I've never been very good with pastry. Bit of an Achilles heel really. Must be these hot hands of mine. Achilles hands?

Given that, for what it's worth I give you my thoughts on the science of pastry making. I have absolutely no reason to believe they are correct:

Short in pastry terms means crumbly. the usual ratio for shortcrust pastry being two parts flour to one part butter.

Short pastry dough is essentially a kind of solid emulsion of small blobs of fat suspended in the wet flour. When this bakes, the gluten in the flour bonds to form a solid matrix, from which the fat melts away, leaving an airy lattice behind. In general, the more fat you add, the crumblier will be the texture, (the more holes there will be in the baked pastry matrix), but the weaker will be the structure.

Things that can go wrong - if the fat globules are not evenly and coherently distributed through the dough (so not so much an emulsion as a solution) it won't bake leaving nice holes behind and the pastry won't be light and airy.

Also if the gluten in the flour is overstretched or overworked it will form overlong chains, the dough will be too elastic, difficult to roll and will shrink and toughen when baking. Making for a hard, heavy pastry.

So the way to get the best out of pastry is to breadcrumb the flour with small cold blobs of butter as quickly as possible, add only enough liquid to make the dough cohere, and not to overwork the pastry once mixed.

In conclusion:
Try not to overwork your pastry - that seems to be the real killer, and keeping everything as cool as possible.

Which funnily enough is exactly what all those people who can make good pastry tell us.
So my science must be right - cum hoc ergo propter hoc :)

Almond Shortcrust Pastry
ingredient veg
This pastry is very light and delicate with a good flavour, but it is quite fragile when cooked and can be a bit on the greasy side. It's also quite difficult to roll out since it tends to come apart, so good use of a broad or palette knife will be crucial.

Makes enough for 24-36 mince pies

By Hand:
Before making the pastry sift the flour into a large bowl and cube the butter. Separate the egg from the white and reserve the white for a topping variant. In a cup, mix the egg yolk with 2 tablespoons of the milk.

Cut up the butter as small as you can manage, then chill. With your fingertips, rub the cubed butter into the sifted flour and ground almonds. Don't overwork the mixing. Add the sifted icing sugar and grated lemon rind. Mix lightly with a knife.

Now add the egg yolk with 2 tablespoon of the milk mixture to the flour mix and use a knife to form into a dough. If needed dribble on another 1 tablespoon of milk until you get a rough dough bind. Use only as much milk as you need to get the dough to hold together. The gluten in all flours varies so you will need to judge your flour. Much depends on the size of your egg yolk too.

Knead gently to bring the dough together. Divide the dough into three balls, flatten slightly to make the rolling easier, wrap in plastic bags or clingfilm and chill in the fridge for half an hour or so.

By Machine:
Place the butter, flour, salt, sugar and almonds in a food processor. Blitz until you have a fine breadcrumb texture, but do not overwork. Add the egg, milk and lemon peel and mix well, using the pulse button until the pastry balls; again do not overwork. Add just enough liquid to get the dough to cohere.

Roll out:
Dust your chilled marble - you have a slab of chilled marble right? work surface with flour from a sieve. Take each pastry ball and roll carefully into a circle, flipping and rotating frequently - use a palette knife to free the pastry from the surface. This can be tricky as the pastry is delicate and quite sticky.
Don't roll too thickly or the pastry will end up quite oily.
Cut out your shapes, line your tins/trays/dishes and bake your pies/pastries/ for 15 minutes at 190°C/375°F/Gas Mark 5. Keep an eye on them at the end - the pastry will go from golden to burnt quite quickly.
You won't need to grease your baking tins, and I put mince pies made using this crust on sheets kitchen roll to cool so as to absorb excess fat.
I wonder if it wouldn't be better to cut back on the proportion of butter to a more usual 1 x 2 ratio with the flour?

Mince Pies
You're going to end up with some damn fine mince pies if you use real, homemade mincemeat and almond shortcrust pastry.

They taste best reheated in a warm oven (Gas 4) for ten minutes, sprinkled with icing sugar and served with a generous dose of thick, clotted or whipped cream.

My good friend John who owns the very nice 50 foot yacht that I regularly crew on, is an incredibly competent sailor.
In the kitchen; not so much.
Left at home alone for an hour or so by his wife, he recently tried to warm himself a mince pie for a quick snack with disasterous consequences; though I don't suppose he can be entirely blamed for the patio doors losing their handles and falling out of their tracks when he tried to let some of the smoke out.
So for all you sailors out there:
  1. mince pie crust goes all soft and soggy if you reheat them in the microwave
  2. and anyway one minute cooking time on full power really is a lot for a single mince pie - put them in the oven!

Makes as many pies as you have pastry for

First make your mincemeat and leave it to mature for a couple of weeks.

Then make make up one quantity of your pastry. Roll it out, cut out rings to line the bun tray and press them very gently into place. You can use a small ball of pastry to do this if you find your fingers tearing the lining.
You don't want to have the edge of the pastry sticking up beyond the bun tin though - they will either burn at the edges, or collapse outwards to make ugly fat pies.
No one wants to eat fat ugly pies.

Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F/Gas Mark 5.
Fill each casing with about 1½ teaspoons of mincemeat and press in gently. You can sprinkle on a half-teaspoon of ground almonds too to absorb any leaking juices, especially if you put on a tight lid.
Now roll out more pastry and cut out the pie lids - you can make them large enough to cover the topping completely and join them to the lining by pressing with a fork, or using brushed egg yolks. Prick or snip slits in the lids.
I prefer to make decorative lids (say star or holly shapes) that don't quite cover the whole pie - just place the lids gently on top of the filling (they'll melt onto the filling as they cook); it's easier and the pie isn't disfigured by filling leaking during cooking.
Bake the pies for 15 minutes, and keep an eye on them towards the end - they will brown quite quickly. Leave them to cool for a few minutes before easing them out onto a rack.
Hmmmmm good pies. Damn good pies in fact.
Mind you, the pastry is a bit greasy - I put some kitchen roll underneath them whilst they cooled on the rack to soak some of it up. I suppose you could try a bit less butter in the pastry mixture.

Dan Lepard's Rough Puff Pastry
ingredient veg
By Dan Lepard, by way of Felicity Cloake (who follows Simon Hopkinson in brushing her pastry base with egg white to help prevent it going soggy). I notice, though, that Dan adds some cream of tartar (to make it easier to roll) and an egg yolk with a little milk.
So not quite Dan Lepard's pastry after all then.

It's pretty good for not actually being puff pastry.

Makes a pie. Or a quiche.

Sift the flour and salt on to a cold surface. Cut the butter into 1cm cubes and stir it in, then gently squidge the two together, so the flour combines with the lumps of butter - the aim is not to mix it completely, so it turns into crumbs, but to have small lumps of butter coated with flour. Like the name, it should look quite rough, even unfinished.
I chilled the butter in the freezer for a while, then grated it, and cut it into the flour with a knife. Seemed to work pretty well, the pastry was quite good.
Sprinkle a little of the water over the top and stir it into the dough. Add enough water to bring it into a dough (unless your kitchen is very dry, you probably won't need it all), without overworking the mixture, then cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Lightly flour a work surface and shape the dough into a rectangle. Roll it out until 3 times its original length.

Fold the top third back into the centre, then bring the bottom third up to meet it, so your dough has three layers. Give the dough a quarter turn and roll out again until three times the length, fold again as before, and chill it for 20 minutes.
If you're making a quiche, or want a pie base, you'll need to blind bake the crust:
Roll the pastry use 2/3 of your pastry if making a pie which will have a lid as thinly as you can it will swell considerably as it cooks and line a greased dish. Press the pastry in as well as you can particularly into the corners.
Cover with nonstick paper or foil (enough to make a bag so you can easily remove them) and fill with baking beans.
Put on a baking sheet and bake for 40 minutes at 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.
Remove the foil and beans and patch up any holes with the extra pastry if necessary. Bake for a further 8 minutes, then brush the base with egg white and put back into the oven for 5 minutes.
Optional - Simon Hopkinson's idea to seal the pastry and help prevent it going soggy. Otherwise just cook bare to dry the pastry out for 12 minutes or so.
Trim any overhanging pastry.