Many people approach the task of making puff pastry with great trepidation. How can I allay their fears? When I watched a young French chef make this pastry in the courtyard outside his cramped kitchen in 90 F heat, the butter didn't melt, and in the oven, the pastry rose beyond expectation. In a cool kitchen, anyone can succeed.
Puff pastry rises in the oven because of its unique construction -- thin sheets of dough separated by thin sheets of butter. This is accomplished by rolling the dough into a rectangle, then folding it onto itself, not once, but six times. (Each rolling and folding is called a turn.) With each turn, the layers become thinner and more numerous, resulting in 729 layers of butter sandwiched between 730 layers of dough when the pastry is ready for its final shaping. In the oven, air trapped between the layers, and steam formed from the moisture in the dough, push the layers apart and make the dough rise dramatically.
Although the dough needs some rest periods, the actual time spent manipulating it is only about 30 minutes from start to finish. Then it will rest in the refrigerator or freezer until its creator wants a dessert that only its multitudinous layers can provide.
Use a butter whose taste you like, provided it contains at least 82 percent butterfat.
3 1/4 cups (1 pound) unbleached all-purpose flour
Mix the flour and salt together in a medium bowl. Cut 1/4 pound of the butter into 1/2-inch pieces. Put them in the bowl, and, using your fingertips or a pastry cutter, rub the butter and flour together. The butter will break into smaller pieces, each coated with flour. Continue until the mixture looks like a coarse meal.
Put the lemon juice in the water. Pour the water into the bowl, a little at a time, mixing with your other hand. Turn the resulting dough onto a lightly floured work surface, and knead it a few times, until all the dough is gathered into a ball. It will still look rough. Flatten it into a disk about 1/2 inch thick, enclose it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate it for 30 to 60 minutes.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and put it on a lightly floured work surface. Poll it into a 13-inch disk, leaving a center area about 6 inches in diameter thicker and thinning the periphery, so that it has a shape like a hat lying on a table.
Take the remaining 3/4 pound of butter from the refrigerator and, on a lightly floured work surface, beat it with a rolling pin into a disk about the same diameter and thickness as the fat center of the dough. Put the butter in the middle of the dough, and fold the edges over it. Now you have a piece of butter completely enclosed in dough.
Turn it over so that the folded side is on the work surface. Pound the package (not too hard) a few times with a rolling pin to flatten it somewhat. Roll the dough into a rectangle 20 by 11 inches, with one of the narrower sides facing you. Dust off any excess flour. Fold the bottom part of the dough up about a third of the way, then fold the top down, like a letter. Turn the dough so that the outer fold is on your left, like a book. Roll and fold the dough one more time. Make 2 finger indentations in the top of the dough to remind you that you have made 2 turns. Wrap the dough in plastic, and refrigerate 30 to 60 minutes.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and repeat the process, rolling and folding the dough 2 more times. Make 4 finger indentations in the top of the dough, wrap it in plastic, and refrigerate 30 to 60 minutes.
If at any time the dough resists your efforts to roll it, let it rest a few minutes and try again. And if butter breaks through the dough, lightly flour that portion and continue.
Remove the dough, and roll it and fold it 2 more times. Now the dough has 6 turns (and 729 layers) and, after a rest of 60 minutes, is ready to be rolled and shaped to make the pastry of your choice. Either refrigerate it up to 3 days, or wrap it in 2 layers of plastic wrap and freeze it up to 1 month.
If the dough has been refrigerated more than 1 or 2 hours, gently beat it with a rolling pin before rolling it into its final shape. If it is frozen, defrost in the refrigerator for about 3 hours.
Source: A Sweet Quartet: Sugar, Almonds, Eggs, and Butter: A Baker's Tour Including 33 Recipes by Fran Gage