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Shortcrust pastry

"There is never enough crust. The layer of puff, shortcrust or toasted crumbs seems plentiful till you bring your homemade pie to the table. It is only then, as plates are passed round, that you realise your handiwork has its shortcomings, and the beloved layer of pastry, its topside crisp and dry, it underside soaked with gravy, is inadequate." Nigel Slater

The quote comes from Nigel Slater's A Year of Good Eating, which is volume three of his Kitchen Diaries. The picture is of the finished product of the recipe which followed his little essay in praise of pastry. It's not the picture from the book - well it sort of is. I think for this version they lightened it somewhat because in my picture I have to say that the pastry all looked just a tiny bit burnt. Which is not really tempting. But I loved the words and I loved the concept. Because he is so right.

The day before yesterday we had chicken pies, and although the filling was tasty it was the pastry that was commented upon by my husband. And though I say it myself it was just as Nigel described. Now I don't hold myself up to be a pastry wizard - well witch - extraordinaire. I actually think my wonderful oven more than plays its part. I am rather of the opinion that if I can make good pastry then anyone can. Indeed I remember my younger son making excellent pastry when he was really quite young, and he did all the wrong things. It was not all kept cool and he kneaded it with his hands rather more than he should have.

So shortcrust pastry. Theoretically it's half the amount of butter to flour, plus liquid. If you want a basic recipe then go to Delia, but I see that even she adds some lard to the mix. It seems that every cook out there has their own 'secret' trick. Maggie Beer for example makes hers with sour cream instead of water. She is a bit of a missionary about this. If she could sell it she would. Mind you looking at the recipe I do wonder whether I have veered into flaky pastry here, as the ratio of butter to flour is much higher, but it's still the same principle - fat, flour and liquid.

But of course it's not that simple is it - even if you are making a standard pastry. I do remember being taught how to rub the butter into the flour at school. With the fingertips - your palms should not have any flour on them and as you did it you should lift it all well into the air. All to be kept cool was the other thing. And not to knead it too much. These days I believe, the right thing to do is to bash it about a bit to release the gluten. Well something to do with the gluten anyway And lots of resting and chilling is involved too before cooking. There are rules - although those rules seem to change over time.

It's really just another iteration of flour and water though isn't it? I wonder at what stage they decided that adding fat to the mix would help? What thought of that? And what kind of fat did they use?

And today people add all manner of other things to the mix.

For myself I always add a small amount of polenta. I think I got this tip from Jane Grigson but can't remember now. I generally make a big batch of shortcrust pastry - 500g worth of flour, and I also make it in my electric mixer. Occasionally I do it by hand if I am making a non-standard shortcrust pastry but generally I cheat and use the machine. Well why not - it does a pretty good job, and this way I can break it into small pieces and freeze them so that I can knock up a quiche any time. As to the polenta - I think it makes it a bit crisper. I think probably about 100g of my 500g of flour is polenta. Not a lot. I also add some grated lemon rind and some lemon juice, but to be honest I'm not sure that you notice this.

Then of course you can add herbs or spices. I suppose you could even add seeds of some kind. Some people seem to add an egg, or an egg yolk as the binder, but would that make it a different kind of pastry altogether? Cheese is another common extra. Nigel Slater added some Stilton instead of some of his butter to the mix, but you could add just about any kind of cheese you liked I guess. Or a mix. Jamie had a little tip the other day in that any small leftover bits of cheese that he had, he collected in a plastic container and then just used them on top of things, or in things as required.

Given that it is so simple to add other things I wonder why it has not been a thing in the past? Surely people in the past were just as inventive? I really don't believe we are any cleverer these days - we just have more prior knowledge accumulated over the centuries. Maybe it's just that today cooks like to break rules, to experiment and encourage others to do the same. Maybe in the past things were just done according to rules or according to how mum did it. I guess that's how you get all those traditional dishes.

As I said, I sometimes, well usually, add lemon juice to the mix, and I suppose you could try other liquids - cream, yoghurt, milk are obvious. I wonder what would happen if you added vinegar or wine? Has anybody done this? I checked and couldn't find any recipes with wine, but there were a few with vinegar. I know you can make pastry with olive oil instead of butter. Dan Lepard has a rather complicated, but doubtless delicious version in which he makes an ordinary mix and an olive oil mix and then puts them together, but Valli Little of delicious magazine has a rather simpler version that includes cheese and garlic in the mix. And there are lots of other examples of this.

And if you just increase the butter - you get shortbread - which is a whole different thing. Or is it? Short, by the way, as used in all these things is used in this context because:

"Introducing fat into baked goods interferes with the formation of the gluten matrix in the dough. As a result of its interference, gluten strands end up shorter which in turn creates a softer, more crumbly baked good." Huffington Post

No that's not right, as the writer goes on to say, because they didn't know about gluten when the term was first used way, way, back. No it's because 'short' used to mean 'tender' when you were talking about food. I guess it's just convenient that it also makes the gluten strands shorter.

Anyway like Nigel Slater I do love pastry, although I haven't yet resorted to making extra. Well not cooking extra. I do make extra though and that is very useful. Here's my chicken pie. Unlike Nigel I didn't really cook my pastry quite long enough. It could have been a bit browner. It looks a bit anaemic really.

And that was another attempt at French cooked green beans. Still haven't got it right.


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