There’s a scene in A Little Princess, a book I adored as a child, where the once-rich-now-poor heroine puts nose to glass at a bakers. On the other side of the glass are penny buns. They’re big and shiny; she’s hungry. I do that. OK. I’ve stopped pressing my nose to the glass but I stop and stare when I walk past a bakers or a patisserie. I see glossy glazes, shiny chocolate and layers of sponge and ganache. Mesmerized.
Over the last couple of weeks I have gained a lot of respect for patissiers. I have also learned a couple of things about myself. I have William Curley and his mouthwatering book Nostalgic Delights to thank.
I looked through Nostalgic Delights once, then again and again. The book is divided into sections, one more tempting than the next: chocolate confectionery, bakery favourites, patisserie modern classics, ice cream & gateau, afternoon treats, frivolities and basics.
Chocolate confectionery has a section on chocolate technique, which you’ll need to make hazelnut rochers, cartwheels, walnut whip, filled chocolate bars or a peanut nougat bar. To mention just a few. Then there are twists on classics, like teacakes (matcha and yuzu tea cakes!). I’m going to work up to the tea cakes. Why do I say that?
Lesson number 1: I’m kind of slapdash and patisserie is accurate
I passed on the ice cream & gateau chapter because I don’t have an ice cream machine. I moved straight on to afternoon treats where I found rout biscuits: a disk of nutty short bread where a ring of hazelnut holds a tangy fruit jelly. My piping skills are lacking, there’s no gum arabic in the cupboard (there is now!).
These are recipes you have to follow to the letter. I hadn’t realised how seldom I do. It’s difficult. ‘Rest for 30 minutes’ it says. ‘Ach,’ I think, ’15 will do.’ My rout biscuits taste delicious but they don’t look great because I’m lacking a skill here, an ingredient there . (The glaze. You need the glaze.) Saying that, I will make them again because they’re not difficult, they just need more attention to detail. And they taste amazing.
Lesson number 2: it takes more than a sugar thermometer to make sweets
The frivolities section is everything I want to make for Christmas treats. I have five days off before Christmas especially to make sugary and nutty treats. Pignon (almonds and pine nut petite fours) I’m making this weekend, but at Christmas, I’m making provençal and Montelimar nougats, pâte de fruit, whisky tablet and mou (soft toffees. I’ve got my eye on the pistachio version). I’ve had two goes at the pâte de fruit already and made some very good, very firm jam. I’m aiming for something I can send to my mother: it’s her favourite sweet. Next time, it will set properly. It will.
Making candies is not easy. It takes precision, attention to detail and hard work. (Nougat might kill the electric whisk. Can’t wait!)
Lesson number 3: you need to find your level, and work up
Eccles cakes, black bun, fudge bar, lemon drizzle cake, charlotte russe, éclaires, fudge doughnuts, fudge bars. There are a lot of interesting, classic and less classic baking in Nostalgic Treats. As well as the sweets, I intend to make the Scottish raspberry breton and the chestnut roll over Christmas/New Year.
But I’m going to have to work up to them, bake through the tarte aux pommes and empire biscuits, to get the focus and skills needed to get all the elements right, and put them together neatly. I’m pleased with the hobnobs. They are utterly moreish (I left off the chocolate because I prefer them plain).
The recipes in Nostalgic Delights are inspirational but not unachievable. There are easy recipes for bakers like me who think they know what they’re doing but don’t actually. There are also seriously advanced confections that will be fun for experienced bakers. Not to mention amazing for the people who get to eat them!
Jacqui Small LLP
Out October 20th.