Its been a little over a week since my last proper post, so apologies. Its been a bit crazy for me lately (mostly in my own head), so I’m trying to get myself back into a state of normality and sensibility and what other way to do that than the therapeutic act of putting your thoughts out into the world… ahem.
If you’ve been following the photos I posted over the last few weeks, you will see that I’m spending a fair amount of my time these days baking. In fact, what I am trying to do is teach myself pâtisserie. Those that know me personally know I have a slightly unhealthy interest in France and the French, which borders on obsession. This is especially weird for an American. The average Yank has kind of a sniffy attitude towards the French in the same way geeky school girls roll their eyes at the popular girls. We kind of hate them, but we secretly wish to be a bit like them too.
However, I unabashedly love France. I love its joie de vivre, its art, its towns and villages, its language and its people (yes, even in Paris). But what I love more than anything is its food. My god. The food. It has always bothered me, with this mass influx of low-fat/low-calorie/gluten-free eating that has infiltrated our culture, that people seem to forget that the French live on butter, cream, wine, red meat, white sugar and bread and they are healthy. It is because they treat eating with respect and moderation. It is because to them, food is about more than filling a hole; it is about lifestyle, it compliments friendships and to those with an innate sense of taste, gives true pleasure. And really, is there anything better than sitting in a café on a nice day (they do exist!), with a cherished friend or partner, eating some wonderful concoction made of butter, eggs, sugar and flour, complete with a cup of coffee, and just being together and enjoying it and each other. Lovely.
But this isn’t wholly a romantic obsession, you see. The cook in me is fascinated with the technicality of pâtisserie, which is why I have started down this self-educating path. I am following the advice of Ginette Mathiot via her book The Art of French Baking and I’m not going to lie: it’s tricky. Well, it’s tricky for me, because I am a kinaesthetic learner; I learn by doing. Just reading about something doesn’t work for me; I have to do it with my hands to really get it.
So lesson one is a rhubarb tart. Those lovely stalks are now in season, and thus begins the attempt at Mathiot’s recipe for pâte brisée (shortcrust pastry). Oh how I have fussed in the past about making pastry. Will it be flaky enough? Does it have the right mouth feel? Please god, don’t let it go soggy! Everyone says the trick is to keep the butter and your hands cold, and that is true, but the usual advice of rubbing the butter and flour together until they look like porridge oats is unnecessary. Leave a few larger pieces of butter in there; it won’t matter because as it turns out, the more butter there is, the finer the pastry. Her recipe also adds a tablespoon of sunflower oil to the cold butter, flour and salt. This was something I’d not done before. Wasn’t pastry just supposed to be flour, butter, a bit of salt and some water? I felt a bit naughty deviating from this holy grouping. But in the quest to learn, I followed the master’s instructions.
Another widely accepted piece advice is to not over work the ingredients, so may I advise you to use your hands when bringing your ingredients together. I gave up using a food processor to make dough a few years ago because I liked having the power in my hands to really feel it; to know via touch when it had got to just the right point. The food processor moves too quickly and you greatly risk pushing the butter/flour mixture further than it should be before adding the water.
Once everything is mixed together, let the dough chill for as long as possible. Mathiot recommends over night, but as us busy London folk have little time, I only let it rest an hour in the fridge before rolling it out and filling it with fat chunks of rhubarb and a crème fraîche-based custard. Turns out, the master is called thus for a reason. The results were stunning. The pastry was pliable when rolling it out; light and flaky after it was baked. A perfect support for the tangy and marginally sweet filling.
With this technique now burned on my brain, I must fight the urge to make everything with shortcrust. In true French style, moderation is key, and it does me no good to stick with the one thing out of this book I can now make with ease and confidence, which leads me on my next adventure in my tiny kitchen: choux… but more on that at another time.
Enjoy the weekend. Happy pastry making everyone.