Weeknight cooking generally is pretty utilitarian. It may not be very pretty or impressive, but it usually is tasty and gets the job done.
Which tends to throw everything for a loop on those rare weeknights when something special is needed. Just because you need to feed last-minute company on a Wednesday evening doesn't mean you magically have extra time to pull it off. Those are the nights when we need something that is impressive and delicious, as well as easy and speedy.
Easier said than done. But hardly impossible.
It's for nights such as this that I keep a couple packages of puff pastry in the freezer. This versatile dough is delicious, inexpensive and cooks up in minutes. It can be used for desserts or savory dishes, and is pretty much agreeable to any shape you care to fold, mold or cut it into.
Puff pastry is just what the name implies — a pastry-style dough that, because of the layers of fat worked into it, puffs up when baked. The result is a light and delicately crunchy pastry (think croissant).
Most grocers sell puff pastry in the freezer section alongside the phyllo dough, fruits and other pastry items. The most common brand is Pepperidge Farm, which comes as a 17.3-ounce package that contains two sheets of pastry. Each sheet is packed folded into thirds and must be thawed before unfolding.
While there are innumerable ways of transforming puff pastry into wonderful desserts, I prefer to use it as the base of savory tarts. To do this, simply thaw and unfold a sheet of pastry, set it on a lightly oiled baking sheet, then top it with thinly sliced vegetables or meat and bake until puffed and lightly browned.
I recently topped a tart with chopped canned artichoke hearts, fresh thyme, minced garlic and a whole mess of grated Parmesan cheese. I've also done pizza-like versions, topping the pastry with sliced tomatoes, garlic, basil and fresh mozzarella.
As a general rule, it's best to choose toppings that either cook quickly or already are cooked. Puff pastry cooks quickly, so you want to make certain your toppings don't take longer than the pastry.