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Introduction to French Patisserie

Our chef Helen Lawrence recently hosted a wondrous French Patisserie course at The Vegetarian Cookery School, covering the basics of pastries, enriched breads and souffles. Helen learned much of what she knows from her French grandmother, and generously passed on the knowledge to our student during this marvellous day. Here's Helen's write-up of the day, including her recipe for the classic French lemon tart, tarte aux citron.

Tart Aux Citron and Quick Brioche

The kitchen was stocked with butter, eggs, sugar, flour, and with it all we made treats fit for a French feast. Before diving in, we reminded ourselves that although French patisserie recipes use lots of fat, eggs and sugar, we can enjoy it by eating like the French do: have a thin slice, and a little taste. Of course, this is difficult to stick to when in amongst the smells of pastry, lemon, and brioche. Needless to say, we managed.

On arrival, we ate pâte sablée, a high butter content pastry and a wonderfully crunchy crumbly biscuit, enriched with ground almonds and bound with whole egg.

We made pâte sucrée, a basic sweet shortcrust pastry made with butter, icing sugar and whole egg to bind. The dough gets worked over with the palm of the hand to bring it to a soft smooth consistency. Once chilled in the fridge for half an hour, it makes a very easy-to-roll pastry with good flexibility for shaping into little tartlet cases. We made perfect pastry edges and glazed them with an egg wash to give them a deep golden colour.

Choux Pastry with Creme Patisserie

The pastry cases were an essential element of tarte aux citron (recipe). We combined lemon zest, lemon juice, eggs, sugar and cream, then poured the mix into the cases right to the top and, with a very steady hand, placed them in the oven. The secret to tarte aux citron is to bake them in a very low oven (140C in our powerful fan assisted ovens). As soon as the mixture was set, but not puffed up, we took them out and allowed them to cool to finish setting. Leaving us with blissfully silky smooth tangy lemon tartlets.

Tart Aux Citron

We made a "quick" version of brioche which ideally needs an overnight prove in the fridge. Instead, we gave this butter enriched sweet dough just one hour of chilling and got marvelous results. Start to finish it took just 5 hours! That included mixing the dough, enriching it with butter, proving, shaping, more proving, then finally baking at a high temperature to create a dark caramelized crust and soft interior. A bit of work, but so good that everyone resolved to make brioche at home to enjoy for breakfast with lots of jam.

Helen making brioche

In addition to sweet pastries, we also made cheese soufflé. Cheese souffle works like this: whisk egg whites until just firm and holding in the bowl (be careful not to over-whisk and burst the bubbles of air……and yes I got everyone whisking everything by hand!). Flavour with lots of Dijon mustard, nutmeg and a fully flavoured parmesan-style vegetarian cheese (we like Old Winchester). In the oven, the souffles puffed up in minutes and we ate them with simple French salads: green beans with almonds, tomato and spring onions and new potatoes with salsa verde.

Back to sweets: we made choux pastry and crème patissiere to fill them with. For the choux, we followed special techniques like drying out the paste in the saucepan over a low heat before beating in the eggs and then starting off their baking in a very hot oven and then turning it down to help the choux cook evenly and dry out. They came out deep golden brown, crisp and puffed up ready to fill.

The crème patissiere is a simple egg custard with plain flour used to thicken it so that when it cools down it is thick and firm. Flavoured with flecks of vanilla seed, the trick is to simmer it for a couple of minutes, stirring vigorously to cook out the flour for long enough to fully set the cream, and then cool it down quickly over iced water, just as its ready. We piped the crème patisiere into the choux, and then ate them straight away. The sensation of crisp, just-baked choux and vanilla sweet cream oozing out as you bite in is divine.

View Helen's recipe for Tarte Aux Citron.

View all photos from French Patisserie on Flickr.

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