From flaky to firm, from savoury to sweet: pastries have provided flavourful complements to many different kinds of fillings for thousands of years.
So common is the pastry’s association with desserts that “pastry” has also come to mean all manner of desserts, even some such as cakes that don’t strictly include pastry dough. Thus I limit this article solely to pastry doughs and the foods containing them.
All pastries contain a grain starch (most commonly flour), a binding fat (shortening, butter), and a liquid (water, milk, beaten eggs). Other ingredients may include baking powder and flavourings. They differ from breads in that pastries are most commonly intended to contain a separate filling. Additionally, pastries never contain yeast. Their lightness results from suspension of the starch or trapped air within the liquid, not from internally created air bubbles which could compromise the strength of the pastry. Some pastries, most famously pie crusts, are blind-baked before the filling is added. A finished pastry is lightly crisp and golden-brown in colour.
The three major categories of pastry are short-crust, puff, and flaky pastry (sometimes known as rough puff). Puff pastry uses the most shortening, short-crust pastry the least, with flaky pastry generally falling somewhere in between. Flaky pastry, which includes phyllo pastry, is very thin, and is used in strudels and baklava. Short-crust pastry is the firmest, and is used for heavy fillings such as those found in pies and tarts. Puff pastries are used for many of the delicate treats which often come to mind when you think of pastries.
Short-crust pastry uses a standard ratio of one part fat to two parts flour, which is pressed together with as little working and as little liquid as possible. Its texture is lightly crumbly. Some sweetened variants are very similar to cookie dough. In addition to all manner of pies and tarts, short-crust pastries also include quiches and even some sausage rolls. Short-crust pastries are almost always blind-baked.
Puff pastry uses a 1:1 ratio of butter to flour, which is folded and refolded into the butter in two separate workings a day apart. The result is a layered pastry with a crisp, tender texture. A common use of a generic puff pastry is the ice cream cuplet.
Flaky pastries have the widest range of flour-fat ratio and manner of preparation, in part because phyllo-style pastries may be among the oldest pastry doughs in the world. In China phyllo-style pastries using a rice- or soy-based dough are made into dumplings or simply fried. Middle Eastern traditions sweeten them with honey for baklava, or leave them unsweetened to complement seasoned lamb and rice. Indian samosas substitute clarified butter, or “ghee”, for the binding fat. Beef Wellington and Yorkshire pudding are non-phyllo British variants whose origins date back to the Crusades. All flaky pastries are kneaded and then rolled out as thinly as possible. The dough may then be cut into strips or squares (sometimes layered with fillings), or molded to create a container, or rolled up around a filling. Phyllos specifically include as little oil as possible, only just enough to make the dough workable and elastic.
Finally, choux (“cabbage”) pastry, often mislabelled as puff pastry, has its own unique method of preparation which involves heating the water and butter before beating in the eggs and flour. This gives the pastry a soft and subtle melt-in-your-mouth texture. Choux pastries are commonly finished by piping in a sweet cream.