Leiths School of Food and Wine: Classic French Desserts

Crème caramel
Tarte au citron
Coffee éclairs
Chocolate macaron
Tarte tatin

Today is Bastille Day, the day that marked the beginning of the French Revolution and now a national holiday in France. I like to imagine the nation has sat around all day, celebrating all that it means to be French: eating fabulous cheese, drinking amazing wine and feasting on their favourite pâtisserie. Unlikely, I’ll grant you but a lovely image nonetheless.

Crème caramel et tarte au citron.
Prepared by Claudine, eaten by class

Leiths School of Food and Wine appear to be of the same mind, honouring the classic French desserts in a 4-hour specialist class today. The menu above was covered at a fair lick, but with plenty opportunity to ask questions or seek clarification.I was most looking forward to making macaron having read a great blog post about a bunch of London food bloggers making them, and drooled over the photos, and also being a fan of eating the Paul offerings.
I had wondered how we were going to get through the advertised 5 desserts in a 4-hour class and the answer was by demonstrating two and making three, which was fair enough in the time we had, but a little bit more interaction with the demos would have been good.
Today I realised how useful having a ceiling-mounted mirror is in a demo – you feel so much more connected to what’s going on at the chef’s station when you can see exactly what they’re doing.Tarte au citron and crème caramel were both made by Claudine in front of the class, and although she explained exactly what she was doing as she went, it would have been better to see what she was doing as she did it.
She had some handy hints about making caramel, custard and pâte sucrée, which I’ve scribbled round and about the recipes, and having popped my cooking course cheery, I made sure I asked whatever questions I had instead of holding back like I did my first day at Ashburton.
Demo done, it was on to the real stuff. Claudine talked us through each of the recipes we’d be making: coffee éclairs, chocolate macaron and tarte tatin.

First up: choux pastry. I’ve never made choux, not sure I’ve even thought about making it. I think I’d written it off as something only pastry chefs make (still have puff pastry in that category) and was amazed at how easy it was.

Top tip for the choux was to make a choux-t (no? ah well) from parchment which allows you to direct your thrice-sifted flour to the boiling water and butter with maximum speed and efficiency and minimum spillage.
This being the first time I’ve made choux, I’m not sure if this is an improvement on just tipping the bowl of flour in, so for now I’ll trust it’s a top tip and see how I fare when I inevitably can’t be bothered with the paper-folding when I make it at home.

Paper choux-t

Once the flour is beaten in to the liquid and becomes a thick paste – the panade – it’s tipped out on to a plate to cool.

Once cooled, it was in with almost three beaten eggs. I didn’t need the whole mix; the pastry reached what Claudine called “reluctant dropping consistency” (love that!) before I added it all in. Failing to read the recipe properly meant I added far too much egg initially, and struggled to keep signs of panic off my face as the mixture looked as if it had curdled ( I hate failing in my own kitchen, alone. Fail in a class full of other cooks? Not if I can help it!).
A strong beating arm and silent curses returned it to a smooth paste, and it was on with the piping.The aim was to get even, consistent eclair shapes that would all cook and brown evenly.
We could have piped balls for profiteroles, or shorter sausage shapes for more bite size eclairs, but I tried to go for dainty, two-bite numbers.

I turned them once while baking, and then when done, poked a hole through them with a skewer to let the steam escape and popped them back in the oven for a few minutes to dry a little on the inside. Once cooled, one or two (okay, three) were filled with sweetened cream, dipped in coffee icing and eaten there and then. The rest were iced and taken home, to be filled just before serving them to Ben, Denise and Matt after dinner tonight.

Upside down and empty. So sad.

Filled with cream and dunked in coffee icing, the right way up. As they should be!

Coffee éclairs, done. Next!
Ah, macaron. Not to be confused with he desiccated coconut and rice paper macaroons with-two-Os. French macaron are airy, almond-y meringues, sandwiched together with a cream of some description.

Pound-coin (ish) sized blobs were what we were aiming for as they’d expand slightly when cooking to give little mouthfuls of deliciousness

They seemed to take an age to cook. When they’re done, they should lift off the baking sheet without sticking. If they stick, they need a little longer. When they cooled, we sandwiched them together with a little blob of chocolate ganache.

I should have included something in one of these photos to give some sense of their size. Each single macaron is about 1 -1.5cm thick, so about 2.5 – 3 cm wide in all.

The macaron turned out well – crispy on the outside, fluffy and mallowy in the middle. But I’m not sure I’m that keen on chocolate as a flavour for them. so next time I’ll experiment with fruit flavours, and also try them plain almond. Top tip was to make a batch, split it into four bowls (or as many as you want) and play with flavours to our heart’s content.And last but certainly by no means least, the tarte tatin.
Now, I have tried to make tarte tatin before, but I think I made it up rather than follow a recipe. I don’t remember it turning out all that well. In future, this is the recipe I’ll follow. It’s from Leiths Cookery Bible, and if you have that book, I implore you to make this recipe.
The pastry has rice flour in it, which I have never used before, but gave a great texture to the pastry, crunchy and a bit nutty. Brilliant idea.The caramel was a mixture of butter and sugar, and although there was some debate over dinner whether I’d cooked it too long (Matt may have said the word “burnt”. I may have stuck my fingers in my ears and said “la la la la”) it worked far better than earlier attempts at water/sugar caramel.

Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble….
“Ah yes, that looks like just the right amount of apples for two…”
“What was that? There shouldn’t be any space left around the apples before you snuggle the pastry blanket all around and press down quite firmly, tucking the pastry under as much as you can? Oh.” (Will do that next time)Hey, doesn’t look too bad at all, apple-gaps and all.

So to recap: 4 hours, 2 demos and 3 desserts. Phew.Once we’d inverted our tart tatin onto a plate and cleared our stations we had a light lunch of cheese, bread and fruit followed by a slice of tarte au citron and a blob of crème caramel. And then the kitchen assistants swung into clean-up action, we packed our pâtisserie into boxes and headed home. A good day’s baking, a good class and some great desserts.
Vive la France!

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