, prepare another pastry dough with 120 grams of flour, 80 grams of water and a pinch of salt, and then roll it out into a rectangular shape using a rolling pin.
Now take the butter dough from the fridge and place it at the centre of the rectangle, folding over the edges of the rectangle on two sides so as to cover the butter dough. Now roll out everything together as if it were one single dough. Fold it over and roll it out again, repeating the operation several times. The pastry layers increase exponentially: by folding three times, you obtain nine layers; tradition demands that the pastry is folded six times in succession for a total of over seven hundred layers!
The secrets of perfect butter-based pastry
As you see, the three pastry types have a lot in common and even if they produce different results and are used in various ways, there are some golden rules you need to know to make them even more delicious.
Most of the useful tips on pastry-making have to do with its main protagonist: butter. Use the unsalted variety: salted butter contains more water which hinders the formation of gluten that is essential for making pastry stretchy. Make sure its fat content is sufficiently high (at least 84%): in this way, it melts more slowly and enables you to prepare the dough with greater care.
The resting time is another important factor to be taken into consideration. All types of butter-based pastry dough, once made up, have to rest in the fridge. This facilitates the penetration of water in the starch molecules which is slowed down by the butter but necessary to keep the starchy grains well separated and to guarantee a crisp final result.
Time is a constant factor in the preparation of these delights, but with regard to the actual handling, it has to be done as quickly as possible. Learn to prepare these pastry doughs rapidly: when the process is too lengthy, the gluten proteins risk coagulating and forming a lattice which would be detrimental to the crispness of the pastry and (whenever required by the recipe) would prevent the dough from rising properly.
A quick 'scientific' recipe
Prepare a rich shortcrust pastry as described above and after leaving it to rest at least half an hour in the fridge, roll it out and shape it into rounds using a glass or pastry cutter. Adapt the pastry rounds to a muffin baking tin, pierce them with a fork and bake in the oven for 15 minutes at 200°C. When they are cool, fill the little tarts with stracchino fresh cheese, diced tomatoes and a sprinkling of oregano.