Have you ever tried to make puff pastry from scratch? It's an "interesting" procedure. Translation: It takes most of the day.

True, few culinary happenings are as astounding to witness as the transformation of mere flour, butter and water into light, buttery puffed pastry. But this miracle occurs only after a very time-consuming, labor-intensive process.

First, the dough must be rolled out, dotted with butter, carefully folded and re-rolled. After chilling, that entire process is repeated--up to eight times. Then the pastry is cut into shapes and baked. As the pastry heats up, the moisture in the dough and butter turns to steam and rises, forcefully pushing the pastry layers apart. The result is hundreds of flaky, paper-thin layers (hence the French name, pate feuilletee, meaning "leaves of dough")--but only if each and every step has been executed perfectly.

Many chefs have found a shortcut, a solution that saves hours in the kitchen: a trip to the freezer aisle of the supermarket. There sits the essence of napoleons, the infrastructure of towering mille-feuilles (made with whipped cream and jam), the crux of the savory crust of beef or salmon Wellington and the main ingredient for light-as-air cheese straws.

Chef Michel Richard, of Michel Richard Citronelle in Georgetown, a proponent of pre-made puff pastry, concurs. "It goes perfectly with everything!"

Especially during the holiday season, simply keep a box (or two) in the freezer and follow a few rules when preparing.

Once the pastry has been defrosted according to package directions, roll it to 1/4- to 1/8-inch thick on a lightly floured or sugared surface. If rolled any thinner, the dough won't puff properly. Any thicker, and you'll end up with a doughy glob--even after baking.

If you tear the pastry while rolling, dab it with water and press back together.

Prepared puff pastry works better in individual-size tarts (as opposed to big, multi-serving tarts). With the smaller size, the middle doesn't get soggy.

Once the pastry has been cut into the desired shape, transfer it to a baking sheet that's greased or lined with parchment paper. If time permits, chill for 30 minutes before baking--this will give the pastry an extra puff. (Most items may be frozen at this point for up to two weeks; thaw in the refrigerator for about three hours.)

To have all of your puff pastry shapes rise to the same height, lightly brush each shape with egg white and top the entire tray of pastries with parchment paper before baking.

Most pastry chefs bake puff pastry at a relatively high temperature for a rather short amount of time, 375 to 400 degrees for about 20 minutes. The pastry is golden when done. Richard prefers baking it at 325 to 350 degrees for almost one hour to ensure that every layer is properly dried and crisp. (The slow baking also imparts a faint hazelnut flavor to the pastry, he says.) Cool on the baking sheet for five minutes and serve immediately or transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Here are a few baking ideas for beginners:

Palmiers

To make these simple dessert "palm leaves," sprinkle a sheet of pastry generously with sugar (or grated cheese and spices for a savory version). Starting with 1 short side, roll it up tightly, jellyroll fashion, but only to the middle of the pastry sheet; repeat with the other short side so the 2 rolls are the same size and meet in the middle. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap, press down slightly and chill for at least 30 minutes. Then cut the dough into 1/4-inch slices, pinch the tops together and transfer the cookies to a sugar-sprinkled baking sheet. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes.

Pot-Pie Lids

Using a sharp knife, cut the pastry just a bit larger than the baking dish of the pot pie. Bake separately at 400 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. Set the crust atop a fully baked pot pie.

Sweet or Savory Tarts

Cut the pastry into 4-inch squares or circles. Arrange the filling--from apples, pears, plums, peaches or preserves to ratatouille, sauteed mushrooms or ham, mustard and cheese--in the center of each square, leaving a 1 1/2-inch border. If desired, fold over about 1/2 inch of the border to partially cover the toppings. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes.

Brie en Croute

Using two 8-ounce sheets of puff pastry, place a 17-ounce wheel of Brie cheese in the center of 1 sheet and pull the edges of the pastry up and over the cheese. Cut a circle slightly larger than the wheel of cheese from the remaining pastry sheet. Place the circle over the cheese and press the pastry edges together. Lightly brush the top of the pastry with egg white and bake for 20 to 40 minutes.

Turnovers

Cut out 4-inch circles of puff pastry. Place a bit of sweet or savory filling slightly off-center. Brush the perimeter of the pastry with water, fold to form a half moon and press the edges to seal. Make 1 or 2 slashes on top for the steam to escape. Brush lightly with water, sprinkle with sugar (if desired) and bake for 20 to 25 minutes.

Piggies-in-a-Puff Blanket

Cut out 4-inch squares of puff pastry. Cut each square in half on a diagonal. Place 1 cooked sausage (trimmed if necessary) alongside the wide base of each triangle and roll to the pointed edge. Bake for 20 minutes.

Shells

Using a sharp knife or a round cookie cutter, cut out shapes. Using a smaller cutter, make an indentation within the larger cutout, pressing about halfway through the pastry. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Using a fork, remove some of the puff pastry, following the indentation, to form a small cup-shaped pastry. Fill the shells with seafood or chicken in a cream sauce or scrambled eggs and sauteed asparagus, mushrooms or artichokes.

Roquefort Circles

(70 pastries)

This is a simple idea that is easily multiplied for large gatherings. It can also be made ahead and frozen, either baked or unbaked. From "The Book of Great Hors d'Oeuvres" by Terence Janericco (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1990).

3 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 1/2 ounces Roquefort cheese

1/4 cup minced scallions or chives

1 tablespoon butter

Pinch of cayenne pepper

Flour for the work surface

2 sheets of frozen puff pastry, thawed according to package directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly brush a baking sheet with water.

In a large bowl, mix together the cream cheese and Roquefort with the scallions or chives, butter and cayenne. Set aside.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out each pastry sheet to 1/8 inch thick. Spread the filling over the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border on 1 long side. Brush the border with cold water. Roll the sheet jellyroll fashion toward the border, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 45 minutes.

Cut the pastry into 1/4-inch slices and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Bake in the preheated oven until golden, 15 to 20 minutes.

(May be wrapped tightly and frozen, baked or unbaked.)

Per circle: 44 calories, 1 gm protein, 3 gm carbohydrates, 3 gm fat, 2 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 31 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Apple Turnovers

(6 turnovers)

Serve these turnovers at brunch or for dessert. If you wish, substitute pears, peaches or your favorite savory filling. From Nick Malgieri's "How to Bake" (HarperCollins, 1995).

Flour for the work surface

8-ounce sheet frozen puff pastry, defrosted according to package directions

2 pounds (about 4 large) tart apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled, halved, cored and diced

1/3 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 egg

Pinch of salt

Confectioners' sugar for dusting (optional)

Line a jellyroll pan or baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry to a 12-by-18-inch rectangle. Carefully transfer the dough to a baking sheet and refrigerate.

Meanwhile, in a skillet over medium heat, combine the apples, sugar, butter and cinnamon and bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring frequently, until the apples are tender and the juices reduce and thicken slightly, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer the apple filling to a bowl, cover and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, about 1 hour.

Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a small bowl, beat the egg with salt.

Using a sharp knife, cut the pastry into 6 squares. Brush the perimeter of each square with some of the egg wash. Place a generous 1 tablespoon of apple filling just off-center of each square and fold each square on the diagonal to form a triangle and enclose the filling. Transfer the turnovers to the prepared baking sheet. Press the edges of the pastry so they stick together. Brush each turnover with the remaining egg wash. Using a sharp knife, make a 1-inch slash in the top of each turnover.

Bake the turnovers in the preheated oven until they are puffed, golden and the filling is bubbling slightly, 20 to 25 minutes.

Cool slightly on the pan, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Dust with confectioners' sugar, if desired. Serve warm or at room temperature; best if served the day they are baked.

Per turnover: 367 calories, 3 gm protein, 48 gm carbohydrates, 19 gm fat, 18 mg cholesterol, 6 gm saturated fat, 128 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber

Mushroom Napoleons With Garlic Cream

(6 servings)

"Everything goes well with puff pastry," says chef Michel Richard. Which is exactly why he believes that napoleons--with their endless possibilities--are the perfect presentation for puff pastry (preferably served within seconds of pulling them from the oven). This basic example is from "Michel Richard's Home Cooking With a French Accent" (William Morrow, 1993).

Flour for the work surface

8-ounce frozen puff pastry sheet, thawed according to package directions

For the garlic cream:

30 large cloves garlic (about 2 heads), peeled

2 cups heavy (whipping) cream

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

For the mushroom filling:

About 2 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 to 2 pounds fresh shiitake or other mushrooms, stems trimmed and discarded

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

6 sprigs fresh herbs, such as chervil and parsley (optional)

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the pastry into a 8-by-12-inch rectangle. Using a fluted pastry cutter, cut into six 4-by-4-inch squares. Transfer the squares to the prepared baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

For the garlic cream: Place the garlic in a heavy saucepan, cover with about 3 inches of cold water and bring to a boil. Drain and rinse the garlic with cold water. Repeat this entire process (boil, drain, rinse) two more times. Thinly slice the garlic.

Return the garlic to the saucepan and add the cream. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is reduced by about half and thickens. Season with salt and pepper to taste. (The garlic cream may be prepared, covered and set aside to cool at room temperature for several hours or refrigerated overnight.)

For the mushrooms: In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, until they have released their liquid and are lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Cut the mushrooms horizontally into halves or thirds. Season with salt and pepper to taste. (May be prepared several hours in advance and set aside to cool at room temperature.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the pastry from the refrigerator. Prick the pastry with a fork. Bake the pastry squares until puffed, golden brown and baked through, about 30 minutes. Using a serrated knife, gently slice each square in half horizontally to form 2 thinner squares. Transfer each pair of squares to individual serving plates.

Meanwhile, in 2 separate saucepans over medium-high heat, rewarm the garlic cream and the mushrooms, stirring frequently. Place one puff square on each of six plates. Divide the cream evenly among each of the puff squares. Divide the mushrooms evenly among the cream-topped squares. Take the remaining six pastry squares and set one on top of each bottom square at an angle over the mushrooms and cream so the filling is visible. Garnish each square with a sprig of chervil or parsley, if desired. Serve immediately.

Per tart: 589 calories, 7 gm protein, 40 gm carbohydrates, 47 gm fat, 110 mg cholesterol, 22 gm saturated fat, 201 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber

Almond and Hazelnut Twists

(About 24 pastries)

Puff pastry sticks are one of the simplest--and perhaps most versatile--ways of serving puff pastry. Sweet versions, such as these twists, can be served as a cookie with a fruit or custard dessert or coffee. Savory renditions make wonderful hors d'oeuvres. This recipe is from Nick Malgieri's "How to Bake" (HarperCollins, 1995).

Keep the twists in an airtight tin or plastic container with a tight-fitting cover.

1 egg

Pinch salt

Flour for the work surface

8-ounce frozen puff pastry sheet, thawed according to package directions 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/3 cup (about 1 ounce) blanched almonds, finely chopped (not ground) 1/3 cup (about 1 ounce) hazelnuts, lightly toasted, skinned and finely chopped (not ground)

Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil.

In a small bowl, beat the egg with the salt. Set aside.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the puff pastry sheet into a 12-inch square. Lightly brush the dough with the egg mixture.

In a small bowl, combine the sugar, cinnamon, almonds and hazelnuts. Spread the nut mixture evenly over half the surface of the dough, spreading it all the way to the edges. Fold the uncovered half of the dough over the filling and press slightly. Carefully transfer the dough to the baking sheet and refrigerate until the dough is firm, about 15 minutes.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough back out to a 12-inch square. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough into 24 strips (each about 1/2 inch wide). Holding one end of each strip to anchor it, use your other hand to twist the strip around itself several times to form a fairly tight corkscrew shape and then transfer it to the prepared baking sheet. (The twisted shape will relax during baking.)

Bake the twists in the preheated oven until they are puffed and caramelized, about 20 minutes.

Transfer the twists to a rack to cool for 5 minutes. If you prefer smaller cookies, cut the twists in half while they are still warm.

Per twist: 81 calories, 1 gm protein, 9 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 24 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Shrimp Pastry Squares With Garlic Butter

(4 to 6 servings)

A tad time-consuming, but well worth the effort. From "Michel Richard's Home Cooking With a French Accent" (William Morrow, 1993).

2 ounces (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter

2 large cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

1/4 teaspoon anise seeds, crushed

1/4 cup minced chervil or parsley (or use 1 1/2 tablespoons minced chives)

8-ounce frozen puff pastry sheet, thawed according to package directions

Flour for the work surface

1 egg, lightly beaten

12 large shrimp, peeled, deveined and butterflied*

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Fresh chervil or parsley sprigs (for optional garnish)

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a small saucepan over low heat, melt the butter with the garlic and anise seeds. Stir in the chervil, parsley or chives and remove from the heat. Set aside at room temperature until cool but still liquid.

Cut the pastry lengthwise into quarters. On a lightly floured surface, roll 1 strip of dough into a 4-by-20-inch rectangle. (If the dough retracts, let it rest several minutes and try again.) Lightly brush the surface of the dough with some of the egg and then with some of the garlic butter. Arrange 6 butterflied shrimp, opened flat, along the center of the pastry, spacing them about 2 inches apart and leaving about 1 1/2 inches of dough on each end. Brush the shrimp generously with about half of the garlic butter. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Roll a second strip of puff pastry into a 4-by-20-inch rectangle. Carefully roll it partially onto a rolling pin and then unroll it over the shrimp-topped pastry. Seal the 2 layers of dough, pressing firmly around each shrimp. Using a sharp knife, divide the pastry strip into 6 shrimp-filled squares. Transfer the squares to the prepared baking sheet, cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Repeat this procedure with the remaining ingredients. Cover the squares and refrigerate until ready to bake, at least 15 minutes but no longer than 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Discard the plastic wrap. Lightly brush the top of the shrimp squares twice with the egg, being careful not to let the excess egg drip down the sides, (Egg on the sides will prevent the pastry from puffing uniformly.) If desired, use a sharp knife to mark shallow decorative lines across the top of each square.

Bake the squares until puffed and brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer to a platter and garnish with chervil sprigs. Serve immediately.

Note: To butterfly, hold the shrimp with the rounded back side facing you. Using a small sharp knife, cut along the length of the shrimp, cutting almost but not completely through the shrimp. Gently press the halves of the shrimp outward to flatten it; it will resemble a butterfly.

Per serving (based on 6): 308 calories, 15 gm protein, 18 gm carbohydrates, 20 gm fat, 104 mg cholesterol, 6 gm saturated fat, 220 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

What to Do With the Trimmings

When rolling puff pastry and cutting shapes, there are, inevitably, leftovers. In this case, the dough is too fragile to reroll, yet too potentially delicious to throw out. The following are a few suggestions that Michel Richard offered in "Baking With Julia" (William Morrow, 1996):

Toss the scraps with sugar and bake at 375 to 400 degrees for about 15 minutes.

Carefully drop small scraps in hot peanut oil and cook, stirring and turning constantly, until puffed and golden, about 5 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and use as croutons in soup or Caesar salad. Or sprinkle with confectioners' sugar and nibble immediately.

Create "pizzettes"--sweet or savory, round or square--just large enough to hold toppings. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes.

Frozen Puff Pastry Doughs

Homemade puff pastry? Are you out of your mind?!

There is a variety of ready-made puff pastry dough in the freezer aisle of your local supermarket that will save you an entire day's fussing.

However, not all frozen puff-pastry doughs are created equal.

DUFOUR

The ingredient list on this "classic" puff pastry dough reads like a recipe: butter, unbleached flour, water, salt and lemon juice. The price reflects the inclusion of real butter, but, blissfully, so does the resulting flavor and texture. This is great stuff. Throw away the empty box and pass the pastry off as your own. The 14-ounce single sheet ranges in price from $7.95 to $8.99. It is available at specialty stores, including Dean & DeLuca, Fresh Fields and Sutton Place Gourmet.

PEPPERIDGE FARM

Although this dough contains partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening instead of butter, the taste and texture are surprisingly satisfactory and quite economical. The 17.3-ounce package contains two individual pastry sheets and costs about $3.69. It is available in most supermarkets.

KINERET

produces a puff pastry dough that is practically identical to that of Pepperidge Farm: both contain a common substitute for butter, both are kosher and pareve and both make a perfectly acceptable finished puffed pastry. The only noticeable difference: Kineret's pastry resembles a flaky pie crust and comes in four-inch squares--very convenient for napoleons, miniature tarts and pigs-in-a-blanket. A 16-ounce package costs about $3.69 and is available at some supermarkets.