Every laminated dough, be it puff pastry, croissant or Danish, begins its life as a thick slab of butter encased in a dough “envelope”. This 3-layer dough-butter-dough package is then flattened and folded however many times it takes to get the number of layers the maker is after. A folded flaky pastry for say, a galette, can have as few as 27 layers. Croissants often have 81, Danish 243, and puff pastry can have as many as 2187 (though I prefer the less flaky version of 729).
What these oddly specific numbers have in common is that they’re all factors of the number three. 243 is three to the fifth power which is what you get when you “turn” (i.e. execute a letter fold on) a three-layer dough five times. Pretty neat stuff that requires nowhere near the work you’d think. So let’s begin then, shall we?
laminating dough it actually a pretty straightforward affair, requiring only the most rudimentary tools, primarily this:
A club. Actually a Chinese rolling pin, but the overall effect is the same. Next we need a some butter, large pieces, ideally left out of the fridge for about 20 minutes. Below is about a pound and a half of it sitting on a double layer of plastic wrap. It’s the minimum I usually work with, since I figure if I’m going to the trouble of rolling pastry, I’d like to have some left over to freeze. Notice there’s flour on top. That helps the butter maintain its consistency longer, which is important for reasons you’ll soon see. Add about three tablespoons per pound of butter.
So now all we do is cover the butter and flour with another double-thick layer of plastic…
…and apply Club A to Butter Pile B.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Feel good? You bet it does. And if your spouse and/or children aren’t running into the room looking terror-stricken, you’re not hitting hard enough. Keep letting out your pent-up frustration until it looks rather flat.
Shore up the sides of the slab every so often with the side of your pin.
When it’s less than an inch or so thick peel back the plastic wrap (don’t worry if you’ve beaten a couple of holes in it)…
…and pile the butter up again.
Repeat the merciless beating.
What’s it all for other than stress release? Good question. You’re working in the flour while at the same time softening and shaping the butter into one giant pat. What you’re shooting for here is a butter consistency rather like play dough. Not too firm, since you want it to spread as you roll the dough out. But then not too soft either, since if the butter actually melts it’ll soak into the dough and ruin the layering effect. What you’re after is a plastic texture that isn’t at all greasy looking or feeling. If the butter starts to shine, it’s too warm. Put it back in the fridge for half an hour and start over with the tension release (hey, why not?).
The magic texture may take only one good pounding. It all depends on the temperature of the butter and the room. That consistency looks like this: a pale, dull powdery-looking surface.
Once you’re there you want to again shove it back into the shape of a big butter pat, using the side of your club, like so:
When that’s done set it aside for just a moment. Now is the time to fetch your dough. Set it out on the lightly floured board.
Roll it a little in one direction…
…then the other until it’s a little larger than the butter pat.
Put the butter pat on top like so…
Peel off the plastic and begin to fold the dough packet up:
As you’re doing this you want to pull the dough up around the corners and edges to make sure it’s as taught as reasonably possible.
Next squeeze the all the holes and seams closed (use a little water if you like):
So now what do you think is next? If you guessed more of this:
…you’d be right. Because when making pastry, violence is always the first resort. You want to start by hitting the dough square in the middle and working your way out to one side, then the other…about three hits per direction. The idea here is to drive the softened butter as far as possible to the edges of the packet.
Turn the dough 90 degrees and repeat.
Smack it some more, then rotate the package again a couple of more times. Smack, turn. Smack, turn. Smack, turn. Along the way if you see any conspicuous mounds of butter push up in the middle, give them a smack for good measure (no need to discriminate). A minute or two of this and the dough should be starting to flatten out, which means it’s time to start rolling. I use a smaller pin at this point since the dough is usually pretty soft, but you can use a big one if you prefer.
If you’ve beaten the envelope with sufficient ferocity, there should be butter within half an inch of all the edges.
If not it’s not the end of the world. Just grab a knife or bench scraper and trim off the un-buttered lip of dough until you can either see a thin layer of butter, or you can feel it close to the edge. Then give the dough a couple of more firm rolls with the pin until it’s about a third longer than it is wide.
Now it’s time for the first fold. Brush away any flour that you see on the sheet, then fold the outside third of the dough inward like a letter…
…and repeat with the other side.
Done! Slip your hands under the dough and transfer it to a sheep pan. Put on the plastic wrap and put the whole thing in the fridge for an hour.
Once the dough has chilled repeat the rolling and folding process again, only this time since the dough will be a good deal stiffer you’ll want to use the largest pin you have for leverage.
Roll it out again into a rectangle.
Should you see any medium-to-large bubbles along the way, slip them with a sharp knife and let the air out. This one is pretty small and not real worth worrying about.
Fold the dough once again like a letter.
And put it away in the fridge once again for about an hour
Having crested this hill it is now time to crack a celebratory beer, because it’s all smooth sailing going forward (whatever that curious mixture of metaphors means). All you have to do is pull the dough out every so often and give a turn or two depending on the dough you’re making, puff pastry, croissant dough, Danish dough, whatever.
In the early stages of a dough-rolling project, I find I can get away with two turns between chills. But judge for yourself. If the dough is feeling extremely limp, you find that you’re tearing layers just by handling it, or butter oozes out looking shiny, give it more fridge time. Alternately, if as you roll you notice that the butter just under the surface of the dough is rigid and is breaking apart like icebergs off the Antarctic ice sheet, give it a little less.
If I’m making puff pastry (which requires six turns minimum), I can usually do two turns at a time early on. Much past four turns though, and the dough begins to get a.) elastic and b.) warm. So I let the dough chill a full hour before the fifth and sixth turns, and sometimes even more for the seventh (if I’m doing one).
Once it’s all done I typically roll the dough into a long strip, cut it into roughly pound-size pieces, and freeze it in bags. Boy does this stuff ever come in handy.