Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of attending ‘Perfect Patisserie’ – one of John Whaite’s (winner of GBBO series 3 and regular on C4’s Steph’s Packed Lunch) Kitchen Cookery School classes. Included in the Standard’s 10 best cookery schools in the UK, the school is Set in a barn in the rolling hills of Lancashire, on the family farm where John grew up; it’s an idyllic setting and the kitchen fit out is enviable.
An amateur home baker, I was apprehensive about signing myself up for an Intermediate level patisserie course. I needn’t have worried. It turns out being greedy (and baking a lot) has its perks and had prepared me well. What’s more, is that John’s style is one that adapts to suit the needs of all those in his kitchen.
I arrive at Tunley Hall, the restored barn in Wrightington, at 09.50 for a 10am start. John welcomes us in to steaming coffee and warm apricot and mahlab* knots with a golden prosecco glaze. Erm, YES! This is how I want to start every day. There’s hand-thrown pottery, deep blue napkins and golden cutlery laid out on a reclaimed wooden table around which the course participants gather.
*Mahlab is an aromatic spice made from cherry seeds
We all spend a good few minutes taking in the space: a one level open-plan barn that’s kept its rustic charm but feels modern (and modernist, in many ways). There’s a heavy use of concrete including concrete sinks (with no touch sensor taps), wooden worktops, Neff ovens (a nod to GBBO), pantries painted all black, gleaming white herringbone tiles, exposed stone, and a wall of black, grey and silver KitchenAids. It definitely has elements of many a dream kitchen (including mine).
As we finish making our introductions (there’s locals and southerners, old and young, experienced and not very experienced), John sets us our first task – easing us in gently – and demonstrates how to stay on top of our white chocolate that’s slowly caramelising in the oven. It smells like Caramac and that’s enough to get us on our feet. We collect our aprons and get started.
Throughout the course of the morning, we prepare all of the elements for our White Chocolate and Salted Caramel Domes. We make: sable breton, a French shortbread to form the base of our domes; white chocolate mousse using the caramelised white chocolate that’s been in the oven for an hour and a half; salted caramel that we’ll chill to put into the centre of our domes; and a lustrous mirror glaze. John demonstrates each element before we attempt it and surprisingly (because they look spectacular), the individual elements aren’t as difficult to recreate as I’d anticipated and I’m very pleased with how my little domes turn out.
Although the pace is steady and the atmosphere’s (mostly) calm, the morning is non-stop and we use a lot of equipment. Luckily, Paul, John’s fiancé, is on hand to do the dishes and pour us tea and coffee and John’s mum even pops in to see how things are going and to lend a hand with the dishes.
We break for lunch and John passes out slices of freshly baked cheese and potato pie with the flakiest and butteriest pastry, served with a side of farmer’s market tomatoes and all washed down with a glass of Prosecco.
In the afternoon, we finish off our Domes and bake Blackcurrant Macarons (the blackcurrant and chocolate ganache is one of the best I’ve tasted and John gives me a generous portion to take home). A few of us have baked macarons before to varying success but John shows us some new techniques for decorating: brushing the piping bag with food colouring to create a marbled effect and piping heart shaped macarons. The recipe we work from uses Italian meringue as it’s more robust than its French cousin.
To finish, we painstakingly pack up our things being careful not to knock, drop or break any of our creations (they all look so professional) and clean down before we huddle together for a group photo.
Tips to make the most of the day
Arrive a little bit early but not too early (the barn is only one room and John needs time to set up) to be able to settle in and enjoy the pastries and coffee.
Make an effort to get to know the other participants a little bit (at least their skill level) as you’ll spend most of the day working as part of a pair so you want to partner up with somebody of a similar skill level.
Go with an open mind. Even if you have baked something before, there’s always something new to learn and tips to glean. John’s studied at Le Cordon Bleu, so he has a wealth of knowledge that he readily shares.
The class is really well thought out and John is a brilliant teacher: informed, relaxed, humorous and firm (piping the right way and not licking your fingers on the job is important business). Moreover, the ingredients and equipment is of good quality and, as I might’ve mentioned, the space and location is some form of baking utopia. I’m already considering the bread course!
That’s me second in from the right on the front row.
To book a class at John Whaite’s Kitchen, visit their website: johnwhaiteskitchen.com/book/