There’s nothing more comforting than the smell of freshly baked goods straight out of the oven. I get so much satisfaction in whipping up a batch of cookies or a simple sponge – even if the results are sometimes a little hit-and-miss. It’s with that in mind that I signed on to a three-hour croissant making class with the experts at Bread Ahead’s baking school – so I could enjoy a relaxed yet educational expert tutorial, and come away with a fail-safe recipe for the French pastry.
Arriving at the bakery school, which is located a stone’s throw from the Bread Ahead stall in Borough Market (find it opposite the Fish! restaurant), I was pleased to hear that I wasn’t the only sporadic baker/cook in the enthusiastic class of nine. The lady beside me admitted to living off takeaways every day and being a bit of a baking virgin. Phew, I thought. There were two couples and a few keen mummy bakers in the predominantly female class too.
We stuck on our aprons, rolled up our sleeves and got stuck straight in as master baker Aidan Chapman, who has over 28 years of baking experience under his belt, broke down the croissant making process into simple steps. He demonstrated each step, before giving us the opportunity to copy.
Aidan explained that officially it takes a total of three days to make a good croissant – but the class is cleverly designed to cram those three days into three hours. Typically, on the first day the dough is made and left to refrigerate; on day two the “laminating” takes place, where you incorporate the butter into the dough and fold it in. [Side note: it’s crazy just how much butter goes into croissants, they really aren’t very good for you!] A good croissant dough requires three folds to create its flaky layers. On day three, the dough is ready to be shaped before being baked. Aidan explained that as it’s such a long process, it’s often difficult to find an authentic French croissant maker nowadays – the long production time doesn’t justify the cost it’s sold for, so many manufacturers buy frozen batches and bake them to save time.
What was also intriguing to learn is that croissants are specifically shaped according to what they’re made with: so straight croissants are only ever made with butter whereas crescent, half-moon shaped croissants are made with margarine or another sort of fat. Take that, pub quiz buffs.
The class was therefore informative as well as hands-on: everybody had their own work area, with equipment readily laid out, and ingredients provided. Aidan would come around and guide us if we were stuck, and everything was well organised, with assistant bakers bringing us all new ingredients and tools we needed, when we needed them. It also meant that there was no washing up to do all afternoon – winning!
The bakery school “classroom” is located right at the front of the bakery, near the heart of Borough Market, which means you sort of become the entertainment for the people visiting the market. There are always people watching in on the class– and many are armed with cameras to take pictures. I made the rookie error of choosing a workbench facing the window, so I assume I’ve been captured in multiple pictures doing all sorts of weird expressions and actions. TIP: if you’re quite self conscious, when choosing a work bench you may want to choose one with your back to the window.
The three hours flew by – one of my personal highlights was rolling the croissants into their lovely shape – and Aidan made the class engaging, educational and enjoyable – plus we got to taste a few varieties of croissants. The best bit, though, was that we each had a large batch of our own handmade croissants to take away at the end. You definitely need a lot of friends and family on standby to get through the batch you take away with you. Ultimately, hopping onto the Tube and filling the carriage with the aroma of my own freshly baked crossaints was priceless.
Bread Ahead sells a range of bakery products from its Borough Market stall, and has become particularly renowned for its doughnuts and fresh bread. Everything is made fresh at its factory, which is where the bakery school is based, too. So while you’re rolling and kneading, and getting flour in your hair/on your jeans/up past your elbows (just me?), behind the scenes there are bakers coming and going with large loaves of bread, and crates of doughnuts and bread loaves passing by all day. Note that there are no toilets located on site, but students are welcome to use Fish! Restaurant’s toilets across the street. It’s a little rough-and-ready as you’d expect in a factory setting, but it makes for an enjoyable, alternative thing to do in London.
Discover more about Bread Ahead’s baking school here.