By some accounts puff pastry was known to the ancient Greeks. By the Middle Ages, it was established in Europe. But it was Antonin Careme, the founder of classical French cooking, who is credited with reviving interest in it. His recipe for pate feuilletee is found in his classic work, Le Patissier Royal Parisien. It requires technical skill, considerable patience and six or seven hours to incorporate enough air into hundreds of leaves of pastry and butter to create the required puff.
Culinary history claims that the roots of classical French cooking were planted in the 16th century, when Caterina de’ Medici brought Italian cooks, then the best in the world, to Paris. But it was not until after the French Revolution, when the breakup of the great aristocratic houses sent chefs into the streets seeking a new source of income, that restaurants were born and French cooking went public. The most influential figure of this period – and the first great chef in European history – was Marie-Antoine (Antonin) Careme (1783 – 1833), who worked, at different times, as personal chef to Talleyrand, the future George IV, Czar Alexander I and the Baron de Rothschild.
Careme’s career began as a kitchen boy at a cheap Parisian chophouse, after which he apprenticed to a prominent patissier and eventually opened his own shop. He became famous for his pieces montees, elaborate centerpieces, often several feet high, constructed of marzipan, sugar and pastry and typically designed to represent ancient temples, ruins or pyramids. He published five tomes on food and codified four main families of French sauce, (espagnole, veloute, allemande and bechamel) giving French chefs a shared vocabulary. After a brief experience at the Russian court, he reportedly replaced service a la Francaise (putting all dishes on the table at once) with service a la Russe (serving dishes in the order printed on the menu). He invented the toque, the standard chef’s hat, and, by most accounts, laid the foundation for la grande cuisine.
For today’s cook, puff pastry need not be quite so grand; commercially made, frozen puff pastry dough is available at the local grocery. If it is made with butter, it can produce acceptable results, although probably not results equal to Careme’s creation. And you will be spared the ten pages that Julia Child devotes to preparing it in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
PEPPERIDGE FARM FROZEN PUFF PASTRY SHEETS