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Brief notes on the history of puff pastry

Leaving aside for a moment what is an essential ingredient of puff pastry, butter, the principle consisting of overlaying several layers of thin pastry was already known of in Egypt at the time of the New Empire.

In the Rome of early Christianity, pies were actually the most common form of food. The many versions included so-called “terrine pies”, which were to form the basis of the two pillars underlying modern-day sweetmeats - i.e. pastry and cake.

The origin, though, of pies cooked without their first being placed in a pot dates back no more than around 600 years.

In a manuscript which appeared in Würzburg in 1350, in which several pie recipes are to be found, it is repeatedly said that pastry - made from flour, wine and eggs - must be hard in the sense of firm, and rolled very thinly.

The term "Puff Pastry” is more recent. In a Council of Venice decree of 1525 condemning the ostentation flaunted on the occasion of a marriage ceremony, “puff” pastry is clearly mentioned amongst the various dishes and drinks.

A number of normal puff pastry recipes are described in detail in a book by Rontzier dated 1598. He also refers to a “Spanish” type of puff pastry, named after its country of origin, and records the special process which is still followed today in some places.

The pastry used in France represented the starting point for the procedure which continues to be widespread today. This consists of working the pastry with butter, giving it a number of “turns”. Experience later suggested spreading the butter on the pastry all in one go, rather than gradually as had been the practice beforehand. Claude Lorrain, the famous artist, maintained that he had invented puff pastry; sadly for him though, he had the misfortune of being born in 1600, and of not presenting his ‘novelty’ until 1635.

Among the many recipes that the Dutchman P.V. Aengeln cites in his work "The French baker", published in 1665, there is also puff pastry. In Chapter III - "Placentae majores" - of his Diaeteticon of 1682, Elshols speaks among other things of "Placentae foliatae": "layered sweets". Given that Elshols was not an expert confectioner, his interest shows that pastry desserts must have been popular at the time.

Puff pastry was then often called “butter pastry”, a definition which was to remain until the end of the XIX century. Currently the method followed in the preparation of Spanish puff pastry is still widespread in Turkey in the making of "Baklava", with the difference that softened butter is spread onto the various layers of pastry instead of fat or olive-oil.

The pastry used in making the Hungarian "Schusterstrudel" is also rolled very thinly and spread with butter. Puff pastry is employed for some Russian specialities too.

In puff pastry the dough rises because of the large amount of butter it contains. The same effect is produced in “plunder” (Danish pastry) by means of yeast, so the baker there who first had the idea of adding the butter to dough which had already risen must have been very thrifty indeed.

A specialist work published in Braunschweig in 1697 entitled "Platiche Golatschen", describes a recipe for plunder at length. Not to be forgotten in particular is the famous "Copenhagen” or “Danish Plunder", which is mid-way between leavened dough and puff pastry, and is distinguished by a particular stuffing made of butter, sugar and marzipan in equal parts, plus very thinly-cut candied citron-peel.

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