Cooking Class: Introduction to French Pastries at William Angliss

I’m going to start with an apology for my absentee ways of late.  I’ve been on leave this last week, and apparently this meant taking a holiday from my blog, too!  Turns out that I was tireder than I had realised.  I’ll try to get back into things in the next week or so… but I thought I’d better start by writing up the amazing pastry course I went to last weekend at William Angliss, not least because I went to a chocolate lollipops course today, and don’t want that to drive the pastry course out of my head!

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The course I attended was a two-day course on croissants, brioche and puff pastry, and I can honestly say it was the best cooking class of any kind that I have attended so far.  One reason for this was because of the content, which was fascinating and included a whole range of things I haven’t been game to try on my own.  A big reason was our teacher, Maria, who was absolutely lovely, very knowledgeable, and so determined that we would end up with good pastries that when one of the ovens went spare and overcooked a batch of brioches on the first day, she came in early on the second day to make us another batch, so that we would be able to taste a good product and know that it was worth the effort to make.

The other truly wonderful thing about this course was something that one can never really control or predict, and that was the class size and makeup.  There were just four of us, all women, working in pairs, and we all got along very comfortably.  This, and the sheer volume of pastry we were making, meant that everyone got plenty of opportunities to work on everything (this was a very hands-on course), that we had plenty of access to the teacher, and that none of us had trouble deciding how to apportion our various doughs up, because we were largely in agreement about the things we wanted more of, and were all happy to swap things around if someone’s batch didn’t work out.

It really was a brilliant two days – exhausting, but also remarkably relaxing.

But you probably want to know what we made…

Day 1 was Brioche Day, and also the day to get all the doughs and fillings ready for the things that needed a little more time.  So we started by making a sweet brioche dough, and a plain brioche dough.  Brioche is a yeasted dough, enriched with eggs and butter, but not milk in this case, on the grounds that it was possibly rich enough now.    The sweet version also has plenty of sugar and is unbelievably sticky – you can only work with it when it’s cold from the fridge, and the kneading process pretty much needs to be done with a stand mixer and dough hook, as it requires very long working, too.  I am coveting Kitchenaids right now.

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Brioche ideally wants to rest overnight in the fridge, but in the interests of a) not having way too much to do on day two and b) being able to carry everything home, it just went into the fridge for five hours or so while we got the croissant dough and puff pastry doughs going, and made the crème patissière.

The ‘crème pat’, as it was affectionately known, was quite a revelation to me.  My great uncle had the Italian bakery in Morwell when I was growing up, and he was a very good baker, so I grew up with cannolli and Italian sponge cakes and chou pastry puffs filled with custard, all of which I hated with a passion. I thought I just couldn’t stand custard.  But it turns out that I just don’t like Italian custard, because this custard was just beautiful, both in its vanilla form and in its dark, marvellous, chocolatey form.

We used it in the sweet brioches first – the chocolate custard with pears, and the vanilla with raspberry custard, as is traditional.  “You can do other combinations if you like,” Maria informed us, “But there is a reason that these are the classic combinations.”  We duly listened and learned.

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The savoury brioche was less sticky, and made by Maria, while we watched.  She then turned it into the most incredible donuts I’ve ever had – such a perfect texture! – which she rolled in cinnamon sugar and then injected with crème pat, chocolate crème pat, or nothing at all, because when you have a donut that good, cinnamon sugar is quite sufficient.

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Then she introduced us to the laminating machine, which is a sort of cross between a giant pasta machine and a conveyor belt, and showed us how to make the first set of folds in croissant dough.  Incidentally, the only reason I am not currently madly coveting said laminating machine is that it is approximately the size of my kitchen.  Sigh.

And that was the first day.  We baked the brioche, iced the plain ones with chocolate, and walked home in the rain with our big boxes, with a warning ringing in our ears that next day, there would be even *more* pastries…

The first box (top layer only)

The first box (top layer only)

Day two was croissants and puff pastry, but we started with the croissants, as they need to rest between folds, and also need to prove before baking.  This meant playing with the laminating machine!

Laminator in action!

Laminator in action!

Croissant dough is quite fascinating.  It’s a reasonably rich, yeasted dough, but you don’t put the butter in on the first day – instead, you let it rest in the fridge and rise a little, and then you roll it out, and roll the butter out, too, into a rectangle that is the same height as the dough, but 1/3 of the width.  Then you fold the dough over it from each side – I would say like a book, but my books usually only have two pages showing at a time – and let it rest in the fridge.  Then, an hour later, you roll it out, and fold it again.  And then an hour later, again.  This creates a rather gorgeous interleaving of dough and butter, which gets you your croissant flaky texture.

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Maria showed us how to make a triangular croissant mold and roll up croissants, which is both easier and harder than it sounds, but better than working with the brioche, at any rate, and then she showed us how to make almond paste (more of an almond buttercream, really) and do almond croissants, which were similar but slightly more fiendish, and pain au chocolat, which was pleasingly simple.

She made a batch of escargot, on the grounds that this was easier with a large sheet of pastry than the smaller bits we were working with.  The scraps couldn’t be re-rolled, but they could be and were used to make Danishes with fruit and almond paste and more of the crème pat, so we did.  Yum.  And then we had to do a certain amount of this again, because everything had a tendency to unroll when proving…

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The puff pastry we learned was a simplified version – Maria gave us the recipe both for the proper kind, with six folds, and the easy kind, with three, but she said that in her experience, people were more likely to use the easy kind at home, so that’s what she preferred to concentrate on, especially as it is very, very good!

Puff pastry, incidentally, is a deliciously silly dough – you mix your flour and eggs and water and then you just stir in your cubed butter, making no attempt whatsoever to incorporate it properly.  It just sits there, being lumpy.  Most amusing.  Then you rest it for a while, and start folding it, much as you did with the croissant dough.  This, incidentally, is where the laminating machine comes in – like a pasta machine, it lets you roll the dough thinner and thinner on each round, which is particularly helpful for puff pastry, which needs to be quite fine.

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The puff pastry was used to make gratuitous sausage rolls for lunch, and then we made caramel apples for chaussons de pommes, and played around with jalousies.  With the absolutely final bit of time and puff pastry left to us, Maria demonstrated the millefeuille, using more of our crème pat, apricot jam, caramelised puff pastry, and fondant icing with chocolate piping.

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And then we loaded everything up and brought our goodies home.  I don’t know what my classmates wound up doing with the – I kid you not – 50-odd pastries and brioches that we wound up with, but I had the forethought to invite eight people (plus myself and Andrew, of course) around to a Bastille Day dinner of garlic snails (I know, I know, and I honestly had no such intention until I just happened to see a tin of snails at the deli on July 11), slow-cooked lamb with braised white beans, roasted root vegetables and a sort of roasted ratatouille, and a salad of lettuce, fennel, parmesan and strawberries… followed, of course, by more pastries than you can possibly imagine.

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I have to say, my friends did a fine job – we wound up with quite acceptable levels of pastry leftovers – just enough for two more breakfasts, one snack, one dessert, and a handful of croissants for my parents.

I would absolutely recommend this course to anyone who enjoys playing with yeasted breads and pastries, and I’ll be going back for the chou pastry class just as soon as I can afford it.  I learned a lot, had a wonderful time, and wound up with some really amazing pastries.  I would note, however, that this course is probably not going to do much for anyone who can’t manage gluten, eggs or dairy, because, well, we’re making enriched breads and that’s what they are made of.  You could work around the nuts fairly easily, however, and everything was vegetarian, of course.  Though I wish they had used free-range eggs – I haven’t bought cage eggs in years, and that did bother me.

As for the pastries themselves, well, I’m still somewhat amazed at how professional they looked and tasted, and how good the texture was.  The pain au chocolat was some of the best I’ve tasted, and I’m still just blown away by the crème patissière.  I don’t think I’ll be making brioche at home, unless a KitchenAid magically appears in my life, though I might possibly give the donuts a try one day.  But I’ll definitely be making croissants and puff pastry.  Not on a regular basis, but certainly sometimes.

Maybe even this weekend…

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For more information about the Introduction to Traditional French Pastry, you can visit the William Angliss Institute website.

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One year ago: Recipe: Early Morning Vegan Chocolate Banana Oat Cookies
Two years ago: Show-Off Post: Cross Dressing Ken goes Vegan and Gluten-Free ; Recipe: Roast Garlic and White Bean Chilli
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