Occasionally, a smooth stone was used to flatten a dough - such as for oatcakes - that was too stiff to be worked easily with the hand. When someone employed a slim cylindrical log of wood instead, the first rolling pin was devised. In time, the wood was shaped and sanded to produce a smooth surface that would not adhere to the dough. Ridged rolling pins with circular grooves were used for crushing rather than flattening. In Scotland and Wales crushed oatcakes, and elsewhere crushed dry bread, were added to broth, or even plain hot water, to make gruel - often the only hot dish of the day for the poor.
As British food became richer and sweeter during the time of Elizabeth I, delicate, buttery pastry was favoured by the increasingly affluent gentry. So hot-handed cooks needed a lightweight, cool implement to flatten the fragile dough. Contemporary recipes include instructions to "roul flat" the pastry, using, I presume, a "rouling" pin. Although Eliza Acton in 1845 refers to the implement as a paste roller, a few years later Mrs Beeton, characteristically, calls a rolling pin a rolling pin.
During the 18th century there was a craze for glass rolling pins. These are now highly collectable. The Nailsea factory and a handful of other glassworks produced beautiful glass rolling pins in white, blue, green, brown and black. Most have a small opening at one end, others have a stopper or cork, so that the cavity could be filled with icy water just before using to prevent the butter in puff pastry from melting. Glass rolling pins became popular mementoes with sailors; they bought them as wedding presents, and as good luck charms to take to sea when, as one historian suggests, contraband rum or tobacco took the place of icy water.
One decent rolling pin is quite adequate in most kitchens though I confess to owning half a dozen. I use my German notched rolling pin for imprinting the grid on spiced gingerbread occasionally, but I can't remember ever using the glazed china one someone gave me years ago - though, since it stays quite cool, it might yet be useful in an overheated kitchen. Tesco sells an unbreakable equivalent made from rigid plastic which is chilled in the freezer before use.
The best rolling pins are made of wood that transmits heat slowly and is easy to keep clean; simply scrape off any pieces of dough with a wooden spatula or the back of a knife and wipe the roller with a damp cloth. Box and beechwood are recommended because their fine grain can be sanded to a silky-smooth surface. Sycamore was widely used in the past, along with other native woods such as apple and oak.
Some early hand-made rolling pins resembled a rugby ball or honey-dew melon - they were fatter than is now customary and were tapered at each end. A few years ago Sotheby's sold a particularly fine slim, tapered mahogany rolling pin that was constructed from segments, like an orange. Were rolling pins tapered in order to produce a pie-crust with a thicker edge, I wonder, which would grip the rim of a pie dish securely? Or was the taper intended to distribute the rolling pin's weight more evenly since the dough at the margin needs less pressure?
Today's standard design is a simple wooden cylinder approximately 112 inches in diameter and 12 inches long; Sainsbury's sell one made from Polish beechwood for less than pounds 2. It's a cheap enough general-purpose rolling pin, and big enough for rolling out pastry for the average-size tart or pie. One of the advantages of this design is that it can be manufactured in any manageable length - even up to a metre long for rolling out pasta dough.
Lightness of touch is essential when rolling out pastry. The idea is to leave as much air in the pastry as possible so that in the heat of the oven it swells to form small pockets that make it light and friable. Start by lightly dusting your pastry board and the rolling pin with the same kind of flour as in the dough. Then aim to roll out the dough by extending rather than just squashing it. Hold each end of the rolling pin with your fingers on top, and starting from the nearside of the dough roll it forwards and backwards, exerting just sufficient pressure to stretch and flatten the dough. Give the dough a quarter turn, always to right or left, and repeat a few more times until the dough is the desired thickness.
My favourite rolling pin has a central spindle and fixed handles; I find it quicker to work with because you can use a longer stroke and roll the dough in one direction only. However, familiarity breeds affection in cooking, and the best rolling pin is the one that works best for you.
These French pastries can be large or small, sweet and spicy or savoury.
Makes 24 palmiers
450g/16oz prepared puff pastry
For sweet palmiers: 55g/2oz caster sugar
generous pinch ground cinnamon (optional)
150ml/5fl oz creme fraiche or clotted cream
For savoury palmiers: 1 tablespoon tapenade or black olive puree
1 egg yolk
Maldon sea salt
Heat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6.
To make sweet palmiers: lightly dust the pastry board with caster sugar. Roll out the puff pastry to make a 30 x 20cm/12 x 8in rectangle and brush very lightly with cold water. Mix the remaining caster sugar with the ground cinnamon and sprinkle half over the pastry. Fold the long sides to the middle, press gently with the rolling pin and brush lightly with water. Sprinkle with spiced sugar and fold the long sides together to make four layers. Lightly brush the top half with water and sprinkle with the remaining spiced sugar. Fold lengthwise (short sides together) to make eight layers of pastry and press gently together to make a long flat sausage. Use a sharp knife to cut into 24 slices.
Well space the slices on a high-quality non-stick baking sheet - to produce thin crisp palmiers it is crucial that the pastry can spread easily while cooking. Bake in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes until golden-brown. Cool for one minute then remove with a palette knife. Serve the pastries warm or allow to cool and sandwich with cream.
To make savoury palmiers: roll out the pastry as above, on a floured board, blend the tapenade with the egg yolk and brush thinly over the pastry. Fold the long sides to the middle, press gently together and brush with tapenade, fold the long sides to the middle again. Brush the remaining tapenade over the upper half of the pastry and fold lengthwise (short sides together) to make eight layers. Press gently with the rolling pin and cut the flat sausage into 24 slices. Place on baking sheets, allowing plenty of room, and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake as above. Serve warm with drinks or with soup or salad.