When I discover Petit Pois I have no idea that one of the women behind the brand is Harry Eastwood. Name ring any bells? If you’ve seen the first series of the television programme ‘Cook Yourself Thin’ then it will all start coming back to you because she is the chef with an infectious personality, a huge passion for food and a series of cookbooks under her belt. She’s also one of the presenters. If you haven’t, I meet an incredibly clever woman with an infectious personality who makes a mean cupcake.
Petit Pois is a brand of cupcakes made from grated vegetables (courgette, beetroot or pumpkin), the signature and namesake is a small green marzipan pea that sits in the middle of plain white icing. No piping, no glitter, no baubles because there’s no need. What lies beneath is a light, flavourful sponge, which is made with vegetables, and you would never know it. Two of these little beauties are equivalent to one of your five a day which is always an added bonus.
As we chat, Harry begins to bake me a batch of lemon and courgette cakes to photograph. It’s true, I see her peeling and grating courgette and weighing ingredients but I see no butter. She has what she calls a ‘geek-out’ and gives me a science lesson. For the first time ever I don’t glaze over and spend time standing outside a door, she’s just the kind of person you makes chemistry fun. She asks me to think about how butter reacts. When it’s warm its liquid, and cold it’s solid so, if you fill your cake with butter, which tastes fantastic, it comes out the oven light and fluffy and dancing around. When it sits for a day or so, the butter stiffens. If you freeze a sponge cake the butter will never, ever recover because it’s feathers have been wet. Grate vegetables into a batter, the cake will lift whilst the vegetables cook and moisten and filaments of moisture will keep the cake soft, when you freeze and defrost the cake it will stay the same. She’s right it is ‘super logical’ and incredibly easy to explain because it’s a physical reaction. It just so happens then that these cakes also are the only ones on the market that are gluten-free, lactose-free and less than half the calories of your regular cupcake.
Harry is an innovative chef, there is no doubt, and began her career as a food stylist. In 2007 she was approached by the producers of the Channel 4 show ‘Cook Yourself Thin’ teaching the audience how to cut down on calories but not on taste. At first she was totally against the idea and agreed so long as they allowed her to do it her way. There would be no low-fat substitutes which are by the way, full of chemicals, but natural ingredients creating the same taste and textures with fewer calories. A Harry creation in the form of a chocolate beetroot fudge cake got quite a few people worked up, a round of press and publicity around the cake got the American’s excited and so next came an American series which she fronted. Books follow the series.
In 2009, Harry gets ‘Red Velvet & Chocolate Heartache’ published, after touting it to 12 publishers who all turn their nose up, Bantam see the potential in a book filled with recipes for cakes made with vegetables and give her a chance. It pays off and it’s received so well, thousands are sold. Straight in at the deep end, the maverick that she is, her first recipe in the cookbook was to make a coffee cake from grated Jerusalem artichoke and she was sure it was going to work. However, she produced a lump of dough, which was bouncy, had no air in it and was quite foul. The book had been commissioned, she had already banked the advance and so sat down with a very large vodka and fought through a few days thinking “flipping ‘eck”. However, she spent a year in the kitchen, testing and teasing the best out of cakes. It all comes together and in the book, after each recipe she gives the reader a diary of what went right and wrong in the testing kitchen. Not because she’s trying to be clever, but because these cakes become living, breathing beings to her.
Harry’s love of classic French cookery comes from spending her childhood in Paris so it was obvious that she return to write her latest offering ‘The Skinny French Kitchen’. She really didn’t have to try too hard to write this one as she says she’s been battling with weight her whole life. As a food stylist she learnt how to adapt recipes so that comes in handy when she transforms the classic French dishes, bringing down the calorie content without robbing them of taste. It’s in the French capital that Ashley Maddox, a brilliant entrepreneur with a head for business finds Harry with a million ideas and no business brains whatsoever, they become business partners after two meetings and Petis Pois is born. Whilst the brand has been established here in the UK it’s hoped that it will export to America. But before it goes anywhere they need to anchor-down the radical concept that a cake made with vegetables is acceptable for everyone and not just those with special dietary needs.
In her Parisian kitchen Harry tested the recipes for the Petit Pois cupcakes repeatedly until she got them just right. Having trained as a chef at twenty and assisted as a food stylist for six years she definitely knows her stuff. Ashley is business school trained a woman I’m told so full of energy, she’s the business rocket and Harry is strapped to that rocket. It’s a shame then that I don’t get to meet her but she’s away in South Africa.
The cakes are baked at the Welsh Hills Bakery, a second-generation family owned bakery established for more than fifty years. Harry makes regular trips to the Cynon Valley in the early hours of the morning bombing down the M4 to oversee the production. Hand-grated vegetables go into the cakes, even on a massive production scale and each cake is hand iced. She admits to being a hawk when it comes to quality and she really does care about getting it right. Ten thousand cakes are baked o over two days. They’re boxed in unique packaging and frozen fresh in freezers the size of football fields, during the drive from the factory to the stores they defrost. The peas are hand made in a marzipan factory in Yorkshire and I’ve booked my one-way ticket there for I love marzipan. When the duo gets more money, they plan on making a kit of parts for kids to entice them into the kitchen. There’s more to come though from the most ‘ridiculous’ brownie which has one of your five a day in each slice, to a carrot cake with a ‘Christmas spiced vibe’.
So then why are we being so stubborn when it comes to cooking cakes with vegetables here in the UK, why can’t we just embrace the fact that this science works? Having ridden two cultures she says that we are just very cautious people and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with caution when it comes to war but it just doesn’t make for exciting food changes. See how funny she is without even trying? She stakes her entire reputation on the fact that she cannot make a regular sponge cake better than one made from vegetables. If you can’t live without buttery cakes then have an indulgent icing but she repeats to me “butter inside a cake does not make logical cooking sense.”
But seriously, this frozen vegetable cake idea is a good one, if you’ve got an allotment with a glut of vegetables why wouldn’t you make up a batch of cakes and freeze them? There’s only so many spiced chutney’s you can make without your friends crossing the road to avoid you as another jar of your latest parsnip-cum-pumpkin spiced creation is Kilner’d for another year. And what about the food allergy sufferers and just those who don’t like vegetables, it’s not as if you’re loading them up with sickly sweet calories and surely it’s better than a bar of chocolate any day?
So now I’m totally convinced, she’s evangelical, the only argument against vegetable cakes is the fact that it’s weird.
I leave with a box of four of the just-baked-and-iced cakes. Two don’t make it beyond first gear and the other two do make it home but one is demolished almost immediately, Mr gets the final cake and asks if there are more. Clichéd I know but probably one of the best cupcakes I have ever had. Damn that girl and her vegetables.
Harvey Nichol’s are stocking the cakes right now and are sold in boxes of two different flavours complementing each other: chocolate and vanilla and lemon and orange. You can also buy Harry’s cakes (cooked by her) at Fulham’s Union Market.