What is it about flour, fat and water together that always, always ends up giving us something warm and comforting? You can mix it up in different ways to make it soft, crisp, flaky, crumbly or chewy and in whatever form it will still add up to delicious. There is something about cooked dough that makes everyone feel better. Even my 20-month old agrees. He can keep eating plain roti, bread or paratha without anything on the side.
I have read a lot about making dough, pastry dough especially ever since my initial fascination with it which began with a can of pre-packaged biscuit dough almost 5 years ago. I bought the dough hoping to bake some biscuits but the can ended up sitting in my fridge way too long. Then inspired by some recipes for karanji/gujia that I saw on Indian food blogs, I thought why not use the biscuit dough to make the outer covering of the karanji , fill them up and bake them off like a biscuit? So I used a mixture of evaporated milk, jaggery, coconut and raisins as the stuffing, split each biscuit in two, rolled it out to about 4 inches, stuffed it with coconut goodness, closed it up and baked them at 350F for 15 minutes until they were golden brown, puffed up and flaky. Then I poured a glaze of brown sugar, milk and butter over the karanjis while they were still warm. The result was something that was very different from gujias, which have a thin and crisp cover; these were fluffy and thick on the outside, sweet with the glaze and soft, grainy filling on the inside. But still very tasty. I have seen other recipes for baked karanjis that use pre-made pie crusts. These multiple pastry doughs intrigued me – how can the same set of ingredients give such drastically different results? How does mom make her dough so the gujias are crispy and why isn’t biscuit dough like that, I wondered? Thus began my research into dough making.
Dough is theoretically the easiest and the hardest thing to make. When you read recipes that say things like “rub the butter in” or “knead just until dough is formed” you may think it is a simple process. But then you read “don’t rub too much or the butter will melt” or “don’t knead too much or the pastry will not be tender” and you wonder how do I know what is too much? That’s why the food processor is such a blessing. Most recipes nowadays will tell you how to mix the dough with a food processor -things like pulse 6 times, stop. Now that’s an instruction I can follow. But before I bought my food processor I made my dough my hand. It was a learning ritual I put myself through when I first started baking. To check if I was serious about baking or if it was passing fad, I taught myself how to bake without any mixing equipment. I was armed with only 3 mixing bowls, measuring cups and spoons, a whisk and some spatulas. I creamed by hand, whipped by hand and made dough by hand. Let me just say it was hard. I mean I could barely knead good roti dough and there I was trying to make pie dough! So my initial experiments were not very successful. But they helped me develop a great respect for the thousands of women like my mom who can quickly knead huge amounts of dough for rotis, parathas, puris and samosas by hand. They have experience on their side. They can feel the dough and know when it’s done. They can see the flour and tell if it needs more ghee to be flaky, yet crisp. They didn’t have food processors and books and the Internet. But they learned from their moms and from each other. Because our cuisine is full of examples of different kinds of dough. There are of course the classics – roti, paratha and puri. Then their is the dough for filled snacks and sweets like khasta (khasta means flaky) kachori, samosa and gujia. See this wonderful article by Julie Sahni about making samosas. Of course South Indian cuisine has its own repertoire of rice based doughs used for making sweets and snacks that are not crisp or flaky but soft and thin and often steamed.
My research led me to learn all about doughs – flaky dough, crumbly dough, puff pastry, choux pastry and phyllo dough. It was a relief to understand why I needed as much butter as I did, why I needed to rub gently, knead lightly. Now I simply make all my doughs in my food processor. But you know what the hard part is? Rolling it out. I cannot roll out dough evenly. Never rolled out a circular roti in my life. With rotis though it doesn’t matter too much. But with pie it does! Every time I make a pie, one side would be nice and flaky, the other side would be thick and undercooked. My pies are always a surprise party – you never know if you are going to get a slice from the good side! That’s why I prefer to make mini-pies in my mini-muffin pan – smaller sizes are easier to roll out, plus they are easier to eat. And that’s why I prefer to make choux pastry to any other pastry. The glory of pate-a-choux or choux pastry shall be sung further tomorrow. You have enough to chew on for one day.