Q&A: James Martin

Posted on 28th October 2015 by Sally Campbell
Sweet is the new book by television's much loved chef, James Martin. Here, he answers a few culinary questions.

I think I am not alone in saying that when weather gets colder, my sweet tooth becomes more pronouced. Well, that is my excuse anyway.

And who better to give you hints and tips on baking the tastiest winter treats, than Jame Martin - one of televisions most down to earth and friendly chefs. 

James' new book, Sweet, is not only crammed full of delicious, sweet and sticky recipes it has a handy trouble-shooting section at the back,just in case your creations don't go quite to plan - ah, James, you know us all to well.

And at the moment, you can get hold of a special, signed edition.

Get some insight into the mind behind the book's tasty, accessible recipes in our Q & A with James:

How did you first get into pastry?

I first got involved with pastry by default I suppose. I enjoyed it in college but it wasn’t until I was in a fancy restaurant and was put on the pastry section, just as a commis chef, that I properly got into it. There were just two guys on the section: the pastry chef and me. Then one morning the pastry chef disappeared about 11am to go to the toilet and I never saw him again. The head chef turned round and said “you’re on the section, we’ve got nobody else, off you go“.  So by lunchtime I was pastry chef. That was it really, a sink or swim moment.

What are the best and worst things about working on the pastry bench in a restaurant kitchen? How does it differ from other areas of the kitchen?

The best thing about being a pastry chef is the creative side of it - you’re much more working with your hands. Also, it’s right or it’s wrong. With pastry you have to have an understanding of what makes it work in the first place and then an understanding of what can go wrong.  With sauces and other bit and pieces you can always adapt and correct but with pastry it’s black and white.

And the negative side of being a pastry chef are the hours. You start earlier and you work later than any of the others. When I first started I was doing 6 in the morning, because you have to do all the breakfast bits and pieces (and if the baker didn’t turn up then you were in all night) until 1 or 2 am the following.

It’s one of those jobs chefs don’t want to do because it’s not manly enough. It’s not stove and heat and power and all that kind of sweat and grief. But, in big hotels, pastry chefs can command more than the head chef because it’s such a skilled job.

It’s been 8 years since your last desserts book, what’s changed on the pastry scene since then? What did you want to achieve with the new book?

A lot has changed in people’s perception of pastry. Obviously bakery is now hugely more popular but the fundamentals remain: it’s all about teaching  but also giving people inspiration. I think that’s what I did with the first desserts book and that’s why it was successful. So I took the same blueprint in terms of teaching people skills. There are 50 pages of techniques in Sweet in the beginning of the book and it’s not until you open it up you in the middle that you see the 100 odd recipes and then of course there’s the trouble–shooting section at the end. So it covers all bases for everyone from basic cooks to chefs as well. Young chefs still use the first book as a reference and I hope they will this one. I think it would be wrong for me to bring out another book saying “here’s a scone, here’s a sponge cake” – there’s enough of that out there. This is about taking things a little bit further. Now you can make a scone, here’s what else you can do (but without making it way too complicated).

This book has all the hints and tips I’ve learnt along the way. And I’ve had much more experience over the last 8 years. There’s also all the knowledge  that I couldn’t fit into the first book and I can impart in this one. There are recipes from when I was 18/19 years old working in a 3-starred Michelin restaurant, not the fancy stuff but the basics like choux pastry and the techniques to it. And as long as you stick with those techniques, it’ll work.

What’s your favourite recipe in the book?

My favourite is Monkey Bread. It’s right at the back of the books so you’ve got to flick through the entire lot to get to it. There’s lots of nice stuff in the book but this reminds me of my time in New York and is one of the things I picked up on my travels.

It’s from a place called Dumbo (‘Down Under the Manhattan Bridge’ ) district of Brooklyn.  I was there filming a baking show but I stayed an extra 3 days to work in a bakery because I thought it was such a fantastic place – not just the people but food itself.  It’s run by two guys, who are married to each other, and this was one of their recipes. Right on the last day they put this on the counter by the till and served it at 50 cents by the ball. And I thought that was pretty cool. When you go to America it’s all about doughnuts and this is their interpretation of the doughnut. It is fundamentally a doughnut recipe and you could take this mixture and deep fry it. But instead of doing that, they took the mixture and moulded it up into little balls, coated each one in melted butter, sugar and cinnamon and then put it in a mould. As it proves, it all comes together like big bread, bun loaf but each ball remains separate so that’s how you get the monkey brain look to it. Then when it’s cooked and turned out, you pour maple syrup all over it. It’s a proper, proper nice dessert. I do it a lot at home. I cook it at least once a week, so it HAD to go in the book. It’s one that I absolutely love.


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