Thursday, December 18, 2008

Poof! Goes the Puff

There are puffs; and then there's the "veg-pattice" from Hindustan Bakery, in Pune. Elsewhere known as turnovers, calzones, hot-pockets and puffs, these have been quite the blue-eyed babies in our house, oh-I-don't-know, ever since I was two-feet-eleven inches, tall.

Sunday mornings at my grandparents' house in old-world Narayan Peth always began with the clangity-clang from the newspaper press downstairs, and the smell of hot tea and warm pattice, wrapped in brown paper. But, what I really looked forward to the most, was when Aai, my paternal grandmother, re-heated the puffs over the iron griddle in the evening. Somehow, the taste of over-done, crusty puff, combined with the spectacular filling seemed ever so sublime. And now that I am separated by a good 10,000 miles, it seems even more so.

Frequently, I wake up on Sundays with those familiar sounds and my taste-buds alive with flavors of the "pattice" (as these are known in most of India) from my beloved bakery. So, you can imagine my excitement when I discovered the Pepperidge Farm pastry-puff sheets in the freezer-section of my grocery store. Ever since, I haven't quite stopped experimenting. Mostly, that has yielded good results. At other times, the end-products have been, let's just say, interesting. So enthralled was I at one point, actually a couple of months ago, that I took it in my head to try and make puff-pastry from scratch ...

"Now for the making of puff paste of the best kind, you shall take the finest wheat flour after it hath been a little baked in a pot in the oven, and blend well with eggs, whites and yolks all together, after the paste is well kneaded, roll out a part thereof as thin as you please, and then spread cold sweet butter over the same, then upon the same butter roll another leaf of the paste as before; and spread it with butter also; and thus roll leaf upon leaf with butter between till it be as thick as you think good: and with it cover any baked meat, or make paste for venison, Florentine, tart or what dish else you please and so bake it." -- (The English Housewife, 1615, from Harold McGee's, On Food and Cooking ...) Several such recipes later, I firmly pushed the idea to the far nether of my being. Meant to be retrieved only after my daughter starts sleeping as babies ought to.

Irrespective of the degree of difficulty, though, it has to be said, whoever created this flaky masterpiece was some kind of a genius -- in all probability with an incredibly huge gut, considering all that experimentation with butter. That said, you would think, some chunky French pastry chef or a rotund Italian one (there are certainly plenty of stories out there) might have created the first recipe. But, food historian Charles Perry says, in all actuality it was most probably the Arabs and Turks who should be credited for inventing puff pastry around 1500. Turkish Borek, anyone?

The Borek, they say, is typically made with yufka or phyllo pastry. Different from puff pastry in that its dough is stretched, not rolled; and once baked, turns crisp without puffing up. So, it goes that traditional boreks are usually stuffed with meat, feta cheese or some sort of savory filling, much like the Indian pattice. Unlike it though, Boreks come in a number of shapes, depending apparently on the region, shape and an extensive diaspora of other factors, meant for another post.

Taking inspiration from the Borek, I decided to do a circular variation using my trusty old muffin pan. Over the years, I have variously stuffed Pepperidge Farm sheets with different fillings -- potatoes, cabbage, chicken, at one time a sweet cranberry version even. From the lot, I almost never err whenever I use the cabbage filling. This time too it was no different ...
... Like always, it brought with it sepia-tinted memories from my childhood, dragging along a chubby, rosy-faced Sunday morning in tow. There was the hot chai simmering away on my grandmother's ancient gas-top. The smell of the brewing tea punctuated with crisp newsprint, as it rolled off the press. And most of all there were my beloved puffs. Golden, brown and, sinfully delicious. To be tasted and savored slowly, meant to tide me over until evening. At least.

♣ "You Won't Believe it's Cabbage"

I certainly didn't when I had it for the first time. I kept asking my BFF's mother, Bansal Aunty, whether she was being completely honest. All the while taking third, fourth and fifth helpings. Years later, the recipe continued to haunt me, until I finally took it from Yasha, who I have known for almost as long as I have known my extremities.

Those were such good times, and inextricably in my mind, the cabbage is the glue that holds it all together. Yasha's mother, unfailingly made it for our group of chubby six. And she made a lot of it.
Each one of us, would keep indulging, all under the pretext to ensure it was indeed cabbage. I, for one, still haven't stopped.

You need:

For the filling
1 small cabbage head, finely shredded
A pinch of hing
2 medium-sized tomatoes, finely chopped
1/4 tsp turmeric
1 1/2 tsp chili powder
2 tsp coriander powder
3 T of vegetable oil
Salt to taste
Handful of fresh cilantro, chopped

For the puff
A sheet of Pepperidge Farm puff pastry
Some all-purpose flour or whole-wheat flour

Place a medium-sized wok over medium-high flame, and heat the oil. Sprinkle in hing, and quickly toss in the finely chopped tomatoes, stirring around, until they start losing their edges, and become slightly soft.

Spoon over the turmeric and give it two-three stirs. Now, lower the heat slightly, and add the chili and coriander powder, salt to taste and combine well. After a couple of minutes, dump in the shredded cabbage and stir to combine.

Place a lid over the wok, lower the heat further and let it cook for about 30-45 minutes at least. Frequently stir the cabbage, what we are looking for is for the filling to turn a deep, roasted reddish-brown. Sprinkle and stir in the cilantro, and turn off the heat. This filling is also fantastic with phulkas or piping rice and dal.

To assemble
Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and set the puff-pastry sheets to thaw for 40 minutes. Then, lightly-flour your countertop or chopping board with all-purpose flour or whole-wheat flour. Spread the pastry-sheet and gently smoothen any creases with a floured rolling pan. Using a cookie cutter, cut circles out of the sheet and line a muffin tin. The left-over pieces of the pastry-sheet can be re-molded and rolled into a circle to fit in the tin. Now, spoon in the filling into the puff-cups, three-fourths of the way. Bake for 10-15 minutes until golden-brown, and to-die-for. Make plenty, "no one can eat just one."


Anita said...

Have had many such mornings in Delhi too...but now it is a rare day that we eat those 'patties' (the Delhi name). Not because of the fat laden calories but because that fat is hydrogenated. :( If only I could get phyllo made with butter at my grocer's...

Snooky doodle said...

these look nice. i m not a big fan of puff pastry but these are ideal to serve at Christmas or let's say New year now :)

Manasi said...

you! a peth girl! who would have thunk?! :) such purrty pictures and such purrty writing. love all sorts of puffs, but cabbage, srsly? i think this one has to to be tried to be believed. we are having a foggy day, so some buttery oven goodness is called for.

jesse said...

Mmm, I believe you when you say no one can just have one. These look amazing!

Sheetal Kiran said...

Anita: I do wish our Indian bakers could be made aware ... would make for such happy customers :D

Snooky: Oh yes, I sometimes make them as bite-sized appetizers ... just perfect to get a party started!

Manasi: Yep..that's me ... proud pethi :D You have to try the cabbage ... believe you me, you will look at cabbage very, very differently! Just make sure to roast it ... that's the trick, Bansal Aunty always said.

Jesse: Do try them :D

bee said...

wish you and your family a wonderful 2009, dear sheetal.

Sheetal Kiran said...

Thanks Bee ... Wish you and Jai a spectacular and bright year ahead!

Kiran said...

Hi Sheetal!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Am reading this in April.Yes!The Hindustan puffs still taste the same.However,I miss the dozen my dad used to bring on every sunday morning on his way back home after a morning walk.And yummy they tasted with the tea my mum made.