Sunday, September 27, 2009

September Daring Bakers' Challenge: Vols-au-Vent!

A what-au-what? I'll say it again: vols-au-vent. In French it literally translates to "flight with the wind," which I assume is a reference to the light, flaky layers of dough that characterize these pastry shells, but Francophobes and the pretension-averse might prefer something a little more descriptive, like "flaky dough cups." Whatever you want to call them, they were this month's Daring Baker Challenge, and I was powerless to resist.

The September 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon. She chose the French treat, Vols-au-Vent based on the Puff Pastry recipe by Michel Richard from the cookbook Baking With Julia by Dorie Greenspan. While contemplating fillings for this challenge I consulted my brand-new, newlywed-issue copy of The Art of French Cooking and found a couple of savory recipes, one requiring a whole roast chicken and the other requiring sweetbreads. And for half a second, I swear to god, I actually considered it. Then I remembered my student loans, closed the book, and went to ponder other options over a dinner of stale bread and Goya black beans from a dented can.

Luckily, Mr. Kat is full of brilliant ideas, including but not exclusive to marrying me, and he suggested that I ask his mother for her cream puff filling recipe, which has been a family favorite for as long as anyone can remember.

"Who's my creampuff?"

I should stop here and say that Mr. Kat's mom is a woman with high culinary standards. She and Mr. Kat's dad cook all their meals from scratch, using local and organic ingredients. They grow their own fresh herbs. They read Michael Pollan. One of their sons grew up to be an environmental scientist. So you can imagine she wasn't entirely thrilled to reveal that the secret ingredient in her famous cream puffs? The ones her three boys grew up on and begged for with every birthday? It's instant pudding. Full of chemicals and fake as fake food gets, but damned if it doesn't work just perfectly.

So was it worth it? Was it worth me getting kicked out of the family to share this secret recipe with you? Give it a try and let me know.

Vols-au-Vent With Easy Vanilla Cream
Yield: 1/3 of the puff pastry recipe below will yield about 8-10 1.5” vols-au-vent or 4 4” vols-au-vent

For the puff pastry:
  • 2 1/2 cups (354 g) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for the work surface
  • 1 1/4 cups (142 g) cake flour
  • 1/2 tbsp. salt 
  • 1 1/4 cups ice water
  • 1 pound (454 g) very cold unsalted butter
  • 1 egg, beaten, for the glaze
For the cream:
  • One package instant vanilla pudding (3.5 to 3.75 oz. size)
  • One cup heavy cream
  • 1 1/4 cup milk
  • 1/2 tsp. almond extract
  • Miniature chocolate chips, ground cinnamon or other decoration

1. Check the capacity of your food processor before you start. If it cannot hold the full quantity of ingredients, make the dough into two batches and combine them.

Put the all-purpose flour, cake flour, and salt in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse a couple of times just to mix. Add the water all at once, pulsing until the dough forms a ball on the blade. The dough will be very moist and pliable and will hold together when squeezed between your fingers. (Actually, it will feel like Play-Doh.)

2. Remove the dough from the machine, form it into a ball, with a small sharp knife, slash the top in a tic-tac-toe pattern. Wrap the dough in a damp towel and refrigerate for about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, place the butter between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and beat it with a rolling pin until it flattens into a square that's about 1" thick. Take care that the butter remains cool and firm: if it has softened or become oily, chill it before continuing.

3. Unwrap the dough and place it on a work surface dusted with all-purpose flour (A cool piece of marble is the ideal surface for puff pastry) with your rolling pin (preferably a French rolling pin without handles), press on the dough to flatten it and then roll it into a 10" square. Keep the top and bottom of the dough well floured to prevent sticking and lift the dough and move it around frequently. Starting from the center of the square, roll out over each corner to create a thick center pad with "ears," or flaps.

4. Place the cold butter in the middle of the dough and fold the ears over the butter, stretching them as needed so that they overlap slightly and encase the butter completely. (If you have to stretch the dough, stretch it from all over; don't just pull the ends) you should now have a package that is 8" square.

A NOTE ON TEMPERATURE: To make great puff pastry, it is important to keep the dough cold at all times. There are specified times for chilling the dough, but if your room is warm, or you work slowly, or you find that for no particular reason the butter starts to ooze out of the pastry, cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate it . You can stop at any point in the process and continue at your convenience or when the dough is properly chilled.

5. Gently but firmly press the rolling pin against the top and bottom edges of the square (this will help keep it square). Then, keeping the work surface and the top of the dough well floured to prevent sticking, roll the dough into a rectangle that is three times as long as the square you started with, about 24" (don't worry about the width of the rectangle: if you get the 24", everything else will work itself out.) With this first roll, it is particularly important that the butter be rolled evenly along the length and width of the rectangle; check when you start rolling that the butter is moving along well, and roll a bit harder or more evenly, if necessary, to get a smooth, even dough-butter sandwich (use your arm-strength!).

With a pastry brush, brush off the excess flour from the top of the dough, and fold the rectangle up from the bottom and down from the top in thirds, like a business letter, brushing off the excess flour. You have completed one turn.

6. Rotate the dough so that the closed fold is to your left, like the spine of a book. Repeat the rolling and folding process, rolling the dough to a length of 24" and then folding it in thirds. This is the second turn.

If the dough is still cool and no butter is oozing out, you can give the dough another two turns now. If the condition of the dough is iffy, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes. Each time you refrigerate the dough, mark the number of turns you've completed by indenting the dough with your fingertips. It is best to refrigerate the dough for 30 to 60 minutes between each set of two turns.

The total number of turns needed is six. If you prefer, you can give the dough just four turns now, chill it overnight, and do the last two turns the next day. Puff pastry is extremely flexible in this regard. However, no matter how you arrange your schedule, you should plan to chill the dough for at least an hour before cutting or shaping it.

1. Line a baking sheet with parchment and set aside.

Using a knife or metal bench scraper, divided your chilled puff pastry dough into three equal pieces. Work with one piece of the dough, and leave the rest wrapped and chilled. (If you are looking to make more vols-au-vent than the yield stated above, you can roll and cut the remaining two pieces of dough as well…if not, then leave refrigerated for the time being or prepare it for longer-term freezer storage.

2. On a lightly floured surface, roll the piece of dough into a rectangle about 1/8 to 1/4-inch (3-6 mm) thick. Transfer it to the baking sheet and refrigerate for about 10 minutes before proceeding with the cutting. (This assumes you will be using round cutters, but if you do not have them, it is possible to cut square vols-au-vents using a sharp chef’s knife.) For smaller, hors d'oeuvre sized vols-au-vent, use a 1.5” round cutter to cut out 8-10 circles. For larger sized vols-au-vent, fit for a main course or dessert, use a 4” cutter to cut out about 4 circles. Make clean, sharp cuts and try not to twist your cutters back and forth or drag your knife through the dough. Half of these rounds will be for the bases, and the other half will be for the sides.

A NOTE ON SCRAPS: Save any scrap by stacking—not wadding up—the pieces…they can be re-rolled and used if you need extra dough. If you do need to re-roll scrap to get enough disks, be sure to use any rounds cut from it for the bases, not the ring-shaped sides.

Using a ¾-inch cutter for small vols-au-vent, or a 2- to 2.5-inch round cutter for large, cut centers from half of the rounds to make rings. These rings will become the sides of the vols-au-vent, while the solid disks will be the bottoms. You can either save the center cut-outs to bake off as little “caps” for you vols-au-vent, or put them in the scrap pile.

3. Dock the solid bottom rounds with a fork, making sure not to go all the way through the pastry, and lightly brush them with egg wash. Place the rings directly on top of the bottom rounds and very lightly press them to adhere. Brush the top rings lightly with egg wash, trying not to drip any down the sides, as this may inhibit rise. If you are using the little “caps,” dock and egg wash them as well.

Refrigerate the assembled vols-au-vent on the lined baking sheet while you pre-heat the oven to 400ºF (200ºC). (You could also cover and refrigerate them for a few hours at this point.)

4. Once the oven is heated, remove the sheet from the refrigerator and place a silicone baking mat  (preferred because of its weight) or another sheet of parchment over top of the shells. This will help them rise evenly. Bake the shells until they have risen and begin to brown, about 10-15 minutes depending on their size. Reduce the oven temperature to 350ºF (180ºC), and remove the silicone mat or parchment sheet. If the centers have risen up inside the vols-au-vent, you can gently press them down. Continue baking with no sheet on top until the layers are golden, about 15-20 minutes more. If you are baking the center “caps” they will likely be finished well ahead of the shells, so keep an eye on them and remove them from the oven when browned.

Remove to a rack to cool to room temperature.


1. Prepare pudding as box label directs using only 1 1/4 cups milk.

2. Whip cream until almost stiff. Fold into pudding mixture along with the almond extract.

3. Spoon into puff pastry cups and top with mini chocolate chips, ground cinnamon, or just leave 'em as is.

Serve immediately or refrigerate up to 24 hours.


ClatieK said...

I so love Mr. Kat's mom now.

Kelly said...