Puff the magic dough

If you love pastries at parties but have hesitated to bake them at home, these are worth trying.

croissants 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
croissants 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Appetizer puff pastry treats are enticing and have a special air of elegance, yet are very easy to make with ready-made pastry. Ranging from light sticks of seed-sprinkled pastry to more substantial hors d'oeuvres filled with mini-frankfurters, these small pastries - only a few savory bites each - always disappear quickly at parties. The secret is to purchase good-quality puff pastry, so it's a good idea to try a few brands to see which you like best - if the pastry is bland or dry, the appetizers won't be as good. Although puff pastry is rich - typical recipes call for equal weights of flour and butter - it feels light and airy when you eat it because it puffs into flaky layers. I learned to make these savory little pastries from Ruth Sirkis, when I worked for her typing the manuscript for her best-selling book, Cooking with Love (in Hebrew). She has a wonderful recipe for puff pastry Parmesan caraway twists seasoned with salt and paprika. When I first tried them, I was so impressed by how easy and delicious they were. Only years later did I find any pastry that was comparable - caraway-seed twists at bakeries in Vienna. Following that visit I found other variations of these puff pastry appetizers in France. At cooking school in Paris we made them in several flavors. Our chef-instructor taught us to roll out a sheet of buttery puff pastry that we had made in class, brush it with beaten egg, then top it with anchovy fillets (or anchovy paste mixed with butter for a milder taste) or thin rows of grated cheese at equal intervals, then to cut them into sticks and bake them. When I worked briefly as a trainee at the celebrated Patisserie Millet in Paris, I had the chance to learn how to make an impressive array of these tempting pastries from master chef patissier Denis Ruffel, author of the three-volume Artisan Traiteur (the artisan caterer). Sometimes he baked puff pastry rounds topped with a little grated cheese or paprika, then split them and filled them with a creamy herbed cheese or a thick cheese sauce - the result was an ultra-rich puff pastry sandwich. Ruffel's nut-topped pastries were delicious and beautifully simple - a round of puff pastry brushed with beaten egg and topped with an almond, a walnut half or three hazelnuts. He also made two-tone seeded pastry sticks, half-covered with poppy seeds and half-coated with sesame seeds. His trick for coating them neatly was to use a cardboard template to cover the poppy-coated half when he sprinkled the sesame seeds over the other half. As these treats baked, the pastry rose and turned golden and light-textured, and the nuts and seeds were toasted. Chefs also make small appetizer versions of the sweet palm-leaf cookies (palmiers), sometimes called elephant ears, using cheese or grated onion instead of sugar. More elaborate filled fingers of pastry might enclose meat or fish pâté. Crescent-shaped cocktail puff pastries can enclose grated cheese or a thin slice of smoked meat. If you love pastries at parties but have hesitated to bake them at home, these are worth trying. After all, many of them need only three ingredients - the pastry, a beaten egg and a savory sprinkle. GREEN ONION AND PARMESAN CROISSANTS Savory croissants have become à la mode for parties and are simple to prepare with purchased puff pastry. Serve these small pastries as an hors d'oeuvre, as part of a buffet, or as an accompaniment for soups. To get ahead you can shape the pastries and freeze them, ready to bake. They are best on the day you bake them, but you can keep the baked pastries in an airtight container or in the freezer. 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter 1 cup sliced green onions (white and green parts) 3⁄4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese Pinch of cayenne pepper Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg 450 gr. good-quality puff pastry, well chilled 1 egg, beaten with a pinch of salt In a medium-size skillet, melt butter over low heat, add green onions and cook, stirring, about 4 minutes, or until soft but not brown. Cool completely. Mix grated cheese with cayenne pepper and nutmeg. Sprinkle two baking sheets very lightly with water. Keep puff pastry refrigerated until ready to use. Work with half of pastry, keeping rest refrigerated. On a cold, lightly floured surface, roll pastry out into an 18-cm. x 34-cm. rectangle about 3 mm. thick. Work quickly so pastry does not soften, moving it often and flouring it occasionally to prevent sticking. Brush pastry lightly with beaten egg and sprinkle with half of cheese mixture. Press cheese so it will adhere. Using heel of a large knife, cut pastry lengthwise into two strips, each about 9 cm. wide. Cut each strip into triangles in which two sides are approximately equal, making each cut across width of strip; the first triangle will be pointing up, the second one will be touching it and pointing down, and so on, so that all of the strip is cut into triangles and there are no scraps. Flour knife occasionally if it begins to stick to pastry. Spoon about 1⁄2 teaspoon green onions along one side of one triangle. Roll up tightly in direction of point opposite it. Press to attach to point. Repeat with remaining triangles. Transfer pastries to one of prepared baking sheets and, if you like, curve both ends to form a croissant; or keep them straight. Refrigerate pastries. Continue shaping croissants from remaining pastry. Refrigerate for at least 30 and preferably 60 minutes. Preheat oven to 220º. Brush pastries with beaten egg. Bake pastries about 12 minutes, or until puffed and brown. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes about 24 pastries. RUTH SIRKIS'S CARAWAY-CHEESE TWISTS Ruth Sirkis writes that these savory treats melt in your mouth and are perfect for entertaining but that, if you just happen to make them for no particular reason, your family will eat them up all at once. She notes that you can make them with either Parmesan cheese or caraway seeds alone but that in this case, two are tastier than one. 500 gr. puff pastry, well chilled 40 gr. grated Parmesan cheese (about 3 Tbsp.) 1 tsp. salt 1⁄2 tsp paprika 1 Tbsp. caraway seeds Preheat oven to high heat, about 220º. On a floured work surface, roll pastry out to a 50-cm. x 25-cm. rectangle. Lightly moisten the pastry by brushing it with water, using a pastry brush. Sprinkle the cheese, salt, paprika and caraway seeds over half the dough, making a 25-cm. square. Fold the other half of dough over the sprinkled half, forming a square. Using the rolling pin, roll over the dough and enlarge it slightly, keeping its width at 25 cm. and lengthening it to 30 cm. The purpose of doing this is to make the two layers of dough adhere to each other. Using a sharp knife and a ruler, cut the dough in 2-cm.-wide strips along the length of the rectangle. You will get 12 strips. Cut each one in shorter strips about 10 cm. long. You should get 36 strips measuring 10 cm. x 2 cm. Twist each strip 3 or 4 times and put it on a baking sheet. Bake about 10 minutes in the heated oven until they are golden brown. Makes 36 pastries. Faye Levy is the author of the three-volume Fresh from France cookbook series and of Aruhot Halaviot, published by R. Sirkis.