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!


  1. Hope you were trained in fire hazards in the kitchen, or had a fireman on hand that was some serious flambé!

  2. Eclairs, profiteroles, chorus, chocolate n cream heaven!