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Everything You Need To Know About Pastry

We sometimes talk about things being ‘greater than the sum of their parts.’ Many foods fit into this category, with the individual ingredients of some dishes combining in a way that turns them from the ordinary into something extraordinary.

Pastry is one such example of a food that transcends the individual components it is made of, creating a taste and texture experience that few other foods can match.

Like many of our favourite foods, pastry is a simple thing, being made from a basic combination of flour, fat, salt and water.

Of course, pastry is an essential part of a pie, but what does it take to make great pastry? And what is the story behind how and why pastry came to exist?

Firstly, let’s look at what pastry is made up of.

Flour is the base ingredient for pastry, with wheat flour being the only real option for proper pastry. Other flours such as rye, oat, barley don’t produce good pastry. The rise of pastry coincided with the rise in the farming of wheat in Europe. Wheat flour contains the highest level of gluten compared to other grains, a vital component in making pastry. Gluten provides structure and strength to pastry and without it, pastry lacks bite and texture.

Fat is the next ingredient required for pastry, serving a few purposes. Firstly, when mixed with flour, it coats small pockets of flour, making them waterproof so that less water is absorbed by the flour. This is desirable as water produces gluten when mixed with flour. Too much gluten development would make chewy and unpleasant pastry. Fat allows just enough gluten development to hold the pastry together, but not too much to allow it to become chewy, like bread. Fat also provides flavour to pastry, producing that beautiful smell when baked that drives the senses into overdrive. There are a few fat choices when making pastry, butter being the most common, but lard also has a long history of being used. The richer classes probably preferred lard to butter as it was more expensive to produce than butter, which was seen as a food of the poor.

The original function of pastry (originally known as ‘Huff paste’ in Medieval England) was probably three fold. Firstly, it acted as a useful container to bake different ingredients before the invention of baking dishes. Secondly, pastry could be used as a preserving mechanism after baking, with clarified butter or animal fat being poured into the pie which would act as a shield against bacterial growth, helping preserve the pie for in some cases months at a time. Third, like many culturally well-established foods, pies were usually eaten on the go, often by hungry peasants working the land. A filling encased in pastry made a useful on the go snack that could be taken anywhere and eaten with the hands.

There’s a theory that pastry wasn’t originally eaten but was simply used as a carrier for the filling, being discarded once the contents of the pie were consumed. This seems unlikely for a few reasons. Flour was an expensive and labour-intensive ingredient to produce in years gone by, even the coarsest flour requiring a lot of effort. Wheat is also a good source of nutrients and it seems unlikely that the edible and nutritious pastry wouldn’t be consumed. Why go to the effort of making it to then not eat it? The ‘Proper Newe Book of Cookery’ from the Sixteenth century offers us a clue as to whether or not pastry was consumed as part of the pie.

‘Take fyne flour and a cursey of fayre water and a dysche of swete butter and a lyttle saffron, and the yolcks of two egges and make it thynne and as tender as ye maye.’

The recipe includes highly valued ingredients such as eggs, butter and particularly saffron, which lends weight to the idea that pastry was eaten. In addition, the instruction to make it ‘tender as ye maye’ would strongly suggest pastry was valued as an ingredient to be eaten as part of the dish.

Pastry making is something of a lost art these days. In years gone by, it was likely that nearly every home cook would have made pastry on a regular (if not daily) basis. These days, our time poor existences have reduced the amount of time available for home cooking, with pastry being one of the casualties of this trend towards decreased time spent cooking at home.

Well-made pastry requires not just good ingredients, but time and skill. The skilled pastry cook must know what proportion of each ingredient to use, how to keep ingredients at the right temperature and must develop a light and deft touch to create light and delicious pastry.

At Yorkshire Handmade Pies, we take our pastry making very seriously, having perfected the art of making pastry over many years. Although we produce at scale, our methods are very much rooted in the traditional pastry making skills of years gone by. Pies have a special place in our nation’s culinary history, with pastry being an integral part of a great pie. Great pastry is something to be revered and respected and we believe there’s something very special about properly made pastry.

If you’d like to experience the joy of properly made pastry, check out our range of delicious pies that are made with only the finest locally sourced ingredients.

Traditional Pies – Yorkshire Handmade Pies