Monday, 31 March 2014

Wisely and slow..

...they stumble that run fast."
(Friar Lawrence, Romeo and Juliet)

Today was our mock assessment, ahead of next week's course finale, a three-day fret-fest of three to four-course meals prepared, presented and served by us to our chef assessors. 

I am no stranger to exams and assessment. I have even been known to willingly put myself through them when there is no requirement to do so. I am, however, strangely afflicted with an inability to grasp the fact that I am, in fact, being assessed. This is a good thing in that I don't tend to get flustered or panicked but a bad thing because I can sometimes fail to give my all in a way befitting of a be-all-and-end-all situation.

Today was just a practise, sure, but I spent time over the weekend preparing an elaborate prep list, and practised the recipes, and re-annotated fresh copies of them, and read around a bit for some technique hints. I felt pretty ready for today, and by and large, it showed. 

Why on earth I felt the need to rattle through it all quite that fast then, I have no idea! Much to my surprise, I was the first out of the kitchen having prepared and presented all of my dishes and cleaned down my section. Not only was my prep list missing some ballpark time frames, it also missed words 'BREATHE! SLOW DOWN! TAKE YOUR TIME TO GET IT RIGHT!!' in thick red marker across the top. As well as a reminder to drink water. Had both of these been included, I wouldn't have left feeling quite so discombobulated.

First course was Vichysoisse, otherwise known as leek and potato soup. By this point in the course we can work out pretty well the 'purpose' for each recipe, be it knife skills, technique, heat control and so forth. Vichysoisse is not about how the vegetables are chopped up as much as other dishes, because the cooked ingredients are then blended. Which means the focus is the flavour, the texture and the presentation.

I was pleased with how my soup turned out, and prettyfied it well with nicely chopped chives and a drizzle of cream. However, during the course we had been told that straining the soup was not really that necessary unless the potato is undercooked, which I interpreted as 'don't strain the soup unless you've undercooked the potato'. Of course, when you blend a soup in a food processor there will inevitably be bits that escape in the initial surge of liquid up the sides of the jug, so straining just makes sense. Noted. Also, goodness me this soup can take some salt. I need to focus more on 'does this taste right?' rather than 'gosh I've put a lot of salt in already!' 

Which also stands for my next dish, sweetcorn and chorizo à la française, with griddled chicken. My chicken was largely fine, cooked well and only a few tweaks needed with preparation, but the sweetcorn accompaniment needed to be more saucy, and more salty.

Tart tatin, however, I need a bit more practise with! Had I adopted a calmer approach, taken my time, been a bit more careful, the pastry would have been rolled thinner, the apple would have been cooked that fraction more and the whole thing would have been cooked more fully. If I hadn't been in such a frenzy, my vanilla mascarpone would not have been overbeaten to the verge of splitting, either. By the time I got to serving that (ironically enough, with not a plain caramel sauce, but a salted version, leaving all my salting til the end of the meal!) I was so disappointed that the cream had gone granular that I simply didn't bother presenting it nicely, and hence lost more marks than I could have.

But anyway. The point of a mock is to stop the 'Shoulda, woulda, coulda' before they start, and today did that very well. Tomorrow we learn our last assessment dish - steak and chips! This is not a week for those on a diet...

Friday, 28 March 2014

Chef hands

It's an age-old dilemma. Countless workers in the hospitality and restaurant industries suffer variations of the same affliction, with little attention being paid to their plight. If you come into contact with someone suffering in this way, you will know about it soon enough, often without them even having to say a word. And you will likely make a judgement about their suffering, decide that it is self-inflicted, and let me tell you, this is unfair.

I write, of course, of the problem of going home after a hard day's work smelling like your job.

As I sit here and write this, I cannot remove the smell of fish from my hands. I have scrubbed. I have used a variety of antibacterial handwashes. I am pretty sure by now that I have found all of the errant fish scales seemingly growing from me, but I may stand corrected tomorrow, Sunday even. And I consider myself a rather clean person in general.

This is to say nothing of the pork grease that seems to have permeated from my hair to my underclothes. We made carrot cakes and lemon tarts today as well as the various piscatory and porcine delights, but to go home smelling of cinnamon and zesty citrus would be illogical, of course. Even the richly fragrant tomato, herby, garlicky bean stew would have been better, but no.

Anyway, I digress before I've even started. Today was the last day of week four, and marks the point at which we are two thirds through our course. From here, things start to get really tasty. On Monday we have a mock assessment, the first time that we will be left fully to our own devices to work our way through a three-course meal demonstrating our skills and our time management. Or areas where either need to be sharpened. A few more dishes to learn and skills to pick up and before we know it we will be in our final, assessment week and then thrust into the big wide professional cookery world. What happens when I get there, nobody knows.

We started today blitzing through a carrot cake. I have made a fair few of these in my life and until I have a piece of today's one, my favourite remains an Ottolenghi recipe from his first cookbook, with hints of coconut and a lightness from carefully folded meringue in the batter. Chef Rob is proud of his recipe, which has produced a beautiful-smelling cake and is the result of coarsely-grated carrot and wholemeal flour for texture, a moist sponge resulting from a dousing in citrus syrup and a good hit of cinnamon in the cream cheese frosting.

As soon as the cake was in the oven, we got onto making a tomato and bean stew, by deskinning and deseeding lots of tomatoes before getting them in a pan with some softened onion, garlic and herbs and letting them stew away for an hour or so with some chopped sundried tomatoes. Once this was bubbling away, we rolled out some lemon sweet pastry we had made yesterday, much in the same way as before, but with the addition of lemon zest, and lined a tart case ready for a lemon tart.
We also made the tart filling, by whisking together lemon juice and zest, eggs, caster sugar and cream. We let this sit for a while so that the lemon oils could infuse, and the cream could react with the acidity. Later, once it had reacted, we skimmed the surface to remove any scum and near-curdled cream, tasted how lemony it was before pouring into the tart cases which had been blind baked and trimmed. This was a tense moment, as the cases needed to be as watertight as possible, and the filling needed to be as clear as possible and filled as far up the case as we dared. We poured the filling into the cases while they were in the oven and baked them on a low temperature until they were set but had a good wobble. I am looking forward to my dessert after dinner tonight!

No peeking...
For lunch today, we had a surf and turf of sorts. We had A bit of pork belly left from Wednesday's roast that we reheated in a pan to give it a good edge of crackling, and served with it some of our tomato and bean stew, a panfried sardine and a couple of panfried scallops. When we prepared scallops earlier in the week they had not been delivered in their shell and today we had the chance to try preparing them again from scratch. It was quite an experience to have a scallop shell try to close on my fingers as I prised it open, and chef claims he could feel the scallop twitching in his hand once I had removed it.
We started by sawing a knife as close to the inside of the flat shell as possible. This releases the scallop from the shell, and this side becomes the presentation side. Once the shell is open any grit can be washed away if the scallop is a product of bycatch, as ours were today due to weather conditions making hand diving difficult. Then the whole of the inside of the shell can be removed with a spoon scraping from the outer edge of the shell inwards. The stomach sac, roe and 'skirt' around the scallop can be pulled away from the scallop along with any membrane. We cooked the scallops like yesterday, only today we also had a sardine in the pan!

I have never eaten sardines, so today was a bit of an experience. First, the head is removed, then the body cavity is opened, the guts removed and the cavity rinsed. Once the cut has been extended to the tail, the sardine can be butterflied by opening it on a board and pressing down along the spine to flatten it. The bones inside can largely be pulled away in one go, with the ribs needing to be cut out separately before the fillet is tidied up. The fin on the back of the fish needs to be cut out by removing a little keyhole of flesh from inside the fillet. We seasoned it, dusted it with flour and panfried it skinside down first before flipping over one the flesh had started to cook. As I discovered, sardines taste a little like mackerel, but they will still need a little getting used to! We served our lunch with a mustard sauce made be reducing a little fish stock before heating cream through it, along with a little mustard, chopped chives and seasoning. An obligatory 'monter au beurre' to thicken, and it became a delicious accompaniment to an already lovely lunch.

After lunch, we filleted a lemon sole. This was very similar to the plaice we had filleted earlier in the course, and as we were all so full, chef demonstrated how to finish the dish before letting us take the completed fillets home. We will brown pine nuts in a pan before adding butter and allowing it to cook to a beurre noisette - a nice, toasted nutty stage once the milk solids have sizzled. Then we will stir through brown shrimp, rosemary, seasoning and lemon juice before serving it over the lemon sole which will have been oven roasted back in it's fishy shape.

That, however, will be a meal for another day. I need to wait for my hands to smell normal again before I tackle that one!

Thursday, 27 March 2014

A veritable surf and turf of dishes!

Week four has not been too technique-heavy, so today I am letting you know about two whole days worth of fun. Get ready for lots of pictures!

Having humanely dispatched Dave the crab, before giving him an aromatic hot tub wake with his mates, it was time to pick his brains. An ingenious idea to photograph this over timelapse failed (technology, eh?) so if you'd like to see the process described below in action, I'd suggest a more thorough YouTube search than I've done, as I can't find one I'm happy to endorse! To prepare a crab like Dave, you will need a large knife you don't mind ruining and a crab pick, and a couple of containers for the white and brown crab meat.

Dave's demise awaits behind him...
First, the legs are removed by pulling them in towards the centre of the body. The bottom two joints can be removed and retained for stock, whilst the joint closer to the body can be opened by placing it on it's curve on a board and tapping it sharply with the back of the knife, before removing the meat within. Then the claws are removed by getting your thumbs behind their top joint and pulling them in towards the body. The joint closest to the body can be removed from the claw with a firm twist, whilst the next two are a little harder to separate but get there with a little brute force! The moveable pincer can be twisted off and the meat removed, and the rest of the claw meat can be removed by tapping the shell firmly with the back of a heavy blade and picking it out. The meat from all of this so far is white.

Next, the body. By now you will be left with a shell with a honeycomb-like structure underneath. This is called the box or purse, and it can be removed by placing thumbs below it and pushing it up towards the head. From this, the lungs, or 'dead man's fingers' - which are not poisonous, just not particularly pleasant, need to be removed, along with the film-like membrane, which is the diaphragm. Remove the face of the crab by pushing up and outwards with your thumbs from below and behind it. Spoon out the brown meat from the shell. If you were dressing the crab, you could tidy the shell at this point by using a teatowel on top of the open shell and gently pushing the inside rim of shell into the cavity to break it along a natural line to tidy it. Nature's clever that way. You could also make a ring from two of the small legs by inserting them into each other, making a little trivet for Dave's shell to rest on.

Using a teaspoon handle, twist the top leg joints from the box to remove them, and pick out the meat. You can then use the heavy knife to cut the box in half, and have a ball picking all the meat from its honeycomb structure. There will be some brown meat on top and white meat behind. And then, you will be done! The brown meat can be blended in a food processor and passed through a fine sieve, and used to flavour a vinaigrette for a seafood salad, or as the filling for savoury profiteroles, or beignets, or can be stirred through a bisque, risotto, bouillabaisse or chowder. Spread the white crab meat on a tray and very carefully pick your way through it all at least three times to remove all traces of shell.
Chef pointed out this was quuite a lot of salsa.
But so tasty!

We mixed white crab meat with half the quantity of brown meat, finely chopped shallot and chives, an egg yolk, a little cayenne and seasoning before blending with water biscuits ground down into a crumb to make slightly moist crab cakes that held themselves together. The biscuit crumb acts as a binding agent, but anything neutral would work, such as chickpeas, flour, oatmeal biscuit crumbs or breadcrumbs. We panfried our crabcakes in clarified butter but rapeseed oil could be used, and we served them with a salsa of pineapple, chilli, lime zest and juice, coriander, shallot and garlic.

Staying with the fish theme, we learned how to prep squid and scallops today. The scallops were incorrectly delivered already out of their shells, so we didn't learn how to do this stage of preparation. Good scallops should be slightly pearlescent, not white, as this shows they have been stored in salted water and slightly cured. We removed the muscle that attaches the scallops to the shell, which takes with it a small ring of membrane/muscle around the scallop. We removed the coral, as this cooks slightly slower than the scallop. If you can see any dark areas on the coral, use the back of the knife to push them out, as this will be leftover products of digestion! Don't wash the scallops, as they will absorb water and become soggy, and don't store them on paper towel as this will dry them.

We prepared whole squid by gently pulling the head and tentacles away from the body, before cutting just below the eyes and removing the beak right at the top of the tentacles, and cutting them into even bite-sized lengths. Then it was onto the body. The plastic-like cartilage can be gently pulled out, along with any remaining stomach sac or innards. The squid wings tend to cook quite tough so can be removed from the body, along with any dark membrane on the surface. Then, HOW COOL IS THIS! - We turned the squid body inside out by pushing the tip through to the base with the top of a wooden spoon handle! We cleaned the inside and removed any membrane before finding the 'seam' and cutting the tube open along this. We gently scored the inside of the squid tube as it is more delicate, by gently running the knife in a criss-cross over the inside surface of the tube a few millimeters apart. The butterflied tube was cut into four squares with tidied edges.

The scallops were seasoned and panfried in clarified butter at a medium heat, when they caramelised on one side we turned them. It is easy to overcook them and they should be pearlescent in the middle. They should only take about 45 seconds on each side. Once cooked, they were kept warm on kitchen paper and the heat was turned up. The squid and the coral both take about 45 seconds to cook and the squid will curl up with the scored side outwards, which makes for great presentation. Lemon juice was squeezed over the scallops and squid, which were also seasoned, and we served them with pea puree (cook frozen peas for 5 minutes, drain and blend with a little cooking liquid), fried quails eggs (cook them from cold, and gently!) and parma ham crisps (bake at 150°C with another baking sheet on top and cut into shape once cool).

Fishy lunch, and also a fishy dinner! We made salmon en croute by butterflying open a salmon fillet after removing the skin before stuffing it with chopped cashews, sunblush tomatoes, fresh anchovy fillets, olives and lemon zest, basil leaves and seasoning. We brushed two halves of a sheet of filo pastry with rapeseed oil, layering them up and wrapping the salmon so that the seams were underneath, trimming as necessary to avoid excessive layering. We sprinkled this with poppy seeds and baked it for ten minutes, flipping it topside-down after eight. We served with this a blanched, deskinned, hollowed out tomato filled with a pesto we had made by grinding together basil leaves, garlic, toasted pine nuts, parmesan, lemon juice, olive and rapeseed oils and seasoning in a pestle and mortar, and baked for the last two minutes of salmon cooking time. We cut the salmon parcel open to plate it displaying the stuffing.

Ready for some meat? Yesterday we made pork Holstein. This starts life as a pork escalope, which starts life as a pork tenderloin. After trimming the tenderloin to remove sinew, fat, and membrane, we stood it upright so that all the meat fibres were vertical, between two sandwich bags, and flattened them with a meat hammer. We then pané'd the escalope by dunking in flour, then an eggwash, then fine panko breadcrumbs, as we had our plaice goujons. This was panfried in butter and a little oil, once the sizzling had stopped. While this drained on kitchen paper, we fried a duck egg in the oil (be careful not to use too high a heat, like I did, and burn some escalope crumbs!), and plated up the buckwheat salad we had made earlier. This was a mix of buckwheat cooked in vegetable stock, chopped deskinned and deseeded tomato, spring onion, parsley and coriander with lemon juice, seasoning and olive oil. We made a beurre noisette by cooking butter until it stops foaming and then turns nutty and brown, and stirred through capers off the heat, along with chopped parsley and lemon juice. As per tradition, the Holstein is decorated with a criss-crossed anchovy.

For a lighter dinner option last night, we made a full roast dinner. Having braised our pork belly (not our own, although four weeks into the course, things are definitely heading that way!) on Tuesday, it was time to roast it. But first, the accompaniments. We learned how to 'turn' our vegetables into nice, high-end restaurant shapes - and that we need a lot of practise to get this right! We cut potatoes into beautiful seven-sided pointed barrels, carrots into flower-shaped slices, and parsnips into curve-sided mini-spearheads. We blanched cauliflower florets before making a roux (cooking out butter and flour) and loosening into a sauce with milk (making a béchamel),  before stirring through grated cheddar (making a mornay). We coated the cauliflower in the mornay sauce and put it in a dish, sprinking with parmesan ready to bake at the same time as the belly pork after browning all sides in a hot pan with some rapeseed oil, on top of some parchment paper to stop it sticking to the pan. We boiled the potatoes for about 10 minutes until just cooked, in salted water before draining and allowing to steam, and blanched the parsnips for about a minute and a half. Then we fried the potatoes in duck fat until brown, added the carrots to the pan before covering with a cartouche of parchment with a steam hole, and putting this into the oven along with the pork and cauliflower cheese for 15 minutes at 200°C.
While they were in the oven, we made an apple and tarragon sauce by cooking out apple cubes with a splash of apple juice until the cubes began to break down, before adding sugar to taste and stirring through chopped tarragon. We cooked the parsnips by pan frying in duck fat until they started to colour before adding a little honey to the pan. And the gravy! Of course the gravy. We had been cooking the juices from braising the pork belly with added beef stock, having fried off a mirepoix and reducing red wine in the pan after the vegetables had coloured. Once this had reduced, we strained it and thickened with cornflour and water. All of this had to come together at the same time, and we presented it beautifully. It was the most glamorous roast dinner I have ever seen! I must say that being taken through this dish by Tom Ewings has inspired me as well as giving me the fear of God when it comes to thinking about my presentation and level of technique skills for assessment week! A weekend of practise awaits....

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

A case of crabs

We had Rob Dawe back today, unexpectedly but gladly. Today promised to be a little calmer than yesterday, with a shorter prep list, but with some brand new skills I was looking forward to picking up.

We started off with lots of pork! We prepped pork belly in pairs by scoring the skin with very sharp knives, not to cut through to the flesh but to create a lovely crackling for when we roast the meat later in the week. We sprinkled this liberally with salt, rested the meat in a roasting tin on top of a bed of chunks of carrot, celery, onion and leek, along with thyme, smashed cloves of garlic and broken up star anise. We topped the tin up with water up to the top of the vegetables, covered the meat with baking parchment and foil before putting the meat into the oven at 150°C for 5 hours. Belly pork is an economical cut - 800g will cost about £4 - but it is worth remembering that it will lose about 1/3 of its volume in the cooking process, so a piece this size would make two portions. The meat can also be cooked as a confit to make pork rillettes. Once the meat had cooked, we removed rib bones, cartilage and excess fat layers underneath before wrapping the meat in portions in clingfilm. It will be pressed overnight in the fridge by placing a tray on top of it with a pestle and mortar, and we will roast it for lunch tomorrow.

Pork tenderloin, before.
Next we prepped pork tenderloin. The tenderloin is pork's equivalent of a fillet of beef, found nestled underneath the cannon, below the spine and within the ribs. A whole tenderloin weighs about 800g and would serve about 4 people at a cost of around £8. We removed fat and sinews, and those who had a 'chain' strip of meat attached to their piece of tenderloin removed it. We made a cut about halfway down the meat along its length before making secondary cuts a quarter of the way down this first cut in order to open up the meat. We spread chopped sage, lemon zest, salt and pepper into the opened-up meat before tying the meat three times and browning it in a hot pan with a little rapeseed oil and butter.

The tenderloin was laid on top of a bed of sliced shallot, garlic and fennel, small wedges of apple and sprinkled with thyme. We were making parcels with our meat so this all happened atop a square of parchment and a big piece of foil. We folded out parchment over the meat, then the foil and sealed two of the three ends of the parcel. After pouring away any excess fat, we deglazed our meat-sealing pans with a little cider before pouring this into the parcel and sealing the remaining edge. The parcels would be put into the oven when the accompaniments were ready. Cooking food in a bag is a great way to retain a lot of flavour and moisture, and can easily be prepared in advance, ready to go in the oven and be served with a bit of theatre at the table for your guests. This can be done with a lot of meats, such as chicken, and fish, particularly non-oily fish that take on flavours well, and all sorts of aromatics, such as lemongrass, chilli, lime and a variety of vegetables can be used.

One of the accompaniments for the tenderloin was potato dauphinoise, which is one of our assessment dishes. King Edward or Maris Piper potatoes are used and sliced very thinly (this could be done using a mandolin or even a peeler, but we are being tested on our knife skills!) before being layered up in a small buttered dish with a little seasoning in between each layer. Meanwhile, we heated cream and milk with a smashed clove of garlic until it boiled before taking it off the heat and allowing it to infuse. We were making individual portions to practise for our assessment, but this could be done in a large dish, with portions cut out later. The large dish would also have to be buttered, and if it is also lined with parchment the finished dauphinoise can be lifted out when cold to cut and reheat. The dish can also have the addition of cheese or be adapted by substituting 40% of the potato for other vegetables such as sweet potatoes, parsnips or butternut squash. Once the layers had been built up, we strained enough of the infused cream over them to cover before baking for 45 minutes, pressing the potatoes down into the cream every 15 minutes. Once the dauphinoise had cooled, we used a cutter to cut a tower out of the dish and put it on the same baking tray as our pork parcel to cook in the oven for 10 minutes at 200°C.

Once the pork had had its time in the oven, we snipped a corner of the bag, poured the cooking juices into a pan and started to reduce it vigorously. Earlier in the day we had blanched and refreshed broccoli and now we reheated it in a little water before adding spinach to the pan to wilt in the heat. When the sauce had reduced, we added cream and took it off the heat before adding butter to 'monter au beurre'. The tenderloin had its strings removed before being carved and presented with its accompaniments. I kept the spare bits aside from my presented plate but decided once I had tasted it that it was too delicious to last until the journey home!

Believe me I was more impressed at the prospect than I look
After lunch we became CRAB KILLERS! I have long wanted to prepare crab from start to finish and today we began that process. Crabs cannot legally be removed from the sea until they have a shell span of 12cm, which takes them three to four years. Chef showed us how to identify boy and girl crabs and explained that for sale, the tendons of a crab's claws are often severed between them to make the crab easier to handle. Ours hadn't been through this process and chef recounted tales of students flailing round the room in past classes with a crab fervently attached to fingers. A crab's claws are strong enough to cut these off!

Trying not to get grabbed!
Our crabs were about 1.3kg and would have cost about £8-9. I called mine Dave. Ashburton has a special machine to kill crabs, lobsters, langoustines and Dublin Bay prawns in milliseconds by electrocution in a salt bath, which ensures optimal conduction of the current. The process also kills bacteria in the crab and tenderises the meat.
I have never held a live crab, and jumped out of my skin when I was tentatively reaching into the box of crabs and one of them had a shuffle. The trick is to stay well clear of the claws and to hold them upside down.
Checking that Dave had passed into crabby heaven
By the time my group had our turn with the stun-a-crab-omatic, they had been out of the fridge long enough to really wake up and mine was not impressed at being put into a machine. Tough, mate, sorry. I closed the lid and after a few seconds it was over. This is the most humane way to kill the crabs, the second best being to put them in the freezer for 30 minutes before putting them straight into boiling water.
Dave's demise
Apparently it is now trendy for chefs to cook crabs from cold water, as this is more likely to keep the claws intact, but this takes much longer to kill them and they suffer.

Once Dave had joined the crab king upstairs, he went into a pot of boiling water with his mates and sliced lemon, onion, fennel and celery with bay leaves, star anise and black peppercorns. We cooked them for 20 minutes before leaving them to cool in a sink full of cold water. Apparently it is not too much of a problem to cook crabs for a little too long, but lobster is very easy to overcook. The crabs were stored face down, vertically in the fridge so that water within their shells didn't sit inside and stagnate overnight.

In between our porky tasks earlier, chef had demonstrated how to make pannacotta by heating equal quantities of milk and cream before adding honey, then stirring through gelatine leaves that had been soaked in water. 1g of gelatine is enough to set 100ml of liquid and our recipe called for just short of these proportions because, as chef said, we needed 'to live on the edge' and our pannacotta had to have a good amount of wobble. Once the mixture had cooled, we stirred through greek yoghurt and poured the mixture into mini plastic pudding basins, otherwise known as dariole moulds. These were set in the fridge for as long as we could during the day, and chef moved them to the freezer for a little additional chill as he was concerned that they needed a little longer to set properly than we actually had. We glazed fig pieces in a reduction of orange juice, sugar, orange blossom water and orange zest before roasting for five minutes at 200°C. We reduced the remaining glaze down to a syrup to decorate the plate. Getting the pannacottas out of their moulds was tricky! We carefully used knives to loosen the edges and then very gently used fingers to try to create an air pocket before inverting them over the plate and letting them slowly release themselves.

We served the pannacotta and the figs with tuille biscuits. After seeing them on The Great British Bakeoff so many times I was very much looking forward to having a go and am pleased to report that they are not as tricky as the contestants made it seem! We made the batter by creaming equal quantities of everything - first egg whites and sugar before mixing in sifted flour and then slowly trickling in melted and cooled butter. We added vanilla seeds to our mix but other flavours could be used, such as lime zest or by substituting 10g of flour for cocoa powder or ground nuts. We chilled the batter for a while before piping long strips of it onto a baking sheet and using the back of a wet spoon to create a circle of batter. The batter was cooked in batches for five minutes at 180°C until lightly golden. Once they are taken out of the oven you have 15 seconds at most to use asbestos fingers to shape strips around wooden spoon handles and to squeeze the circles between two pastry tins to make cups. They set very quickly but if you are too slow they can be popped back into the oven for a few moments to re-soften.
Templates can be made using ice cream tub lids and batter can be spread in the cut out area using a palate knife. The biscuits can be kept for one day before they will go soggy, and are best stored in an airtight tin with rice to absorb moisture. Savoury versions can be made by using glucose instead of sugar and including parmesan. I ate this before I left school today, which means having yesterday's tiramisu for dessert after my leftover pizza for dinner tonight is fine, right? Right?

Monday, 24 March 2014

La Dolce Vita

Today could have been subtitled 'The One Where They Cover Italy'. By the end of the day, I wouldn't have been surprised to see classmates gesticulating wildly to express how the day had gone, before knocking back an espresso and driving off in a Fiat 500.

We started the day by making pasta dough and pizza/focaccia dough. We made the pasta dough as we had waaay back in week two, divided it into three and set it aside while we made dough for pizza and focaccia. This was much like the bread dough for the white rolls we had made back in week one, with perhaps a slightly lower yeast to flour ratio, and making a slightly wetter dough. I will need to ask chef about this because the resulting dough was very puffy, just like you would want it to be!

We made two pasta fillings for the various shapes we would be making today - confit duck, and spinach and ricotta. The confit duck legs we had prepared last week were in the oven at 50°C just to melt the fat they were submerged in so that we wouldn't have to dig them out. We peeled away the skin and reserved this to make duck scratchings later. The meat was tender enough to fall away from the bone, and as we removed the meat we carefully ensured the bloodline was also discarded along with the bones as it can be stringy. The meat was finely chopped and softened shallots and a little aged balsamic vinegar. To make the spinach and ricotta filling, we wilted the clean spinach in a hot dry pan before gently squeezing excess water from it in a colander and drying it on kitchen paper. The spinach was then finely chopped and mixed with ricotta, a little parmesan and grated nutmeg. The parmesan should be added carefully so that you don't end up with a filling that tastes overwhelmingly of parmesan, like ours. This will affect the seasoning as the cheese is salty, so it is possible that only pepper will be needed.

Next we were onto the fun bit. We rolled pasta sheets as before, keeping them stick-free with semolina. We made tortelli and tortelloni with the spinach and ricotta filling by cutting the pasta sheet into squares and one by one, spooning a little filling onto the centre of a square of pasta, brushing the top half edges of the square with water, folding the bottom half up to meet the top half, using thumbs and little fingers to seal the filling as neatly and closely to the pasta as possible (no air bubbles!) before using the blunt end of a small cutter to 'seal' the filling in place. Next we cut the pasta into semicircles with about 1cm of 'clear' pasta around the filling using a larger cutter, flipped it over and brought the corners together to make the recognisable 'belly button' shape. (You can see a few pictures to demonstrate the technique more clearly at this site).

With the duck filling, we made ravioli. Ravioli is different in that it is made with two squares of pasta rather than one. We placed a nicely compacted nugget of the meat in the centre of a square of pasta, brushed all edges with water and enclosed the filling with another square of pasta instead of a fold. The square was then cut to neaten, and I crimped the edges with the tines of a fork. Both sets of pasta were set to one side while we got on with our dough. The third ball of pasta was cut into tagliatelle strips ready for later, dusted with semolina to stop it sticking and kept to one side.

By this point our pizza / focaccia dough was nicely proven. We knocked it back and cut away one third to make our pizzas with. Whilst somehow, I managed to make a pretty good circle by rolling my dough and turning it repeatedly, before stretching it a little with my hands and allowing its own weight to weigh it down, it was a fairly small circle, which became an issue later. Chef had made a lovely tomato sauce by bubbling away several kilos of different tomatoes with onion, garlic and herbs for a few hours, and we used this as our pizza sauce, before topping with prosciutto, breseola, salami and mozzarella. This went into the oven at 250°C for about 12 minutes, until the base was nice and dry. And here came the issue. My pizza base was quite small, and hence puffed up, meaning it was thick and took quite a long time more than others to cook, by which time the toppings were in danger of overcooking. Deep pan pizza and then some! The dough was perhaps slightly undercooked but I loved it as one of my own all the same.

Next up was the focaccia. I rolled this out as one large focaccia, which I then covered with indentations with my fingers. What was supposed to be a liberal coating of olive oil became a bit too literal when the top of the olive oil bottle popped off as I was squeezing. Can't have too much olive oil, I suppose? I pushed black olives into some of the indentations, along with mini sprigs of rosemary, and sprinkled a liberal dose of flaky salt on top before leaving it to puff up with a second prove under oiled clingfilm. Once they were nicely proved, they went into the oven for about 20 minutes at 200°C, with water poured in the bottom of the oven to create steam. We took this home for dinner. It will keep for about 3 days but if it's not being eaten straight away it will need a little sprinkle of water and some time in a warm oven to bring it closer to its former glory to eat.

While all of this was going on, we were also preparing our duck ravioli to have with our pizzas for lunch. We melted butter in a hot pan until it had stopped sizzling and foaming, at which point we added chopped hazelnuts and sage leaves, allowing them to become crisp in the hot oil. In a separate pan, we heated a little oil in a fairly hot pan and fried salted strips of the duck skin we had kept to one side earlier until they were crispy before draining on kitchen paper. When the butter had darkened a little, becoming a beurre noisette, we squeezed in a little lemon juice. By now, of course, we had also cooked our ravioli in a large pan of salted water until it was nicely al dente, and the pasta could just about be split by a thumbnail - very important not to make any holes in the pasta shapes before or during cooking as the filling will leak out and /or become soggy when cooking. The ravioli were removed to drain, plated and the sage and hazelnut butter was spooned on top, before topping with the duck scratchings.

After lunch, we rolled back into the kitchen to make some dishes for feedback. First up was tagliatelle carbonara. We cut and fried some bacon lardons to brown gently before adding a pureed garlic clove (I can now puree garlic with a knife. Skillz.) Meanwhile the pasta is cooked in a large pan of salted water, and time to be ready once the garlic has cooked. The pasta was drained, retaining the water so it can go back into the pan for the next pasta batch. The pasta was added to the bacon / garlic pan, followed swiftly by parmesan, chopped parsley which were stirred together. We then took the pan off the heat and stirred a mixture of egg yolk and double cream through. The egg acts to thicken the sauce and enrich it, and the cream stops the egg from cooking. We seasoned to taste and presented to chef.  He seemed fairly happy with mine, commenting that the sauce could have been a little thinner, and that some of my pasta had clumped together, meaning it wasn't thoroughly cooked. I think it was a little on the wet side as a dough, which meant it stuck together when I cut it into tagliatelle, and pulling the strands apart 'stressed' them, making them crinkly! He did, however, comment that the sauce had 'great flavour', and after having it for dinner I incline to agree!

Alongside this, we made a gorgonzola sauce for our spinach and ricotta tortelloni. We sweated a very finely chopped shallot in a little butter, adding salt to stop it colouring, until it was soft, before adding a little wine and reducing this until it was just a glaze, at which point we added chicken stock and reduced it by two thirds. This took aaaages, and I should have transferred it to a larger pan sooner to speed up the process. If the wine hadn't reduced, the sauce would taste sour and be unfixable. The stock reducing is also key to the flavour and consistency of the finished sauce. Once it had reduced, we stirred through cream, and added a walnut-sized piece of gorgonzola once the pan was off the heat, much in the same way as butter is used to thicken a sauce and add gloss. When I tasted my sauce I worried I had added too much cheese but chef commented that I could have had more. On the flipside, the over-parmesan-ed filling I was worrying about earlier went down well.

Chef was not happy with our performance for the presentation dishes. Not to say that we hadn't presented them well, or that they tasted as they should, but rather that what should have been a 30 minute set of tasks took us over an hour. This would not be acceptable in a professional kitchen and we have to work on our time management, especially now we are over half way and have assessment approaching. I was really disappointed but he was absolutely right. I feel confident that I lined up my tasks - what to chop when, what to start cooking when - well, and I never had anything sitting waiting for an ingredient or overcooking, which I am pleased with. I could have cooked my shallot faster, and in turn, got my chicken stock reduced quicker, as this really held me up. It was a sobering moment for all of us, and gave us something to think about this evening.

Chef made a tiramisu for us to take home (today's doggy bags were bin liners!) by layering up sponge fingers liberally splashed with Tia Maria and drizzled with strong coffee, a vanilla custard whisked with mascarpone and double cream, cocoa and grated 72% Valrhona chocolate, and chilling the whole thing for a few hours. It was designed to be a special treat for a long day. I'm saving mine for tomorrow, which I am determined will all go to plan! Well, maybe I could have just a little taste now...

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Half Way House

Half way day was bittersweet. I have this thing where, rather than getting 'Sunday blues', I hit a low on Fridays. I think it's a combination of tiredness from the week and an unconscious pessimism at the possibility I won't achieve everything I want to from my weekend, that before I even start my two days off, I've somehow failed it already. If you know me, you'll know that this makes no sense. I may not always get through everything on all of my unachievable mental lists but I am always on the go, always trying to get the most out of my time, even if that means having a much-needed lie in. I'm not one for watching much TV, for example - I'm much more likely to wait until the din of approval at a series or programme is so hard to ignore that I know it's something worth watching. I'm a guerrilla researcher, always absorbing and trying to learn as much as I can about something, reading around a subject, and I am proud of my ability to merge knowledge when it comes to my cooking. My time is precious and there to be maximised. So, on Friday I felt a bit low, and whizzed through tasks without as much thought as I'd like, feeling distracted, perhaps at the prospect of having a two-day pause in all this learning, perhaps in the knowledge that while I still have half of this course's knowledge to absorb, I'm already half full.

We started the day with a quick recap theory lesson, which entailed us trying to label the component parts of a sheep with much initial bewilderment - whilst most of us correctly labelled 'head', 'chump' and 'breast' eluded a few. I learned that 'sweetbreads' are the thyroid and pancreatic glands of the animal (delightful) - having previously thought they were just to do with the nads. I also learned that Rick Stein's family-friendly 'crispy lamb' dish was in fact tongue. We were set some weekend reading about bread, ice cream and fish filleting and got on with the day.

First up were chocolate fondants (hooray!). A proper, dead good chocolate fondant is a light, chocolatey sponge on the outside and a puddle of silken chocolate goo on the inside. For me, it's been subject of many a 'will it? won't it?' moment as you cut into it and hope to see the liquidey reward. Rather than make our greased and dusted fondants in ramekins as the recipe suggested, we lined chef rings with parchment - no need to seal off the bottoms (loose-bottomed cake tins and the like always make me nervous - there's nothing worse than seeing something you've put love and care into seeping out of a baking tin in the oven). We melted chocolate and butter in a bain marie and allowed to cool slightly; we made a plain fondant but this is the point at which flavours could be added by infusing things like chilli, mint, basil or cinnamon into the chocolate. We whisked eggs and egg yolks together with sugar until they were thickened before lightly folding in the chocolate. Interestingly, it was important not to over-aerate the egg yolks, and not necessary to do any more than marble the chocolate through the mix as over-aerating the batter makes a light sponge, which would cook more quickly due to the higher air content and therefore dry out. Sifted flour was then folded in and we poured the mix ito our moulds and chilled them. This makes the centre of the batter cooler which in turn makes it cook slower than the outside of the fondant.

Meanwhile, chef made raspberry and champagne sorbet by mixing fruit puree with sugar syrup, stirring in champagne and putting in an ice-cream maker. We were told that, as all fruits have a different water and sugar ratio, they all need different amounts of syrup to fruit to make a sorbet that is smooth, crystal-free and not too granular. A bit of research when I got home reveals this to be quite a complicated science, involving both the baume scale, which is to do with the density of liquids (such as in fruit), and the brix scale, which is the sugar content of a solution. In short, the water and sugar content of a lemon is different to that of a peach, and this means their sorbet recipes will be different. This page shows some related information for commercial fruit purees to give you an idea.

Science lesson over. While we were waiting for our fondants to chill and our sorbet to freeze, we filleted a seabass. As you do. This was fairly similar to the gurnard we filleted earlier in the week (I have definitely had my dose of fish this week!) as we had to remove a fair bit of the fillet and snip it free by using scissors to cut through the rib bones. We will be assessed on our seabass filleting techniques in a couple of weeks time and as such I had a bit more practise this weekend.

The weekend practise was a lot more stressful, however, as the fish I bought needed to be gutted (no major issue there, I can handle that) descaled (aaargh! this was not factored into my assessment recipe practise schedule, was incredibly messy and I am still finding scales in my hair, clothes and stuck to my skin) filleted without a fish filleting knife and pinboned without the use of tweezers. Anyway, on Friday it was much easier, the fish had been gutted and scaled - although we still needed to check, and we had all appropriate equipment to get the job done. Once we had our fillets, we cut one into sections to pan fry later, and cut the other into very thin slices to make a carpaccio starter.
Carpaccio is a dish using spankingly fresh meat or fish, perhaps dressed, but not cured with lemon or lime juice as a ceviche would be. We practised our knife skills by cutting the slices without them being too thick, or going through the skin, or even by cutting through the fish's blood line and making the slices unattractive. We made a citrus dressing by mixing orange and lemon juice with olive and rapeseed oil, seasoning and a little icing sugar to take the sour edge off, and painted the slices with this before constructing the dish. We dressed the plate with mixed leaves, capers and cornichons and a little extra dressing.
This was our first course of the day - it was really delicious and I was surprised to find that seabass flesh has a certain sweetness to it that I didn't expect. Our next course was pan-fried seabass with a mussel cockle, pea and wild mushroon fricassee. We sweated sliced shallot and garlic before adding the shellfish we had carefully cleaned, added a little stock to the pan and allowed them to cook while we fried off a combination of wild mushrooms we had cleaned and prepared - oyster, bluefoot, chanterelle, chestnut and cluster mushrooms all found within ten miles of the school.
Surreptitious parsley use to cover up loss of skin
We added peas to the shellfish and a little butter, chopped parsley and then the mushrooms with a squeeze of lemon. This was served with the seabass, which we started cooking skinside down in a hot pan with a layer of rapeseed oil. The trick is to wiggle the fillet in the pan so that it doesn't stick, and not to overcrowd the pan. My cooking partner and I failed on both counts so we lost most of the skin on our fish, but it was cooked beautifully. I managed a lot better with this when I practised at the weekend, although I will need a bit more practise so that I can achieve crispy skin too!

Soon it was dessert time, which means back to those fondants! We cooked ours for about eight minutes at 220°C, by which time the top had risen slightly and dried out. We took them out of their chef rings as soon as possible so that they did not continue to cook. Presentation was a bit of fun, and we had chocolate paint, freeze-dried raspberries, blitzed chocolate 'soil' and cocoa powder to play with. It tasted as good as it looks and the centre was beautifully gooey! Unlike the rosewater ice cream earlier in the week, I didn't secure my ball of sorbet with the freeze dried raspberries, so I had to chase it over the plate to eat!

Last job of the day was to prepare a duck breast with a beetroot salsa. Top tip of the day? Cook duck breast in a cold pan. It will render so much fat that it doesn't need any to start with, and if you start cooking it in a hot pan the skin will burn. Actually, today I'm feeling generous and you can have two top tips. When cooking duck breasts, use the 'rule of six' as a guide. Six minutes in a pan, six minutes in the oven and six minutes resting, and it will be perfectly cooked and beautifully pink. We scored the skin, seasoned with salt and put it in the cold pan skin side down for six minutes. After sealing the other side of the breast, we put it on a roasting tray, skin side down, with a good drizzle of honey all over and into the oven for six minutes at 220°C. After resting it skin side up for six minutes, we carved it into slices and served it with a salsa of chickpeas, beetroot cubes, chopped spring onions, sliced garlic, chilli, coriander and lots of lime juice. I'm a lot more keen to try duck again now that I know, having bought a more expensive bit of meat, I can cook it properly!

This weekend, I practised a menu from what we've been taught so far, for a five-person dinner party. I made the vegetable broth and bread rolls from week one, the sea bass and sabayon from week three and the chicken and sweetcorn from week two. So much chopping! It was all fairly successful, aside from the fish fiasco, the rolls looking beautiful but burnt after the old gas oven acted more ferociously than the ones at school, and my blow torch giving up the ghost leading me to rely on my dad's garage tools. While I'm happy that my diners were happy, I will need to ask the chefs how to up-scale the amounts in the recipes we have from now on. Having a folder full of one-portion recipes is lovely but it's not simply a matter of multiplying the quantities by the number of people eating. And just like that, I'm back on another learning cycle, ready for week four.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Pour some sugar on me, c'mon fire me up!

Today was always going to be a great day at school. The menu for the day read 'Best end of lamb, mustard herb crust, vegetable tian, rosemary dauphine potatoes and tomato and olive jus' for lunch - and profiteroles, éclairs, tarte tatin and vanilla mascarpone cream to take home. Oh yes. However, so much pleasure cannot come about without a little effort, and we got through a lot of technique today, with minimal mistakes!

We started by making choux pastry for the profiteroles and éclairs so that these could be ready for finishing later. Throughout the course so far, I keep finding that we use equipment I have at home, or are making things I've tried myself, but in both cases I've not been getting it quite right. I tried making a savoury croquembouche a couple of Christmases ago, for example - a croquembouche being in essence a cone-shaped tower of profiteroles, but my profiteroles were too small, too soggy and it just didn't work. Today we did it the right way. We started by bringing water and a butter, with a little salt and a good pinch of sugar, to the boil for a few seconds. It is important to boil the water so that the butter emulsifies through the water. Once this has happened, we took the water off the heat and added in sieved flour, which we beat together and then returned to the heat so that the flour could cook out, much like in a roux. The paste was ready when it formed a glossy ball, and if tasted, had no floury texture. At this point it was spread on a tray to cool it quickly.

Once the paste had cooled to lukewarm it was put in a bowl and beaten eggs were gradually mixed in with our hands - I seem to be using my hands as mixing implements a lot here and I have to say that I quite like it! Once it had reached a smooth consistency that dropped from your hand within 3 seconds it was ready and we filled a piping bag with the mixture, keeping a little back for dauphine potatoes later (see below!). The profiteroles were piped out by piping a golf ball-sized round onto a baking sheet before a quick upward movement to leave a little tail. The éclairs were piped by smoothly piping out a 10cm thick line, having cut the piping bag nozzle a little larger. The 'tail' for each one was dabbed down with a clean damp finger. These were then put into the oven at 200°C for about 20 minutes.
It was really important not to open the oven during this time to prevent them from collapsing, but to check on them using the oven light! Once they were puffed up and golden, we took them out, punctured the bases with a paring knife to let the steam out, and put them back into the oven upside down for another minute or two to dry out completely, before allowing them to cool. Filling and decorating would come later in the day.

Next we got onto making our lunch. First we made a mediterranean vegetable tian - a stack of vegetables. We sliced and griddled courgette and aubergine, cut discs out of peppers and griddled these and then layered them once cool in a chef ring in alternating colours with a little seasoning, balsamic vinegar and basil between the layers. We kept this to one side for later while we got on with making dauphine potatoes, which we will be assessed on in three weeks time. Dauphine potatoes are made by combining mash with half the quantity of choux pastry and deep frying in breadcrumbs to make light, crispy pillows. We mixed the mash and choux with some chopped rosemary and seasoned, before shaping the mixture into quenelles. These were then coated in panko breadcrumbs (like our plaice goujons had been) and set aside ready to be deep fried in time for lunch. Meanwhile we made the jus to go with our lamb. We softened finely chopped shallot and garlic in butter with some thyme before adding red wine and reducing this until syrupy. This cooks out the alcohol and sweetens it. At this stage we added beef stock and reduced the sauce by two thirds. When the sauce was nearly ready we added deskinned, deseeded and chopped tomatoes and halved black olives, and when it was just about to be served we took it off the heat and added cubes of cold butter, whisking it through to 'monter au beurre' and make the sauce thick and glossy.

Check out my rack!
Before we could do that, though, we had to prepare our lamb. Chef Rob made a herb crust for us by blending parsley, rosemary, thyme and garlic with breadcrumbs. He let this run in the processor for quite some time so that all the oils from the herbs could be fully released. We then added oil to the crust so that it was moist enough to adhere to the lamb We seasoned, oiled and browned our beautiful lamb racks in a pan before putting them into the oven for about 10 minutes (depending on size) before leaving them to rest for about five minutes. Chef showed us a trick to test for 'done-ness' by touching each finger tip to your thumb and pressing the flesh at the base of the thumb with your other hand. Touching your index finger and thumb together equates to how meat feels when it is rare, middle finger equates to medium rare, ring finger is medium well and little finger equates to well done meat. We were cooking our lamb to medium-rare, which could also be checked by testing the temperature at the centre had reached 55°C. Once the meat was cooked and rested, I cut my skin from the rack ready for the crust so that it would stick - and look - better. At this point we brushed the skin-side with dijon mustard and pressed the herb crust on top before returning the lamb to the oven to bake the crust for two minutes. Then I blow-torched my crust to toast it a little more before carving the rack into individual cutlets. This was tricky!

While all of this was going on, we deep-fried our quenelled dauphine potatoes until golden before letting them drain on paper, and warmed our vegetable tians in the oven. Quick as a flash, it was time to construct our dish! I can assure you that it was as delicious as it looks. Next time I need to make the crust slightly wetter so that it adheres to the lamb better, (we are told every day that 'wetter is better', in terms of doughs and now it seems in terms of a herb crust!), and to season my dauphine potato mix better. But otherwise, I was rather pleased!

The afternoon was a flurry of sugar-fuelled activity. First we made pastry cream, or creme patissier. This is much like custard but has the addition of flour, which stabilises the egg yolks. Because of this the method includes - and requires - boiling of the mixture, a definite no-no in custard making as this would scramble the eggs. We brought milk and vanilla to the boil while we whisked egg yolks and sugar until the sugar had dissolved, then added sieved flour to the egg and sugar mixture, whisked this through, and then streamed in the hot milk. Once this had all been added it was added back to the pan and cooked for a while until it had started to boil and had become very thick - whisking frequently throughout. By the time it is ready the pan can be happily turned upside down above your cooking partner's head without falling out.
Excuse the massive blobs of white choc.
I can't help myself where chocolate is involved.
We whisked double cream until it formed soft peaks, and then what we should have done was to fold this into the pastry cream to make 'creme diplomat'. However, my partner and I folded the pastry cream into the whipped cream. Which did not work. So we had to scrounge extra creme diplomat from all of our classmates. What a lovely and helpful bunch they were. We filled a piping bag with the creme diplomat and piped it into our eclairs and profiteroles via the steam holes we had made earlier. Then we warmed some double cream and melted dark chocolate drops in it to make a ganache, or sauce, and dipped the profiteroles and eclairs into this before leaving them to set on a rack. We used a spoon or piping bag to decorate these with melted white chocolate and they were done! I am saving these as goodies for family this weekend and will let you know how they taste but I have a feeling it is going to be good! Pastry cream is very versatile - it forms the base of souffles, sweet tart fillings, fruit fools and even trifles!

All this sweet wasn't enough, oh no. Next up was tarte tatin! I have made tarte tatin a couple of times but never with any success. I do know, however, that done right, it is a beautiful, beautiful thing. And today I cracked it.

Genius move. Everyone loves a flambéed pan.
We peeled, cored and quartered a cox apple and fried this off with a little butter. What we were supposed to do next was to add brandy to the hot pan the apples were cooking in and flambé the  apples so that they would absorb the brandy flavour. I, however, was so excited at the prospect of flambé-ing that I took the apples out of the pan, added the brandy - in two batches, by the way - and flambéed the empty pan. In my defence, my cooking partner took three pictures of me doing this and at no point pointed out the fact my pan was evidently bare.

Once the apples have been flambéed (ahem) they are put to one side while the pan is used to make a caramel. We put sugar into the empty pan and melted it without stirring as this would make it crystallise. Once it had turned golden brown we added butter and stirred this through before pouring enough into a tatin case (like a tartlet tin without the loose base!) to cover the bottom of the tin. We arranged the apple pieces in the tin so that they fit snugly. Then we rolled out puff pastry until it was about 1.5mm thick before cutting out a disc slightly larger than the tin and tucking the apples in with the pastry so that it almost reached the caramel and all the apple pieces were firmly enclosed with pastry. we made a few air punctures in the pastry and put the tartes into the oven for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile we made mascarpone cream by mixing mascarpone with vanilla seeds, double cream and icing sugar. We also re-melted the remaining caramel in the pans that had been poured into the tatin tins and added double cream to this to make a caramel sauce. When the tarte tatins were ready, and the pastry was dry and golden brown, we turned them over, plated them, decorated the plates with the sauce and topped the tartes with a quenelle of the mascarpone cream. Chef was pleased with how it looked and so was I. It also tasted delicious, which obviously helps!

Tomorrow marks the halfway point of the course, already, and I cannot believe how fast it is going. Before I know it, it will have finished and I will be thrust back into the big wide world with a new set of skills, a bigger sense of kitchen confidence and no clue what happens next. I am thoroughly enjoying myself and know that all this will lead to good things. All ideas for what these might be are welcome!

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Show me yer mussels!

Today's cookery had a lot of the sublime, as well as a little of the ridiculous. We welcomed back Chef Rob Dawe to teach us today and covered a broad spectrum of deliciousness with him. We started with stage three in our duck confit, having butchered the duck and marinaded the legs yesterday. Today we wiped off the dry marinade (our marinade had brandy as well as herbs, but any marinade where the item is not pretty much submerged is a dry marinade) and cooked them in duck fat at 140°C in the oven - now they were submerged! The kitchen smelled like Christmas all morning to me, so I was a very happy girl. We turned the legs every hour or so and left them cooking for around four hours before storing them in the fridge, where they can keep like this for weeks - but we will dig them out of the fat on Monday to use for pasta filling. Chef informed us that we could have kept back the excess fat from the ducks yesterday and rendered this down slowly rather than using bought-in duck fat, and demonstrated the rendering technique just with the fat trimmings we had today, tidying up the legs before cooking. Cheekily, we also got to have some duck scratchings, made from the leftover skin after rendering, dried out in the oven. Delish!

Next chef showed us how to make boulangere potatoes. This is a dish that started life when the housewives of France would take a pot of onion and potato slices, with stock, to the bakers once the bread for the day had been made, to make use of the residual heat in the oven. Tom Kerridge does a beautiful version with shoulder of lamb sitting atop the potatoes (see how here, watching the dish in action from 2min to 5min). Chef had already sweated down the onions for our version, and demonstrated how to use a mandolin before getting us to layer potato slices with cooked onion and seasoning, finishing with chicken stock. We cooked our dish (enough for about 16 portions) at 190°C for almost two hours, pushing the top layer of potatoes down every once in a while to stop them curling and burning. Once they were cooked, we chilled the dish with a weighted-down tin on top, to compress the potatoes, which by now had absorbed all the chicken stock.

Rack of lamb, 'before'. Check back tomorrow for the 'after'!
Next up was some more butchery. We were presented with a beautiful best end of lamb, which comes from the lower neck of the animal and costs about the same as a fillet steak at £1.40 per bone. We then watched how to prepare it into a rack. First we had to remove the chine bone (topmost triangular strip of bone on picture); this is the part of the spine that the ribs meet. We kept this for a sauce later. Those who had a shoulder blade as part of their cut had to remove this from between the skin and meat at the end of their rack. The most important part of the rack to maintain is the cannon, the oval strip of meat running through the base of the strip. If you cut this out, it would be a noisette of lamb. We scored a line on the skin side of the rack just above the cannon and cut away meat and skin from this point to the tip of the ribs, before cutting out the meat in between the ribs. Any decent pieces of meat were kept back for the sauce, while fat and skin were discarded. Once the bones were mostly clear of meat, we used the knife, angled towards us, to scrape meat clean from the bones before giving them a final wipe clean, scoring the skin and wrapping the ribs in foil to stop them burning when they cook. You will get to see the finished product tomorrow!

Darker mussels are girls, lighter ones are boys!
Thanks to Rob Dawe for letting me photo his work.
Lunch today was a two-part affair, starting with moules mariniere. Our mussels had come from the River Exe, the best of three rivers in the area for mussels. We checked them for barnacles, which we removed, for holes in the shell, in which case we discarded them, and for a beard, which we removed. We tapped any mussels that were partially open to check that they then closed, and if not these were also discarded as this means they were dead and therefore harmful to eat. We melted butter, fried off finely chopped shallots and garlic with a little salt until softened before raising the heat and tipping the cleaned mussels into the pan, followed by some white wine. We put a lid on the pan, gave the mussels a good shake and left them to cook for about three minutes. Then we removed the mussels to a bowl, added chopped parsely and cream, a little pepper and lemon juice to the sauce and let this bubble away while we made sure each shell had a corresponding mussel and that the plate looked attractive, before pouring over the sauce and serving with warm slices of the granary bread we made yesterday to dunk with. I got so quickly engrossed in my own plate I forgot to picture it and had to photograph chef's! Now that I know how to make this properly, without overcooking the mussels or stewing them in too much wine, I will give it a go more often, perhaps trying with cider instead of wine, and perhaps adding some other flavours such as curry or lemongrass.

Part two of our lunch was jelly and ice cream! Only this is a professional course, so it was posh. We made the ice cream by making a custard almost the same way as our vanilla custard last week - with slightly less cream (to stop the ice cream from crystallising too much or feeling 'chalky' in the mouth) and slightly more milk and sugar, and instead of adding vanilla, we used a little rosewater. This was then chilled and churned in a pacojet, which makes ice cream in 8 minutes. To go with our ice cream we made an elderflower and champagne jelly. First we rehydrated sheets of gelatin then we dissolved this in a mix of elderflower cordial and water. We used a blowtorch to lightly eliminate any surface bubbles before adding in a little champagne (sparkling water is the cheap's cheat's version). We half-filled a chef ring sealed at the bottom with a triple layer of clingfilm with chopped fruit and topped this up halfway with the jelly mix before allowing to set in the fridge and repeating the process. We used freeze-dried raspberries, glass sugar and macarons to decorate our plates, kindly donated by Rob Spencer!

For dinner this evening we practised one of our assessment dishes - a madeira jus - to accompany our breast of lamb from Monday. We browned the chine bone and bits of meat from our lamb rack butchery before adding a chopped shallot and some chopped garlic. This was deglazed with madeira before the cooking juices from the breast of lamb were added, followed by beef stock. We left this merrily bubbling away during the day. We made a mint sauce by finely chopping fresh mint with caster sugar and leaving this to infuse in sherry vinegar. Once the sauce had reduced we strained it and kept it warm after removing some of the surface grease by placing clingfilm right onto the surface of the liquid and removing it. Meanwhile we cooked some trimmed green beans and kept these to one side while we griddled slices of courgette and kept these warm in the oven with a portion of boulanger potatoes. Keeping up? We unwrapped, de-tied and sliced our rolled, cooked breast of lamb and seared these with a little oil in a pan before adding some of our jus and finishing them in the oven. Just before serving, we warmed the beans in simmering water with butter and finished our jus by a 'monter au beurre' technique, where cold butter is whisked into the warm sauce, off the heat, to make it glossy.

I would love to have shown you my plate, but it was hilarious. What in my head looked quite nice, turned out looking like the very hungry caterpillar, with a courgette and bean flower, a boulangere potato sun and a very grumpy and soggy looking lamb caterpillar crawling across a slate, juice dribbling everywhere. Key learnings? Don't use slate for dark food. Don't use slate for food with sauces. Don't space food miles apart on the plate. Start again if it looks rubbish! At least I have a couple of weeks to work on that before I get assessed on it, hey?

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Oh Gooberfish!

We started today by making granary bread, much in the same way as the other breads we have made and of course, we are now soon to be professionals so this was the easy bit. We used award-winning Cotswold Crunch flour, a mixture of strong white bread flour, malt flour, malted wheat flakes and rye flour, with added pinhead oatmeal and barley. We did a couple of things differently today - one of the benefits of being taught by a variety of chefs with different approaches. We didn't use flour on our surface today, only to dust our hands, and left the dough to prove in the oven set to 32°C as this was a surefire way of providing a stable proving environment. One the dough had doubled in size we knocked it back, shaped it, left it to prove again and dusted with flour before baking. Sadly time ran away with us a bit today due to the other tasks we had to get through (see below!) and when we very carefully slashed the loaves after dusting, and they all collapsed, there was little we could do other than put them into the oven at 275°C, before immediately dropping the temperature to 220°C, and hope for the best. You will have to take my word for it that the bread was delicious enough for me to smuggle some home for breakfast tomorrow.

Next we made poached eggs. Now, I thought I had cracked this (no pun intended) a few months ago, but I was wrong. I liked my poached eggs as a product of a very light simmer, encouraging the eggs to sink with minimal seepage and cooking in a fairly recognisably eggy shape. Chef, however, preambled the correct method by describing this product as 'comedy rubber eggs'. Ah well. Back to the drawing board then. A perfect poached egg is a pod, essentially. The water should be deep and in a large pan and on a fairly vigorous simmer, with a dash of white wine vinegar (I was about to get snobby about not bothering to make them if you only have malt vinegar before I remembered that chef talked about using red wine vinegar with a brunch including shallots and bacon!) If you can position the pan so that half of it is bubbling away and half isn't, all the better as the egg will be pushed from the hotter side of the pan - the entry point, to the cooler side to cook. Crack the egg into a ramekin and lower this into the water at an angle so that the egg is almost pulled out of the ramekin into the water. The egg will take about 3 minutes to cook, at which point the white is visibly cooked but the yolk still feels fairly squidgy (technical term!) to the touch. At this point remove the eggs to a bowl of iced water to stop the cooking process if you are not serving straight away; the eggs can be stored in the fridge and can be re-simmered for about 45 seconds to reheat later. When serving, the wispy pieces of egg white should be removed to leave your 'pod' of poached egg.

(Top-Bottom) A Gurnard, and Jar Jar Binks
Our next task was to fillet a gurnard. A gurnard is a large, catfish-like fish that resembles Jar Jar Binks. It is also, perhaps more commonly, known as 'poor man's red mullet' because of its delicate flavour. They cost about £7 each. It has a defined bone structure quite different from plaice or mackerel, and tough skin with sharp spines protruding from fins and tail. We removed these spines using scissors before cutting in behind the gill up towards the 'neck' before twisting off the head. Quite a lot of flesh below the gill can be removed through this stage as it is not of good quality. Laying the fish on its side, with the tail towards us, we then cut down to the side of the spine in a series of swipes to cut the flesh away towards the ribs, but not all the way to the base of the fish. Then, halfway down the fish, below the end of the ribs, we cut through from side of spine to belly and cut the fillet away to the tail. We then used scissors to free the fillet from the ribs, cut the ribs out of the fillet and used tweezers to remove the tough pin bones. Easy, huh? What was not quite so easy was the sight of (albeit harmless) worms that had worked their way into the belly flesh and needed to be removed. I thought I had a record of four, but a classmate found about 10 in hers. And they carried on wriggling on the board. Pretty grim.

We cut the fillet into three sections, scored the skin, oiled and salted and baked it at 200°C for four minutes, flesh-side down, before resting it on the hot tray under a lid so that the residual heat could continue cooking it to perfection. We served the fish with slices of our granary bread, griddled, some sauteed spinach with a little butter and our poached egg topped with hollandaise sauce (made by chef, we will get our turn next week!). We decorated the plate with garlic-infused basil oil made by warming olive oil with whole crushed garlic cloves, liquidising with a bunch of blanched and refreshed basil and straining through muslin for a couple of hours. All very delicious, as long as you put the worms thing far from your mind!

That duck leg is hiding because it is embarrassed at its state
After lunch we got on with duck butchery. A duck has a more defined bone structure than a chicken so this was decidely easier than last week's butchery exercise. The essential differences are that the breastplate is more defined and easier to cut against, there is a lot more, thicker, excess skin to remove, a tougher wishbone and a larger, longer breast. Once we had battled through the butchery, we kept the breasts in the fridge for later in the week and the legs were dotted with holes ready for confit. We made a marinade with black peppercorns, sea salt, whole unpeeled garlic cloves, thyme and bay leaves pounded in a pestle and mortar with some brandy and the confit process will continue tomorrow after the legs have spent the night skin-side down in this marinade.

For dinner this evening we took home lamb tagine with couscous. The diced lamb shoulder was stored in a marinade yesterday and today we browned it in a pan after sweating off sliced onion and a little salt. The lamb was seared at a high enough heat to begin to catch on the bottom of the pan, so the chicken stock we then added served to deglaze this. Once all of the chicken stock had been added, we brought the mix up to a simmer before adding a cinnamon stick and some saffron and leaving the meat to simmer, lidded, for a few hours until the meat was meltingly tender and the sauce had reduced. Towards the end of cooking, dried apricots were added so that they could absorb the liquid and rehydrate, and right at the end of cooking some chopped coriander was stirred through.

The tagine was served with couscous, made totally differently to how any of us had prepared before, but which made absolute sense. As chef pointed out, what other grain would we ever soak in hot water to cook? Instead, we laid muslin cloth inside a steamer basket and steamed our couscous inside this for about 10 minutes until it had swollen and become fluffy. We broke it up with olive oil as usual, and stirred through toasted almonds, chopped mint, lemon juice and seasoning. And I am off to eat it now!