Biting into a puff pastry and feeling dozens of crunchy layers of pastry unfold in your mouth is one of those magical sensations offered by food. Desserts such as millefeuilles or biscuits like palmeras are still great public favourites. In the 'vintage' kitchen recipe books and in some traditional bakers we can still find puff pastry covered pies and sumptuous vol au vents, little cups made with puff pastry dough that become a delight filled with a good bechamel sauce and finely chopped meat, and which constitute one of the French contributions to this immortal pastry dough.
Many Internet sites attribute the origin of puff pastry to the ingenuity of a pastry apprentice in France at the beginning of the 17th century, but although French pastry chefs (in particular the great kitchen revolutionary Marie Antoine Carême, who standardised the recipe by establishing the number of folds of the dough and the amount of fat between each one) have undoubtedly contributed much to its perfection, the truth is that puff pastry had been known for centuries before, and that it was introduced to Spain by the Arabs.
In the book 'La cocina hispano-magrebí durante la época almohade', an anonymous manuscript from the 13th century, the "making of greased puff pastry" is already listed. It is actually a layered puff pastry, more like the even older filo pastry that is still around today in the Middle East, Greece and Turkey and which is made by piling very thin layers of unleavened dough with melted butter inbetween. In the 13th century recipe, after cooking on a griddle and then oiled with butter, a thin sheet of dough is then rolled up and plaited before kneading and frying it again in butter to achieve the miraculous inner layers. It is then dipped in a hot syrup of honey and butter. A quite calorific and primitive version.
In the novel 'La lozana andaluza' by Francisco Delicado (1528), the main character Aldonza includes puff pastry among her culinary skills, and in 1607 Domingo Hernández Maceras, chef at the Colegio Mayor de Oviedo, University of Salamanca, alludes to puff pastry in savoury pasties and sweet pastries, although he does not give the recipe. A multitude of traditional sweets emanate from the basic recipe such as pastries filled with angels' hair and pumpkin and combined with meringue, custard and cream. The famous puff pastries from Guarromán (Jaén), also probably the result of this tradition, are still made in Arabic wood-fired ovens in some bakeries, although the improvements to the local recipe and its fillings are attributed to the German colonists who passed through the province in 1767, after the Christian conquest.
The French painter Claudius Geleé (1600-1682), nicknamed 'Le Lorraine', who worked as a pastry cook's apprentice during his adolescence, is reputed to have introduced a layer of butter between two layers of dough to make a loaf, from which he would later remove the yeast. Later Antoine Carême (1785-1833), is credited with the standardisation of the recipe and the invention of the vol au vent.
In modern confectionery there are various recipes both for the intercalation of fat (common puff pastry, where the dough wraps around the fat; the inverted recipe, where the fat wraps around the dough, and the fast recipe, with both ingredients mixed from the beginning (sometimes called 'rough-puff'). A 'simple' pastry (in which a single layer of paste with a layer of fat on top is folded again and again on itself) will, after seven turns (folding each time) have 4,375 layers in total, which rise despite the lack of yeast because during cooking the melted fat separates the layers and the water in the dough evaporates, forming air pockets. By the way, the ideal temperature to cook puff pastry is 220º, and for about 20 minutes for medium sized pieces.
Today few people make puff pastry at home, although it can be made with time and patience, but there are many pre-cooked, frozen or fresh doughs available.
One factor that influences the flavour and final texture of the puff pastry is the type of fat used, usually butter, hydrogenated vegetable fats such as margarine, or pork fat, although there are confectioners who make some of their puff pastries with olive oil, such as José Miguel Guzmán, from José Miguel Pasteleros (Alhaurín el Grande). Those that use butter include the excellent bakeries Cati Schiff, Ignacio Mira and Daza, all which retain the flavour and aroma of this powerful milk fat and give an adorably crunchy texture to their pastries.