There are some people who won’t make pastry because they hate getting dough under their fingernails. If that’s you, I’ve got just the tool!
Pastry is made by rubbing fat through flour. I always use butter because in New Zealand we have beautiful butter, plenty of it, and it is affordable, but more importantly, it makes simply gorgeous pastry. It is also a natural product with no additives. I never use margarine, in anything. Lard does make a light crisp pastry but it is not to everyone’s taste. So butter it is.
The trick is to rub it through flour with minimal handling because if the butter becomes warm the pastry can become sticky and soft and will then be hellish to roll out. It can also result in greasy pastry. Some people always have cool fingertips. Lucky you if you have them, not just because they say cool hands, warm heart, but because you have the right tool to make good pastry. You don’t need a pastry blender.
For the rest of us, it is better to keep fingers and hands out of the pastry bowl. Follow these steps:
Work in a cool kitchen – if your kitchen gets increasingly warmer as the day goes on, it might be best to make pastry in the morning.
Make pastry in a large, wide bowl; a tall or narrow one will restrict movement and make it difficult to rub butter into flour without overworking it.
Sift flour and salt together into the bowl and add cubed butter. Butter should be firmish and cold but not rock hard.
Use two round-bladed metal knives – the sort you eat dinner with – to cut butter through the flour. Hold a knife in each hand with the blades facing outwards and chop the butter through the flour. Once the lumps of butter are as small as a pea, you can quickly finish rubbing the butter in with your fingertips, but only use your fingertips as the further up your hands you go, the warmer they are. As you rub the butter into the flour, lift it slightly in the bowl so it keeps aerated. This will help keep the pastry light. Shake the bowl every so often as this will bring the larger lumps to the top and you’ll be able to see how far you have to go. Stop once the mixture looks like large ragged breadcrumbs. It’s important to halt at this point. The idea is to get the butter coated with flour, not to have the flour absorb the butter and form a paste.
If all of this freaks you out – warm fingertips, butter turning soft and oily, dough under the fingernails, sticky pastry that won’t behave – but you still want to make your own pastry, buy a pastry blender. You won’t look back.
A pastry blender is a cutting tool with a series of blades shaped in a half-circle attached to a handle. You gently press the blender into the butter and flour and use it to chop the butter into small flour-coated lumps. It’s easy. You may need to scrape the pastry blender a couple of times with a knife to stop any build-up of dough, but other than that you’ll have the butter chopped through the flour in no time. One good tip – shake the bowl as described to bring the larger pieces of butter to the top, and when you do, run the pastry bender through the mixture a couple of times, lifting the ingredients as you go to keep the mixture aerated. There is a tendency to push down heavily on the pastry blender to squish the flour and butter together, but that will not produce good light pastry. For good light pastry you need to keep the air in, not knock it out.
Pastry blenders suit right and left-handed people. Some have a little thumb rest to help steady the hand. Mine doesn’t and works perfectly well. Whatever type you buy make sure it is nice and sturdy then it will last for years.
Recipe for rich shortcrust pastry (Frangipane Pear Tartlets)