Saturday, 28 February 2009

Saturday - slash and boil

I don't like tempting fate but I'll mention this oddity.

The two things you expect to do working in a kitchen are cut yourself and burn yourself. Since being in France I have burnt myself and cut myself twice but each time outside the kitchen.

1st cut was from a razor burr on my locker padlock after it was cut off with giant pincers when I forgot the key

The burn was when I was folding up the ironing board and didn't consider the wire cradle for the iron would be boiling hot (indeed, considerably hotter). Poetically, I was ironing my kitchen uniform at the time.

The 2nd cut was yesterday at the swimming pool when I amazingly managed to cut myself on a tile underwater leaving a deep flap. Brilliantly, the lifeguard squirted some antiseptic on it and told me to carry on swimming despite the light trail of blood I was leaving. Thank goodness there weren't any sharks in the vicinity.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Macarons 1 - sablés hollondais - bugger

Today couldn't have started more badly. I had set my three alarms (radio, phone and classic) to rouse me at 4.30am so I could be in plenty of time to get to school.

Since I moved families at the weekend this is my first early start. There are no buses from here at that time of the morning so I have to walk to the train station to take the metro. I had been told the walk was just 15mins.

First disaster, I do not wake until 5.30am. No idea how I managed that given the bloody racket ringing out in my room. Too bad. I shot out of the house in a stinking hurry and was still trying to make it to the ruddy station over half an hour later. In all it took 37mins. Not a quarter of an hour (or an English one, at any rate).

I finally arrived in the labo half an hour late feeling incredibly ill (fatigue has been going up and up) and ready to give in to the waves.

How extraordinary, then, to go on to spend one of the best days cooking yet.

As for yesterday's comments on biscuits, I eat my words. Or, at least, I make an exception for the sablés hollandais we made with the pâte sablée we prepared last night. They're a real challenge to make regular because you have to cut exactly vertically through two inches of very firm pastry. Because things largely worked out, they were great fun to make. I find geometry hugely satisfying.

And then today became really special: we made our first macarons lisses. The French macaroon (not to be confused with those coconutty abominations) are hugely popular out here and most delish. They are effectively two little coloured meringues held together with an intensely flavoured ganache, cream or fruity whizz. The inside is all chewy (but not sticky) and the shell has a little bite.

Very popular in France, they are pretty hard to come by in the UK but you can usually get chocolate, coffee and pistachio ones at Paul outlets (but beware, these are often rather weak - they reek of having been frozen). I reckon the top place is the Ladurée boutique in Harrods. Ladurée is a luxury grande maison making really first class products (with complementary prices). The company claims to have invented the modern French macaroon after the founder's grandson came up with the idea of sticking two macaroons together with ganache. Interestingly for some, Ladurée was bought out a few years ago by the Holder family who happen to be the founding family of Paul (the things we learn in our economics classes...)

There is no limit to the flavours you can concoct: Pierre Hermé, widely regarded as the best pâtissier in the world, even introduced a foie gras macaroon (Humphrey?).

Our first ones were vanilla, chocolate, lemon, blackcurrant and Morello (sour cherry). Each pair of us made a different flavour (how practical) and ours was cassis (violet in colour) which I bagsied because Purple is the mater's favourite colour. The filling is a little blackcurrant jelly we made with blackcurrant purée, sugar and pectin.

Making macaroons is a favourite hobby of home-patissiers. I discovered this when reading blogs in preparation for my course. A whole mystique has sprung up around the methods (should one use Italian or French meringue, how does one get the frilly foot around the bottom of each shell, how do you perfectly destick the buggers and is Lord Lucan still in Taipei?) with the result that people often think they're very hard to make.

Because of this, I was dead chuffed the little rascals delivered the goods for our first time today but I imagine things are a spot different in a domestic kitchen. Here are just a few photos of how they turned out. We cooked them right at the end of the session (we somehow ended up last in the oven queue), had to turn the oven hotter than ideal to speed things up and then garnished the whole batch of over a hundred in 3 minutes flat. Of course, next time in ideal conditions they'll all go tits up.

The macaroons forming a gentle crust prior to being cooked (contentious point...) Not sure how to rotate this quickly and easily.

A wee purple number showing off its pretty feet. A little extra filling wouldn't go amiss.

The assortment I prepared for my sister who is coming out to visit me tomorrow. Fortunately, they're supposed to improve overnight.

And tonight I went to the pool and cut my finger on a tile. Luckily I'll have the weekend to heal. Typing is hqrd.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

How school works - brioche - assorted sods - one for Humphrey

I had little idea how cookery schools worked until I ended up in one. So for anyone interested, here is a sample daily schedule...

7.30 Alarm goes off (but it blasts at 4.30am on a Friday) and I snooze. Wish I could do a Lazarus the second it goes off. But I can't

8.30 Am finally out of the house on an empty stomach. On my walk of just a few hundred yards to the bus stop I pass 4 patisseries. Brilliant France. Depending on the day, I go to the best one open and snaffle a pain au choc + maybe something special. There is even one open by 5am on Friday.

9.30-11.30 Theoretical class. 2 hours without a break. This is tedious. Our classroom lessons include food/business law, applied arts (various drawing and design skills), hygiene, economics and techno (theory of everything we do in the labo... how sugar is refined, why salt is used in sweet pastry, where cacao comes from and so on). We learn by copying notes off the board or filling in worksheets. If we're lucky in hygiene we get an early 90s training video.

LUNCH - we get a decent lunch break. I normally grab a baguette which one of the bakers will have made that morning and nip off to buy some MDC or rilettes.

13.00-20.00 Labo time - this is what it's all about. The labo is made up of 8 workstations for two people. Each one has a mixer, an electric balance, a huge marble work surface, a sink and a single gas ring. Underneath the worktops are drawers into which we stash our utensils and a series of racks for oven trays/grills (which also fit directly into the fridges and freezers).

At the start of the session, the prof will write the day's scheme of work on the whiteboard. If we know what we are doing (i.e. we've done the recipe before) we just set to work. As new recipes/techniques crop up the chef will do a demonstration on his bench. Occasionally we get recipe sheets but generally we have to rely on note taking. Since we do not all do the same things every day you may see a demo several days before you'll be cooking the thing yourself.

Today's schedule. I am in group 3.

And then we just get on and cook. Nobody talks, it's a very focussed atmosphere. It's not a pressured environment like you might expect in a professional kitchen and people are not stressed - but everyone has something to be doing (or rather 5 things to be doing plus a bun in the oven) and needs to concentrate.

While we get on, the chef circulates willy nilly, prods your petits-fours and gives advice when he thinks necessary. I like to ask lots of questions so I'll often call him over to seek wisdom. Except on the days when my French isn't working.

We have a short pit stop for 15mins mid afternoon.

One thing that I find surprising is that there is no proper tasting of finished products. Anything cooked by the break you can munch on and you can try things at the end, but tasting is not an official part of our education. I would have expected it to be paramount (and I am sure it must be in normal cookery schools) but here it is not.

In a sense, patisserie is very scientific and we don't season like normal chefs... there's much less subjectivity. However, I think it's very important to know what we're making. There's not even a point at which the chef casts judgement on final presentation unless he happens to arrive at your workpoint at the right moment or you hunt him down.

So you have to be proactive with stuffing your gob and fishing for compliments.

The last half hour is dedicated to cleaning. Not washing up - we wash up all our own utensils throughout the session - but cleaning the labo to industrial standards. That involves hosing done the floors, scrubbing and squeeging every day, frotting the deep-freeze, bleaching all the worksurfaces and so on. Bloody bore. But when we get in after lunch there's no way of telling the previous group has already spent 7 hours in there that morning. Which is nice.

21.00 I finally get home.

Today we shaped and baked yesterday's brioche dough which had gently risen overnight. I mistrust yeast and do not like working with it yet. This time round the brioche tasted much better - even proper. With the puff pastry also started yesterday we made another Pithiviers (not yet cooked) and some palmiers. We also made various biscuity type things to continue our petit-fourage. I don't really like these either so I have declined their photo. Very fiddly for a pretty average result. After all, you're never going to beat a chocolate hobnob or ginger nut so you may as well not bother.

Here is the brioche dough as we came to it this morning; once shaped and ready to rise; cooked.

I dedicate my brioche loaf to Humphrey Wilson, Esq. since I could not stop thinking how perfect it would be to have him spring out of the ether with some foie gras each time I looked at it.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

One, Two, Three, Buckle my choux pastry

This is the third in a series of posts about choux pastry.

I have just updated the previous parts with some photos:
Part 1 - making it
Part 2 - dressing it
This part - cooking it

Cooking is a great way to ruin an otherwise tip-top pâte à choux so here are some tips I've learnt over the last few weeks.

Finding the right temperature for your oven is very important. The pastry needs to be dried out as much as cooked. If the oven is too hot, the pastry will burn on the outside while still moist within. If the oven is too cold, the pastry will not rise as intended. 220°C should be about right.

Another important factor to control is humidity in the oven. Any sudden changes will cause a sudden drop in humidity, the pastry to collapse and zeugma. This is why you should not open the oven door while you have choux pastry on the hot; at least, not until it has started to colour (at which point the crust will hold the structure).

Different chefs recommend different strategies for regulating the humidity.
- You can leave the oven door shut throughout
- You can prop the door ever so slightly ajar (e.g. with the handle of a wooden spoon) to regulate the release of vapour throughout cooking
- You can start with the door shut so the humid atmosphere helps the pastry rise and then, once at colouration, insert said spoon to lower the humidity and help the pastry dry through

I've tried all these methods and they all seem to achieve the desired result.

For bigger pieces like the outer ring of a Paris-Brest, it can be hard to dry through. One technique is to lower the oven temperature once you are nearly at the desired colouration. Another is to cut the thing open at the end of cooking and replace it in the oven at a lower temp (or just while the oven cools). This really helps let all the steam within out.

It is very easy to undercook choux pastry. If it is undercooked it will still be soft, or it will soften a few moments after being removed from the oven. Given that many choux pieces are filled with cream, you're giving sogginess a head start if your pastry is at all moist. It will, of course, soften up again once loaded. To test if the pastry is cooked, just give your buns a good squeeze. There should be no give.

If cooking chouquettes it is a good tip to double your oven tray so that the sugar grains in contact with the tray do not caramelize too much.

The photo above shows a variety of bits fresh from the oven. You can see how much they've swollen by looking at the dressed pastry here. Not my best. The eclairs are a little wonky, the salambôs a trifle bulky and the bodies of the religieuses are a tad large. Still, it's nice to know my nuns are only human.

In which anticipation mounts for PLF

Today we had a revision of choux pastry which meant bashing out the usual eclairs, religieuses and glands; we cooked the marzipan petits-fours from yesterday; we set some brioche dough to rise for tomorrow and, excitingly, we watched the first part of a demo for a pâte levée feuilletée - which is used for croissants and pains au choc. Can't wait to try and get going with that.

As the chef was doing his rounds today, prodding everyone's petits-fours and pâte à choux when it was dressed badly, I was waiting for his visit with trepidation. Was bloody delighted when he came and peered over my eclairs and salambôs for a good 30secs and then left without touching a thing and even said, "C'est bien". Unfortunately the nuns' bodies I dressed immediately afterwards were a spot on the large side but I was too chuffed to care.

These were nice and glossy until I put them in a rather cold fridge and they went somewhat matte. Life's a bitch.

The marzipan petits-fours with one carefully nibbled with a knife to show the moist inside.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

The school

Here is a photo of the front of the school. The left hand wing is the INBP proper (my labo is on the second floor of the LH wing closest to the round bit). On the right is the lycée where the apprentices study. I think. We don't go there.

In the courtyard behind the school is a traditional wood burning bread oven. It is mainly used as a smoking shelter.

Technology abound (one hopes, anyway), here is a clip showing our proximity to the clink.

In which cigarettes, tuiles, tongue of cat and almond yuck

Aujourd'hui on a attaqué des petits-fours secs comme des cigarettes...

...des langues de chat...

...des tuiles (dont je n'ai pas pris de photo à cause d'une cuission un peu trop longue) et des four à poche, qui veut dire des biscuits faits d'une pâte d'amande dressée à la poche à douille.

Our chef was being outrageously particular about our assorted shapes and, as he circulated around our group, would prod and squash any item he thought badly done so we had to start again. He would prod entire rows of items and I had to start again maybe 14 times. And of course, each time I started again, I would be harder on myself and recommence after my own condemnation so I probably had about 30 stabs at them. And they're still not uber. I got VERY frustrated that I wasn't able to pull them off to the chef's satisfaction. I have a sneaky suspicion his particularity was because we had finished everything else and still had an hour to go.

And here is the Asian contingent. Four fifths of it, anyway.

The Asian girls are very snap happy in class, taking endless photos of the demonstrations and the chef's finished items. So you can appreciate the considered irony that makes this photo art and not just pixels.

Now I have my new camera I shall be an honorary Asian.

Monday, 23 February 2009

In which we wonder whether fetishes also can be nationalized

The horror-sign that you find in all French swimming pools. And which the natives embrace with gusto...the national swimming network is run rather like an English prep school.

Before getting out here I bought myself a decent pair of jammer trunks (like cycling shorts - very modest) which is my usual garb for cranking out my granny-lengths. In the past they have always passed the French speedo-radar but on my very first trip to a pool I was accosted by a scrawny locker attendant (very Roald Dahl/Quentin Blake-esque) who told me I couldn't go in because my trunks were not brief enough. The old perv. Luckily I managed to get the life guard to convince her otherwise but it would have been a close shave.

Rather more surprisingly, I was swimming in my usual (pool and trunks) the other night when, not an attendant, but another swimmer took it upon himself to approach me in the deep end:

[Disdainfully] "Vous avez un short?"
[Very disdainfully] "C'est un short de bain?"

I had to lift my thigh out of the water to convince him I was correctly attired. Quite extraordinary and, most bizarrely, this wasn't some old Cognac-damaged fart but a wee whipper-snapper who must have been younger than me. I simply cannot understand how he could have been fussed. Or even had the balls, basically, to say he'd rather I was wearing skimpies. Maybe this was some kind of French polari.

While I sort of agree that swimming is best done in this genre of attire, the French male's obsession with flaunting himself in revealing lycra is not just in the almost legitimate privacy of the swimming pool. Men of all ages sprint gaily along the pavements in assorted leggings and there are some really quite bizarre sights. When I took Thomas to his handball match a few weeks ago, we passed a game of football where all the boys were wearing tights under their strips. It obviously catches on young. And the other day, I saw a boy waiting in rollerblades outside a shop wearing just a pair of black tights and a fleece. And spectacles. Bloody weird. Even the roller blades alone...

I suppose I shall have sufficiently absorbed French culture not when I start to dream in French but when I feel an unexplained urge to slip into a bodystocking and prance to SuperU.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Thursday: eclairs - nuns - glands - Moka

Another long day so I am not going to write a huge amount. We finished our choux pastry that was cooked yesterday. The usual eclairs and religieuses with a new item: the unlikely named 'gland' which has the same shell as a salambo but is filled with kirsch flavoured crème pâtissière, iced in green and half-dipped immediately in chocolate grains. You'll know it when you see it...

I was very happy that my eclairs and religieuses were the best I've yet made... better regularity and neatness in size and decently iced. The icing, not dissimilarly to chocolate, needs to be at the right temperature if you want a shiny finish and I ended up with nice glossy cakes so I was very happy. The quality of camera gives them more of an eggshell finish.

We also made another Pithiviers for practice and some long fruit tarts... long and thin, the kind you cut across to give an individual rectangular portion the size of a mille feuille. Rather boring, actually.

And, finally, we made another entremet called a Moka which was just a rum soaked sponge cut into thirds and laced with coffee crème à beurre. Ugh. And I had to rush to get it finished so the décor is rather weak.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009


Choux toux: how to dress

This is a continuation of the thoughts on choux which commence here. The pastry made, here are some thoughts on dressing it (i.e. shaping it for the oven).


Grease the baking tray. Surprisingly easy to do badly... an over-greased tray reeks havoc with the bottom or 'foot' of choux pastry items, something I've seen first-hand (on someone else's batch, fortunately).

If using butter, it's a good idea to melt it in a little pot (but not too much... maybe soften would be a better word). Apply a few dabs around the tray and then spread it out with some balled kitchen towel. This will help give an even layer of grease. Once the butter is all over I get a clean bit of towel and wipe all over to take off all the excess. Very little butter is needed.

Brushed butter

Once spread out and excess removed, grease scarcely visible

A few NBs from our practice at the INBP
- we don't ever wash oven trays or moulds. We simply rub them down with kitchen towel and if there is any debris, chip it off with a triangle. This way things have less tendency to stick. Maybe not a good idea if you have invested in expensive teflon trays.

- to the butter we use for greasing we add a small shot of flower. The gluten in the flower helps give you a decent, even layer of butter.

You could also use one of those non-stick sprays which are highly effective. Even more important to take off the excess as these are uber-powerful.

Freestyle dressing

My mother always used to make her profiteroles by dolloping portions of the choux pastry onto the baking tray with a couple of spoons. This is a great low-tech answer which gives nice rustic looking buns. However, it is worth considering that this apparently simpler way does make it harder to achieve consistent results because it's more difficult to dole out equal portions which will lead to irregular cooking. Similarly, if the buns aren't round you risk uneven cooking within the bun itself. (But Mum always used to manage to make excellent buns with this method.)

An easy way to get regular buns

Here is a tip I read in a French book about choux pastry but have not tried: dress the pastry in silicone muffin tins. That way you don't have to grease and you'll get the same diameter every time. Quicker and smoother to pip it in but you could also use a dollop technique. The purist in me dislikes this idea but it could be very practical.

Personally, I would recommend going traditional and using a piping bag for best results (and it's pretty much the only option for eclairs).

Piping bags

Convention is to use a reusable bag for anything which is going to be cooked and a disposable bag for anything which is to be served as is (although you may as well use disposable ones for everything, I reckon). As for the nozzle (what is the proper English word?) you have a fair amount of leeway. For eclairs and both parts of the religieuses and even the fat salambos we use just one size which is a stainless-steel 10 (I want to say 10mm but I haven't got one to measure to be sure).

I had always hated piping bags until I was shown a good way to use one. They're actually really quick and efficient and give excellent looking results. Here's a quick description. Fold the bag back on itself at least half-way and hold it in your hand like you're grasping a pint (with the folded back bit forming a collar over the hand). This way is least messy. Then with your other hand scoop and fill (only up to about half way for max control and min mess). If you are a bit of a retard or accidentally lost an arm you can sit the folded-back bag in a measuring jug or something to free both hands. I think if we did that at school we would be shot but there are many things you can do in the privacy of your own home.

(I think that is all pretty obvious if you give it half a second's thought but you never know. And now we've started teaching grandma to suck eggs we may as well continue...) Straighten out the bag, use a scraper or palette knife to push the pastry cleanly down to the nozzle and twist the bag to close it off. I find I have most control by keeping a lot of tension in the bag by frequently twisting the neck as I go (same principal as rolling up the toothpaste tube).

NB Not essential for choux pastry as it is quite thick but a good idea is to ram a little of the bag that is directly behind the nozzle unto the nozzle with your finger before filling it to act as a stopper and prevent everything going in one end and exiting just as swiftly the other.

Eeking the stuff out

The actual way to pipe an eclair or choux is hard to put into words. So I shan't try.

A general thought, though, is this: in the oven, the pastry will double or triple in volume, mostly in a vertical direction. This means if you want something to come out spherical, it needs to go into the oven rather flatter than the eye wants. An eclair is piped round, squashed a good deal during the glazing process but comes out of the oven round again. Which leads nicely on to...


Works well with a nicely beaten egg (we just glug a bit out of a cartoon of liquid egg). Glazing is a great opportunity to

- flatten out the nipple left as a result of piping
- flatten the whole item out a tad as mentioned above
- tease the freaks back into proper shape and smooth any ripples made by the nozzle 

NB Glazing eclairs in the opposite direction to the way they were piped is meant to be good practice. Well, it helps even out any irregularities.

Everything dressed but nipples still erect

Glazed and forked

Groove it all night long baby

Immediately after glazing, run a fork the length of eclairs or press down on top of choux (twice for big ones, the second stroke perpendicular to the first) to leave grooves. The groove pattern effectively makes a pleat in the top of the pastry so as it expands in the oven the crust will not tear.

My first teacher told me just to let the weight of the fork do the work. More recently I have been adding a touch of extra force with excellent results. Nevertheless, probably best to think harrow not plough (there's a joke in there somewhere...)


That's everything we do to prepare the pastry for the oven. Will write about cooking the stuff next time.


On my way to the swimming pool the other day I encountered this extraordinary sign on the pavement. Any ideas?

And a few paces further on by some steps down to the Seine, the following permanent sign (which translates as "forbidden from the 16th to the end of the month"). With no suggestion as to what it is forbidding.

Wednesday: brioches et al.

I am pleased to say that a couple of regular readers of the blog have clubbed together to purchase me a camera that takes slightly better snaps than my ancient mobile phone. You'll be able to tell when it's arrived. I also need one of these, please.

Today we made more puff pastry which will be made into mille feuilles tomorrow and more pâte à choux to practise our religieuses and eclairs and glands. We finished the brioches (dough was made yesterday) of which a small example above. 

For those that are interested here is a photo of the French meringue spiral sitting on its sponge bed i.e. half way through the assembly of the Succulent.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009


Exhausted beyond belief. Just got back from the 'circus'. Long day in kitchen. Here are some snaps.

This is the St. Honoré whose unassembled bits one can see here. On the base is a fine layer o kirsch crème pâtisseière and on top is an elaborate display of piped crème Chantilly (although traditionally this is crème Chiboust). Mine got a little bashed in the fridge so I chose to whack on the spun sugar decor to 'cacher la misère' as they say out here. All around the edge are mini choux the size of a nun's head. Each one is filled with kirsch crème pâtissière and they are stuck on with caramel. To help them adhere the top of the choux ring on the base was first glazed with caramel and left to cool. What the photo does not clearly show is that each choux is glazed with a layer of caramel on top, too.

These are individual St. Honorés. Pretty much the same except the even smaller choux are not worth filling with cream and it's easier to stick them on before piping the Chantilly.

The St. Honoré was invented by Chiboust in 1846 when he was installed on Rue St. Honoré in Paris. St. Honoré is the patron saint of boulanger-pâtissiers.

This is a cake. It's made with that funny butterless sponge I mentioned which has spent several days in the fridge and a weekend in the freezer. The sponge was cut in half and each half doused in kirsch syrup. Then the French meringue disk we made the other day was inserted in the middle and mortared in place with crème à beurre. Then the whole shebang was covered in crème à beurre so the roasted, sugared almonds could be applied in a pebble-dash fashion. The green band is pâte d'amandes. It may seem rather odd to write 'succulent' on your own cake but that is in fact its name. I tried a slice of the prof's and it was really rather good considering the ordeal the sponges suffered.

Monday, 16 February 2009

It's all about choux, it's all about choux, baby

Today was purely theoretical work so nowt to report on the baking front. However, after the mater posed some questions about choux pastry on the hooter the other day I thought I would do a quick post on that front.

Of course, I am not a qualified patisserie teacher - but apart from anything else it'll be good revision for me to gather together all the choux tips I've received in the last month and let those that are interested have a sniff.

So here is as much as I can remember. There's a lot of extra guff I'll put in notes for those that are interested in the details. If anyone spots mistakes, please let me know so I can alter the misinformation.

[PS Now I have finished writing the below it turns out there's a LOT of bumpf. I wanted to be as complete as my current knowledge would allow. If you are new to choux pastry just ignore the nitty gritty and have a bash. I've found it to be much more forgiving than many other kinds of pastry.]

Essential choux
Choux pastry is characterised by its moisture. In this sense it is more of a thick batter than a pastry. It is this moisture locked into the pastry which evaporates on cooking to cause the typical voluminosity.

Another feature of choux pastry is that it is effectively cooked twice: once on the gas (or induction plate &c.) and then in the oven. A similar pastry was recorded in a Roman cookbook over 2000 years ago. It's a beast with heritage.

A typical recipe
1kg water
400g butter
15g salt
30g sugar
600g flour
900g eggs

- A little goes a long way. All this was done with half the above recipe and room to spare. Normally in class we make a 1/4 litre (i.e. a quarter of the quantities above) which will do a large baking sheet and a half of chouquettes or, if I remember correctly, 21 eclairs comfortably.

- Most choux pastry recipes will be similar but the ratios of ingredients may be slightly different.

- Some recipes replace all or some of the water with milk. Due to its fat content, milk produces a more melt in the mouth effect but it also colours more in the oven and will soften more quickly once out of the oven.

- Some recipes do not have any sugar. A non-sweetened pastry can still be used for sweet dishes like eclairs.

- Some recipes add a small quantity of cheese e.g. 50g gruyère for a savoury pastry.

Making the pastry

I recommend weighing all the ingredients before starting.

1. Bring the water, butter, salt and sugar to a rollicking boil in a decent saucepan.
  • NB This means the butter can come straight out of the fridge. Chunking it will save you time.
  • NB2 This is a good moment to sieve the flower. At school we always sieve onto a large sheet of greaseproof paper which is very practical both in terms of avoiding spillage and for later wielding what has been sieved.
  • NB3 This phase can be done directly in the metal bowl of your mixer. Just plonk it on the gas.

2. Lob in the flour and with an Exoglass spatula (or wooden spoon) mix thoroughly.
  • NB Some people recommend doing this off the heat but in my brief experience this makes no difference what-so-bloody-ever. It should be very quick, after all.
  • NB2 Some people recommend adding a little flour at a time to avoid lumps. We do the whole canoodle in one go, never have lumps and this also has the advantage of ensuring all the flour is equally cooked.

3. Dry out the mixture on a decent flame.
  • NB This is a rather crucial stage. Effectively you are dehydrating the mixture a little. Later, the moisture lost in this stage will be replaced with the eggs. The reason you have these two stages is to give the sought texture... initially, the water swells the flour and lets it cook at a temperature which would coagulate the eggs if they had already been added.
NB2 There is no exact time for this drying out. Some people say 3mins but this might be too long or too short depending on many factors such as the quality of flour, the conduction of your saucepan &c. One guide is to wait until the pastry comes away neatly from the sides of the pan. My preferred tip is to wait until a decent film forms over the bottom of the pan. There's a fair amount of leeway here.

Pastry at the end of stage 3. You can see the crusty film which lines the pan.

4. Cool the pastry. I.e. take it off the heat and stir.
  • NB If the eggs were added straight away they would start to cook in the pastry so it needs to be reduced in temperature to below 60°.
  • NB2 For this phase, I decant the pastry into the bowl of a mixer and let it turn with the leaf attachment. Not sure what the English is for leaf attachment. In a Kenwood mixer it is the one in the shape of a 'K'. In any case, that which isn't the whisk or the hook. You can equally continue by hand.
  • NB3 No need for a thermometer. Just put your hand on the base of the recipient and wait until it is warm but not hot to the touch.
  • NB4 During this stage the water will continue to evaporate. Indeed, if heating directly in the bowl of the mixer you can proceed thusly: during stage 2 add the flour but use the machine to mix it in... stage 3 will segue automatically with the residual heat in the bowl and no need for additional heating.

5. Add those eggs.
  • NB If you are doing this by hand, easier to beat the eggs a little first to loosen them up.
  • NB2 Add the eggs one at a time. Obviously, if you've just followed NB1 you will no longer 'ave eggs. Whack in the ovulars bit by bit, waiting for the last dose to be fully absorbed before adding more. This makes the absorption of the eggs much quicker nay possible at all, giving a better texture.
  • NB3 Hold back the last egg or so until you have checked the consistency of the dough (see below). The exact quantity of eggs will depend on an intimidating number of factors such as how much you cooked the pastry in step 3. You can add more egg to a stiff dough but cannot rescue one which is liquidite.
  • NB4 As for mixer speed... not too fast. If you go around incorporating air you'll get bubbles in your piping bag that will reek havoc with decent eclairs.

6. Check the consistency.
  • NB Some people find it easier to dress (i.e. pipe/shape) a firmer pastry, others prefer a sloppier (the French say more supple) one. The guide I have been taught which I like is to lift up a big dollop of the pastry on a spatula and let it drip off back into the bowl. It should leave the spatula reluctantly. However, where the pastry tears the bit attached to the spatula should retract into a neat triangle rather than leave a jaggedy edge. Does this make no sense? I'll have to try and take some photos.
Photo as promised showing yon triangle. Caught the chap in the background nicely, too.

7. Best to use the pastry straight away.
  • NB But I have heard of someone who pops it in a piping bag and keeps it overnight in the fridge. I have untried and untested this idea.

I had been going to spew forth on the tips I've received for dressing and cooking ze patte but this post is already far too long and I ain't even got any photos. So... to be continued.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Surprising pair o' ducks

I had decided to do a post describing my rigorous and scintillating daily schedule for those who might be interested in how my baking school actually works but the Internet went down here and it's got rather late. 

Some folks from my new class
Instead, just a rather surprising fact. Our chef told us most people put on 4 kilos or so during the course of the course. Bizarrely, in my first two weeks I lost a stone and yesterday I moved up a notch on my belt. This, despite eating pastry for breakfast, delusionally buying several patisserie numbers at lunch under the guise of research, tasting produce in the kitchen in the afternoon and quite often thoroughly eating said produce with my family in the evening.

The weight loss might also have something to do with the removal of 7 months of hair (from my head), accidentally ravaged by a budget 10€ barber with a blunt pair of scissors, operating in a shop which didn't even have a sink between 4 haircutters. Something must have got lost in translation as my "pas trop court" came out more more Wallace & Grommit than Jonathan Ross and the hair on my crown is a good inch longer than my fringe. Haute coiffure.

I know it's quite normal for people dieting to put on a bit of weight before it comes off... so I hope this loss is not overture to an exponential ballooning

Saturday, 14 February 2009

In which: old man - weak bladder - heart tart

Rouen has a large island in the middle of the Seine, and the island has a magnificent swimming centre. It has a 25m pool indoors and a heated, floodlight, olympic-sized pool outside. Given the general lack of temperature at the moment, the outdoor pool steams and you cannot see the other end through the mist. I went the other day when it was snowing and visibility was about 3m. This was quite gripping given the lack of lanes.

Now, I've always had a slight issue with chlorine messing up the oculars. Too cool to wear goggles, I used to suffer it out at prep school for the weekly swim. The problem was, in the Winter, we used to have swimming on a Wednesday which was also the day of my piano lesson. I would go straight from the pool to Mrs Burton in Cheam and find myself unable to read my music and as a consequence played all the wrong notes. This she took as an indicator of insufficient practice and proved a regular source of tears.

Today, leaving the pool, I was trotting back to the bus stop when I saw an old man, right in the middle of the pavement next to the Animal Shelter, pissing quite openly against a tree. I know the French are rather matter-of-fact about these things but I was a tad surprised. As I drew closer, I noticed through my chlorine cataracts that he was, in fact, not taking the world's most public piss but tying his wee dog to the aforementioned tree and rather struggling to fasten the clip.

But as I got really quite adjacent to him, focus shifted once again and it turned out my first spot had been correct. The dog was simply waiting patiently while his master whipped out his shlanger and hosed down the silver birch.

I also made a strawberry and lemon heart tart for ye olde family inspired by the date and the fact I had the remnants of some puff pastry I made the other day. I usually say my photos are bad but this one takes the biscuit. I should at least have turned on the main light in the kitchen. It was very easy to make: puff pastry base cut out in a heartish shape with a puff pastry border, blind baked after a good pricking to prevent it rising too much, lined with a simple lemon curd and dressed with thinly sliced strawberries. A very quick job given the pastry was already made.

I rolled the puff pastry out in sugar rather than flour and flipped it before cooking so that it was slightly caramelized. Didn't have anything to use as a glaze and I prob should have egged the case once blind-baked to keep the juices in. I fear it will be very soggy by the time we come to eat it in the morning.

Friday, 13 February 2009


Today we had one of our busiest days in the labo so far but in the grand scheme of things it really wasn't that bad. We continued our work in choux pastry by attacking some more complicated patisseries and also finished off our allumettes and cream horns.

I struggle to know the best word in English for the French 'pâtisserie' where it refers to an item of pâtisserie like and eclair, for example. A pastry would be the obvious choice but I really do not like that word as in English you can't really use it to apply to a mousse or anything which isn't heavily clad in pastry like a turnover. Dish is not quite right as that's more of a restaurant term and cake/pudding/dessert do not feel right either. Ideas on a postcard to Rouen.

That said, the two new items we attacked today were the Paris-Brest and the St. Honoré.

The Paris-Brest was named in honour of the Paris-Brest cycle race, the oldest cycle race in the world which is still competed. You have to get from Paris to Brest (on the Westernmost tip of Britanny) and back again within 90 hours. It's about 750 miles. A baker along the route allegedly decided to create a pastry (ugh) to celebrate the race and that is what is known as a Paris-Brest and is very popular in France (but, despite this, not that often seen). It's meant to look a little like a bicycle tyre. Unfortunately our teacher did not tell us about the history but I managed to find out in a book.

A small Paris-Brest is a choux ring about the size of a bagel covered with chopped nuts and filled with a special hazelnut cream. The large Paris-B is considerably trickier. It's a large choux ring the size of a decent halo formed by piping one choux ring inside the other with a third on top nestling in the crotch. Then there is a fourth ring piped separately called the couronne (crown) which is rather like the inner tube... in our version this couronne is filled with crème pâtissière (flavoured with kirsch), and this is inserted inside the fat ring which is filled with the hazelnut cream. Quite a fiddly operation.

In the photo above, the left rack has 6 small Paris-Brests at the top, the fat, outer ring on the left underneath and the inner tube on the right. The filling is done by cutting the various components in half horizontally. The finished cake is rather a beast but no photo of mine because my inner tube had too big a diameter and as a result the garnishing went awry. It should end up looking rather like this.

A good way to pipe the circles is to dip a tart ring in flour and bang it onto the baking sheet. It will leave a trace which you can be followed when piping.

We did not have time to assemble the St. Honoré so we froze the choux and will come back to them on Tuesday.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Thursday: revenge is quick

Today goes down as a thorough cock-up, retribution no doubt for yesterday's comments. We were due to make a Pithiviers and a vol-au-vent. The latter is considerably more elaborate than a dip into Iceland would lead you to believe... a full-size one is as big as a plate and decorated elaborately like a galette. Anyway, each of these recipes requires a quarter 'paton' (=portion) of puff pastry. I duly cut the pastry I made yesterday into quarters and started to roll out only to be rather surprised how thin it all was once at the requisite dimensions.

The vol-au-vent was really pants and scarcely rose at all. The Pithiviers remains uncooked. Right at the end of our 7 hours in the kitchen I worked it out... yesterday we had not made a whole paton, but just a half meaning that I had been trying the recipes with an eighth of a paton i.e. half the amount pastry required.

Bother. Waste of a day.

The only things that turned out all right were my cornets. These are puff pastry cornucopia type things which you can cram with crème pâtissière or similar. I think my Mum would call them cream horns which is maybe not quite right. Here's a before and after to show how they're moulded (moulds left in for cooking) and then the glazed and roasted horn. They're very smooth on the inside. Once they're garnished I might afford another snap. If you're lucky.

Here is my second batch of allumettes before garnishing. Various decor experiments including a taste of home on the top left.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Wednesday: the illogical French and a dodgy sponge

Really quite gruntled by today's goings-on. I made allumettes for the second time and they were much better (but not yet garnished so no photo), also made a cracking (French) meringue spiral and a nice looking sponge.

But it was with a rather odd recipe which had no butter. Even more strangely, tomorrow, the meringue spiral (diameter of 20cm) is going to be inserted into the sponge. I have no idea how this will end up. The French may do excellent patisserie but they can't do a decent spongecake.

The other day, our first foray into sponge, we produced these nut tarts. They consist of a pastry shell with a cm or so of dense sponge soaked in rum syrup with a thick and IMHO not very nice caramel on top. The border is almond paste. Simply horrible.

Since I've moved classes we've been made to use reusable piping bags for any produce which is going to be cooked whereas before we only used disposable plastic ones. The teacher keeps banging on about the cost of the plastic ones when it comes to working in industry.

Well, I did some sums. The plastic ones allegedly cost 20 cents each. Now, let's say you pay your assistant just €10/hour. That means for 20 cents (i.e. the equivalent of a disposable pastry bag) you get 72 seconds of his time. But a pastry bag caked in almond paste takes a good couple of minutes to clean to a hygenic standard and that's without taking the cost of the hot water and detergent into account.

Still, I shan't be telling my teacher this right away...

In other illogicalities, prof told us it took too much time to cut greaseproof paper discs to line the cakes tins and therefore butter was a better option. However, to ensure a sufficient buttering we had to do one layer of butter, refrigerate the tin until the butter set hard and then apply another layer. Hm.

Tip of the day was the way of making the sponge. The egg yolks and sugar were heated to 45° in a bain-marie (directly in the metal bowl of the mixer) before being whisked. The heat helps the sugar dissolve but, perhaps more importantly, the eggs start to coagulate which means the mixture should hold its lightness better. Well, yet to test the results but it sounds good in theory.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Tuesday: lattices, shoe buns, improvements and mild vindication

Today we started by cooking the lattice apple tarts we made at the end of last week. Extremely simple... just line a tart ring with puff pastry, fill with apple compote and cover with a puff pastry lattice.

The lattice is made with a roller device which cuts the requisite slots in rolled-out pastry. Then you stretch the thing to give it 'the look'. The thick bit in the lattice on the large tart is because the roller wasn't wide enough to do the whole lot in one go and I cocked up the alignment on the second swipe.

Little tip for the manipulation of the lattice... we put them in the deep freeze for a short while once rolled out to make them easier to manipulate onto the tart base. To attach the lattice to the base you place the lattice (with excess) onto the tart and simply roll over with a rolling pin which serves the double function of trimming the lattice exactly and sealing it down.

Still not a fan of this tinned apple compote but if you made your own puree this would be a delicious and simple tart. Bizarrely have just accidentally found the recipe as published by my school: apple lattice tart recipe. NB QS means quantité suffisante or 'to taste'.

Astonishingly my prof saw my big one come out of the oven and told me it was 'belle'. Did I smell a rat? That was the first non-critical word he'd ever passed my way... moreover, the tart wasn't that great due to the roller malfunction. Here is an astonishingly poor photo and I hadn't glazed the buggers either.

We also continued to practise our choux pastry, making religieuses au chocolat, éclairs au café and salambôs au rhum. Here's a before and after on the icing front. They all need some practice.

On the eclair front, mild vindication in that our hygiene training video which entertained us for 45 minutes yesterday featured a patissier creaming his eclairs my way. And the video was even made by the school. Unfortunately that class was taken by a different prof. The eclairs above have been crammed the traditional way.

Small note on the religieuses: if you pierce the small choux (the so-called nun's head) underneath but the large one on top in order to fill them, the holes are hidden once the thing is completed. On a not entirely different note, I have realized the tautology of the English 'choux bun' when in French the one word ('choux') suffices. It's a bit like saying 'shoe trainer' when a trainer is always going to be a shoe. (Unless it's your personal trainer...)

In other news, the college administrator called me out of the class half way through and said she had received my email. To my horror she invited me to a meeting with my chef before lunch tomorrow. What could be worse. It made me think of those social-penance schemes where you have to meet the person you've mugged. Although, in this instance, I'm not quite sure which one of us represents the victim.

Mysteriously, though, the chap had been being much more decent today, starting with his compliment of the naff lattice and continuing via patient explanations of techniques not quite mastered and fewer alien looks when I attempted to speak to him in French. So after the lesson I ran to the administrator's office, told her as much and got her to flush the idea of a tête à tête out of her head.

At this point she revealed she had already spoken to my prof about my email. Aha, so that explains it. There's my rat.

Still, as long as things continue in this fashion we'll all be happy. Fingers crossed.