This week I treated myself to a days cookery lesson at Betty’s Cookery School in Harrogate. Attending cookery schools is one of my favourite things to do. You have a fantastic excuse to spend the whole day in a top of the range kitchen plus you get to challenge yourself with new ingredients and equipment and most importantly learn new skills.
I turned 30 last year and so created a ’30 things to do…’ list. This included making a croquembouche, which was my main draw to Betty’s Patisserie Perfection course. I’m a competent cook and a keen baker but not always the most delicate of chefs so I was hoping this course would help me up my game. Upon booking a message of doom informed me that this was one of Betty’s most advanced courses and that I was expected to be of an appropriate skill level – eek!
The cookery school itself is situated on an unassuming industrial estate in Starbeck. Its neighbours include Morrisons and the Taylors coffee factory, which fills the air with the aroma of deliciously toasted coffee beans. It was a beautiful sunny day and I was ready to get stuck in. On arrival I was welcomed with fresh fruit salad, freshly brewed coffee and Betty’s croissants, yum! I got to know my fellow students, most of whom were a bit older than me and keen regulars of the school!
Our tutors were Belgian Michael and bearded David – both friendly teachers with a sense of humour. Our first challenge for the day was to make the various elements of a gateau opera – a chocolate/coffee filled torte – which would be assembled at the end of the day. First up was the Joconde sponge, the base of the gateau. This is a bit like a swiss roll sponge. There’s no fat in the mixture as it’s just whisked up egg whites and yolks with sugar and flours. It was a bit scary whipping up eggs over hot water for the sabayon but it was useful to get the experts take on what ‘peaks’ and ‘ribbons’ are, rather than making it up when following a recipe from a book! We also prepared the coffee syrup and coffee buttercream, which were put to one side for later. What instantly surprised me was that I wasn’t the worst in the class! It was a great confidence builder.
Next up were the elements of the croquembouche. Now I’ve made choux pastry before but mine always ends up too runny and not crisp enough. Luckily Michael was on hand to show me the ‘drop’ stage with the pastry, which was far more solid than I would have expected. This was then ready to pipe out into small discs ready to be baked into profitteroles. Top tip was to pat the ends of the dough down with wet hands which helps them crisp up in the oven. The creme patisserie was a revelation. Custard is made with extra cornflour and egg to make it really thick and then made even more luxurious with the addition of a massive chunk of butter. Ground hazelnuts are stirred in, which elevate it beyond belief. I’ve never been a big fan of nuts in sweet dishes but this completely opened my eyes.
Already running late it was time for lunch where we were treated to a gooey, cheesy quiche with various salads and a glass of swiss wine! Refueled we continued on into the kitchen. Next up was a vanilla and framboise vacherin, which disappointingly was basically a Pavlova! I could have done without making this as I make meringues all the time and would have preferred the time to concentrate on my other two cakes. However it was useful to practice my piping skills and also learn some tips about meringues – did you know that you can whisk them for up to 20 mins before ruining them?!
With meringues in the oven it was time to assemble everything else. To make the gateau we piled up layers of the sponge, soaked in coffee syrup, with the buttercream and a decadent chocolate ganache. These were assembled in chefs rings lined with acetate and then popped into the blast chiller. We were growing weary by the time it came to build the croquembouche that I nearly didn’t do it! Sugar syrup was put on the boil as we started to pipe the creme patisserie into our choux buns. Once ready the buns were dipped into the burning sugar and stuck together in a pyramid shape. We decorated with chopped hazelnuts, more syrup and spun sugar, which is very satisfying to make in someone elses kitchen!
So I had a fantastic time and can’t wait to go back for my next course! I left tired and hot but laden down with more cake than I knew what to do with. I was thrilled with how delicate and pretty my gateau opera were and can’t wait to be more adventurous with my next croquembouche. It might seem like an expensive day (£175 for a one day course), but they feed you very well, teach you lifelong skills and you take home shedloads of cake! Thanks Betty…