Pasta. A roast. The slow cooker. Smart cooks know how to stock their emergency hangry arsenal with the best ready-in-flash tools. Consider adding puff pastry to that list. Here’s why, plus how to use it.
Savory Carrot Ribbon Tart
Credit: Iain Bagwell

The best home cooks can survey a pantry, fridge, and freezer and “Top Chef” dinner together in their minds. (Got thyme, a can of tuna, lemon, capers, and mascarpone? Add pasta, and you’ve got a silkily sauced noodle dish with plenty of protein.) And there are a few key moves—an emergency first aid kit for the hangry—many of us execute right when we walk in the door. Usually it’s one or more of the following:

  1. Put a pot of hot water on the stove to boil.
  2. Take a hunk of meat out of the fridge to come to room temperature.
  3. Preheat the oven.

Accounting for the time it will take for temperature to get where it needs to be is a power move. It allows for the unloading of groceries and the pulling together of pantry staples, the detangling of one child from another, or the answering of the boss’s frantic work call. (And, of course, shout-out to those of you clever enough to have slow-cooked your way to dinner yesterday!)

I’d add one more item to your go-to list: Pull a hunk of puff pastry out of the freezer. It may not be the healthiest thing around, but it can be transformed into something delicious in a snap. It’s super-customizable—you can break off slabs of it to serve however many hungry people you have—and it accommodates almost any leftovers. I like to get mine out, sliver a big onion, and start caramelizing it before rooting around in the fridge for other odds and ends.

Puff pastry, like pasta, can marry whatever already goes together. Throw a knob of melting cheese on it. Taleggio is great with caramelized onions and thyme in this killer Nigel Slater recipe, but so is Brie, or Camembert, or goat cheese. Pull the ends and odds of chicken off its carcass and pile them on with roasted garlic, leftover cooked broccoli or cauliflower, or artichoke hearts from a jar. Sauté mushrooms with shallots and sherry vinegar and sprinkle them with Pecorino Romano and fresh sage leaves. Go for faux pizza with a light brushing of Italian sauce and fresh mozzarella. Pile on spears of sautéed asparagus with Parmesan and lemon zest. Variations are limitless, here.

And if you’re craving something sweet—or someone’s demanding dessert!—look to the crisper. Pears, strawberries, cherries, peaches, or apples can be briefly spun with butter to caramelize their sugars, then layered lightly on the pastry. Or make cute little turnovers, folding sheets into smaller shapes and shellacking them with milk or butter so they turn golden in the oven. You can even stack puff pastry with strawberries, as in this recipe, to make your dinner table look like a French patisserie.

Tips: You don’t want your pastry to get too warm, and many chefs will recommend you actually build your dish on it and then pop it back in the freezer for five minutes or more before you plunk it back in the oven. (Package directions and recipes will typically call for you to just unroll the pastry on a baking sheet and bake it at around 400 degrees for 15 minutes or so.) As for brands, I scorn the fancy ones; Dufour might be stylish and Frenchier, but Pepperidge Farm puff pastry sheets have always panned out for me. Be sure to use a butter knife to create a crust around the edges, and prick the body of the pastry all over with a fork so it doesn’t puff up in the center. And don’t overload it! Think about heaviness and water content, and try to avoid too much of either: Puff pastry, a true citizen of the world, likes to travel light.

Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in, Bon Appétit, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.