Pastry is one of those things that can get home cooks a bit jittery. Yes, there is some skill involved in producing great pastry, as well as some general rules that will help you get better results. However, as I discovered last week, it’s also not quite as tricky as you might expect. Of course, you don’t suddenly become a pâtissière overnight, but you can produce lovely tarts and pies with just a little practise.
When I recently interviewed Rosalind, who runs Cookery School at Little Portland Street, I mentioned that I’d never actually made puff pastry. You can buy good quality ready-made pastry and it was just one of those things I’d never quite been brave enough to try. Rosalind assured me that it actually was pretty straightforward and kindly invited me to try one of the Cookery School courses so that I could experience it firsthand.
Looking at the 3 hour class programme I was surprised at the long list of pastry and recipes included: choux pastry, shortcrust, sucree, puff pastry, profiteroles, apple pie, quiche, Cornish pasties, cheese straws, palmiers… Were we really going to cover that much in 3 hours? The answer was yes. The class is structured in a way that you’re introduced to each of the main pastry types and then get a bit more in-depth with a couple.
Cookery School is very well kitted out, with plenty of space and slick steel work surfaces. There are lots of impressive looking ovens, as well big fridges and a blast chiller unit. The layout feels well considered, with all the equipment easily to hand; there was certainly no scrambling to get hold of the last rolling pin. All the ingredients were laid out ready for us to use, which was a good time saver. As an added bonus, Cookery School has a strong focus on sustainability and using organic ingredients in their classes.
Ghalid, who led the class, has an impressive pastry background, including time working at Ottolenghi. He made everything feel very straightforward and shared lots of helpful tips along the way. This is one of the best reasons to go to a cookery course; you often learn things that you won’t necessarily find in a cookery book. It also helped to have Sylvia running around in the background, quickly whisking away bowls and implements so that no mess accumulated.
The class started with a lovely glass of wine and a freshly cooked savoury scone, which is always a good way to kick things off. Ghalid quickly got on with the task of demystifying the world of pastry. For each pastry type, we gathered around the demonstration area for Ghalid to show us how each was made. He passed around the bowl during the demonstration so we could practise mixing the ingredients and get some extra guidance. This was also when I realised I probably should have taken my rings off given we were doing pastry; fortunately pastry dough comes off very easily.
We started with the choux so that this could go into the oven early on, meaning we had decadent cream-filled profiteroles to end the class. It was good to get experience creating more rustic choux shapes using a dessert spoon, rather than fiddly piping. It always amazes me how quickly the pastry puffs once it goes into a (very) hot oven!
We then whipped through shortcrust (savoury) and sucree (sweet) pastry. These were to become the basis of the dish we’d each selected at the beginning of the class. There were 3 choices – apple pie, quiche or Cornish pasty – and I’d decided on the vegetarian quiche. And this was absolutely the right decision, as the quiche filling was a mix of delicious caramelised onion and mushroom (plus the egg and cream quiche custard). This meant lunch and dinner was sorted for the next few days, saving me from some extra cooking.
But it was really the puff pastry I was there to experience. I think the first thing I’d say about puff pastry is not to have a mild heart attack when you see how much butter goes into it (a whole block for standard portion). However, you don’t tend to eat lots of puff pastry in one go, and good quality butter is good for you if you don’t go crazy with the amount you eat. Ghalid said that French butter was his preferred one to use, but a good organic British butter will also taste great.
You get to give the butter a good beating to flatten it out, plus there’s a little muscle involved in kneading and rolling out of the dough – so maybe puff pastry is a good thing to make if you’re looking to firm up your biceps? The butter was then wrapped into the rolled out pastry we’d made beforehand. We then carefully rolled again, turned and folded. I was a bit careful with pressing down too hard on the rolling pin to avoid unwanted butter explosions.
After each two complete circuits of rolling and folding, the pastry is chilled. Ghalid shared the pro tip of marking the pastry with small finger impressions each time you chill it so that you can remember how many you’ve roll / folds you’ve done (you need to do six in total, with the pastry resting between each two). The pastry also freezes well at this point; divide it into a few portions before you freeze it and you can then defrost just what you need rather than the whole amount.
While we worked on our own pastry, cheese straws and palmiers from the puff pastry Ghalid had made earlier cooked away in the ovens. These, with the profiteroles, made a fantastic and tasty end to the class. On top of this, I had a quiche and puff pastry to take home, along with a pack of recipe cards.
Puff pastry is nowhere near as scary as I thought it might be (well, unless you’re scared by the sight of so much lovely butter). The class also helped me improve my skills with other types of pastry I’ve made before. I realised a few of things I’ve been doing could be done a little better, like the way I’ve been combining butter and flour in the first step of making pastry. Ghalid shared lots of great suggestions and guidance during the class, so I thought the best way to end would be to share some of these with you.
Top pastry tips from Cookery School:
– Keep your pastry ingredients well chilled, including the water you add into the pastry
– Always keep a little water to the side in case you need to add just a touch more to your flour as you mix it
– If possible, use your hands rather than a mixer when making pastry so that you can get a feel of whether the ingredients are sufficiently mixed
– Make pastry with a light touch, using your finger tips rather than the whole hand when making choux, shortcrust and sucree pastry; you can use more effort for puff pastry as this needs to be kneaded like bread for the gluten in the flour to develop
– Grate your butter into the flour: it makes it easier to mix into crumbs and you end up touching it less
– Adding a squeeze of lemon juice or vinegar to the water you use will stabilise your mixture by helping the gluten relax and improve the tenderness of your pastry
– Rest and chill your dough regularly: as well as after you first combine your ingredients, for pies or quiches also chill the case in the fridge before baking (this makes the pastry easier to work with, but also helps prevent shrinkage in the oven)
– When rolling out your dough, regularly (but gently) turn it in a sweeping motion to pick up the flour sprinkled on your work surface; this will stop it sticking to your work surface and the rolling pin
– An alternative to draping pastry over your rolling pin to line a tin, use a half moon method. Make sure both sides of the pastry have a light dusting of flour (from the flour sprinkled on your worktop) and then fold it lightly in half. Place over one half of the tin and then unfold the pastry so that the whole tin is covered. Gently press the pastry into the tin, but rather than pushing it into the edges with your fingers, slightly twist the pastry from the top which naturally presses it into the tin. There’s no need to trim off pastry hanging over the edges until after it has cooked
– When making a quiche, only half fill your case with the liquid before you put it in the oven so you don’t spill it enroute. Once your quiche is on the oven shelf, pour in the rest of the liquid.
– And as one more general tip: if you accidentally add too much salt into cooking and baking, a touch of lemon juice will help to counteract any extra saltiness.
Do you have any great pastry tips to share? I’d love to hear anything you’d add to the above list. You can also find more courses from Cookery School at Little Portland Street here.