It started a couple of weeks ago. I turned up, wide-eyed, with a blank notebook and a sharpened pencil. ‘First days’ don’t get any easier, I didn’t know where to go, who to sit with or what to expect. I’ve been waiting months to start this Diplome de Patisserie, both eagerly and nervously anticipating the irrevocable direction my life will take after this point. The decision to work with food, with pastry and baking in particular, seems so inherent and obvious to me now but I must remind myself that this is my second career, a new venture and, hopefully, a true calling. There has not been one step, so far, of this process that has felt wrong. The intensity of long lectures is tempered by my level of interest in the subject matter, the long commute is worth every step when I feel my head is being filled with relevant knowledge, writing my blog is a joy and a creative outlet that does not yet feel like a chore. I am meeting inspiring people, asking questions, looking at small food business with a keen eye, bonding with those who have similar opinions and ideas. I feel thrown into a world that ‘gets’ where I’m coming from, that understands why bread is important and why the science of patisserie is fascinating. I had never experienced learning in this way.
I had certain expectations of pastry school. I was hoping to meet fellow cake enthusiasts, and I certainly did. What I had not anticipated was how diverse the group would be, the variety of backgrounds, not just culturally but in their stories and professions. One of the group runs a successful bakery in Nigeria, another has worked the past few years behind a supermarket deli counter. Some have been culinary students before, others have plenty of previous kitchen experience and many, like me, have none at all. There are still so many stories to uncover and a few names I have yet to learn. Age is seemingly irrelevant; it would appear that you’re never too old or too young to become a pastry chef. I am not the only one who drifted towards a career change, who felt the passion and the desire to work with food, it’s quite a relief to know that there are others like me, that I am not whimsical, but ambitious.
I had expected the teaching chefs to be fairly assertive. I was not under the illusion that I would be greeted with a softly-spoken, bangle-wearing art teacher type who would pat me on the back for trying. All of the teaching staff have decades of industry experience and, although they are encouraging, they are not afraid to shout, to scold and to put you in your place as a newbie. Even a training kitchen is not the environment for the fainthearted, for the cowering or the easily perturbed. A thick skin is cultivated from the first practical lesson and I don’t doubt it will only get worse. I am okay with this, I didn’t sign up to be coddled and praised. I’m sure I will cry over a sunken soufflé at some point but I am human and I don’t live in fear of this day. My desire to be perfect has to be overridden at all times, back to square one, back to knowing nothing and to learning, wide-eyed and humble.
I knew I had to wear a uniform but I was not totally prepared for the militarization of the kitchen. If I’m honest most of my stress comes from worrying about whether I’m wearing the right type of socks, if my hairnet is the correct colour or if my chef whites are ironed enough. It seems that an exceptional Crème Anglaise is rendered useless if I forget to wear my hat. Most of these rules are related to safety and hygiene, topics that currently dominate our lessons. I can appreciate this as part of the professional standards of the food industry, that, regardless of the specific field, it is a building block of essential knowledge and practice.
The lessons themselves are intense. The demonstrations are detailed, fast moving and full of nuggets of knowledge. ‘Zoning out’ is not an option, missing a cooking temperature or an equipment recommendation could prove fatal in the practical. The practical lessons themselves are a frenzy, perhaps this is because of my new nerves, perhaps they will mellow into something organized and methodical but for now it is an effort to recall the locations of the milk, the cling film, the round bottomed bowls. The Chef prowls about the room, barking at us all to hurry up, pouncing on you if you accidentally beat the eggs for a baked custard (always stir for Crème Brulee). Despite the headache I get when I sit in an 8am demonstration lecture I still find myself craning forwards to watch the Chef prepare caramel, I am entranced by the effortless fluttering of their hands over piping work, even by the precision of their mid-demo cleaning. Piping a swan looks effortless, farcically so, until I try to do it myself and repeatedly produce something indefinable and formless. There is no doubt that I am in the hands of experts.
It is painfully challenging, my exhaustion, my little failures in the kitchen and my yearning to do well all make this a steep and winding climb. I am buoyed by my passion and commitment to food, to eating, to the importance of cake and to old skills that I believe are a strong antidote to the ills of our society. After a long day this week I felt I should go home and practice making baked custards and I found myself haphazardly throwing peanut butter in brownie batter, waking up on Saturday morning and making scones from sour milk (just like my Grandmother does) and basking in the joy of making comfort food. Training as a pastry chef will be meticulous and hard but it is part of a bigger picture, a much longer journey and I will never tire of the warm embrace of my home kitchen.
Peanut Butter Brownies
(the perfect therapy for an intense practical lesson on custard)
200g broken dark chocolate
250g caster sugar
100g plain flour (could substitute ground almonds for gluten free)
50g cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
150g peanut butter
1) Preheat oven to 180c and line a roughly 20cm tin with baking parchment
2) Melt the butter and chocolate together and allow to cool slightly
3) Whisk the eggs and sugar together until pale and fluffy
4) Fold the cooled chocolate and butter through the eggs and sugar
5) Sieve together the flour, cocoa and baking powder together and fold through batter.
6) Pour the batter into the tin
7) Warm the peanut butter slightly so it is easy to distribute
8) Dollop teaspoons of peanut butter through out the batter and swirl with a skewer
9) Bake for 25-30 minutes
10) Cool completely in the tin before even attempting to cut
Sour Milk Scones
It might sound vile but it’s fairly common practice. Buttermilk scones are very popular and, often in the absence of buttermilk, the home baker is advised to add lemon juice or vinegar to milk to encourage sourness. The past couple of weeks I’ve been so busy commuting and leaving the house at unsocial hours that I haven’t been around to engage in my usual tea and coffee consumption. This meant that my beautiful full-fat milk had turned sour over the weekend. Rather than ditch it I used it to make scones. It is thought that fermented dairy such as buttermilk, sour milk and yoghurt can react more effectively with bicarbonate of soda and raising agents to create more air bubble and therefore a fluffier texture. I can certainly vouch for this batch of scones being light, fluffy and perfect for a warm Saturday breakfast in my pyjamas. Don’t use sour milk if it has curdled or separated though, only when it is still liquid with a slight yoghurty whiff.
220g self raising flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
20g caster sugar (can be left out)
150ml sour milk
1) Preheat oven to 220c and line or grease a baking sheet
2) Place the flour, sugar and bicarbonate of soda into a bowl and mix lightly
3) Add the butter to the flour in small cubes
4) Rub the butter into the flour until it resembles damp bread crumbs
5) Add the milk and use your hand in the shape of claw to loosely bring the mixture into a dough, do not squash it or knead it.
6) Once it is a rough dough turn it onto a floured surface and shape it by hand into a thick rectangle
7) Use a cutter to make 8-10 scones from the dough
8) Try to handle the dough as little as possible and not to flatten it too much
9) You could now brush them with milk or beaten egg to create a glazed top
10) Bake for 15-20 minutes until very light golden brown on top