Last winter, I went to a Devon Food Movement event at Ashridge Court, where eight of Devon’s top chefs had come together to create a sumptuous feast for over 100 discerning diners. Every course was the business, but it was the dessert that stuck in my mind. A fluffy cloud of meringue, a thick, glossy dollop of dulce de leche, a refreshing creamy ice cream – all made with ingredients from nearby Taw River Dairy. As someone who often skips dessert for cheese, I was wowed; every element delivered.
The chef behind it was 27-year-old Samuel Brook. Having started out with Michael Caines at Abode and Kentisbury Grange, he did a stint at the Salutation Inn before going on to become head chef at Paschoe House. While a talented all-rounder in the kitchen, it’s his skill with pastry, and a desire to work for himself, that prompted him to quit the day job six months ago to focus on his own business, Pretty Little Pastries. I met him at his family home – a tumbling farmhouse near Crediton, where he has his own professional kitchen housed in an annexe – to find out more about his new venture, and to learn a few tricks of the trade.
The first thing that struck when I ventured up the drive was the overwhelmingly sickly-sweet smell of sugar permeating the air. (A hazard of the job, but one that you get used to, Samuel assures me.) In my head, I pictured a farmhouse kitchen full of frothy cupcakes and chintzy cake stands, but the reality is more of a scientific laboratory. There were ingredients stacked methodically in boxes, carefully typed recipes filed in ring binders, and lots of fancy culinary contraptions – including a rather clinical-looking chocolate tempering machine.
Newly self-employed, Samuel is still ironing out his vision for what he wants Pretty Little Pastries to become, but for now he’s content to create patisserie for weddings, private functions and food fairs. He also offers a full-menu catering service for weddings and private functions.
Today, we’re going to rustle up some millionaire’s shortbread, apple and hazelnut crumble macarons and, rather intriguingly, milk bread doughnuts filled with mutton. I’m supposed to be helping but, in all honesty, aside from holding a sieve and stirring a couple of ingredients, Samuel does all the work. It’s like watching a well-oiled machine in action. Unlike a baker, being a pastry chef requires a scientific-level of understanding about ingredients and how to manipulate them, plus complete organisation and precision. Samuel has got all this down to a tee – plus a seemingly encyclopaedic memory, as he doesn’t consult a recipe book once.
“I can weigh from memory,” he says. “It’s all about practice; doing it time and time again. If I’d committed my mind the way I do now when I was at school, I might have got a bit further!”
Whisking egg whites for the macarons, he shares a handy tip: “Use three-day-old egg whites. They’re better because they dehydrate slightly, so there’s less moisture in the meringue base. If there’s too much moisture when they bake, they wrinkle a little, and are more likely to go a bit soft if they’re stored in the fridge or when you defrost them.”
Meringues in the oven, he gets to work on the caramel for his very upmarket take on millionaire’s shortbread. “This was one of the first things I learned to cook as a child with my grandma,” he says. “I’ve put my own spin on it now, so it’s more of a dessert rather than a classic homebake.”
There’s a dark chocolate financier base, shortbread, then a dark chocolate ganache, vanilla and condensed milk caramel, and then a salted caramel crémeux topped with tempered chocolate.
“It’s the introduction of the other textures and flavours which makes it a level above,” says Samuel. “The addition of the sponge and the cremeux give it more balance across the palate, and the ganache adds a slight bitter note to balance some of the sweetness.”
Once the caramel has set in the fridge, I watch mesmerised as he tempers the chocolate on his marble-topped kitchen island, methodically checking and re-checking the temperature until it’s perfect.
He draws his inspiration, he says, from the masters of the pastry chef world: Guillaume Mabilleau, Cédric Grolet and, closer to home, Lympstone Manor’s Sylvain Peltier. Where once there was a snobbery attached to patisserie – particularly in France, where recipes were passed down through generations and kept as closely guarded secrets – today’s pastry chefs are much more open, happily sharing their ideas and innovation on YouTube.
“I’m passionate about pastry as it’s very scientific, and that’s how my brain works,” he says. “But I also enjoy the freedom of coming up with new flavour combinations and using different ingredients. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with creating patisserie with a low sugar content, but which still retains a good flavour.”
This creative edge comes to the fore in our final recipe of the day – a springy milk bread doughnut filled with marinated mutton. The idea for this came about when he was asked to create a canapé for an event, and decided to take his creative cues from Asia. Milk bread, he tells me, is a versatile dough, which can be fried or steamed to create Chinese-style bao buns.
“I marinated the mutton for eight hours in coriander, five-spice, salt, pepper, thyme and rosemary, then confit overnight,” he explains. “I then sautéed red onions, thyme and bay leaf and added dark Muscovado sugar and balsamic vinegar. I caramelised it and reduced it and then made a purée out of it, which I then put through the lamb, making it sweet, rich and lovely and moist. Then I rolled the lamb into little balls and froze them inside caramelised cauliflower purée.”
Voila! Having prepped them the day before, he whips them from the freezer. We encase each ball in dough and let them go gold in the fryer.
As we plate up our day’s creations, it’s clear how obsessively attentive to detail Samuel is. Each patisserie is created like a work of art; the devil in the detail. The challenge, I reckon, is teaching us Brits about the delights of patisserie over more traditional homebakes and puddings. Unlike the French, we aren’t used to this level of sophistication and rarely shop exclusively for dessert.
“It’s definitely about educating people about the difference between something like this and a shop-bought, mass-produced pastry,” says Samuel. “But people who enjoy their food do appreciate proper patisserie. My mum often comes home with dessert from Darts Farm’s deli counter – so there is a demand for it in certain places.”
The dream, he says, is to one day open a shop of his own, but finding the right premises and the right customer base is going to take time. As I tuck into some of the delicious delicacies we’ve created, I glance over at the fridge. Stuck to the door is a picture of a French-style patisserie shop with Pretty Little Pastries written on it. It’s an affirmation, something to aspire to. “I’m putting it out there, that’s the dream,” he says. Something tells me that dream isn’t too far from becoming a reality.