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An Artisanal Afternoon

June 17, 2010

Hah. How’s that for aliteration? (What do you mean “An” doesn’t count!?)

A week ago my beautiful friend Eileen of Artisan Sweets fame kindly conducted a baking class for the ladies in our church entitled “A Midsummer’s Tea Party”. The pastries taught were indeed tea party appropriate, but they weren’t in focus so much as the techniques involved in preparing them. And that’s what this post is mainly going to be about. (For those of you hoping for recipes, sorry!!)

On the agenda for the day were:

  • Pecan Streusel Coffee Cake
  • Berry Shortcake
  • Warm Chocolate Cake

Lessons Learnt During Pecan Streusel Coffee Cake


Eileen started off with the Pecan Streusel Coffee Cake, during which she spent a lot of time indoctrinating us on the finer points of creaming. Here are some of the tips I penciled down:

  • The butter you use must be softened for it to cream proper.
  • Even if a recipe asks for you to cream your butter with sugar, you should cream the butter alone first. Otherwise the sugar weighs the butter down and prevents it from creaming well.
  • Scrape down the butter twice before adding the sugar.
  • When you’re done creaming your butter should have a much lighter colour than when you started, and it should have doubled in volume (but not tripled!). See picture below.
  • Don’t add any salt till you’ve creamed the butter with the sugar.

Very finely chopped pecans in a delicious streusel, ready to be sprinkled over the first then second layers of batter:

Filling the tray the most efficient way – with a piping bag:

Sifting and Measuring Flour

  • If you’re measuring out your flour with a weighing scale, weigh it first then sift. If you’re measuring it out using measuring cups, sift it first then measure.

Oven Temperature

  • If a recipe asks for the oven to be preheated to say 180 degC, you should pre-heat it to 200 degC, then turn it down to 180 degC after you put in your batter. This is because (a) most modern ovens meant for home use are fairly weak and (b) the temperature drops a couple of degrees when you open it to put in your batter.

Lessons Learnt During Berry Shortcake

Vanilla Pods

Eileen then went on to show us how to make Berry Shortcake. The recipe was fairly simple, so she had some time to tell us about vanilla pods and how they can spruce up macerated berries:

  • When you cut open your pods you should slice them lengthwise and sideways. (See picture below.)
  • When you scrape your vanilla seeds into your dish you should use the back of a knife.
  • You can use leftover seeds by putting them into sugar and making vanilla sugar.
  • Vanilla seeds add a special something to macerated strawberries, but vanilla essence/extract does not because of the alcohol content; so if you don’t have vanilla pods, don’t add any vanilla at all.

Macerated strawberries with a hint of vanilla:

The shortcakes – round and umm… short… :


  • Shortening is sometimes used because it makes the pastry crispier.
  • But it contains trans fat and has a chemical taste, so it is best not to use it. If you must, use a non-hydrogenated variant of it.

Lessons Learnt During Warm Chocolate Cake


Finally Eileen took us through the makings of warm chocolate cake (i.e. Molten Chocolate Cake – but the recipe I used last time is very very different from the recipe Eileen gave us, which is apparently idiot-proof and involves making a ganache to nestle into the outer pastry). Eileen prefaced the demo by giving us the 101 of chocolate:

  • Always use couverture chocolate to bake (do not throw in a bar of Carbury!).
  • Compound chocolate, which contains hydrogenated fat, is typically used for coating (think Magnum ice cream bars). Never substitute couverture with compound chocolate.
  • You should try to store your chocolate at 10-12 degC if you can (a wine cooler works well). And when you chill your chocolate, put it in a ziploc bag then wrap the bag in newspaper to prevent the other odors in  your refrigerator from being absorbed by the chocolate.

Here’s the beautiful chocolate cake, with a scoop of home-made earl grey ice cream:

I felt like I learnt a lot in those three hours, and even for some of the stuff I already knew, I’m glad I got to pick up the proper vocabulary (e.g. couverture). So it was a very productive afternoon. And of course as bonus, we got to do some tasting afterward… The smell of the baked pecan streusel that had permeated the room certainly worked up an appetite!

I later let my husband try some of the Shortcake and Coffee Cake. He wolfed it all down, then looked at me hopefully and asked, “So will you be making any of this?” My dear husband. Asking the obvious…)

Some final shots to whet your palate:




4 Comments leave one →
  1. Cons permalink
    June 18, 2010 8:49 am

    hey! very informative. thanks for sharing esp the creaming part. Btw, when do we add the sugar in? maybe like 2-3 mins later or by looking at the texture of the butter?

  2. June 18, 2010 9:27 am

    Hello Cons! Better to look at the butter? You cream it on high speed for a few minutes, stop and scrape down the insides of the bowl, cream some more, stop and scrape down a second time, cream some more, and then stop when the butter is paler and fluffier and looks like it has increased in volume.

  3. June 23, 2010 1:36 am

    Thanks for sharing all the wonderful tips in baking!!! How I wish I was there too! The baking class sounds real fun. 😉

  4. June 23, 2010 10:22 am

    You’re welcome LK! It was a nice time. Very relaxed.

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