Pastry is a dough meant to act as a case for other food, savoury or sweet. It can be used to form just a bottom casing, with the top left open, or the pastry can completely contain the food inside it.
There are many different types of pastries, designed with different properties, textures, behaviours and tastes in mind.
A basic pastry is flour, fat, salt and water.
In general, in making a pastry you want a flour that is low in gluten, as gluten can make the pastry tough. Whole wheat flour can add great flavour, but it makes the pastry harder to work with and more crumbly.
Salt in a pastry recipe helps to both strengthen the dough and take the edge off a bland taste.
Lemon juice in a pastry recipe can soften the gluten, making the pastry more flexible.
The only pastry that uses a leavener is suet crust pastry. Otherwise, the “rising agent” in pastry is just steam (choux pastry uses both beaten egg and steam.) In other pastry recipes, egg yolk may be used as a binding agent.
You usually work the fat into the flour first before any liquid is added because once water is added to flour, the gluten gets activated. Consequently, the danger of overworking a pastry dough only starts when the liquid is added. You can work the pastry mixture till the cow’s come home if it’s just the dry ingredients and fat in there so far.
You let pastry rest before lining a pan with it because while making the pastry, you stretched the dough. Resting allows it to “relax”, so that when you roll it out, you get an idea of its true size. If you don’t, when baked, it may shrink in the pan.
It’s interesting to note that while in Europe pastry is equated with butter, in the Middle East it was being made with oil as the fat long before post-Roman Europe even knew what pastry was.
The French developed pastry making into a special branch of cooking all its own, which they call “pâtisserie.” In French, a pastry cook is a “pâtissier.”