I’ll just say it: like so many of you who came before, I’m now obsessed with The Great British Baking Show. I didn’t think I’d like it because I’m much more cook than baker. I aim toward flavor, texture and contrast and away from precision, but there’s something about the tone of the show, the pretty pastel colors, the lilting sweet piano theme, the earnestness of the amateur bakers, the creativity, and… the puff pastry.
Most people would never consider making their own puff pastry because it’s readily available in a manufactured form in grocery store freezers. It’s a product made with the thinnest layers of pastry separated by the thinnest layers of cold butter. A classic puff pastry contains 729 layers, and I’m not sure how many layers there are in the box in my freezer right now, but that box contains four sheets of puff pastry and the box is not quite large enough to house a pair of baby shoes. Making it by myself is something I would never, ever, ever consider.
The beauty of a puff pastry is in the rise. As the dough cooks, the water in the butter evaporates and causes each layer to separate a bit, creating the crispy, flaky dough that you find in croissants, tarts, turnovers and more. And though those are my favorite kinds of pastry, watching amateur bakers create it doesn’t make me hungry. It makes me hopeful.
To make the puff pastry, the bakers must envelope a thin sheet of cold butter in a pocket of dough, then roll and fold, roll and fold, roll and fold until it’s layer upon layer of goodness. It’s hard, taxing, physical work which takes over your whole kitchen. You need a good amount of time and lots of patience. If the ingredients start to get warm, you need to give it some resting time in the refrigerator so the butter won’t melt, and then start up again. If you overwork the dough, the fat from the butter will coat the flour in the dough and it will become one gloopy mess instead of distinct lovely layers. There’s a lot of danger and plenty of potential pitfalls on the way to the sweet end for which you’re toiling.
So why does it make me hopeful, you might ask, all this rolling and refrigerating and work and planning and stress? Because of the rise.
I heard a homily this week based on the Gospel of Luke, the part where Jesus blesses the poor and the hungry and the weeping but offers the opposite to those who are rich and full, those who laugh, and who enjoy the good treatment of others. The key to understanding this message, according to Fr. George, lies in our common experience. In something good, there’s often a shadow of something negative. In a hardship, there’s often a silver lining. It’s all in how it unfolds, and the older we get, the more we see this unfolding. We experience both the shadow of the blessing and the hope in the hardship. We work hard to prepare and pray and create our lives and the work of our vocation, and it takes time and toil before we ever see the beginnings of the fruit of it. In the heat of life, the grace of God and all of our toil and preparation unfold themselves to reveal something truly beautiful. We rise.
We rise in gratitude under the favor of a blessing and in trial, we rise in growth, understanding, compassion, and dependence on God. We rise to become much more than we were at the start. We rise to reveal the beauty of a creative, loving, personal God.
And that’s why those British bakers make me hopeful as they make those dough-and-butter envelopes that look so rudimentary, you’d think a child pasted them together. That’s why I smile as I watch them roll and fold and sweat over their counters and watch their timers and rush back and forth from their refrigerators. I know that in time and with the skill of their loving creators, these simple slabs will become masterpieces. I know what they’ll look like when they rise.