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.
Week 6 (Final week)
This is the final week of my epic six week patisserie journey. It has been amazing in so many ways, throwing myself into new hands-on material experiences, learning from some of the best patisserie chefs in London and meeting a group of lovely people. DIWO - doing it with others, in the context of a learning environment is a wonderful way to not only explore new materials, skills and techniques, but to learn about yourself and those around you. When ‘making’ with others the conversations with your peers feels relaxed and unforced, conversations that are not face-to-face but more side-by-side… Sometimes the kitchen fell silent when we concentrated on difficult tasks, and other times it filled with chatter. This organic flow of engagement I have experienced only in a few places, such as Rochester Square Ceramic studio where I was a member for a couple of years, and similarly I felt very comfortable in the surroundings and with the people working around me, being able to fully relax into my work while slipping in and out of conversation with other artists, without any pressure to talk or be silent.
You can take yourself into your own head space, silently focused on the task at hand, then look up and lean into conversations around the room for a casual chat. This flow between materials, hands, head and others felt so comfortable and increasingly supportive as the weeks progressed, a feeling and dynamic usually associated with being in the company of long term friends and family, but without all the baggage. You can bring as much or as little of yourself to the space, share all or just a snap shot of your life. In the kitchen weaving around each other for twelve days, people from very different walks of life, different ages, nationalities and cultures but all focused on the same thing at the same time felt pretty profound, a kind of unspoken connection.
Each week for the two days on the course I was totally absorbed in the patisserie experience, it felt strange to then step out of it for the rest of the week into my other life of art, teaching, family and friends, such a disconnection from the intense experience of the course. I found myself at the weekends thinking about this separation I was feeling, and how we can all get caught up in familiar environments, experiences and people, not reflecting on how insular our lives have become, and the enjoyment and learning experience that comes from placing yourself in unfamiliar situations for a period of time can be life changing. It might be the only time we get to see ourselves a little when dealing with the unfamiliar and new. I’m very aware that my life can get caught up in an art world, art knowledge, art speak, art friends, art ambitions and that stepping into other professions and worlds, getting to know people with different backgrounds and experience is inspiring and just what my art practice craves for sometimes.
This week was quite different to other weeks….I’ll explain… On day eleven we made petit fours, small sweets such as marshmallows, toffees, truffles and pâte de fruit (fruit pastilles). I was really excited about making marshmallows, one of my favourite treats when made well (not those yucky cheap pink and white ones that you get sprinkled onto hot chocolate in chain coffee shops.) Try the fresh ones in Fortnum and Mason if you get a chance. Umm - those last two sentences sounded a bit judgmental! Each to one’s own on this one, but I’m telling you for a treat F&M fresh marshmallows are soft fluffy cubes of deliciousness. So you can imagine my delight when I found out that I was going to learn how to make these for myself. But this revelation was quickly followed by total disappointment to find out we were flavouring them with peanut butter, a particular hate of mine. I just don’t get this dry sticky nutty paste! When I made my marshmallows laced with peanut butter, even though I asked for an alternative ingredient, but sadly there was no other option! I kept eating one after the other hoping that I could train my taste buds into liking them, but of course that did not work, just made me regret eating so many unfulfilling sugary sweets. There is however a fantastic process in the making of marshmallows, which almost outweighed the taste disappointment. When drizzling hot sugary syrup (sugar, salt, golden syrup and water) over a soaked gelatine mixture as you whisk together, it gets so thick and fluffy it starts to creep unnervingly up the whisk spokes like it has a life of its own, beyond what seems naturally possible for this combination of ingredients. I have never seen anything like it before, very strange behaviour, as if it had magnetic qualities, attracted to the mechanism inside the electric whisk! There will be a science to this I will check it out!
The day was unsettled from the start, Hélène our tutor had fallen when running that morning and was hobbling around in pain, but determined to carry on teaching us, and one of the group received some awful news of a friend dying unexpectedly. She told us all at lunchtime preempting that she might not be able to hold it together for the rest of the day. It was very moving that she shared this with us. It did not feel uncomfortable, but instead this new bond between us all provided a very supportive environment for her to talk about it, and for the rest of us to share our own experiences of bereavement.
I really felt there was something very off kilter that day. Everything I made did not quite work out, as if my body and the cooking materials were not functioning properly! Fruit pastilles that did not set, chocolate truffles that took on a disastrous messy appearance and burnt peanut butter for my marshmallows that I didn’t even want to eat ….. A lack of concentration perhaps, the distracted mind hot wired to innocent hands causing them to fail. Also, the weather was very strange, switching from sun to heavy hail and then thunder, and then when I got home I found out that a friend of mine had fallen down the stairs and broken 3 ribs. What a day of clashes, but maybe a moment to stop me in my tracks and take a breath! I was quite pleased when the day came to an end, but now looking back can see it was a profound day to learn both in terms of cooking and friendships. It takes things to go wrong somethings to make changes, to be challenged and to progress.
The final day was much calmer, and regained its flow, even though Hélène had found out that she had actually broken her foot and was now wearing a support boot and continued to hobble around in some pain, Cat the assistant chef took up the leadership reins, brilliantly injecting energy into our final day.
We all were allocated a job, picked out of a hat, in preparation for the tea party we were hosting for invited friends and family that afternoon. Most were put into groups - the orange and olive oil cake group, macrons group and caramel popcorn croquembouche group. However, myself and Nicole were given the two solo jobs, myself crumbly cheddar scones and Nicole, courgette galettes. After yesterday’s disasters (or maybe not!) I was really quite pleased to be working on my own in my own recipe head space. We have been following a lot of demonstrations and not paying much attention to the recipes and instructions in our printed files, so to be left to my own devices, as I would be if cooking at home seemed a welcome step in preparation to going back to my own kitchen and studio to bake and explore materials on my own again.
Very happy with my cheesy scones accompanied by whipped butter with thyme to smother them, we all assembled our bakes in the dining room to await our guests. Mark was coming and I was looking forward to meeting everyone’s friends, family or partner’s that had been talked about but not yet seen. So surprised and happy to finally put names to real faces. As we all sat around the table eating our produce and drinking prosecco, it felt on one hand the group had been split up by these intruders, but on the other hand interesting to capture a snippet of everyone’s lives outside the cookery school, seeing them in the context of their families, lives that spanned so much longer than our six week encounter.
This routine of doing the course and then writing about it every week sadly comes to an end. It has been insightful for me to reflect each week on this unique experience and I will be interested to see how it filters into my studio practice, as I know it will in all sorts of unexpected ways. For me I don’t separate my experience of doing courses like these with being in my studio. Each materially engaged environment is a way for me to challenge my relationship to materials, physically, psychologically and socially, and allow the outcomes to reveal themselves through these processes, without pre-determination. One of the many things I have learnt is that I am at the moment quite fixated on how my fingers work when encountering and negotiating different materials. I was totally captivated from week one with the process of making pastry cases, challenged by how thin I could make them and how I could use my fingers to manipulate the delicate pastry into the metal cases. I was also fascinated by the sensual experience of lightly touching the multitude of material we made as they cooled, dried and often formed a skin on the top, an action that required a delicate touch that would not break into the material mass, but glide off the surface. This direct touch through finger tips can be intense, they are such sensitive areas of our hands, and it’s fascinating to see how others’ use their finger and thumbs to make their own material engaged decisions, that then directly impact on the materials they are engaged with and the things they are making.
Today we made macrons. These are the small sweet almond meringue filled treats that if you are familiar with them often come in a variety of different colours. Hélène demonstrated the technique adding food colouring to her mix to make purple macrons to tie in with the black current flavour that was going to be sandwiched between them. The colourant has no flavour but we know that the colour of food plays a big part of our taste experience. If the macron was yellow for example we are likely to think the macron has a lemon flavour. I love blackberries and decided to colour mine the same as Hélène’s, although looking around the room I could see others had opted for much brighter bolder colours. The woman next to me - apologies woman I have forgotten your name! used a bright green for her macron mix - they looked brilliantly funky and perhaps would bring a hint of lime to the flavour experience! I’m now regretting my purple choice – should have been more experimental.
The interesting thing was we put half our macrons to cook in the domestic ovens and the other in the professional oven. Those in the domestic oven cooked beautifully, all rising a little to create the low mushroom lift that is characteristic of a professionally made macron, but the colour had kind of faded - the purple becoming a pale violet hue. Whereas, those we cooked in the professional oven held their colour but did not rise as well, looking more like large buttons, rather than the low mushroom shape. Ovens are mysterious things, depends on how many things you are cooking at once, where in the oven things are placed and whether you open the oven door before things are ready, and the notion of ‘ready’ has broad interpretations. The lack of rise in the professional oven the tutors put down to the amount of macrons cooking at one time, but didn’t really know! Every day on this course I am becoming increasingly aware of how things can vary and that recipes and instructions are really only 50% of the information needed to make and bake things well, the rest is down to experience, trial and error and pure luck…I don’t feel so bad now about the multitude of past failed bakes I have made at home – maybe it was not all my fault.
The most enjoyable part of making macrons for me was the process of making the meringue component of the mix. You heat sugar and water in a pan to 115 °C and then slowly pour the hot syrup into your whipped up egg whites while continuing to whisk, the mixture becomes silky, glossy and fluffy – totally sensuous and sumptuous. This mix is then amalgamated with your almond paste and then piped on to a baking sheet to make your macron shapes. These little wonders are quite beautiful when filled and give a sugar hit when eaten.
The following day we were all feeling exhausted as if suffering from a slight hangover. I’m sure it was the amount of sugar we had all eaten that day, sampling macrons with every variety of different fillings. Overload of sugar is not too dissimilar to an overload of alcohol, both producing physical highs followed by energy lows. The following day I tried very hard not to consume as much sugar, and felt a lot less lethargic for it.
Day ten we decorated our ‘ultimate chocolate cake’ the sponges prepared the previous day. We also made honeycomb and almond and orange florentine’s. Making honeycomb tops the chart of dramatic transformative processes. Heating a sugar syrup in a pan bringing the temperature up to155°C you then add your bicarbonate of soda, turn off the heat and a quick stir for no more than 10 seconds before carefully pouring the frothing mass into a lined baking tray to let sit undisturbed. It’s all about working fast and keeping that air inside. It sets in a couple of hours and then you can pop it out of the tin and use it to break up for decorations or into large pieces to munch on. This material not only behaves like expanding foam (the DIY filling material) but also looks like it, especially when expanding foam has been around for a while and starts to darken to a rich golden brown. The difference, apart from of course one tastes better than the other! is that honeycomb is very brittle whereas cured expanding foam keeps a sponginess and flexibility.
In the park as we ate our lunch in the sunshine we started to discuss the differences between the two tutors. Hélène is a great teacher, but Lou is extraordinary. Lou has a confidence and calmness that washes over the entire room, to make us all feel relaxed. Her total command of the room injects confidence in us all and somehow the days with her feel that much more fulfilling and rewarding than with Hélène. I’m feeling a bit guilty as I say this as Hélène is a brilliant tutor, but somehow her more relaxed approach allows some stresses to seep into the space and situation, which can affect the entire group. I don’t know how Lou does it, but she is there for everyone, even when this week she was without an assistance she managed to work the room with a confident ease. The type of teaching method has a direct impact on how we learn and our enjoyment of the tasks that are set. I can recall the courses I have been on where the tutors were exceptional and those that were not, and how my experiences were defined by the tutors ability and behaviour. I’m sure it is different for everyone but for me the tutors that do not try to take over the task when you are struggling, but calmly talk you through giving you confidence to believe in yourself wins for me every time. We all want to feel we are achieving something and can see our own improvements. This teaching skill I witnessed also on a glass blowing course. Ricky Keech who runs a glass foundry just outside London has this ability like Lou to teach challenging skills and give you the absolute confidence to handle difficult materials such as molten glass as a total amateur. The calmness and absence of panic when things are not going to plan and the total belief they have in you that you can overcome the challenges is a great skill. I brought Ricky into the Goldsmiths a few years ago to teach students to blow glass, and it was amazing to watch very unconfident students in total control of turning hot molten glass into ambitious shapes having never worked in the material before.
The afternoon was a more relaxed affair. Usually we are running around doing ten things at a time, but today it was about decorating our florentines and chocolate cake at our own pace. Sometimes the fast pace of the class can trip you up, making you entirely forget what you are doing, over whip a mixture so what should be a batter becomes a stodgy slop or leave a pan on the heat to dry out completely. So this afternoon was chilled, we all knew what we needed to do and were ready to enjoy the process at our own speed with plenty of time to chat. A group of us huddled around our pans of heating chocolate talking about how we had all met our partners, even when our chocolate was totally melted and ready to be used, we lingered at a slow stirring pace until our stories were finished.
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 beautiful 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’ 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 is no replacement to trying this unusual and unfamiliar process, one that stood 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. Others 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 times! 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!