I’ve always considered myself a good cook. Not a professional by any means, but at least half decent. I can bake a nice sponge cake and my chocolate roulades don’t crack too badly, and I know the recipe for Yorkshire puddings off by heart.
But I’ve always steered clear of anything too fiddly. Constructing elaborate and intricate cakes seems a waste of time when they taste just as good as the simple ones, and why go to all the trouble of hand making strudel pastry when Marks and Spencer do such a good of making it for you.
But this is what Bettys Cookery School was going to teach me. I was enrolled on their “Sweet Success” course, which promised to show me “advanced baking techniques” needed to make an “indulgent range of desserts”, including apple strudel and lemon meringue pie.
And in an added bonus the course would take me away from the newsroom on a Wednesday – deadline day and the busiest day of the week. Instead of last minute busyness, I would be spending my day calmly pottering round an immaculate Bettys kitchen, whipping up a few delicacies and tasting my creations.
But it soon became obvious that the day would be more like hard work than I expected.
I arrived at 9am, and after a quick breakfast our group of nine students moved straight to the demonstration bench to make a start on the first dish of the day.
Our tutors were long-serving Bettys chef Michael Vanheste and his colleague Chris Taylor. Chris only joined the cookery school in February, after spending more than a decade as head chef at the nearby Hob Green Hotel. He said: “I had been doing cookery demonstrations for different groups in the area for years, so coming here as a tutor seemed like the natural thing to do.” Michael began work in Bettys in 2006, moving north after a career in top London hotels and restaurants.
“I wanted to work in the cookery school but there were no openings at the time, so I went to work in the branches to begin with,” he said.
Coming to Bettys meant he had to learn to do everything “the Bettys way”, even buttering bread.
Although both tutors work across the whole of the school’s syllabus, Michael said his real passion is for patisserie.
The nine students – including a cafe owning brother and sister from the east coast and an Army veteran preparing to leave the forces after 18 years service – gathered around the demonstration bench. Chris gave a detailed demonstration of how we should attempt the lemon meringue pie – from blind baking the individual pastry cases to making the lemon custard to fill and pies and piping meringue on to the top. Even with the sweet pastry prepared it was a complicated recipe and my nerves began to jangle as I started to work on my own.
Blind baking the pie cases was simple enough, but I had trouble separating eggs with my shaking hands and I soon found myself flagged behind the other students as I double and triple checked every step of the recipe.
With some extra instructions from Chris and Michael I managed produce a lemon custard pie filling for my rather lopsided and rustic looking pie cases, and even whisked the meringue mixture to the desired “shiny” texture. But I have never used a piping bag before, so I tied my arms in knots on the first attempt to decorate one of the individual pies. I slowly got the hang of it, and by the fourth attempt I was quite proud of my efforts.
The pies went in to the oven, and after the exertions of custard making and meringue piping we took a well-needed coffee break before moving on to the next – thankfully simpler – challenge.
We had already prepared a basic cheesecake base with crushed biscuits and butter, so we began to make the filling for a chocolate and cherry cheesecake, with cream cheese, marscapone and melted chocolate. My nerves had passed and hands stopped shaking, but the melted chocolate soon covered my pristine white Bettys apron. The recipe was the simplest of the four puddings.
Just before lunch we began work on the toughest item of the day by soaking dried fruit for our apple strudel and observing Michael’s skilful demonstration of the complicated pastry technique. Strudel pastry, I learnt, needs to be kneaded, vigorously, stretched until the gluten in the mixture is flexible enough not to snap, left to rest, kneaded again, and finally rolled out.
Stretching it takes a combination of flinging it across the worktop and pulling it by hand, like a jumper that’s been through a too-hot wash.
I had seen strudel pastry being made, largely successfully, by the contestants on the Great British Bake Off, so I asked Michael if the show’s success had boosted the popularity of Bettys baking courses.
“I don’t know if it’s made more people interested in baking, but it has made people harder on themselves,” he said. “Seeing the perfection achieved by the amateur bakers on the programme has raised other people’s standards.”
After a typically delicious Bettys lunch, it was our turn to attempt strudel pastry, It might have been a complicated recipe but the tension lifted as soon as we started throwing the pastry around the kitchens. The first accident came after only a few minutes, when a flung piece of pastry sent a pot of utensils flying and from then on the kitchens were filled with giggles as pastry slapped on to the worktops scattering flour, utensils and bakers across the kitchen. Kneading and throwing pastry is a great stress reliever.
The trickiest bit of the recipe was to come when it was time to roll and stretch the pastry onto a flat baking sheet and fill it with the strudel filling – both cooking and eating apples as well as the rum soaked dried fruit.
Despite my best efforts my strudel was not faultless and a hole appeared in the pastry for the juices. But Michael was very encouraging and forgivingly told me it was not bad, for a first attempt.
After the final coffee break we moved on to the final – thankfully simpler dish – sticky toffee puddings.
We were to make four individually sized puddings with sticky toffee sauce to accompany them. After the strudel it was child’s play. A simple sponge mixture with chopped dates, baked in individual sponge tins, with a sauce made from cream, sugar, and black treacle.
By the time the puddings came out of the oven I had been in the kitchen for eight hours. Even with coffee breaks and time spent watching Michael and Chris’s demonstrations it was an tiring schedule, but my fear of complicated baking was overcome.
Lemon merignue pies and strudel pastry may be difficult, but with concentration and a reliable recipe they are by no means impossible. With a bit of luck even a basic baker like me, more used to throwing flour, butter and sugar into a bowl and hoping, can make them succesfully.
For more details see Bettys Cookery School website