Pâtisserie has been Éric Lanlard’s passion ever since he was a little boy – and his driving ambition is the creation of glorious desserts for everyone, from the gluten-intolerant to the vegan, as he tells Marion Sauvebois
Did you always know you wanted to be a pâtissier?
Yes, absolutely. My parents said I was already talking about becoming a pâtissier when I was five. It wasn’t really about eating pastries. It was more the glamour behind it – the luxury, the decoration – that first attracted me to it.
Even today, I still don’t have a sweet tooth; which is quite good in a way because I always try to cut sugar. Even our suppliers always laugh, “Of all our clients you’re the one who uses the least amount of sugar”. I used to go to the pâtisserie every week with my parents and I used to stare at the beautiful windows, the packaging… And when I started to make cakes, I fell in love with the ingredients and how rewarding and challenging it was. I like a good challenge. It’s a science. That’s the main difference between cooking and baking and pastry. That’s what I like: I like precision.
You started experimenting with different styles of baking a few years ago at your London bakery and café, Cake Boy – namely gluten-free, dairy-free and sugar-free pastry. Did it feel like going back to square one, having to learn completely new skills and rethink your approach to baking?
If you use the right sugar alternatives you can almost just swap them, which is great. But gluten-free is completely different. You can’t just swap things, you have to rewrite the whole recipe – which is obviously challenging. That’s what keeps things exciting in the kitchen. It’s the same with vegan baking. And you have to make sure that what you’re offering customers is as good as the real thing. Too o en people who are gluten-free or sugar-free or vegan feel like second-class citizens. I want to make sure it tastes good for everybody. Some of our regulars order our sugar-free and gluten-free carrot cake and I say, “Oh, I didn’t know you were gluten-free”. And they reply, “I’m not”. Even people who aren’t gluten-free love eating it and that’s the best result for us.
Some would argue that traditional French pâtisserie and gluten-free/vegan pâtisserie are mutually exclusive. Do you agree?
I’m sure a lot of French pâtissiers will shrug their shoulders and say, “Non!” [to gluten-free pâtisserie]. But in a place like London, you have to adapt and follow the trends or you will be le behind. The majority of our customers don’t request gluten-free for medical reasons, it’s just a trend. Veganism is different: it’s a way of life. But it’s nice to be challenged and to work harder. It doesn’t actually take much to create a new recipe or change a recipe.
Is keeping up with new trends a daily challenge in a consumer-led industry?
Pastry is definitely moving very fast. There are a lot of new techniques and very clever young chefs doing great things. Social media plays a huge part in it – people see these crazy pastry chefs making these crazy-shaped cakes. They want to buy them and learn how to make them.
We have a baking school and we had to raise the bar. Before, people were happy to learn home baking. Now they want to make mirror glaze and fashionable éclairs because they’ve seen it in a shop or on Instagram; so we have to keep up. And I’m always on the lookout for something new. It could be ingredients, techniques, a piece of equipment to keep things fresh. Some of our regulars at Cake Boy come three times a day… we need to make sure that there’s always something new to keep them coming back.
Let’s talk gluten-free. What alternative flours do you tend to use?What I usually do is choose naturally gluten-free fl our, like spelt or buckwheat. Buckwheat works very well with chocolate. Even the best gluten-free blends of fl our you get in the supermarket in the UK aren’t that great; they always end up being grainy because of the rice fl our in it when it bakes.
I always recommend people buy American gluten-free flour because they’re much more advanced over there. The flour is much thinner so when you make a sponge it’s not as gritty. But generally, I prefer to use nut flour. At Cake Boy, we roast pecan nuts for our carrot cake, cool them down and mill them ourselves. The oil from the nuts comes through, making the cake lovely and moist. And you get lovely nut flavours. For our chocolate cake, we use ground almonds, which is naturally gluten-free and rich in oil and you get a moist cake that won’t dry out. The only problem is that you can’t have a nut allergy!
But I find it’s a better way to work with gluten-free. In the south of France, in the Mediterranean or Lebanon, they only use flours that are naturally gluten-free, so we’re not reinventing the wheel here.
Did you have a clear idea from the start of what would and wouldn’t work or did you learn through trial and error?
It’s a combination of both. You know from experience that some products are harder to work with. Gluten-free flour is difficult to make pastry with because of the lack of gluten; it’s difficult to make dough. The rest is
I’ve been doing this Provençal orange cake forever. I don’t even remember where this recipe comes from but it’s naturally gluten-free and lactose-free. It’s made with ground almonds. So I used this classic cake from the south of France as a base and I replaced the almonds with ground roasted hazelnuts or pistachios and ended up with a different cake. So you can use a base which you know works and replace some of the ingredients to get something new.
What’s the cardinal rule of gluten-free baking?
Anything that needs to prove or be elastic will be very difficult to make. So if you’re just starting out, keep it simple. Make a plain sponge or a carrot cake. Don’t start with a brioche or croissant – it’s difficult enough to make the real stuff . I have to say I’ve never had a decent gluten-free croissant in my life. I’ve tried everywhere. They always look and taste terrible. It’s like eating a beer mat in a pub.
To be honest, I’ve never tried to make some because I know it’s not going to be the same. Why would I want to do it? Sometimes it’s be er not to try to take it too far. I won’t put an average product on our counters so why would I serve a croissant that’s basically a doorstop just because it’s gluten-free? I don’t want to force-feed our customers horrors just because they’re gluten-free or vegan.
Is there a kitchen appliance you can’t live without?
I need scales, or a measuring spoon at a push. It’s all about precision for me. Without that, I can’t make a cake. I work with grams; I don’t really do cups and teaspoons. Some people say, “Yeah, I can make a cake. I don’t weigh anything”, and I go, “Really? OK…”. I would be lost without scales in the kitchen, even now. I would never estimate anything.
You’ve made cakes for many celebrities. What’s been the most extravagant you’ve ever baked for an A-list client?
The largest and probably the most challenging commission we’ve ever had was for a royal wedding in the Middle East. It was a huge cake: 3m tall, 1.5m in diameter. We shipped all the ingredients, sponge, the equipment on a plane. We worked two weeks on all the icing. We baked it in slabs because we couldn’t bake the cake in one piece. It was the biggest cake I’ve ever made actually. My biggest compliment was from the king of the country, who spoke to me the day a er his son’s wedding and said: “I want to thank you for the cake. That’s what we do here. It’s about who’s going to have the biggest cake, the tallest cake, who’s going to one-up the last wedding.
But for the first time this morning, everyone is talking about your cake not because of the size of it but because of the taste of it. Normally no one eats it, it’s just for show”. For me it was the best compliment. That’s what I learnt in my training. From day one I was told on my apprenticeship that it’s all about the taste; decoration comes second. Taste is what people will always remember.
Have your travels inspired your recipes?
My main inspiration comes from travelling. I’m lucky, I travel a lot for work. Baking is big everywhere. Last week I was in Spain, the week before in Norway. I’m always looking for good food. I go into cafés, pâtisseries, and get some ideas. It can be the packaging, the way they serve the coffee or the cake. I try never to copy and paste but to get inspiration. It’s all about keeping everything fresh and new.
Is there a recipe or a take on a recipe you’ve seen on your travels that you’ve been dying to try?
I’ve been doing a lot of work in Norway with P&O Cruises. I’ve been taking some of the passengers to do some workshops and we’ve been doing some amazing recipes with roasted hay – to flavour mousses and ice creams – and unpasteurised yogurt and crème fraîche. I really like their style of baking there. They’re so close to nature, much more than we are in the rest of Europe. It goes beyond organic, they know where everything comes from. They can tell you the name of the cow that produced the milk for your yogurt. They take everything a step further.
If you’d told me two years ago that I’d be flavouring a bavarois with roasted hay, I would have laughed. Actually, they sent me the recipe and I couldn’t even buy hay here in London. The only place you could get it was from a pet shop and I don’t think you can use that for baking.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve tasted on your travels?
I’m always happy to try everything-ish… If it does really sound disgusting or it comes from a body part that really shouldn’t be eaten I’ll usually pass. Talking about Norway, they love their marinated fish in seawater. I call it ‘rotten fish’, that’s what it is. But they love it, they eat it like chewing gum. It’s horrible. I tried it, I ticked the box, you won’t see me eating it again!
What’s your péché mignon?
Being from Bri any, I love oysters and seafood. I could eat it that all day without a problem. My favourite dessert in the world is Tarte Tatin; piping hot from the oven with crème fraîche on the side… Give me that and I can die happy.
This comes courtesy of Taste of France Issue Two. For more great recipes, food news and interviews with top chefs, buy your copy here!