We begin and I’m feeling overwhelmed. After being unceremoniously dumped, the future I had envisioned now has a decidedly sunken middle. In a new environment with new people and an anxiety-inducing ten grand fee, I’m deliberating if I’ve made the right decision. I want to run home and hide under the duvet. And I’m even more worried about my enthusiasm levels than the money. After saving the fees renting my living room, money is tight but bills are covered, and with inordinate amounts of food to bring home, at least there’s no risk of student-esque malnutrition. I just want so desperately to love it. Friends tell me to give it time; despite my agitation, I know it’s what I want.
So thankfully I do. Like a Victoria sponge, my mood begins to rise from one of desolation to excitement for my new life and all its possibilities.
Being the course’s pilot year, we’re an intimate class of three. The college is eerily quiet and hard to envisage teaming with 16-18 year olds. We settle into our own kitchen and surrounded by a mountain of baking paraphernalia, the sugar-fest kicks off with: pastry.
We learn modern and classic techniques for savoury and sweet shortcrust pastry, choux, puff and other laminated dough-like croissants. It’s dawning on me that there’s a lot of information to absorb and that patisserie really is a science with correct proportions, procedure and temperature all necessary for the perfect bake. I haven’t learnt so much in years and, nervous of whether the stream of information is actually sticking, I decide to conduct my own at-home bake-off. It’s one thing following chef’s instructions, another to go it alone in your own kitchen. So several pasties, a quiche and toffee apple tart later, I’m chuffed (along with my drooling flatmates) to discover I have improved. I can do it!
Top Pastry Tips
There’s just so much to pastry, and a plethora of great recipe books so instead I want to share a selection of the best tips I’ve learnt along the way. Hopefully they’ll help avoid the soggy bottoms Mary Berry’s worst nightmares are made of.
1. All pastry requires precision so it’s important to weigh ingredients carefully including water.
2. Coldness is key, so keep butter in the fridge until needed and you’ll find it far easier to rub into the the flour. Whack a few times with a rolling pin to soften. Voila, soft yet cold!
3. As well as relaxing the gluten to help prevent shrinkage, chilled dough is also far easier to handle. Wrap in baking parchment to prevent sweating and chill for at least an hour. Overnight is ideal. Spare shortcrust pastry can also be frozen for later date, or add flour and hey presto, crumble top.
4. When flouring a surface you’re looking for just enough to prevent sticking without affecting consistency. Throw the flour diagonally using the same action to skim a stone across water. Give it a little welly for the lightest coating.
5. To keep thickness even when rolling, start from the middle and roll upwards, then again from the middle downwards. Turn the pastry as you go rather than working it left to right. Patch any tears by moistening with water and pressing a little dough on the ‘wound’. Dust with a little flour before you begin rolling again.
6. Use your rolling pin to move the pastry and use excess dough to push it into the corners – it’s less likely to tear than with your finger. For tins under 10cm in diameter, roll the dough to approximately 2-3mm thick, for anything over 10cm leave it a little thicker, about 5mm and leave an overhang to compensate for shrinkage, any excess can be cut off later.
7. Don’t forget to prick the pastry with a fork to let steam escape before blind baking then make a cartouche by screwing up baking paper several times, laying it over the pastry and filling with beans before blind baking.
8. Melted chocolate brushed on blind-baked sweet pastry then left to set before adding filling will prevent leakage and add flavour. For savoury pastry use egg yolk then give it another few minutes in the oven to seal.
9. Remember to keep a watchful eye on your dish as it’s cooking. Despite recipes stating certain times, every oven is different and it’s frustrating to over bake by just a couple of minutes.