I've worked extensively with puff pastry during my food nerd phase (age 12 to about now). Being my rule-following self, the first time I used puff pastry I followed the package instructions too well because I was terrified the dough was going to melt in front of my eyes. The package said to not touch the pastry too much and to make sure it stayed cold, which led to me putting it back in the freezer every three minutes. The dough turned out lackluster because of this, and I was a mess afterwards. After working with frozen puff pastry many more times, I've gotten comfortable with it and have faith that you too can totally tackle this baking staple.

If you've never worked with it, you might be wondering 'what is puff pastry?' In short, it's a flaky, buttery, and fragile dough that can be used to make quiches, breadsticks, or anything with the word puff in it. It also has a long and complicated origin story, so buckle up and put on your history hat.

Origins of Puff Pastry

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Brogan Dearinger

Legend has it that puff pastry was first made in a small kitchen in France (the best food is always invented in France) by a baking apprentice named Claude Gelée in 1645. He wanted to make something for his ailing father who had been restricted to a diet of only water, flour, and butter and so the son concocted a dough out of those ingredients to take home. However, Claude added a particularly large quantity of butter, despite the protests of his teacher that the butter would melt the dough into a pile of goo in the oven.

Claude trudged ahead, however, and the resulting loaf maintained its shape in the oven and actually multiplied in size, much to the shock of both bakers. Thus, the puff pastry was born, and Claude moved to Paris to refine his pastry behind locked doors to maintain the mystery of his magic pastry.

If we dig a little deeper, we'll find that puff pastry-like doughs have appeared in mideival Arab sources. According to the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, dough smeared with liquid fat that's then rolled thin is one of the first references to what scholars think is puff pastry. This means that the same type of dough, formed using the laminate technique that Claude "discovered" was present in Arabic foods and Moorish Spain centuries before Claude was born.

While no one is sure if the French version of the laminate technique was birthed without knowledge of its medieval counterpart, we do know that no one's mad that the dough is wildly popular and available in the frozen section of every grocery store today. 

How Does Puff Pastry Do Its Thing?

The puffy part of puff pastry was a mystery at first, because pastries don't get that kind of rise without some sort of leavening agent like yeast or baking soda, and smart-person As it turns out, puff pastry (when made properly) is actually multiple thin layers of dough that trap steam from the water and butter when baking. That trapped steam causes the thin layers to rise into a delicate, flaky, puffy pastry.

What to Do With Puff Pastry

At this point, you should be convinced that puff pastry is magical. It's better and more versatile than pie dough, and even Alton Brown says that store-bought is fine. If you're looking to try your hand at puff pastry, try Alton Brown's stacked puff pastry. It has only four ingredients, so I'm pretty confident that even the most cash-poor of us can give the cherry-filled pastry a go for a cute date idea.

This Buzzfeed roundup of 18 puff pastry recipes is another great place to start. My favorites are the Strawberry Tart, Cinnamon Cream Cheese Pastry Puffs, or any of the recipes featuring Nutella. Finally, if you're feeling brave, no one said you can't make your own puff pastry. Some dude in France made it on accident, surely making it on purpose can't be that hard?

Puff pastry can be intimidating to work with, but there are so many things you can make with it! Puff pastry is way more impressive than whipping out a bucket of frozen cookie dough when you're in need of a fast dessert, and it's much more fun to experiment with. Puff pastry can be whatever you want it to be. Making "real food" in college kitchens is rough, but by keeping a package of puff pastry you'll always be ready to make not just real food, but fancy food.