If you spend even a moment of time on my Instagram page, you’ll notice that I make a lot of pastry. Occasionally, if I’m proud, I’ll post a good photo of a layered cake or a batch of cookies or even a savory dish, but most of the successes of my baking life rest upon a literal foundation of flour, salt, butter, and water.
One reason that I make shortcrust pastry so often is that I am a Leftover Queen. If we have anything sitting in the fridge that needs to be consumed and wouldn’t taste revolting wrapped in a flaky, buttery crust, you’d better believe it’s about to become a pie, a pocket, a galette…you get the picture.
The other reason is that I am a self-sabotaging disaster.
As much as I’d like to consider myself a cool, collected, intelligent woman of the world, I get overwhelmed easily and don’t accomplish much without the motivator of public shame. If I have plenty of time to get something done and/or find that no one is monitoring what I’m doing, I take it as my cue to chase butterflies, go on Twitter rants about how a Willie Wonka origin story movie could or could not be great, read hours of Good Omens fanfiction, or wash a load of laundry, forget about it, wash it again, forget about it again, and repeat. (Just kidding. I don’t chase butterflies.)
Now that I write full-time and don’t work in an office or for a company at all, the opportunities for self-sabotage are endless. My current work environment—alone with my thoughts in the comfort of my home—means that I have no boss, no coworkers, and practically no one to answer to except myself. If I fail it falls on me, full stop. That’s terrifying in that I’m willing to disappoint myself in ways that I wouldn’t dream of disappointing another human being, but empowering in that I can be brutally honest with myself. If I’m not functioning, it’s time for my brain to move from writing mode, which is bottomless and circular and made of questions and mist, to
“For The Love Of God Do Something, Anything” mode, which is self-explanatory.
I make shortcrust pastry when the freight train of fear, doubt, and self-loathing barrels into my mind. This happens about once a week around three in the afternoon, which is convenient in that it’s a reasonable time to start thinking about dinner. (We eat early in my house, like the ninety-five-year-olds we are inside.) Whether I’ve had a productive day up to that point or wrote one paragraph and spent the rest of the day walking through New Orleans on Google Street View, I stop what I’m doing and take a breath, setting aside the mess of my mind in preparation for pastry.
Recipes for shortcrust are a dime a dozen online and most of them will give you the same guidance. Cut cold fat into flour, add cold water, form into a disk, chill, and roll out. I’ve used dozens of recipes over time and morphed them into an all-butter dough that I can prepare in around two hours. One of the joyous things about shortcrust in contrast to other types of dough is that—and professional bakers may scorn me—it doesn’t have to be perfect. A little extra flour won’t kill it. Not chilling your flour, bowls, and utensils ahead of time won’t kill it either, so long as the fat you’re using is cold. Most recipes recommend somewhere between eight to ten tablespoons of ice water depending on how your dough is feeling, and the key word there is feeling. Shortcrust pastry, for me, is instinctual. It’s about getting my hands messy, knowing by touch when the dough is right and when it’s not, and patiently forming its crumbly beginnings into something solid, beautiful, and sustaining. When my brain spirals, the physical act of making pastry guides me back to sanity via a little work and semi-immediate gratification.
When I make shortcrust I clear spices, random utensils, drying dishes, etc. off my counter. This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but busy parents, professionals with little time, or those of us who struggle to see and deal with clutter understand that you can prepare a quick meal in very limited space, and that’s often the reality. The act of taking the time to clean off the counter and create a blank slate for myself is the first step toward feeling like I’ve accomplished something. It’s an act of respect for my pastry and myself.
The next step is to chill my butter. I slice two cold butter sticks into squares, then strips, then cubes—which is way more satisfying of an activity than it should be—and set them the freezer for at least fifteen minutes. If I’m being very good I’ll also chill my mixing bowl, pastry cutter, and granite block, but I’m not very good very often. The pastry understands.
While the butter is chilling I scoop my flour, two cups of it, into my bowl and whisk in two teaspoons of salt and sometimes a tablespoon or two of sugar. I level the flour in the measuring cup with the straight edge of a butter knife because I get an accurate measure of flour without having to use a scale (hush, professional bakers, hush) and because of the dopamine release that comes as I watch the flour align exactly with the edge of the measuring cup. By myself, I can’t do a damn thing about poverty, climate change, racism, sexism, homophobia, weaponized religion, or anything else that matters, but I can measure flour. I can do that.
I fill a small bowl with water and add ice cubes to it, maybe toss it in the freezer for a few minutes if the bowl isn’t glass. I like using this tiny metal bowl in part because the sound of ice cubes hitting it is meditative, and in part because I don’t have a clue what else to use it for.
When my butter is chilled and my ice water is ready, I toss the butter into the bowl with the flour. This is the part where most recipes will have you pulse everything in the food processor because it turns a painstaking process into a two-minute step, but I do this for the purposes of discipline and self-reflection, so I use my spindly pastry cutter. Also my food processor is broken.
I dig the pastry cutter into the butter cubes in a swooping, down-the-sides-of-the-bowl-to-the-center motion, turning the bowl to access all of the butter. I cut the butter down into the flour until it resembles tiny pebbles—some people describe it as wet sand—that don’t stand out from the mixture as lumps of butter.
Once the butter and the flour are combined I drizzle in eight tablespoons of ice water. Sometimes I might go to ten to make the dough easier to mix, but adding too much water can make the dough tough. It’s that whole taking-the-easy-route-makes-things-worse-down-the-line thing.
I use my (clean!) hands to stir the water into the flour mixture because that’s part of my ritual—you can use a spoon or whatever you want, I’m not your mother—until the dough sticks together when I pinch it in small pieces.
I pour the mixture onto my granite slab—a (clean!) countertop will do just fine—and knead it. My kneading preference is a nod to croissant-making where I press the dough down into a rough square, fold the right side over like a book, turn the whole thing clockwise and repeat, scooping as much of the dry, crumbly flour mixture into each motion as I can. It usually only takes me five or six turns to get the dough in solid shape. Beyond that I risk over-working it, which can make it tough. (It doesn’t take much for shortcrust pastry to panic, get into self-defense mode, and become incredibly difficult to work with. Like humans.)
When the dough holds together I wrap it in parchment paper and stick it in the refrigerator for thirty minutes before I roll it out. During that time I prepare my filling, clean my mixing bowl and utensils, or lean against the counter to watch the grass outside sway in the breeze and remember that we only get one life, dammit, just the one, and all we can do with it are the things we love and the things we do to show love to others and we can’t bury ourselves regretting things we wish we had done sooner or better. We simply don’t have time.
By the time the dough is chilled and ready to become whatever the evening’s dinner or dessert is going to be, I’ve gone through a process of preparation, execution, and result and have sorted through an existential crisis or two. Nothing about pastry-baking is going to save the world or even finish my novel, but it brings me back to earth where I can appreciate my husband and my animals and all the things that I so luckily—so unfairly in contrast with most people—have. I can make dinner. I can re-do the load of laundry. I can respond to my family group text and send gifs to my friends. I can read a chapter. I can write again tomorrow, bright and early. I can know when I need to move, need to breathe, need to feel like things are real. It’s enough. It has to be enough for me, because it begins and ends with me.
My worth cannot begin with things I have yet to grasp. I cannot expect the money or the influence or the ego-boost of “someday” to validate me as a writer or as a human because, for any number of reasons, someday may never come and I may waste away in worry waiting for it. If there is one lesson I did not expect to learn, sitting here at my pretty writing table with my cup of coffee in my sunlight-bathed house, it’s that dependence on myself is harrowing. It dredges up every regret, every mistake, and every misplaced moment of vulnerability I’ve ever allowed to happen. Yet, the more honest I am with myself, the more a slow, creeping confidence settles into my every day. I’m a self-sabotaging disaster with a hell of a lot of thanks owed to other people. That is a fact, but it’s one that I begin to embrace with humor as I force myself into action, sifting through flour with steady hands.
I have the chaotic, boundless power to turn practically nothing into a thing of beauty. If that was enough for the biblical God of the universe, it is enough for me. I am enough for myself.
Savory Shortcrust Pastry
Prep Time: Approx. 1 hour
2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into cubes and chilled
2 cups flour
2 tsp salt
In a large bowl, mix flour and salt. Add chilled butter and cut with a pastry cutter or fork until the butter resembles small pebbles.
Add 8 tbsp water and mix until the dough holds together in small pieces when pressed. (Add more water if mixture seems too dry, but not over 10 tbsp.)
Turn dough out on a floured surface and knead until smooth. (Mixture will be crumbly at first, just keep working at it.) Form into a disk and wrap in parchment paper. Chill for 30 minutes before use.
Want to put some pastry into action? Here’s the recipe for my Tomato and Brie Galette.