Rough puff pastry is highly regarded pastry skill revered by visiting cookery examiners and I must teach it! This high fat, high calorie, greasy recipe has many health issues, enhanced by making sausage rolls with cheap, fatty pork sausage meat and twirling pastry for cream horns filled with jam and whipped cream.
My students gather round my demonstration table.
Jim, the caretaker is testing the heating system, blasting hot water through the ancient radiators and my room is hot, very hot.
Hot is not good for pastry making.
‘Cut the fat into walnut sized lumps then drop them into the flour.’
‘What size is a walnut miss?’
Smartie pants Alice is always challenging. But she’s right, and she’s keen – if you don’t know the size of a walnut you don’t know the size of the lumps.
‘This big.’ I hold up a piece of squashed fat and drop it into the bowl.
‘Add cold water, then work it together with your hands to make a soft dough.’
It’s sticky and squelchy and they are pleased to watch me struggle.
‘Why is it called rough poof pastry miss?’
Bert, the class comic, swirls round to the group, smirking for approval. I give him my shut up look, but he carries on.
‘Miss, we make really rude things in your lessons. Fairy cakes, spotted dick, fruity tarts and now this poof pastry.’
Alan is nudging Bert and enjoying the tease. It is hot. Very hot.
Cooking is full of rudeness. You rub things in, and knock pastry up, wait while dough rises, but I have to teach them the correct terms.
‘How long should you knock it up miss?’
‘Can you check if I’ve knocked mine up enough? Is it ready?’
This comic banter from the boys progresses into guffaws and reaches peaks of hilarity when someone falls off their stool, bringing the lesson to a halt with threats of reprimands and punishment.
‘Bert, if you keep this up, you’ll leave the room.’
‘Keep what up, miss?’ The faces of Bert and his chums are red from laughter.
The girls in this group are quieter and kinder. I have to remind myself to say thankyou to them for their lack of challenge.
‘Class, these are proper cooking terms and you have to know what they mean for the exam. Knocking up and rubbing in are things you need to learn.’
They must not get the better of me, especially when it is so hot.
After all these months of teaching I am still a country dolt, unfamiliar with the josh of the East End. My worst moment came during the school versus teachers hockey match when I wore my University sweatshirt.
BRISTOL UNIVERSITY was embedded in large white letters stretched across my chest. Students at the touch line giggled as I approached for a tackle.
‘What are they laughing at?’ I ask a colleague.
‘They think you have been to university to study Bristols.’ he replies.
‘Bristols are tits. Cockney Rhyming slang – Bristol City – titty.’
The offending sweatshirt goes in the bin after the match – which we lost.
Back in my sweltering cookery room they squidge and squash the fat into flour and water to make a messy pastry mash. This is a hot sweaty room with hot sweaty hands, and the dough looks like we feel. Hot and sweaty. Somehow they scrape the flour, fat and water into a mound then fold and roll it to make the layers that might puff up when it is baked in the oven.
This is a pointless, purposeless cooking activity.
I don’t care if the Stork Cookery Service has tested this recipe. They have never tried it with a class of teenagers in a hot, airless cookery room with Jim banging on the radiator valves with his tools.
I’ve had enough. They have had enough.
‘Wash up and take your Stork Cookery books outside and read about Rough Puff Pastry. ’
I hand out orange squash in Duralex glasses, and pass round McVitie’s digestive biscuits on a plate with a frilly doyley. We always have a bloody doyley. Standards must be maintained, even when it’s hot. They sit in the sunshine on the steps outside my room, drinking and munching.
Before I go home I pack and label their pieces of pastry and pop them in the freezer for next time.
Rough Poof Pastry can wait till another day. Bugger it.
A week later the room is still hot. Very hot. But the pastry is cold, ice cold.
‘You haven’t defrosted it properly miss. Did you forget to take them out the freezer cos you were too busy meeting your boyfriend?’
Kevin is being smart and nosy again, his rudeness just waiting to be released. But he’s right. Mark had bought two tickets to the musical Godspell and we had a West End treat evening and sort of made up. I got into school at bit later than usual today.
In the sweatshop we roll and fold the cold dough then roll and fold some more creating magic layers that will make it rise. The ovens must be hot, very hot, so I dash round the room to be ready for this baking bonanza.
I’ve worked out a clever way to share the pastry dough to make sausage rolls, Eccles cakes and jam puffs, to display our high levels of examination level skill.
Spare pastry is recycled, folded, cut into strips and twisted round cream horn tins. These rusting metal pyramids have been lurking in the school storeroom since the school opened in the fifties. No amount of scouring with Brillo pads removes the brown dust which lingers in the cracks and I just hope the oven heat kills off germs.
Next year I’ll throw them away, along with the iron griddles for drop scones, fish kettles for unaffordable salmon, raised pork pie moulds and chocolate éclair tins. I’m sure one day they will appear in an antique shop window at an astonishing price which reflects their culinary history.
Sausage rolls are glazed and snipped, and we brush Eccles cakes, jam puffs and cream horns with sugary milk and baking trays are stacked with pastries to get my final inspection before they slot into the scorching ovens.
Fat drips from the pastry as it frazzles and cooks.
Suddenly we’re ready. The Eccles cakes have a crusty, sugary topping and ooze currants and mixed peel. They almost outshine the golden gloss of the sausage rolls.
The bell rings.
They grab their coats and rush.
Onto the next lesson.
Mustn’t be late.
‘Mr Smith in Maths gets cross, miss.’
No amount of feeding Mr Smith titbits can persuade him that my class should stay and clear up.
But we have learnt about rough poof pastry and it’s one more skill ticked off for the exam.
Wearily Sylvia and I patrol the cookers and lift the golden pastries onto cooling racks. Dirty baking trays are piled into the butler’s sinks filled with soapy suds in the hope that their owners will return and wash up. If not, Sylvia and I must scrub our way through lunchtime to make the room spotless for the next lot of eager cooks who are making Swedish Tea Ring from Cooking is Fun.
There are times when I think Cooking is Terrible.
Sylvia puts the kettle on. I strip off my rubber gloves and ease out of my sweaty, pink nylon overall.
Alice comes to collect her food.
‘Would you like one of my Eccles cakes miss?’
I gratefully accept since I have missed my lunch. Again. And the jar of bright green crystallised angelica which is my snack food is emptying fast.
Alice’s Eccles cake is light, crisp and aromatic with mixed spice. I walk into the sunshine and sit on the steps with Sylvia drinking tea till the bell for the next lesson goes.