Well, my nine month patisserie school journey has finally come to an end. It fulfilled all kinds of cliches: it’s felt like two seconds and ten years all at once. I have laughed and cried more times than I thought possible. I’ve cut myself, burnt myself, and sliced my hand open on a piping nozzle. Twice. I’ve made some truly hideous cakes; I’ve also made some of which I was hugely proud.
Yesterday, I graduated. I got my medal, and a comically large certificate; I made Sam take cheesy photos of me with my teaching chefs; I drank some very bad wine, and did a very good job of not getting weepy and emotional. It was a lovely day but, as is often the way with graduations, ever so slightly anticlimactic. It’s impossible for a day, dolled up in glad rags, in fancypants surroundings, with loved ones present, to encapsulate almost a year of kitchen frustrations and triumphs. What I’ve learnt isn’t detailed on my certificate. It’s not even really on the syllabus.
I’ve learnt patience and perseverance. I’ve learnt to care about something, even if it goes wrong. I’ve learnt how to take criticism – I mean really take criticism, not just shrug it off, or pretend to accept it. I’ve learnt that I’m a real sulker when things don’t go my way. I’ve learnt that sulking doesn’t help. I’ve learnt that having a bit of a broken body doesn’t always stop me, but that when it does, it doesn’t make me a lesser person. I’ve learnt that sometimes turning up is half the battle. I’ve learnt that there is real merit in learning something for the sake of learning. I’ve learnt that a good brigade-mate can make all the difference. I’ve learnt that it’s ok not to be the best. I’ve learnt that blowing sugar apples is a lot harder than it looks. I’ve learnt that I love pastry work more than I could ever possibly have imagined.
Our very last practical was a modern tart. It’s a nice idea: every member of the class has to make broadly the same components, but in different flavour combinations, allocated randomly. Mine was a mango and lime mousse, with lemon sponge, pineapple and vanilla compote, and banana and white chocolate, along with some pastry and a glaze.
I quite like the fact that out of the hundreds of elements of puddings and cakes and pies I made over the 60 3 hour practicals, it was a quiet little pineapple jam that stole my heart. This is very much my take on that jam which, strictly speaking, wasn’t actually a jam, thickened with gelatine rather than pectin. And the pink peppercorn is my addition – I just couldn’t resist.
Vanilla and pineapple work outrageously well, transforming into something well beyond the sum of their parts. The combination almost tastes like the pineapple sweeties you’d buy from an old fashioned sweet shop. The pink peppercorn lifts and warms, as well as making the jam incredibly pretty. If you can’t get hold of pink peppercorns, you might want to try cinnamon: pineapple and cinnamon is an equally gorgeous combination, tasting almost like candyfloss.
Sam is adamant that you wouldn’t eat this sort of jam on toast, but let me tell you, he is absolutely dead wrong: pile this onto warm brioche or a croissant, and wonder why you ever wasted your time with raspberry jam or Nutella. That said, eaten his way, as a chutney with hard cheese, it’s pretty bloody glorious.
If you don’t have a sugar thermometer, place a couple of saucers in the freezer before starting the jam-making. When you think the jam is ready you can test it in two ways: first spoon a little onto a fresh-from-the-freezer plate, and leave for just a moment. Push the edge of it with a fingernail, and if it wrinkles, it is ready. Second, spoon out a little of the jam and after allowing it to cool briefly, touch it between thumb and forefinger: if the jam forms a short string between the two, it is ready.
It goes like this:
Pineapple, vanilla and pink peppercorn jam
Makes: 2-3 jars of pineapple jam
Takes: 20 minutes
Bakes: No time at all
1 large pineapple
600g jam sugar
3 tablespoons liquid pectin
1 vanilla pod
1 teaspoon pink peppercorns
1. First, chop your pineapple. The fruit won’t completely break down, so you need the chopping to be relatively regular, and for the pieces to be no bigger than you’d be happy to spread on your toast. I brunoised mine, but it’s not essential.
2. Place in a large pan with 500ml water and simmer gently until the pineapple softens. Split a vanilla pod and scrape out the seeds inside. Smash the peppercorns using a pestle and mortar, and add those to the pineapple too.
3. Place the seeds and pod in the pan, and add the jam sugar. Once it has dissolved, turn the heat up so that it is at a rolling boil.
3. Add the pectin and cook the jam, stirring constantly, and occasionally checking the temperature. You need it to reach 105°C: make sure that that temperature is throughout the mixture (rather than you just measuring a hotspot), and that your thermometer isn’t touching the base of the pan.
4. Leave the jam to sit for 15 minutes, then spoon out into clean jars.
Icing on the Cake
I used this almost literally as icing on the cake: thick layers of the jam sandwiched between cardamom sponge cakes, and covered in espresso buttercream. It was a total dream, but that recipe is a story next time… Watch this space.