Fanny is all puffed up in the kitchen today. Even more so than usual. It's not her ego that's inflated on this occasion, but rather her classical culinary knowledge that has that 'bloated' feeling. She's bursting with joy to lead us towards a very steep but satisfying step on her 'culinary ladder' to master once and for all the particular pleasure that is perfect puff pastry. It also allows dear old Fanny to drop a few names and Michelin stars into the mix as she recounts the tale of how the greatest of all pastry pastes, pâte feuilleté, came into being. Ideal.
Fanny tells us that French chefs split hairs over it and dispute minuscule variations on its handling. Just a warning. So, we are so very fortunate that Fanny spent some time in the cool, sunny kitchen in Les Baux of Le Roi de Feuilletage (the English translation of the King of Puff Pastry doesn't quite do it justice) himself, the three-Michelin starred M. Raymond Thuillier. Nestled in the troglodyte hills and caves of the remote village, with caves that you could drive a London Bus into if you should ever posses one, apparently, they were also joined by the famous French artist M. Bernard Buffet. What a perfectly named celebrity for such a lover of home entertaining as Fanny.
The honourable Frenchmen shared the tale, as well as the skill, of the puff pastry with Fanny, who in turn shares it with us. Splendid. In a Paris restaurant in the eighteenth century a young junior chef was ordered to make a batch of butter pastry. All seemed well, as the youngster make quick work of it, and put the paste to store in the cool cave for a few days until required. It was only then that, with horror, he realised he had forgotten the butter. So he whipped out the fatless paste, slapped the butter in the middle, rolled it out, rolled it again and again until the butter was not visible and returned it to the coolness of the cave. No-one would know.
When the chef demanded his pastry, the young boy gave it to him but began to tremble with fear, in a way that Fanny surely recognised well from a very similar and constant reaction by her own assistants, as it was rolled out, glazed and baked in the oven. No-one at that time expected to see it reach several inches in height with paper-thin layers. The chef demanded to know what the youngster had done, and instead of walloping him with a wooden spoon when he confessed, he kissed him and shouted 'C'est magnifique! C'est feuilletage!' Fanny would never have done that...
Fanny recreates the magnificence for us in a glorious pic-strip. She makes a ring of self-raising flour on a cold marble surface, while squeezing every drop of moisture from her butter in a double layer of muslin. Half the butter is chopped into small cubes and rubbed into the flour, then the juice of a lemon (Yes! Lemon Juice!) with very cold water added and scissored in with two knives to make a paste. Only touch the paste directly after you have held your hand under a running cold tap for as long as you can stand it. Once chilled, roll into a rectangle. The remaining butter is shaped into an oblong, folded in the centre, turned, rolled and folded again. Chill for 30 minutes in ordinary domestic refrigeration and repeat 5 times. A pillow of pleated puff.
For Fanny, the first thing to do with the puff is naturally the buffet-tastic classic, Vol-Au-Vent. She uses metal cutters dipped into boiling water before use for large circles, and smaller cutters cut only three-quarters way through the paste for the centre piece, which then makes the top. Always dipped into boiling water first. Baked on a wetted tray and majestically risen, they are perfect filled with mushrooms cooked with soured cream. Fanny may not have had any stars or accolades of her own, but with these little crowns I hereby pronounce her La Reine de la Pâte, or more simply perhaps, The Queen of Puff.