Patisserie

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 4

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.

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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.

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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.

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Week 3

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!

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We repeated this process to make praline. This is done by adding whole almonds to a pan of hot bubbling sugar syrup then quickly mixing off the heat and pouring the combination onto a baking sheet. As it hits the cool surface of the parchment covered baking tray the mixture sets hard, barely giving enough time to decant the mix from the saucepan, in my case I ended up with a hard lumpy sugary mass welded to my spoon. Sugar is a bit like glass, melting and drying at similar speeds. I learnt how to blow sugar at the Institute of Making, UCL some years back, an alternative material to blowing glass due to their similar properties for melting, stretching and drying with the aid of controlled heat and breathe, (for blowing air into the material to expand it like a balloon, like blown glass).

The pâte à pâte pastry and the whisked sponge achieve extreme textures. The pâte à pâte is a pastry mix with so much butter, if you over mix it will end up as a sticky mess impossible to rollout. Once you have magimixed your butter, egg yolks and water just enough to bring the dough together you shape quickly and roll out between two sheets of parchment (to avoid making contact with warm absorbent surfaces, such as your hands and the rolling pin) and then straight into the fridge to stabilize. Again the shift from hot to cold is essential to the process.

For the whisked sponge you whisk your sugar and egg until you have a fluffy mousse like mixture. Starting slowly for 3-4 minutes to build up a network of bubbles to help stabilize the mixture. To test when your mixture is whisked enough you apply the ribbon test – a term used to describe the thickness of the mixture that when the beaters are lifted, the mixture should fall from them onto the surface of the mixture in a wide ribbon-like trail and hold itself for a few seconds before sinking. It is all about adding air then keeping the air inside the mixture. When you add the sieved air filled flour you fold the mixture with a metal spoon, being ultra careful not to knock out any air. Even when pouring your mixture into the baking tray this is done so carefully and slowly not to loose crucial air bubbles. 

Both pastry and sponge had extraordinary textures when eaten. The cooked pastry which wrapped around a creamy ham filling simply crumbled and melted, and the fluffy baked sponge rolled around cherry compote and cream for my swiss roll was like biting into an absorbent soft cloud. The texture of food is such an important aspect of eating and probably for me more important than the taste itself, although it is very difficult to separate taste and texture. The texture of a steamed dumpling or chinese bao bun, the crunch of a crisp celery stick or salt crystals in a piece of pecorino cheese, or the slow velvety melt of good quality dark chocolate.

Temperature is also a big factor to the experience of texture and taste and for most foods not being too hot or too cold elevates these sensations. I often find when I have cooked something and later when returning to the kitchen to pick at the remains that the food tastes better having rested, cooled or warmed to room temperature. Fruit, cheese, cake, bread, chocolate never to be eaten straight from the fridge, and meat, pastry and sauces never to be eaten straight off the heat. Our mouths are not designed for extreme temperatures and taste buds are paralysed in these conditions.

With this being week three the dynamics of the group I am on the course with has settled into a comfortable rhythm. Each one of us has found where we most like to work – facing the windows or near the bins, close to the sink or in proximity to the demo area. Although we are encouraged each week to move around, I find myself drawn back to the table closest to the windows for natural light, and it seems that a number of us are attracted to this location for similar and different reasons. There is five of us at this work station and we are now pretty comfortable with each other. I see Georgia next to me referring to my printed recipe folder propped up in my space, Liz puts her phone timer to ‘start’ for timing both of our bakes, both of us checking each other’s in the oven at various intervals.

The course is very fast paced and we are finding ways to weave around each other at speed, flowing between hobs, ovens, fridges and tables. Opening ovens, draws and cupboard may require some manoeuvring - a small tap on the shoulder, a nudge, a quiet ‘excuse me’. My table companions, we are becoming synchronised and efficient as if we were working in a professional kitchen. We have found confidence by being able to share our experience, comfortably communicating to ascertain the next best way to do things… Each week I photograph everyone’s bakes and are astounded by the variety of what we produce, everyone’s bakes look different, a chocolate chip cookie can have so many different textures, colours, shapes and proportions, even though we are following the same recipe and have most of our ingredients pre measured. Our bodies – height, proportions, the way be use our hands, our minds as well as timings, cooker variability all affect what we make. I’m fascinated by this, and find myself circulating the kitchen at various intervals to see the array of outcomes. I’m wondering if I’ll get to a point when I’ll be able to match the made with the maker. I think I can do this with those around my table, especially when it comes to decorating our cakes, we all seem to have a unique approach, from the understated (me), to the exuberant – Holly, to the tasteful – Nicole, to the precise – Georgia.

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Week 2

Combining ingredients is an art as well as a science in patisserie, and I’m becoming increasingly aware of the extraordinary variety of ways to do this, such as to stir, to fold, to agitate... Each ingredient has particular properties and qualities that when combined with others ignite material/chemical reactions, and require different processes to combine to optimize or minimalize these affects. Not only is it about the ingredients you put together (butter and egg, water and sugar … ) but also their temperature, quantity, the speed and method of combining, the tools you use and the way you use your body – hands, arms to activate all these things.

This week we mixed a range of different material for different affects - Choux pastry, wet mix for ginger bread, classic victoria sandwich mix, curd, chocolate ganache, whipped cream and butter cream, plus some periphery combinations, such as lemon and icing sugar for a quick icing glaze, and sugar and water to create a syrup for lemon and lime needle shreds for decorating our cakes.  

Choux was the first we tackled this week. You start by slowly heating water and butter in a pan, then when the butter has melted you bring to a boil and quickly shoot in 3 times sieved flour and turn off the heat. Stirring rapidly with a wooden spoon for about 30 seconds to bring the mixture together, making sure you scrape into the corners of the pan to lift all the mixture. The consistency resembles play dough, rubbery and gloopy which you then spread onto a plate and wait for it to cool to blood temperature. You then return it to the now cool saucepan for further mixing, intermittently adding spoonful’s of egg. The mixing action is rapid and arm wrenching. Fortunately I have a very strong right arm from years of working in the studio, mixing, carving, modelling materials and generally moving large heavy stuff.  Hélène our tutor seeing my shoulders raised up by my ears shouts out, ’relax, drop your shoulders and stop tensing up – it will be less painful!’ I never though the words patisserie and pain would be used in the same sentence!

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Add a little egg, mix, add a little egg, mix, add a little egg, mix, add a little egg, mix….. until the moment when you can encouraging your mix to drop from the spoon in less than 4 seconds, a sign it is ready to spoon onto a baking tray into little bun shapes for baking. I’m realizing there is a particular language used in baking such as the choux recipe we were given that describes - ‘The choux should be a reluctant dropping consistency, the finished choux pastry should be silky and smooth.’ Recipe language is all very well but it is only when you are shown in real time these methods and the consistencies you are aiming for, that you can fully grasp how it should be done. No written recipe is a substitute for watching the demos by the professional Hélène and Lou whose meticulous instruction give insight into the nuances of mixing stuff together, exposing the flaws in recipe instructions that often lead to home baking failures. 

The speed and method of mixing choux is very different to that required for a wet mix for making gingerbread (which actually is a cake). When you add your wet ingredients - first eggs then melted butter, sugar, treacle and milk - to your flour by making a well in the center then pouring the wet stuff into the middle, you slowly stir without forcing the flour into the wet mix, just catching the flour on the edges of the mixture coating the liquid which then gets incorporated into the mix, a slow circular turning of the spoon until all the ingredients are incorporated. Then swooping your spoon with greater speed around the entire bowl to make sure the mix is consistent, but not over mixing, the opposite to the manic choux method.

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Mixing ingredients for my victoria sandwich was yet another precise method, this time using an electric hand whisk. I have made this cake at home countless times, but clearly until now had no idea of the exact mixing method required for an ultra-light and fluffy cake. I have always flung together my butter and eggs then incorporated my flour in quite a hap hazard manner. But, Oh No… the most affective mixing is so much more than that and takes time! Once you have creamed your soft butter and sugar into a smooth pale yellow loose paste you add one table spoon of egg, then mix for 30 seconds, repeating until all the egg is incorporated. Unlike with the choux where you have to judge the moment to stop adding egg (as to add too much egg to a choux will ruin it) with victoria sponge it all goes in, so a bit more relaxing….

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These mixing processes are all consuming – slow, rapid, rhythmic movements, watching, smelling, listening and tasting to know when to stop. The transformations occurring from combinations of materials varies enormously, such as when mixing passion fruit juice, sugar, eggs, butter and cornflower to make a curd. A slow thickening becomes a rapid thickening when the perfect heat and ingredients collide. Many mixtures have this accelerated thickening moment, caused when the starch particles expand capturing the fluid and absorbing more liquid. Working with a range of materials in my studio I tackle all manner of thickenings – polyurethane is probably the most dramatic, when the two part mix combine the material expands exponentially and hardens at speed, so you have to work super quickly. Fortunately no baking mix is quite that extreme.

As I mix my butter and sugar with an electric whisk the ingredients gather up and get caught up in the whisk blades, dragging my clutched hands around an empty bowl. But hold on a few more seconds and the mixture becomes more relaxed dispersing back around the bowl.  I stop the whisk and use a spatula to push my mix back into the center of the bowl, I then push the mixture off the spatula with my finger, and instead of wiping my hand on my tea towel hanging from my apron waist string I put it straight into my mouth – which is so not done in a professional kitchen! But, hey these are the perks of baking in my book.

Stir, stir, stir, stir, stir… melted butter, chocolate and a spoonful of treacle which I will dip my cream filled choux buns. Agitate, agitate, agitate… warm water to dissolve sugar before simmering to make a syrup. Temperature is key to the mixing process, room temperature eggs and butter, warm not boiling water, blood temperature choux, (makes me think of a murder scene in a kitchen), cool passion fruit curd to incorporate into butter icing to fill my victoria sandwich….

Finally for this week, to move away from the phenomenon of mixing. I want to describe the sensation of filling choux buns with cream, which requires a heightened sense of touch and the non-visual. Pipping whipped cream into your choux buns through a hole made in their bases, as you squeeze the pipping bag it does not feel much is happening, then suddenly the weight of the bun increases, and you can feel the bun swelling between your fingers as the cream pushes out from inside. This sensation is sumptuous and with every choux bun I fill I savour this moment of tactile transformation. It kind of reminds me of the moment of altered breathe exertion when blowing up a balloon, the exact moment when straining to blow into a resistant deflated balloon becomes an effortless exhale to expand the balloon to full capacity. Like with the rapid transformations through mixing these moments cannot be isolated but only occur sandwiched between other actions, and because of their short timeframe are addictively exhilarating. Apologies, if this is a bit sexy for cooking, although not as funny as when I pushed my finger through a jagged edged piping nozzle and for a moment got it stuck, which had myself and the tutors’ assistant Caroline in an inuendo giggle.

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Week 1

Arrived on my first day far too early - I can’t bare being late! Gradually all the other students arrive, all woman except one man. What is it about patisserie and us woman, maybe we just love eating cakes more. This is the first two days of a six week fast paced Patisserie course for people who already have some cooking experience, pre-diploma semi-professional level - no pressure hey! Everyone introduces themselves, we are all pretty much on the same page as proficient cooks that want to test and further our skills. I’m not going to let on quite yet to the rest of the class my bigger intentions, that of my ongoing fieldwork to further and challenge my skillset of manipulating and negotiating different materials. Patisserie is packed with technique and skill and a vast range of transformative materials, and I know this experience will feed into my studio practice in all sorts of unexpected and surprising ways. A recent course in chocolate work introduced me to techniques I am currently using in the studio, a finger and thumb pinching action that I am using to shape and manipulate silicone in a series of sculptures. The transference of techniques from one material to another really fascinates me and how skillsets across a wealth of professions I can utilized within my art practice. I also just love baking…  

The Patisserie tutors on the course are fantastic, all women with a passion for Patisserie. We have Hélène on a Tuesdays and Lou on a Wednesdays. The first day is making rich short crust pastry for fruit and cream filled mini tarts, a chocolate tart and savoury croutes (small canopy biscuits topped with mascarpone and truffle oil and topped with tiny pickled mushrooms.) We all make two batches of pastry, one by hand and one in a mixer. When cutting cold butter into plain flour by hand you use two knives and cut with both hands to make flour butter crumbs. Twelve people cutting at the same time, metal bowls clattering manically was a good ice breaker, having us relax, focus on the job at hand and getting into the flow of the course. Doing things by hand takes longer and may not always create the best results, such as an inconsistent mix, but for me this is the best way to learn about the materials I am handling - how tools and material work together, the rhythm of my hands and body to achieve the task. As I cut my butter and flour I notice the warmth of my hands heating up the knives which then warm the materials, so working quickly is essential not to turn my crumbs into doughy lumps. There are always options to work with machinery or without. For example, whipping cream for piping is easy enough to do with a hand whisk, also by the time you have got the electric whisk out, plugged it in, the job manually is done. When hand whisking you can feel the very moment when the cream starts to thicken, at which point you slow your hand down and stop at the precise point where the cream is firm but still has a flow that can easily be piped into pastry cases. I wonder if it is possible to whisk cream with your fingers, to directly feel the material thicken – I may try this next time.  

The tutors gave us tips and guidance throughout the day – roll from the hip, move the pastry not your body, use your middle finger to push your rolled out pastry into every groove of the pastry tins, run your finger nail between pastry and tin edge to create a neat rim for your tarts, use dried beans and rice instead of ceramic blind baking beans as they get into the corners better... I could see with both tutors over the two days that precision and perfection is key to patisserie. When giving their demonstrations they were so careful, patient and precise. There was no ‘making do’ but always absolute attention to every detail. Hélène, our Tuesday teacher, at one point as she pinched the tops of her pastry cases slowly and carefully said she could do this for hours to make them perfectly smooth, thin and consistent. I never go to that extreme when working with materials, preferring the slightly imperfect gesture left inscribed on the material. As I watched others pinching their pastry edges I could see how differently we all applied our own level of precision, how far we are all individually prepared to go… I felt an underlying competitiveness amongst us, all wanting to make the perfect/best tart. The word ‘Best’ is an ongoing discussion and debate I have with my partner Mark. He is always seeking out the best ingredients, the best recipe and cook the best version. I am very skeptical of this word, as it is so subjective and over used, such as its use in advertising or the reviewing of food, restaurants or exhibitions…The best French butter, the best way to cook pasta, the best representation of contemporary art… ugh… I tend to say - I’ll be the judge of what I think is best, as someone’s best is another’s worse…

We might have been judging the appearance of our tarts against one each other, but it was only when we all got home could we really understand how good or not our bakes where when we ate them, and then of course that is a matter of personal taste surely. On the second day when we were making fillings for strudels and pastillas I found myself looking in everyone’s individual saucepans, as the fillings were left to cool. Everyone’s was different in consistency. These variations came from the different cut sizes and proportions of ingredients, ratio of liquid to solids dependent on amount of liquid added or removed (oil and steam), temperature and time of cooking and amount of intervention, such as stirring and removing and placing the lids on the saucepans, plus all the other minutiae variations of body, material, tool and environment interaction. This does not even touch on how different they might have all tasted as I peered into each saucepan mix. So really we should not even try to compare and judge what is ‘best’, there is just variation within the spectrum of a successful sauces and bakes.  

Day two was super intense, quick paced and a lot of information. A day of filo pastry to make a Moroccan spinach and chickpea filled strudel and date and feta pastillas (filo filled parcels deep fat fried then coated in sugar and sunflower seeds,). To make filo pastry unlike short crust where you don’t want to over handle and work it to keep it short and crumbly, filo you need to really work it to make it elastic and stretchy. So after kneading your filo dough to develop the gluten you repeatedly slap the dough onto your work surface to elongate and stretch the material. After about ten minutes of slapping and bashing you should be able to stretch your dough shoulder width apart. Another rhythmic process, everyone finding their own personal technique, with the occasional rogue dough flying across the kitchen from over exuberant throwing.  Once stretched and exercised (me as well as the dough) we roll our smooth dough into a ball and wrap in cling film for later. After lunch headed by a demo we roll out our dough to about A4 size, then start stretching it. The aim is to make it paper thin. Watching Lou demonstrating this technique, she carefully pushes her hands under the dough and starts to slowly pull and stretch from the middle out using her hands and fingers. The dough becomes thinner and thinner. It really starts to look like human or animal skin, or the stomach or amniotic sack of a large animal, the movement of hands underneath animating it anthropomorphically.

Fixated by this technique as Lou pulls her sheet of filo to nearly the size of a tea towel, I am wondering how easy it is not to rip the dough. It is only when I start stretching my own dough I can begin to learn for myself the capacity of the material. As it dries at the edges it begins to split but the center still has more scope for stretching which I cautiously do until the fear of ruining it stops me. It’s now big enough to layer my filling along one edge and roll carefully into a long sausage shape, place on a baking tray and put into the oven.

These first two days were packed with so much great stuff, including learning some handy knife skills – I know now how to cut vegetables using the rolling technique, to crush garlic with salt, and deep fat fry without a threat of disaster. So, I now have 5 days until I launch myself into week 2, prepped with pre recipe reading and a relaxed confidence with having got the first week under my belt.

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