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Nancy B’s Guide to the Perfect… Pastry

Pastry should be crisp, light and melt in the mouth. Get it right first time with Nancy B’s five top tips to making the perfect pastry…

Pastry is my favourite thing to bake – and also the first thing I learned to cook. I remember my grandmother teaching me how to make an egg custard tart when I was around eight. We had no loose-bottomed tins in those days and I remember the first slice was always a bit tricky to get out.

I’m pleased to say things have moved on since then and we now have the benefit of the food processor and ‘best butter’, as it was called in the 1950s, instead of lard. (Although let’s not knock lard – I still use half butter and half lard in savoury recipes).

I sometimes come across pastry that’s thick, grey, under-baked, tough and suffering from a ‘soggy bottom’. Many bakers love to make cakes but shy away from pastry. Yet stick to the rules and your pastry will behave well and make you proud. Here are my five top tips:

Technique: The Hands-Off Approach
I was always taught you need a light hand for pastry and a heavy hand for bread – and how true that is. Pastry is not affectionate; it doesn’t like being handled and hates being too warm. If you have a food processor I would urge you to use it. But make it short and sweet: just 10 seconds to break the fat into the flour and give the appearance of breadcrumbs, then a further 10 seconds once you’ve added the liquid. If you’re mixing by hand, wash your hands in cold water before starting to rub the fat into the flour and use iced water for bringing the dough together. Once the pastry is ready, wrap it in clingfilm and leave to rest in the fridge for at least half an hour before rolling out.

Ingredient: The Water Rule
The exact amount of liquid you add is key: too much and your pastry will be sticky, requiring extra flour for rolling out – and resulting in a tough pastry. Too little and your dough will be crumbly and break when rolling. Here’s my top tip: work in pounds and ounces. Using ‘old money’ rather than metric ensures the exact amount of liquid for your pastry. For every ounce of fat, add one tablespoon of liquid. To make a standard shortcrust pastry, for example, you will need 8oz flour, 4oz butter and 4 tbsp water – and that’s it. No more, no less.

Style: The One-Crust Pie
Feeling inspired to make pastry? Start with a recipe that is well behaved and will not let you down. A one-crust pie is a great start. I remember making one filled with apple and blackberry in ‘pie week’ (the recipe is on my website). No tin is required and there’s no need to bake blind. Plus apples and blackberries are in season. Simply roll out the dough and lay on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. Sprinkle the middle of your rolled-out pastry with a little ground rice or semolina (this soaks up the fruit juices) then pile the fruit on top. Sprinkle on the sugar then gather up the edges of the pastry, enclosing the fruit in a pastry parcel. Brush with egg and a sprinkling of Demerara sugar, then bake.

Common Problem: The Soggy Bottom
The biggest and most common problem in pastry making is the under-baked, soggy bottom. When you’re making flans and tarts, blind baking guards against this – but for a double-crusted pie it’s a different matter. My first tip is: the fridge is your friend. Before filling a pie, make sure your pastry and your filling are well chilled. Putting a warm filling into a pastry case will cause you problems. Think about your filling too: it needs to be moist but too wet that it will leak and make the pastry soggy. For meat pie, strain off most of the gravy from the cooked meat and serve it separately. In that way you’ll have a crisp, well-baked pastry – plus a gravy to serve on the side.

Inspiration: The Frozen Pastry Base
When I make pastry, I always make more than my recipe states. If I’m going to the trouble of getting out the food processor and creating washing up, I make up no less than 1lb flour. Depending on how much time I have, I then divide the dough into 250g balls, wrap them in clingfilm, pop into a freezer bag and store into the freezer until needed. If I have the time I also roll out the pastry and line tins, before freezing the pastry in the tin. When frozen, the pastry shell easily pops out and can be frozen in a plastic box until required. This works particularly well with sausage rolls and mince pies. I have a box full of these frozen unbaked goodies at Christmas and bake them in sixes or twelves when needed.

@nancybbakes won Great British Bake Off 2014. Since then she’s travelled from Cornwall to The Shetland Isles, baking and entertaining fans.

Learn more about her food and her travels on her blog.