I remember well the first day I stepped foot in a commercial kitchen. I was 12 and used to wash up for 150 covers on a Sunday lunchtime. It seemed like a mammoth task, no commercial dishwasher in sight just two gigantic sinks big enough to bath in and a deep sterilizing sink. I should have been put off for life!
After 6 hours of non-stop graft, soaking wet & feeling slightly delirious after polishing a mountain of cutlery. It would be time to empty the swill bins & run the gauntlet of the pig pens & chicken coups, collecting the eggs on my return. It was good old fashioned physical graft in a world without employment laws and I loved every minute of it, after all this was my first job and I got £10 a day!
By the time I was 16 I was a well seasoned kitchen porter lean & fast. Moving up the ranks in large hotels had given me confidence, skill & uncompromising work ethic, it was then I was given the opportunity to train as a chef. I grasped it and never looked back, it was a natural progression.
I quickly learned that in most kitchens at the time there was never a dedicated pastry chef. It always seemed to be an after thought with most chefs steering well clear of the dessert section.
So I volunteered enthusiastically, starting off by making recipes from my college books (Practical Cookery, Advanced Practical Cookery) it was then my passion for books exploded, not surprising really as I lived in the “second hand book capital of the world” or Hay on Wye if you don’t know it.
I spent my days off (if I had any) scouring the cookery sections of all the various book shops, I quickly amassed a substantial collection and even had scouts looking out for various books for me. I had all the books by the Roux brothers which fuelled my obsession with pastry & baking as well as books from Paul Bocuse & Guy Savoy, the great French masters.
I was given a free reign on the pastry section and it became my world, I made creme brulees with shortbread biscuits, marquis of chocolate, bread & butter pudding, sticky toffee pudding, sweet sauces, coulis, creme anglais and an array of petit fours for after dinner.
I wrote out recipes reworking & recalculating them for a busy commercial kitchen & developed new ones from existing base recipes. I was gripped it was exciting times, I only ever wanted to be a pastry chef in those days and if I’m honest that’s where I feel most comfortable, it’s like my factory reset and if you shut me down and rebooted me I would start baking in an instant.
One of my all time favourite desserts is the classic lemon tart or tarte au citron to respect it’s French origin. It’s a simple dessert to make in stages but allow yourself plenty of time.
It has to be pâte sablée for this tart and it needs to be rolled as thin as you dare, I normally aim for a 5mm thin base but some chefs I’ve worked for would insist on 3mm.
Becareful though as you don’t want any splits or cracks as you’re going to be filling with a liquid custard.
This pastry is perfect, if cooked correctly it cools to a crisp biscuit.
310g of plain flour
125g of unsalted butter diced
125g of Icing sugar
2 Eggs, beaten
3 tblsp of double cream
Sift the flour and icing sugar together into a bowl, add the diced butter and combine by rubbing together with the finger tips to a golden sandy texture.
You can of course use a blending bowl for this but be careful when adding the other ingredients not to over work the paste. It’s always better to finish by hand.
Add the egg yolks, and mix together then add the cream. Mix into a ball, wrap tighly in clingfilm and rest in the fridge for an hour.
Prepare the filling:
4 lemons juiced
2 lemons fine zest of
165g caster sugar
350ml double cream
6 Eggs beaten
2 egg whites to seal pastry
Remove pastry from fridge & allow to warm to room temperature, roll out a 30cm square, 5mm thick.
Line a 20cm flan tin with the pastry, carefully pressing in to fit, leave the excess pastry over hang and trim before serving.
Place grease proof paper on top & fill with baking beans. Bake in a preheated oven 180℃/350°F gas mark 4 for 20 mins, remove beans & continue cooking until the base is golden. Remove from the oven brush with egg white to seal pastry, return to the oven for 5 mins, then remove & set aside.
Make a syrup with the lemon juice & caster sugar. Pour the syrup over the eggs in a bowl & whisk.
Bring the cream to the boil, cool slightly then whisk into the mixture.
Pass the custard through a fine sieve onto the lemon zest into a suitable pouring jug. Skim off any foam/froth from the surface.
Place the pastry case on a tray in the oven, heat up for 2 mins, then with the tray still in the oven slide the tray out slightly and fill with the lemon custard. Lower the oven temperature slightly to 165℃ and bake for 40 minutes until set.
Remove from oven and cool completely. In the restaurant we dust with icing sugar & blow torch the top to caramelize. Serve with blackcurrant coulis & lemon sorbet for the ultimate fine dining experience.