I went to Alaska on a culinary tour with Access Culinary knowing I was going to see some beautiful scenery, eat some great food, meet some great chefs and learn some new things but I was not prepared for Laura Cole and her pastry.
Laura is the owner and chef of 229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern, just inside Denali National Park in Alaska. It is considered to be the finest restaurant in the state. You may know her better from Season 15 of Bravo’s series, Top Chef .
It was day one of our tour and we left Fairbanks early for the two hour drive to Denali and our cooking class with Laura. The route was breathtaking, through verdant green forests with snow dotted mountains in the distance and our group was happy and filled with anticipation for the coming cooking lesson (we are all big fans of Top Chef). Suddenly the van started to shimmy and shake and we pulled over to discover not one, but two, blown tires. We were an hour out in the middle of nowhere and the cooking lesson was becoming less likely by the minute as Laura was fitting us in before her sous chefs arrived at one to prep that night’s dinner for 229 Park.
This is when the miracle that is Alaska kicked in. We were all being good sports and pretending we didn’t care when suddenly “The Magic Bus” pulled over! They thought we had stopped to look at a moose or a bear but when they saw what had happened to our van they told us to hop in as they were on their way to Denali too. (This story is almost too good to be true.)
And from my point of view, it only gets better. We arrived no more than a half an hour late for our lesson and Chef started right in beginning with…PASTRY!
I have been working on pastry for the past three months or more so this was super exciting to me. Chef Cole is the most dynamic and compelling chef I have ever worked with. She is friendly, knowledgeable and relaxed about cooking while clearly being very accomplished and talented. And she blew away my pastry recipe in one or two moves.
My friend British friend, Jo, and I watched in amazement as she worked the pastry well beyond the place that we had been taught for fear of making it tough. She added nothing but butter and flour: no salt, no sugar. Because, here was the second shock, she used milk instead of ice water to bind it together. Why? Because, Chef told us, the milk protein helps develop the gluten making it possible to work the pastry a bit more and the natural sugar in the milk sweetens the pastry.
I could not wait to get home and try this, especially after I tasted her Rustic Blackberry and Apple Tart. That pastry was at once flaky, and buttery while holding up to the fruit filling.
Back at home, using up the glut of zucchini which my garden had produced in my absence was a priority so I decided to make a rustic savory galette with the pastry recipe Laura had taught us.
It starts with the same basic process we have used all along. Very cold butter is cut into flour until it is like sand. You can do this by hand or with a food processor. No need to add salt or sugar.
Once it is well cut in, add milk-a little at a time–until it holds together when you pinch it. It will still look like sand but the milk makes it stick. You may have to stop and check it a few times until you know what it looks like. The amount of milk varies according to weather conditions!
Now turn it out onto a clean (no flour!) board and knead it together until it is all incorporated.
Laura worked it until it was a smooth ball. This was much longer than either Jo or I would have done. Both of us agreed we stopped kneading when it was just barely holding together and would never have gone on to this point!
It is easiest at this point to separate it into two equal size balls, flatten them into disks and refrigerate for at least an hour before proceeding with your recipe.
LAURA’S SHORT CRUST PASTRY
- ½ lbs unsalted butter 2 sticks
- 2 ½ cups plain flour
- 2-4 tbsp whole milk
- Cut the butter into small cubes and freeze for at least 30 minutes
- Put the flour in the bowl of a food processor and sprinkle the butter over it.
- Process for two or three pulses until the mixture is like sand.
- Add 1-2 tablespoons whole milk and pulse for 7 seconds. Test the dough by pinching it between your fingers. It should hold together. Add a little more milk and repeat the process until it does.
- Turn the pastry dough out onto a clean board and knead until it forms a pliable dough.
- Separate into two equal balls and flatten each one into a thick disk.