A lesson in pastry


Shortly after coming back from Laos and Thailand I packed my bags again, this time for a rather different trip.  I flew to London to take part in an intensive pastry course at the Cordon Bleu (and if you follow me on instagram you will have already seen some photos of what we baked).  While the trip to Asia was a chance to spend some more time together before Alessandro and I go back to long-distance dating, the trip to London was a present to myself before I start my new job and any kitchen experiments will again be limited to early mornings, late nights or the weekend.

I ended up doing the course with a friend of mine – it just so worked out that both of us were between jobs with some time to spare (and with a shared passion for baking) and it was amazing to spent 4 days together not worrying about anything else other than whether our egg whites were stiff enough to start adding the sugar for a meringue or whether our custard had thickened enough to allow us to turn off the stove.  It was also amazing to take home boatloads of cakes, cookies and puddings each day – much to the glee of my friends, my sister, her roommate as well as my sister’s colleagues (there was a lot, really, a lot of cake).

While I had experience with a number of the bakes on our course syllabus, I was keen to be shown by a professional how to execute the various recipes in a fool-proof manner as well as get as far as possible through my catalogue of questions on baking with different types of flours, substituting vegan ingredients etc.  And admittedly, I learned a lot.  Not only that I am seriously unfit (we baked almost exclusively by hand – the mixer only came out to whip some egg whites while we were busy whipping the yolks – creaming pounds of butter, whipping pints of cream and rolling out kilos of dough is a serious workout).  I also picked up a number of useful tips and tricks on how to get certain recipes right and where things can go wrong and although I don’t yet have a new recipe to share while I am getting set up in my new place in Brussels, I wanted to share these tips with you here.  I should be back with new recipes from next week onwards.

Puff Pastry

Although I had made rough puff pastry before the course, it was my first time making real puff pastry and, admittedly, the minimal additional amount of work yet better rise of the pastry has convinced me that should I even go to the lengths of wanting to make this kind of pastry, it will be real puff pastry.  We also discussed using different types of flour or fats when making puff pastry and how this affects the end product.  While the butter can be easily substituted in part or whole with margarine and other vegetable fats, this often has a detrimental effect both on flavour and mouthfeel of the pastries (as these types of hydrogenated fats tend to leave a greasy film in your mouth).

One thing we were all keen to explore was using refined coconut oil to make puff pastry.  As a non-hydrogenated fat that is nonetheless solid at room temperature (at least in my kitchen) it sounds like a good substitute provided you work quickly and have fairly cold hands.  Have any of you tried that? It would be amazing to come up with a vegan puff pastry recipe that does not rely on any hydrogenated fats.

As for using different types of flour, we discussed the role of gluten in puff pastry and how it is key to keeping the dough elastic and allow it to stretch when the pastry puffs up in the oven as a result of the butter melting and the water in the butter turning to steam.  While we learned that you can use flours that are lower in gluten or lacking the right kind of gluten like spelt or kamut, you will likely end up with a cracked puff pastry as the dough will lack elasticity.  Do any of you have experience in making puff pastry with low gluten flours and been successful?  I am certainly hoping there is a way to make beautiful puff pastry using flours made from these types of ancient grains or slightly lower in gluten.

Swiss Role / Genoise Roulade

Although I have eaten a fair share of roulade over the years, I did not bake one myself until the course.  I was already familiar with the fat-free sponge recipe we used so the recipe was fairly straightforward.  While at home we often used buttercream as the base for the filling here we used a raspberry fruit puree flavoured whipped cream filling.  One little trick I picked up to prevent the cream spilling out either ends of the roulade either while you assemble it or when cutting into it was to add a little bit of gelatine to the filling.  We also picked up a neat little trick to tighten the roulade so you get a beautiful spiral when you cut into it: once the roulade has been filled and rolled up, carefully place it in the middle of a large piece of parchment paper, fold the parchment paper in half over the length of the roulade and while holding on to the bottom layer of the parchment paper with your left hand use an offset spatula or the blunt side of a large knife to push the top layer of the parchment paper under the roulade.


I have talked about madeleines in this space before and shared what I thought are the key tricks for getting the texture of them right and getting that elusive little hump.  The other tricks we picked up from our pastry chef was using a little bit of baking powder in the batter; chilling the moulds before you fill them and bake them for a short period (6-8 minutes) in a very hot oven (around 200 degrees Celsius) – the blast of heat helps the madeleines rise before the batter sets.  Also, depending on how well your oven distributes its heat, some of your madeleines might be done before the others so don’t be afraid to remove the ones that are done already even if the rest of the batch might need another minute or so.

Let time do the work for you

One of the most unexpected take-aways from the class was learning to let time do the work for us.  As much as I love to cook and bake I tend to squeeze it in what minimal time is left at the end of a long day in the office, bright and early before heading off to work or in between meeting friends on weekends.  My mum, our family’s bread baker extraordinaire, is a firm believer in not letting the bread baking dictate her schedule but letting her schedule dictate what recipe to use (and as far as bread-baking or pizza-making is concerned, I think I have that down to a pat with a couple of recipes at least).  As for other baking? Not so much.  Yet, our pastry chef repeated that same mantra.  While we did do almost everything by hand, whipping half a litre of cream becomes infinitely easier if you give the cream the chance to chill completely in the fridge and place your bowl in the freezer for a couple of hours.  Equally, creaming butter and sugar together can easily be done by hand if your butter has been sitting somewhere warm for 6-7 hours (so next time you are planning to bake a cake after work make sure to remove the butter from the fridge first thing in the morning!). Similarly, many doughs (whether puff pastry or pasta dough or even yeasted doughs) become easier to handle and easier to roll out if you give the dough time to rest as this helps relax the gluten in the dough.

6 thoughts on “A lesson in pastry

  1. Great tips! I’d love to do a proper pastry course – I’m pretty confident in the kitchen but entirely self taught. I’m probably too reliant on my stand mixer as well – you forget what a great workout baking can be!


    • That is great – I feel pretty confident with most (although not all) things but am also working on expanding my repertoire to include a few more vegan recipes, gluten free versions of recipes relying on gluten for structure and working with ancient grains more (which can be a pain for doughs involving yeast). Lucky you to have a stand mixer – I have decided it will be my next big acquisition (I always avoided getting one as I have been moving around so much).


  2. Vielen Dank Sophia, for the helpful tips and tricks, which we often skip in the hurry! Can’t wait to bake Madeleines again soon, and made a note not to forget to chill the moulds before filling. You must had a wonderful time at the Cordon Bleu 🙂
    Grüße aus Kalifornien,


    • Thanks Judith and Corina, I am glad you found the post helpful! And yes, the course was so much fun, I can highly redommend attending if you ever get the chance.


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