In baking, a puff pastry is a light, flaky, unleavened pastry containing several layers of fat which is in solid state at 20°C (68°F). In raw form, puff pastry is a dough which is spread with solid fat and repeatedly folded and rolled out, and used to produce the aforementioned pastries. It is sometimes called a "water dough" or détrempe.
Puff pastry seems to be a relative of the Middle Eastern phyllo, and is used in a similar manner to create layered pastries. While traditionally ascribed to the French painter and cook Claude Gelée who lived in the 17th century (the story goes that Gelée was making a type of very buttery bread for his sick father, and the process of rolling the butter into the bread dough created a croissant-like finished product), references appear before the 17th century, indicating a history that came originally through Muslim Spain and was converted from thin sheets of dough spread with olive oil to laminated dough with layers of butter, perhaps in Italy or Germany.
The production of puff pastry dough can be time-consuming, because it must be kept at a temperature of approximately 16°C (60°F), and must rest in between folds. Commercially made puff pastry is available in the freezer section of grocery stores. Common types of fat used include butter, vegetable shortenings, and lard. Butter is the most common type used because it provides a richer taste and superior mouthfeel. Since shortenings and lard have a higher melting point, puff pastry made with either will rise more than pastry made with butter if made correctly; however it will often have a waxy mouthfeel and a more bland flavor.
Puff pastry is not the same as phyllo (filo) pastry, although puff pastry can be substituted for phyllo in some applications. Phyllo dough is made with flour, water, and fat and is stretched to size rather than rolled. Usually when using phyllo dough, a small amount of oil or melted fat (usually butter) is brushed on one layer of phyllo dough and is topped with another layer. This process can be repeated as many times as desired. When it bakes, it becomes crispy but, since it contains somewhat less water, does not expand to the same degree as puff pastry does.
Puff pastry can also be leavened with baker's yeast to create croissants or Danish pastry, though such doughs are not universally known as puff pastries.
In addition, since the process of making puff pastry is generally somewhat laborious and quite time-intensive, faster recipes (known as "blitz" or "rough puff") are fairly common. Many of these recipes combine the butter into the détrempe rather than adding it in the folding process and are thus similar to a folded short crust.
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