P A T I S S E R I E
19th April - 25th May 2022
I am constantly searching for ways to challenge and rethink my relationship to materials and to discover new hands-on skills. Whether as an amateur or professional to put myself in a position of 'not knowing', and to explore and respond to the environments I learn in and the groups I learn with.
I have learnt skills in butchery, fish mongering, bread making, cheese and chocolate, and now embark on an intensive six-week Patisserie course at the Leiths School in Food and Wine in West London.
Each week I will write here on Tenderfoot to unpack some of my experiences, and track what I'm sure will be a technically challenging material journey.
We started this week preparing pâté sucrée for lemon meringue tarts and crème patissière fruit tarts. This pastry is so incredibly buttery that you barely handle it in fear it will melt into a pool of fat. Helené demonstrated how to make this buttery matter by hand and also by machine. The hand method is quite beautifully to observe. Firstly, you spread directly onto your worktop a circle of flour - a well in which you put your sugar and soft diced butter. Not yet touching the flour circle you apply a pecking motion (a term used to mimic a small bird pecking) with your finger tips to incorporate the two ingredients. Once mixed you add the egg yolks to further ‘peck’ together until there is no colour streakiness. Taking a palette knife, you ‘chop’ the flour from the circle into the butter and sugar mixture. This technique stops the flour from becoming over worked, bringing together into large flakes. You do this until there are no floury bits amongst the pastry. Now the next unusual bit…You shape your pastry into a sausage shape and using your palette knife on its side, scrape a little of the large flakes together a bit at a time, this will finally bring the mix together and is called’ fraisering’. As the pastry sticks to the palette knife you scrape it off using a cutlery knife and place in a pile. You slowly work along the entire sausage of pastry in this way then bring the fraisered pastry together into a ball, wrap with cling film and put in the fridge to chill. This traditional method has been used for hundreds of years, although I’m sure every time slightly differently depending on the individual maker and their specific ingredients. A bit like making a pizza base where there are so many variants to the variants.
We made ours in a mag mix. This was a bit disappointing after watching such a dexterous process, which I was dying to try myself. The magi mix works perfectly well but no replacement to trying his unusual and unfamiliar process, one that stands out amongst the vast range of patisseries skills we have done during the course. I will just have to have a go at home.
Once our pastry was chilled we divided into six portions and rolled out each one, applying plenty of flour to the table and rolling pin to stop any sticking. Aiming for 2mm thick I confidently set about this task - striking a balance between thickness and stability, as to go too thin will cause it to break apart. Once you have your thin dinner plate size material ready you place the pastry over the tin and nurture it inside, dainty finger tips pressing the material into the corners of the tin for a snug fit. The pastry is very fragile and the aim is to create neat edges, finishing off by running your thumb nail between the tin and pastry edge to create a small gap which will help release the pastry from the tin when it is cooked. Repeating this 6 times with each tart you learn from each one how to improve the next. This takes concentration, a hand/mind focus I’m very familiar with from working on sculptures in my studio that require similar dexterity and patience. I find processes like this extremely satisfying and totally absorbing. Other’s on the course seemed to find this process rather stressful. I could hear moans and groans from around the room, complaints about having to repeat the technique 6 time! I personally would be happy to do this all day long. The rest of the day we prepared our fillings for the tarts - lemon curd and crème patissière.
Each week I take an enormous amount of patisserie home with me. I have been delivering my bakes to people who live close by and who I work with. The concierges in our building, Kim who cleans the square, my students at Goldsmiths and friends at Cubitt where I have my studio. Sharing patisserie is a wonderful way of spreading the love…, enjoying peoples responses - big smiles, emoji heart filled text - happiness all round... It wouldn’t quite work with savoury dishes I don’t think - a box of stew, a loaf of bread (well maybe!), a pot of sauce! Patisserie is a present ready gift wrapped. This weekly distributing activity has become a highlight of my week, which I don’t want to stop when I finish the course - so looks like I’m going to just have to keep this baking thing going.
Another great thing about doing this course are the conversations I am having outside of the course with fellow artist about cooking and baking, such as the cross over with other processes, whether that be mixing plaster or paint pigments, the process of practicing and repetition, being absorbed in a process, the dynamics of learning and working in a group and the chemistry involved in all material engaged practices.
Last night at a private view I was talking to a friend about the use of tin foil. It is used in so many ways and in different professions - to protect from heat, to hold in heat, to wrap hair when dying and I have used it to cast object to make sculptures. Foil comes in different sizes and thicknesses and has unique properties, such as to grab a form and hold a shape - edge of baking tin, delicate edges of a pastry tart to protect from over baking, to wrap around everyday object to take a detailed cast.
The following day we baked our tart cases and once cooled assembled them. Three tarts were filled with our day before made crème pat that the following day became a crème diplomat when whipped cream was added, and the other three tarts we filled with our lemon curd and then made a meringue for piping on top. This was yet another process I was immediately absorbed in. Using a piping bag filled with the meringue I experimented piping different shapes using different piping nozzles. The repetitive action of squeezing the bag combined with slow and measured movements to create different shapes - rosettes and swirls, pulling up fast to finish the shapes to form peaks. These repetitive applications with every rhythmic action you are continually making decisions to improve/alter the next action/shape. Each individual meringue shape holds the gesture that produced it - mapping the speed, pressure and positioning of your hands, and as you look back over the previous shapes you have just made you can trace these motion memories, learning and improving as you go as well as discovering new shapes and forms as you challenge and push your skills.
Once we piped the meringue onto each tart we used a blow torch to quickly scorch the meringue to accentuate the edges to define the shapes, such as catching the torch at the tips of the meringue peaks.
The method of pushing a material through a shape/template is used with endless types of material/object production - whether to make clay coils or biscuits on a production line. The form/template/stencil containing and pressing against the material trapped and passing through it, defines the shape the material becomes and not necessarily one that is expected or natural to the materials usual appearance or behaviour. This has got me thinking about all sorts of materials I could try forcing through other material shapes, to remove them from their expected identity, such as bread dough through a plastic silicone extruder, or pushing rubber through a metal sieve.
Only two weeks left of the course – it’s going far too quickly - looking forward to making honeycomb this week.
This was a week of texture sensations, from short buttery crumbly pastry called pâte à pâte for a ham pie, to a light air filled whisked sponge for a swiss roll. We also had a day of chocolate – dairy and vegan recipes – cookies, brownies and cakes, plus caramel for basting and smothering our chocolate bakes and for making praline.
Firstly, I need to take back what I said last week about dramatic transformations in cooking, that I described as never being as extreme as some of the chemical ones I have explored in my studio, such as with 2 part polyurethane mix (expanding foam). Well, making caramel is as dramatic as it comes. You melt sugar in a pan watching until all the crystals have dissolved, intermittently agitating by tilting the pan to ripple the melting sugar from the bottom of the pan into the dry sugar resting on top. Once melted the very hot syrup turns a glossy golden colour which you then pour in double cream and stir manically taking off the heat immediately. When the cold fat meets the hot sugar it bubbles up like an erupting volcano, some of the syrup you can see and feel crystallizing where cold meets hot, so more rapid stirring is required to make the sauce consistent. The syrup is nearly 200 C when the cream hits the syrup, so you have to be careful not to splash it onto yourself. Liz working next to me managed to get a dollop of this molten liquid on her hand and had to spend the next 10 minutes running it under cold water. Lou, the teacher warned us of this danger and advised us if we did have an accident not to pull the syrup off our skin as it will take the skin with it, but to run it under cold water to dissolve the syrup leaving the skin intact. I think Liz was ok!