In summer I am pretty much always looking for an excuse to have a nice little treat. To be honest, most of the year I am looking for an excuse to treat myself (and my wife, I suppose). Finished all your chores? You earned a bottle of wine. Hard day at work? Let's get take out for dinner. You get the idea. However, in summer the bar drops to an all time low. The sun is out? Better make some mid-day cocktails. The sun isn’t out? Better make some mid-day, pick-me-up cocktails.
July is an especially good time to find reasons to celebrate because the one sporting event I follow is on: the Tour de France. I have been a cycling fan since I was a kid, and watching the three week long(!) bike race has always provided lots of opportunities to celebrate, not least among them the spectacle that viewers are always treated to on Bastille day.
For those dear readers who aren’t familiar, Bastille day is a French holiday similar to our fourth of July celebrations. It celebrates the storming of the Bastille in France, a watershed moment in the French Revolution, and the subsequent abolition of feudalism that followed. It is celebrated on the 14th of July and it is one of the most exciting days in the tour de French because a French rider always pulls out all the stops to win the day (though—alas— they rarely do). This year, as every year, I forgot about Bastille day until it was upon us (for some reason I always think its the 18th), but I wanted to do something to celebrate anyway. As a chef, I figure the best way to celebrate any French holiday is with French food. After much deliberation we settled on salmon en croute (salmon wrapped in puff pastry and baked), and a tomato salad with bloomy rind cheese and vinaigrette.
To make salmon en croute I would need some puff pastry, and since I am a chef, and it was Bastille day I was ethically and professionally obligated to make it from scratch. A lot of people think making puff pastry is daunting or intimidating, but it really isn’t. It takes a fair bit of time, but almost all that time is inactive. If you have the skills to roll out pie dough, mix a batch of cookie dough, and set a timer, you already have more than the skills you need to successfully make your own puff pastry. And the feeling of satisfaction that comes from watching the dough you made puff up to 6 times (or more) its height in the oven makes it more than worth the trouble of giving it a shot.
First, you want to mix the dough. Mine consisted of 4 cups (500 grams(g)) all-purpose flour, 2 teaspoons (10 g) salt, 1 cup (250 g) water, and 4 Tablespoons (50 g) melted butter. Mix until it just comes together into a smooth ball of dough; try not to overwork it.
Then cut a tic tac toe board of slashes in the top of your dough ball. They say this helps the dough to relax, but who knows. I do it because the French say to and who am I to question them on Bastille day?
Then wrap in plastic and stash in the fridge for at least 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare your butter. For the amount of dough I made, I would need 400 grams of butter, or about 3 1/2 sticks. By the way, these amounts make a substantial amount of puff pastry. You could easily halve or even quarter these amounts and successfully replicate the method.
Our goal with the butter is to make it into a thin (about 1/4-1/2 an inch) rectangular block. Just about every recipe I’ve ever read for doing this tells you to use chilled butter, and then bash it with a rolling pin until it comes together into a roughly rectangular amoeboid mass. This has always struck me as a bit ham-fisted when one could much more easily use softened butter, wrap it in a parchment paper pouch
And use a rolling pin to roll it into a very tidy, perfectly proportioned block, then simply chill it in the fridge for about 10 minutes to re-stiffen it.
It's faster, easier, more precise, less work, cleaner, and it's less noisy. It would take a lot of convincing for me to do it any other way.
From here, we will roll out our dough until it's a little more than twice the size of our butter block, then place the butter block on the bottom half of our rolled out dough, before folding the dough over top to sandwich the butter. Crimp the sides to seal in the butter and roll out into a long rectangle.
Then fold the dough into thirds like a letter before rolling it out into a long rectangle again. Fold it into thirds again, then wrap it in plastic and let it rest in the fridge for 40 minutes. Rolling out and folding your dough this way is called a turn, this counts as two turns.
Repeat the previous steps until you’ve given it a total of five turns. After a final rest your puff pastry is ready to roll out and bake.
But my work was far from over. After I rolled out my puff pastry I made a tarragon and pea tendril béchamel, spread it on the pastry, then placed my salmon filet on top, seasoned it with salt and pepper and closed up the pastry. I used a fluted round cutter to texture the pastry with little salmon scales which absolutely were not retained after baking.
I made a salad with tomatoes, black raspberries, a local bloomy rind sheep milk cheese, tons of herbs, and a shallot and thyme vinaigrette made with my pretty pink basil vinegar, then plated the baked salmon en croute to enjoy a nice summer meal en plein air (i.e. outdoors).
Pair all that with a lovely local pétillant naturel wine from Red Tail Ridge winery, and I could almost hear the cries of “Vive la révolution!” echoing off the hills.
If you, like me, share a passion for things French and pastry related, why not check out our upcoming Virtual Macaron Workshop on Sunday, July 24 at 3pm CST? Our pastry chef will give you real-time guidance in preparing what can be somewhat tricky cookies that are filled with buttercream and jam.
We also have a Virtual Croque Madame class on Sunday, July 31 at 11am CST. This ham and Gruyere cheese griddled sandwich with Béchamel and topped with a fried egg will be your new favorite brunch dish!
And to learn what wines to pair with your French creations, don't miss our new wine class, The Brilliant Blends of France with Advanced Sommelier Mary Ross on Friday, August 19 at 6pm at Lincoln Square. Branch out from U.S. blends to the French classics, with discussions of history and ‘recipes’ and, of course, tasting of the world’s most highly regarded blended wines, with two examples each, complemented by wine-friendly noshes.