Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Extra-Light Baked Flancati for Pust (the rough puff Mardi Gras version!)

Ten years ago, thanks to some Cajun music friends, I made two belated discoveries: Slovenians have a traditional Carnival celebration called Pust. And San Francisco has a small but active Slovenian community, centered on the old Slovenian Hall in the Potrero Hill neighborhood.

I don't know which one was the bigger surprise.

(To learn more about Pust in Slovenia and San Francisco, see Mardi Gras, Slovenian Style: Blood Sausage, Potica, and Polka, my 2012 post about the holiday.)

Traditional Pust dinner with blood sausage, Slovenian Hall, SF

Now, a decade later, I have become a regular at the Slovenian Hall. Especially since I started taking weekly language classes last year.

When Carnival time rolled around last month, I decided to organize an impromptu celebration for our Slovenian class. Traditional foods for Pust include two sweet treats: krofi, or jelly-filled doughnuts; and flancati (sometimes called pohanje), the beignet-like pastry strips my grandma called angel wings. But I wasn't prepared to do any deep fat frying, even in the interest of preserving ethnic food traditions.

Then I thought of the perfect alternative to fried pastries: my baked flancati recipe, adapted from  a Slovenian American cookbook. It had proven to be a dependable stand-in for the fried version I remembered from childhood, with the same fanciful shapes and heavy coating of powdered sugar.

But I had a small problem, this time around. Since this was a last-minute undertaking, I'd had to skip the the usual overnight refrigeration. After just an hour in the fridge, my flancati dough seemed too soft. In trying to correct this, I ended up with a new twist on baked flancati.

Here's what happened: I knew the pastry would become tough if I tried to knead in more floor. So I decided on a more gentle approach. I rolled out the dough on a well-floured board, folded it in half, and re-rolled it. As I worked, I had a hazy recollection of some baking technique I had read about before, but had never actually tried.

Those last-minute flancati turned out just fine. In fact, they were lighter than usual. Still, I wondered how they would be received in my Slovenian class that evening--especially by my teacher and her husband, who had grown up in Slovenia. What would they think of this American shortcut?

My teacher Mia said the flancati made her feel nostalgic. After I confessed that my flancati were baked rather than fried, her husband assured me that he was very familiar with this style of the traditional pastry.

"We call it 'light' flancati," my teacher's husband said. Then he added, "I know how you made it. You had to keep rolling and folding, right?" His eyes twinkled.

How on earth did this distinguished Silicon Valley engineer know about the fine points of pastry making? One thing seemed clear. I had stumbled onto a legitimate Slovenian flancati variation, and not just some American adaptation. In fact, a little research revealed that my "roll and fold" creation was similar to a well-known technique called rough puff (or blitz puff) pastry.

Traditional puff pastry is a laborious process that can take three days. The butter is rolled into a single flat layer and encased in two layers of dough. Multiple rounds of careful rolling, folding, and chilling follow. The end product is a rich dough with anywhere from seventy to seven hundred layers. During baking, steam from the melting butter creates the "puff" that produces those multiple airy layers. 

In the shortcut "rough puff" version, cubes of butter are combined with flour and formed into a rough dough. The butter chunks are flattened during rolling and re-rolling. The result is a rich, flaky pastry with an impressive rise, even if the layers aren't quite as numerous or discrete.

Unlike puff pastry, flancati dough includes eggs and sour cream. But otherwise, I had unwittingly followed the same approach.

Now that I understood what I had been doing, I was eager to make this rough puff version of flancati again.  I had the chance a few weeks later, for another event at the San Francisco's Slovenian Hall.

This time, I made a few changes to maximize the puff. I was careful to leave the butter in visible chunks when I cut it into the flour. I chilled the dough overnight. And I followed a more deliberate folding and rolling technique, described and illustrated below. To bake, I used a slightly higher oven temperature.

The result was the best flancati yet. Even my grandmother would have approved!

Extra-Light Baked Flancati

2 cups flour
1/2 lb butter, unsalted, cut in chunks
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup sour cream
1 T. rum
1 packet vanilla sugar (or 1 t. vanilla extract and 1 t. sugar)
1 t. grated lemon rind or 1/4 t. nutmeg

Place flour in a medium-sized bowl and cut in butter chunks until they are the size of large peas. In a small bowl, mix egg yolks, sour cream, and flavorings of your choice until well blended. Add to the flour-butter mixture. Combine and mix lightly with your hands until a rough dough forms. Bits of butter should still be visible.

Divide dough into four balls. Flatten into thick squares, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate overnight.

When ready to bake, remove one piece of dough at a time from refrigerator.  Let soften until it can be rolled out.

On a floured board, roll out dough into an 8 or 9 inch square--or, if you prefer, a rectangle of similar dimensions.

Fold the dough into overlapping thirds, as though you are folding a letter to place in an envelope.

Flatten slightly with a rolling pin and roll out until you have another rectangle. The pieces of butter will be visible.

Once again, fold into thirds and turn the "letter" a quarter turn to the right.

Roll it out again into a rectangle, fold into thirds, make a quarter turn to the right. For the third and final time, roll out the folded "letter" into a rectangle.

At this point, you will have created twenty-seven layers of dough!

Cut the rectangle into sixteen pieces. Make a slit in the center of each small rectangle. Pull opposite corners part way through the slit. Or pull an entire side through the slit. For more detailed instructions about shaping (with photos), see my original baked flancati post

Place flancati on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining three pieces of dough. You will need two baking sheets.

Bake at 375 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes, until medium brown.

Remove to racks and sprinkle with confectioner's sugar while still warm.