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The Lazy Cook's Secret Ingredient

By Charles Hopkins Published 05/18/2006 | Food & Drink
Have you ever found yourself wondering how you can give a new lift to old favorites? Or worrying over how you can tempt those picky eaters?

Try keeping a few sheets of frozen puff pastry in the freezer.

Puff pastry is one of the most useful, and at the same time most overlooked, weapons in the cook's arsenal. It gets less exposure than it should because many people are nervous of using it. If you are one of those, read on. You are about to become an expert.

Frozen puff pastry is one of the food industry's great success stories. From the cook's point of view it's easy to handle, needs no preparation and, even more to the point, it works every time.

On top of all that, it's versatile enough to be used in any number of ways from making mini pizzas to decorating the lamb roast. There is practically no end to its flexibility.

Take desserts for example. Cut one sheet of thawed out puff pastry into four pieces, place a spoonful of fruit into the middle of each one, bring the opposite corners of the pastry into the center and crimp them together between finger and thumb. Lightly glaze with an egg beaten in milk, top with half an apricot and a sprinkling of sugar and pop into a medium hot oven for 15 minutes.

You can use exactly the same technique for individual savory pies or, for a terrific farmhouse-style result, use two whole sheets, one for the base and one for the top.

You don't even need a pie dish. Put the base directly on to a baking sheet, add the filling and top with the second sheet, folding the edges over and pinching the corners together. The base will be light and crisp when cooked and the crust golden-brown and flaky.

Once you get started on using puff pastry in this way, you may find it difficult to stop. One great technique is to cut the pastry into shapes using a cookie cutter, glaze and bake the individual pieces and then use them to decorate whatever dish you are serving.

You could use crescent shapes to top off a casserole, or prepare triangles and place them artfully on cooked meat or chops. You could even cut the pastry into rounds, cover with something like sweet chilli sauce and grated cheese, bake for 15 minutes or so and serve them with pre-dinner drinks.

Kids love these min-pizzas too.

The truth is you can go down any path your imagination takes you. As an ingredient this kind of pastry is just so forgiving it's hard to get it wrong. There are really only a couple of things to guard against.

One is incorrect cooking temperature, either too hot or too cool. Most ready-made puff pastry 'lifts' successfully at around 200-220 degrees Centigrade. The other thing to bear in mind is not to overdo the glaze. Too much egg-wash may result in a soggy finish that will not rise successfully. Just a light brushing will do.

So there you have it. A great product that is labor-saving, versatile, looks good and tastes great. What more could you ask for?

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