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.


  1. "salsa of chickpeas, beetroot cubes, chopped spring onions, sliced garlic, chilli, coriander and lots of lime juice" - very tasty side dish tins and pickled?

  2. My fish skin stuck to the pan - what's the trick?