Prepared doughs such as puff pastry and phyllo encourage creativity while ensuring consistency.
This article first appeared in the 15 October 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website here >>
By Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor
Gavin Kaysen, chef at El Bizcocho at San Diego's Rancho Bernardo Inn, learned how to make puff pastry as an apprentice in Switzerland. Yet making it from scratch in the tight confines of El Bizcocho's kitchen is a task he happily sidesteps by using a purchased product.
"It's important to have puff pastry on hand," he says. "We don't have a baking facility to make it. It's important to buy it and to buy the best quality we can."
Many chefs appreciate that a purchased dough offers consistency and ready availability in a time crunch. When a problem with El Bizcocho's ventilation system caused smoke to waft into the dining room, puff-pastry canapés, quickly assembled and baked, assuaged the hunger of guests, who congregated on the patio.
"When you are in a hotel setting, you have to have something like that on hand; you just never know," says Kaysen.
Finding the Perfect Balance
Popular prepared doughs tend to be ones that most chefs know are more trouble to make than to buy. These items become flexible bases with which to build crowd-pleasing dishes.
At 34th Street Cafe in Austin, Texas, Justin "Raif" Raiford removed a savory summer tomato tart with Stilton and arugula and added a caramelized onion, saffron and Gruyère tart. Sliced sweet onions are caramelized with butter and then deglazed with white wine. A pinch of saffron seasons the onions, which are then layered into individual blind-baked puff-pastry shells and topped with Gruyère. "People really do like tarts," Raiford says. "Though puff pastry is high in fat, it seems light and has a nice texture."
Chef Michael Scott Castell also keeps puff pastry available for last-minute requests and for regular-menu items. His fall menu at Bistro Toulouse in Houston includes a puff-pastry-wrapped baked apple dessert, where the apple is baked slowly, cooled, wrapped in puff pastry and then baked to order. After the wrapped apples are baked, Castell fills them with cajeta, a Mexican caramelized condensed milk.
Certain venues thrive on change. Such is the case with World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, where Chef Matt Babbage cooks for R&B fans one night and folk-music fans another, all the while orchestrating the food for a bar mitzvah. "I don't need to be the best at everything, but I need to make sure that the work gets done," he explains.
Phyllo cups and puff pastry offer elegant solutions for getting good food out of the kitchen quickly. For Babbage's chicken pot pie, a warmed chicken stew is ladled into a ramekin, topped with puff pastry and baked to order. Using purchased phyllo cups saves time when plating passed hors d'oeuvres; Babbage fills the cups with hot mushroom ragoût.
Executive Chef Jeff Landry at Eve's at the Garden in the Portland Harbor Hotel in Portland, Maine, finds the perfect balance between quality and convenience with lobster spanakopita. Buttered phyllo layered with spinach and triple-cream French cheese can be made ahead of time, refrigerated or frozen, and baked as needed for special events.
"Phyllo is a vehicle; sometimes you're looking for that crisp texture," Landry says.
Aside from puff-pastry and phyllo dough, other doughs offer chefs options. For an appetizer, Kaysen wraps an oyster in katafi, a shredded phyllo dough, and fries it. Castell once bought brioche dough from a nearby bakery for doughnuts. "They were the best doughnuts I've ever had," he says.
Robert Jorin, team leader of the baking and pastry program at The Culinary Institute of America's Greystone campus, knows the importance of understanding basic technique even when buying a purchased dough. "If [operators are] using a purchased dough, they still need to understand how long they need to proof the dough," he says.
Puff pastry figures frequently in classic European dishes, but some operators are giving these classics modern twists:
Classic: Beef filet coated in pâté or duxelles, wrapped in puff pastry, and baked.
Modern: Brennan's of Houston, Houston. Veal "Wellington": Veal tenderloin on a pastry disk with pan-seared foie gras and wild-mushroom ragoût (shown)
Classic: Dessert comprising layers of puff pastry and pastry cream, glazed with icing or dusted with powdered sugar
Modern: Sona, Los Angeles. Citrus-Cured King Salmon Mille-Feuille: with fennel and crème fraîche
Classic: A caramelized upside-down apple tart
Modern: Daniel Boulud Brasserie, New York City. Tomato Tatin: with goat cheese, arugula, and basil pistou
Classic: Lidded puff-pastry shell traditionally filled with a creamy mixture of protein or vegetables
Modern: Bacar, San Francisco. Salt Cod Vol-au-vent: with heirloom tomatoes and tarragon butter.
The Pleasures of Pâte à Choux
While making phyllo requires considerable skill and access to a lot of table space, and preparing puff pastry requires temperature-controlled work spaces and, preferably, a sheeter, there are versatile pastry bases that are perfectly suited for savory kitchens.
Pate a choux is one of them. At Cafe Pyrenees in Libertyville, Ill., Chef-owner Jean-Marc Loustaunau uses it both for dessert preparations such as profiteroles and for savory appetisers such as gougères.
Says Loustaunau: "Sometimes, you need to be a little more rounded as a chef. You need to know some pastry."