Excited Catherine Post – Courses and Confectionery

I was going to call this post “Cooking!!!”, but in a blog of this kind, that seemed a little redundant.  And then I was going to call it “Brief Excited Catherine Post”, but it didn’t stay brief for very long.  (Yes, yes, I know, you are all completely astonished by this)


I have booked my place in Savour School‘s one day course on making petit fours and macarons!

It isn’t until August, and I can’t really afford it, but I don’t care one bit.  I’ve been eyeing off this course all year, and the sessions keep filling up, and I need to learn how to make macarons, don’t you know?!  I’ve tried to make macarons exactly once, and they were not a resounding success.  I can’t even really blame the anthocyanins this time, because the part where they turned bluish grey was not actually the point at which I gave up.  (We will cast a veil of modesty over how much worse they got after that point.)

The point is, I get to spend a whole day making lots of teeny tiny desserts and macarons, and I am already counting the days until the class…

(61, in case you were curious)

I really could spend my whole salary at Savour without any difficulty at all.  So many lovely, lovely courses – macarons, croquembouche, French pastries, verrines, and of course all those wonderful chocolate making classes.  Of course, then we would have no money for groceries and would have to subsist on chocolate and desserts.  Right now, it’s difficult to see a down-side to this strategy.

To celebrate this (and also because I am very, very tired today), I am going to re-post a slightly edited version of the two journal articles I wrote back in 2009, after I did Savour’s confectionery course and first discovered the thrill of doing chemistry experiments in the kitchen.  Incidentally, this full time work plus daily blogging is taking a bit of a toll just now, so I’m probably going to skip the odd day from now on.  There are, astonishingly, days when I am actually too tired to write about food.  And today is one of them.

July 25, 2009

Today, I attended the first day of my confectionery class. Fascinating stuff. I am pleased to report that my results when engaging in culinary chemistry experiments are *much better* than the ones I used to get in ordinary, school chemistry. So far, we’ve made strawberry wine gums using gelatine, lime agar jellies, lemon pectin jellies, blood orange pectin jellies, and turkish delight (made with apple pectin). These are all setting as we speak, and tomorrow we get to unmould them and then make marshmallows (gelatine, I’m afraid), honeycomb, peanut brittle, stripey peppermint candy (!!!!), and possibly nougat.

Lots of really useful stuff, including lots of vegetarian/vegan jelly sweets, and the instructor is very helpful and very nice. I spent the first hour or so working myself into quite a state, because I was the only one there who hadn’t been to numerous other chocolate and confectionery making classes, and I didn’t know where anything was, and I felt as though I was slowing my group down. And I was in charge of the citric acid solution and there wasn’t enough citric acid to make it with, and it was too dilute and we had to start again with tartaric acid, and for some reason I was expecting everyone to yell at me about this, but in fact nobody did. But once it became apparent that nobody really minds if you make mistakes in a cooking class (yes, I know, but I haven’t been to any cooking classes before and working in groups reminds me far too much of team sports, at which I am terrible), it turned out that actually I knew quite a lot and was quite reasonably competent, and in fact our group’s jellies all worked first try and we finished half an hour before anybody else did…

And I’m so very excited about actually getting to make striped candy tomorrow.

July 26, 2009

I have a lot of sugar now. We spent a lot of this afternoon rolling our sweets in sugar and bagging them up into little bags so that everyone gets to try a bit of everything anyone made. I am proud to say that mine was the only group that actually managed to make everything successfully, or at least theoretically so – nobody’s turkish delight worked, but according to our instructor’s nifty little refractometer (I want one), ours was at exactly the right refraction and should have worked if anyone’s had. He thinks there was something wrong with the apple pectin we used as a base.

It was nice eaten with a spoon, though.

Honeycomb is just as much fun to make as I had suspected.  It’s like magic – you  start off with sugar and water and you boil it and boil it and boil it until it bubbles like mad and gets so hot that even thinking about it is likely to give you second-degree burns, and then you let it bubble some more until it is considering turning golden, and then you add your bicarb and gelatin and it changes completely.  You stir it slowly with a spoon, and every time the spoon turns, the honeycomb has become more yellow and more opaque and has risen higher, until you think it will overflow the saucepan.  Then you quickly tip it out onto a warm tray, and put another warm tray on top of it to flatten it a bit, and all of a sudden, there it is – something that looks like the inside of a Violet Crumble bar.

If you really need Violet Crumble, you can always dip it in chocolate at this point.

I absolutely love the lemon pectin jellies – they taste incredibly fresh and tangy and just barely not too sour, like the lemon and sugar we used to put on pancakes as children. I look forward to making pectin jellies with every citrus fruit I can get my hands on (at last, a use for the dozens of oranges and mandarins the organic people keep delivering).

Nougat practically requires a cement mixer, so I won’t be making that at home. To be fair, our nougat syrup was cooked just a little too long, which certainly added to the cement mixer effect, but even without that, only one group could make it at a time because the school only had one mixer powerful enough to cope.

Non-vegan marshmallow mix is made in a very similar way to the vegan kind. The process is identical, which is to say, you do whip the stuff for longer than seems at all plausible, and well past the point at which you are convinced it isn’t going to get thicker and you should just give up now. Though it did set a bit better. Apparently if you want your marshmallow to have a skin, you need to put it into starch moulds, which are not readily available, even at the chocolate and patisserie school I did this course at.

And peppermint striped candy is very fun to make, though you need leather gardening gloves for it – I wore three pairs of catering gloves on top of each other and could still only handle and knead the mix for about twenty seconds before realising that my palms were about to get burned.

And our little pectin and gelatine jellies look so incredibly professional! Just like the ones in packets! I was most impressed.

Also, I can’t begin to describe all the gadgetry I now need in my life. Whole new realms of kitchen gadgetry have been opened to me! I did invest in some digital scales, because when you need to measure 4g of gelatin and 8g of water, a big analog scale with 25g increments is really not going to cut it. But I want, want, want one of those big funnelly things with a stopper that draws aside with a lever so that you can drop your jelly mix through into moulds. Wonderfully efficient. Also wonderfully expensive, alas, though marginally less so than the ‘guitar’ machine that is used to cut pectin jellies into perfect cubes. Also, how could I not want a refractometer, that somehow measures the angles of refraction of the sugar crystals and gives it back to you as a number which tells you how solid your jelly is going to be? Science at work!

And I want their silicone moulds, and special mats, and sugar warmer, and big heavy-duty cement mix mixers, and marble slabs and…

…oh yes, and big leather gardening gloves…

I have serious kitchen gadgetry lust, which is a real shame, because I’ve actually managed to slow down on the kitchen gadgetry for some years now, having realised how much stuff I prefer to do by hand or in a basic way. But confectionery demands gadgets.

Fortunately, pectin jellies demand little in the way of gadgets, are vegan, and are composed entirely of things you find at the supermarket or in your fruit bowl. So I think there will be a few of those in my future. But agar jellies are also pretty exciting, and for them I really will need moulds and funnelly dropper things…

Epilogue: I broke three thermometers in the five days after this course, experimenting with confectionery at home.  I still don’t know how I managed to do that.  It took me a while to find the right sort of pectin, but I spent half of last year making pectin jellies of every possible kind, not to mention agar jellies with which to alarm my scientists, who hear ‘agar’ and think ‘petri dish’.  (For the best effect, give them the jellies first and *then* tell them what your setting agent is…).  With very few exceptions, these have been absolutely delicious.

I never have made honeycomb to my satisfaction at home (due to difficulty distributing the bicarb evenly through the sugar syrup).  I did, however, make pulled boiled lollies last year and found them unparalleled for making a huge mess in the kitchen.

Also, if you pour spearmint essence into one batch of boiling syrup and  lavender water into your other batch, and you are standing over both batches while you do this, it feels a lot like being punched in the nose with a large and vicious herb garden.  Almost a physical blow.  And if you then jump backwards in shock and drop the spearmint essence bottle, your house will smell like spearmint for weeks and it will be six months before you will voluntarily eat anything mint-flavoured.

In other words, don’t try this at home… Or not the part with the spearmint, at any rate.  

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6 comments for “Excited Catherine Post – Courses and Confectionery

  1. June 17, 2011 at 8:01 am

    What a shame we won’t be doing any French Shakespeares that would allow you to, ahem, ‘practise’.

    • June 23, 2011 at 8:59 am

      Terrible, isn’t it…?

      I’m sure I’ll find an excuse to make them anyway…

  2. June 22, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    very interesting to read after I just wrote about my first foray into making vegan marshmallow and my wariness of candy thermometers! So they really can be scary! And have you made vegan marshmallow successfully – would love to hear about it!

    Part of me wants to make macarons with all those wonderful colours and flavours and part of me finds them too faddish and eggy. Hope you enjoy the course!

    • June 23, 2011 at 9:04 am

      Macarons probably are faddish and eggy, but I want to prove that I can make them! It’s the MasterChef effect…

      Re marshmallows, did you use that packet mix you can get from the Radical Grocery store? My friend Cate and I played with that when she visited from Canada – it was pretty good, but had no ‘crust’, so you’d pretty much have to use it as a filling, I’d think.

      As for candy thermometers, my methods for breaking them have varied, but using a glass one is just asking for trouble. I did end up with candied glass at one point, and had to throw out the whole batch. It didn’t explode – I just lifted it from the mixture and realised it no longer had a tip… The others just spontaneously decided not to register temperatures over about 108°C, which is not helpful when you are making confectionery.

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