Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Quantifying and Qualifying

It had finally arrived. The three days we all knew were coming. The three days they said we would fly through. The three days to decide it all.

The three days of Assessment Week.

Rationally speaking, we didn't have anything to work ourselves into a blind panic about - assessment required us to produce a three or four course menu from recipes we had all made successfully before and even replicated since we had been taught them. We had four hours to complete and present the dishes and then were assessed on how we tidied and cleaned down the kitchen, and on what we did with our leftover ingredients. We'd get the afternoon to recover and prepare for the next day before we started again in the morning, each day becoming progressively more difficult. The chef tutors had all been keen to point out all the way through the course that they were there to help us ahead of assessment, to answer any questions we had, to enable us to achieve the best results we were capable of. We had been put through a mock assessment a week ahead of the real deal, to help us to iron out any areas of weakness such as speed, seasoning, and prioritising tasks, and that had taught me the valuable lesson of treating my cooking process with a little more mindfulness and care.

Circumstances around my own assessment week were wonderful, but hardly optimal in an academic sense - I spent the weekend before away with friends, and the night before our final assessment day out to dinner with classmates at Rob Dawe's pop-up. But in fact, this all helped me to focus, to plan ahead and to reflect on the skills I had picked up. The weekend before gave me the opportunity to replicate some of the dishes as practise for a crowd who could give me supportive customer-style feedback and boost my confidence in the process. The pop-up reminded me what I'm doing this for - so that I, too, can continue to bring smiles to people's faces with my cooking, to share my skills and to enthuse others about food so that it can bring as much happiness to them as it does to me. And despite my original fears, the last, and hardest, of my assessment days, following my night off, was also my strongest and most enjoyable. Back in February, I would never have thought I could successfully produce minestrone, filleted and panfried fish, bread rolls, a French trimmed rack of lamb and dauphinoise potatoes with jus and a tarte tatin in four hours, looking beautiful and tasting great. And to enjoy myself in the process? Give over.

I struggle to believe all of this was a mere week ago, as it already feels like the days when I cooked and learned (and ate!) all day long are far more distant than that. Over the next few weeks, I will be taking time to go through all of my course notes, to digest the wealth of information I have absorbed and to plan on how to put it to use. I want to make sure my blog readers can benefit from my newfound knowledge too; I am so proud of the work I have put into recording my journey through the course and sharing my experiences with you and I hope you look forward to carrying on learning as much as I do. In the meantime, there are a few key nuggets of wisdom that I took away from the course that I will keep with me and that I hope will help you in your own kitchen endeavours.

Plan Ahead. For each day of our assessment, we had to prepare a Prep List. We didn't get much guidance on how to do this, and I went off and did what worked for me - a detailed breakdown of what tasks I needed to do, in what order. For any menu, be it making a sandwich for lunch through to a dinner party for twelve, there will be jobs that take varying lengths of time, different processes to be used, different operating temperatures, and these need to be planned together in a way that allows them to slot into each other like jigsaw pieces. It's kitchen choreography. This aspect may extend to days, weeks in advance as you take into account seasonality and availability of ingredients, dietary requirements, even unforeseen mishaps. Don't just make things one at a time; the most skilful chefs can dance between dishes, spinning multiple plates at once. I was told that my Prep List was the most organised and methodical they had seen and while I don't plan on replicating that style every time I cook by any means, I have definitely learned the value of thinking dishes through carefully!

Taste it, and taste it again. It takes practise to get seasoning right. I still have more to learn here, and lots of my dishes could have gone from 'great' to 'excellent' if I'd been a bit more brave with the salt. It takes time to develop a palate and the only way to speed up that process is to taste everything. Your food will be transformed when the seasoning hits the mark and it is important to respect salt, not to make it your enemy. Don't use table salt - the flavour is too harsh, and experiment with the different salts out there. You may be a Maldon lover or you may develop a Cornish Sea passion but the only way to know is to try. If you find yourself scared at how big a proper chef pinch of sea salt flakes is, try weighing it and you will be surprised at how little you are adding. If you get it right, you shouldn't need it at the table any more, which is an excellent move for better health.

Eat with your eyes. A beautiful tasting dish needs to be treated with respect, and this means making it look as good as it tastes. Think not only about portion size, but the shape of the items and hence the best corresponding plate shape. Consider the colours and how best to showcase them. Remember that human brains are wired to find odd numbers more attractive. Get rid of any unwanted drips, smears or fingermarks. And make sure the temperature of the plate supports the food as well.

Ask Questions. Learn as much as you can about ingredients - where they are from, how to treat them, and what they pair with. If you make a mistake, find out why, learn from it, and try again. Never, Ever Stop Learning. And practise as much as you can. One of the tutors told us that when he started out, he would come home with a 2.5kg sack of potatoes and sit in front of the TV practising how to carve each one. Every mouthful you make should be treated with dedication and respect, and if you fail partway through a recipe, don't blame the ingredients, but reflect on how you will do better next time. Having a failure does not make you a failure.

Be responsible. For every plate of food, there is a long chain reaching back to where the ingredients came from. Always strive to shorten that chain where you can, and to learn about it so that you can say with confidence that you have respected the way that ingredient was born, nurtured and eventually came to be on your plate. 'Catch it, kill it, eat it' may not be your style but it is still important to have an awareness of what is involved in that process.

As we sat together on our final day, our first day as a team of qualified chefs, happy tums full of the curries we had made together, the Academy Manager told us that this was just the start of our journeys. He told us that not a day goes by when food doesn't enthuse him in some way, when he learns something new about it. "The Perfect Dish," he said, "does not exist. Because you'll never know when you serve it, whether or not it was perfection. You can have tasted it and checked it all the way through but you won't know how it tastes to that person at that time and whether all the elements came together perfectly. And so you continue to strive for perfection every day."

I made a gamble when I started down the food path three years ago. I'm still making gambles now as I work out what to do next, how I will generate an income and the best way to balance my passion and my happiness. But I do know that I am on the right journey and I am proud of what I have achieved so far. My course has shaped me (in more ways than one!); I am grateful to the chef tutors for their time, their energy, their knowledge and their passion and consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from them.

And do you know what, I can cook!

I completed a six-week Professional Culinary Certificate at Ashburton Chefs Academy. This comprised of a CTH Level 2 in Culinary Skills an a CIEH Level 3 Award in Food Safety. You can find out more about the course here.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

A series of experiences

I have been lucky enough to get to know a couple of talented supperclub and pop-up restaurant geniuses in the past couple of years, one of whom I have worked with a few times and learned a lot from, and the other I have had the great fortune of being taught by. Rob Dawe is one of the most inspirational people I have met - and I don't use terms like that lightly. Chefs are often incredibly good at what they do, meticulous in their precision, fiercely proud of their work and renowned for their art. What sometimes slips away is their passion, worn down by years of seasons repeating themselves, trends coming and going, diner desires becoming ever more fastidious. So it is not every day that a chef comes along who not only has a wealth of experience, but also an abundance of passion about cooking, about ingredients and sourcing, and to top it all, a desire to help others to learn as much as they can and gain the most benefit possible from time in a kitchen.

Rob's years of experience cheffing in London eventually led to a post teaching in Exeter college and after while, he moved on to Ashburton Cookery School as a chef tutor. Fast forward a few years and he is now working there part-time while he also carries out consultancy work for restaurants and hotels, runs his own pop-up events and, probably my favourite part, forages for mussels. As you do.

As soon as I heard Rob mention his pop-ups, I asked him when his next one was. It turned out that it would be the night before the most scary of my assessments, and this put off almost half of my classmates. My philosophy on life, however, is that it is built from a series of experiences and opportunities, and I knew that I would be going regardless of how ready I felt for the next day.

The event was hosted at the Heart of Oak pub in Pinhoe, Exeter and was a sell-out within a few days of tickets going on sale for what turned out to be an even more reasonable £30 than I had originally thought. There were to be seven courses of wonderfully treated, locally sourced and seasonal ingredients and my fears that perhaps devouring the steak and chips we had produced for our assessments earlier that day was a bit of an error, were quickly blown away when I saw the menu.

To start, we had a trio of pea, ham and beetroot. This was served as a warm pea soup mini cappuccino with a delicately salty foam, a tender and sticky nugget of glazed ham hock topped with pea shoots, and a pea and ham croquette with beetroot puree. It was great, as students, to recognise the various techniques in use on the plate and to discuss how they could be recreated. Pea shoots are one of my favourite salad gems, with a wonderful sweetness to offset the honeyed saltiness of the ham beneath.

Rob had taken us through how to prepare and serve mussels - hence his casual anecdote about foraging for them (we never found out if that was how he had sourced them this evening!) and so I was glad to see them on the menu, served 'à la Devon' with cider, bacon and cream. I could have done with a few more lardons in my portion, and we all agreed that some fresh, warm and homemade bread would have gone down a treat, although, as we grudgingly conceded, might have been a bit much with five courses to go... Still, I ignored all principles of restraint and finished most of my sauce because it was delicious. Cider gives a much more delicate finish to a mussel dish that wine can, and complements the sweetness of the mussel flesh well. Bacon rounds off what sounds like a heavy dish but ends up being light and flavoursome.

Next up was a palate cleanser ahead of the main event - delicate mojito sorbet with edible flowers. The balance of mint, lime and alcohol was just right and - a small but important detail - this was one of the occasions where we appreciated the attention of the front of house team. We had been given finger bowls for our mussels but also a teaspoon for our sorbet, and so could spend all our energy on enjoying the food and company.

The main dish was locally-sourced Crediton rump of lamb, with parsnip purée, spring vegetables and a port and rosemary jus. Spring is probably my favourite season, and vegetables like asparagus, firm and dazzling green like they were here, are a big part of the reason why. The parsnip purée had been infused with saffron - something I hadn't tried together before, let alone saffron in a lamb dish. But then saffron is largely produced in Iran, and lamb kebabs with saffron rice is a national dish, so it makes perfect sense. The purée had just enough liquid gold in it to complement the flavours without being an overbearing presence. The lamb rump was served in big, no messin' cuts, wonderfully pink and delectably tender. Parsnip crisps were a welcome addition to the dish, bringing an extra texture and fun presentation.

Next up was what Rob thinks may become his signature, mysteriously titled 'Mango, coconut, lime' and looking much more like 'Egg, chip'.

To reveal how this is done, how to eat it or what happens when you try would be too much of a spoiler. Suffice to say I had been told about this in advance, and it delivered just as described - in terms of flavours, textures, and, of course, theatre.
Hearing the room bubble with excitement, laughter and various 'ooohs' and 'aaahs' made me smile and I hope it had the same effect on chef.

This was served with mini fresh strawberry 'milkshakes' - another fun surprise, and packed with lots of vibrant flavour. The tiny bottles being carried to the tables in mini milk crates showed a great attention to detail and sense of humour.

Dessert was chocolate fondant with salted caramel and peanut butter ice cream, which I am fairly sure Rob must have designed especially for me.
The fondant had a pre-requisite gooey centre and its warm chocolate headiness was well complemented with the icecream, which nestled on a bed of honeycomb to give added texture. I'm normally a lover of raspberry but here felt that although the coulis looked perfect on the plate, it distracted a little from the stars of the show. That said, whoever came up with the pairing of chocolate and peanut was a genius. A little digging tells me that Alexandre Dumas, of Musketeers fame, may well have beaten Reece's cups to it, when he suggested that the Spanish called peanuts cacohuette because their flavour resembles that of cocoa, and used to mix cocoa into a peanut mixture to make a kind of cheap chocolate. Although I love my desserts, I've often struggled with this part of my 'last supper' scenario, but I feel more sure now that chocolate and peanuts would be involved.

Our after-dinner coffee was served with a handmade marshmallow, topped with popping candy, renewing my wish to give making marshmallow a go myself soon. Despite the number of courses we all felt comfortably full and disappeared off to the moors with happy faces and entertained tums.

Rob's next pop-up will be on Monday 19th May at the Rodean Restaurant in Kenton, starting at 7.15pm. This will be a six course Summer tasting menu for £35/head and is BYOB. If you would like to book a place, or to be added to Rob's email list and receive notifications of future events, please drop him an email here.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Something(s) for the weekend?

Having made our croissant and brioche doughs on the Thursday, Friday was the day when they were transformed into things of beauty. The doughs had been left to prove in the fridge overnight and when we peeked in to wake them up, the brioche had bulged to monstrous lumps barely restrained by its triple-layered clingfilm and the croissant wasn't far behind!

We started with the brioche and carefully unleashed it from its skin-tight clobber before tapping it with a rolling pin to start the knocking back process, which was completed with a quick kneading. We made a variety of shapes from the dough, such as a brioche burger bun and small individual brioches made from two ping-pong ball lumps of dough enclosing a few chocolate drops in a brioche tin, but by far my favourite, and which yielded the best results, was the large brioche loaf. We used a hand-rolling technique as with bread dough to make three equal-sized balls (ours weighed about 215g each) and snuggled them with each other in a loaf tin before generously egg washing. We left these to prove until they had doubled in size before they went into the oven at 200°C until golden. The resulting loaf was delicious - light, aromatic and comforting, and fabulous toasted. Definitely one to try again!

Next, it was on to the croissants and pains au chocolat. We had a template ready, a paper isosceles triangle with a base of 15cm and a height of 17.5cm. After removing about a third of the dough to use our chocolate treats, it was possible to see the spiralled layering in the dough; exactly what we were looking for as a result of yesterday's turning and rolling. We re-wrapped this chunk and put it back in the fridge.
Tapping the remaining dough flat with a rolling pin on a floured surface, as we had with the brioche dough, we then rolled it out, working quickly while it was still cold, to a thickness of 2-3mm, keeping the dough in as uniform a rectangular shape as possible. It is quite an active dough and shrinks back when you are rolling it out, hence the need to work quickly - this part is good exercise!
Croissants ready to be baked, each with lots of space!
Using the templates, we cut out one triangle at a time, before cutting a slit about 5cm long from the centre of the base of the triangle. This will reduce the density of dough in the centre of the croissant. Teasing the two 'legs' of the triangle away from each other, we rolled the pastry from the bottom of the triangle to the top point as tightly as possible, before bringing the two thin outer points in towards the middle, twisting them together and tucking them underneath the centre of the croissant. We repeated this for the rest of the dough, rolling out again as necessary if the pastry shrunk. With the scraps, we made an 'ugly bun' by smooshing them together with chocolate drops and dried fruit. Everything was liberally egg washed.

Pains au chocolat are considerably easier. For these, we again rolled the dough into a rectangular shape before cutting these into smaller rectangles, about 10cm x 15cm. We placed a few chocolate drops along the narrower base edge and rolled the dough towards the top. The dough cylinder was sealed by egg washing the open flap and rolling the pastry shut - the seam would be baked underneath. These, too, were egg washed. I also tried my hand at making a plait, which was beautiful to look at although I wish the filling was a bit more substantial! Starting with a rectangle of rolled-out dough, 1cm slits are made 1/3 of the way into the centre of the dough from the longer edges. In the open space in the middle of the dough rectangle I spread a little pastry cream and a few chocolate drops before folding the flaps in towards the other side of the dough, first from the left, then the right and so on. The top and bottom of the resulting plait is tidied and folded under before egg washing.
All of the pastries were left to prove for about 20minutes before a second egg wash to really glaze the pastry and they were baked first at 240°C then at 180°C after 15 minutes until they were deep golden brown.

I didn't have to try too hard to find some willing guinea pigs to try my first attempts at croissants and pastries, and their rapid disappearance was rather reasssuring! I was really pleased to see that the dough inside my croissants had spiralled like it was supposed to through the layering and rolling process. Chef advised us that if we could crack croissant dough, making puff pastry from scratch would be a doddle, albeit still a waste of a few hours of one's life. I'm keen to give these another go and see if I can make a better pastry by working quicker as mine seemed to leak more butter than I would have liked whilst I was turning it!

Lunch that day was a beef and mushroom steamed suet pudding. We had made the suet pastry the day before, as well as the beef filling. We drained the beef casserole filling and kept just the meat and the beef chunks, which we broke down into smaller pieces. We fried some sliced shallots in one pan and some sliced wild mushrooms in another, draining the mushrooms before combining them both with the meat. Meanwhile, the sauce had been reducing in a pan, and some of this reduction was used to bind the beef filling before seasoning. Ready for lunch, we rolled the pastry to 2-3mm thick before cutting it into a large disc, removing a wedge to make a 'pacman' shape and using it to line a small pudding basin (a cappuccino cup or dariole mould would also work) which had been oiled and lined with oven-proof clingfilm. We cut lids for the pudding bases, filled the lined basins with the meat mixture and sealed the filling inside the pastry, removing excess overhang before pinching the edges tightly together and closing the edges of the clingfilm together over this. This was all wrapped tightly in foil and steamed for half an hour.

To serve with this, we made a parsnip purée by peeling, coring and chopping parsnips into chunks and simmering in milk until soft. We drained the parsnips, retaining the milk, and once the parsnips had steamed dry we blended them in a liquidizer with as much of the milk as was necessary to make a smooth purée. This needed a LOT of seasoning, as parsnip can harbour an earthy bitterness that needs to be tempered with salt, but it was deliciously moreish. We also made beetroot en papillote by sprinkling chunks of raw, peeled beetroot with thyme, smashed garlic, rosemary, thyme, seasoning and balsamic vinegar in a foil parcel and baking at 200°C for 30 minutes.  Chef showed us how to make parsnip crisps by peeling strips of parsnip, dusting the with flour to stop them from sticking to each other and deep-frying these until golden before draining and sprinkling with paprika and salt. Lunch was served with the stew juices reduced down to a gravy and made into a glossy sauce with a little butter whisked through at the end of cooking. A lovely, simple and impressive dinner!

Could do better.
But everyone likes an ooze!
For dessert (can't spend the day making pastries and not have dessert, of course!) we made raspberry millefeuille. Millefeuille means 'a thousand layers' which might give you the clue that it is made from puff pastry. Most chefs will agree that as long as it is of a good quality, using good butter and base ingredients, ready-made puff pastry is a winner due to its consistency of product. We dusted the worktop with icing sugar and rolled the pastry with the layers pointing upwards, effectively ruining them in a process called 'back rolling'. When the pastry was about 3mm thick we rested it in the fridge in a sandwich of baking trays for 10 minutes before dusting with icing sugar and baking it in the same way for 15 minutes at 220°C. Once the pastry was cool, we carefully cut it into rectangles and used it to make our millefeuille, sandwiching fresh raspberries and piped pastry cream in between. The pastry cream was made with cornflour rather than plain flour this time, to give a more solid density, although mine was still a little too loose an could have done with being cooked longer rather than chickening out a little early as I did! I will have to carry the burden of needing to try making these again as well, I suppose!

It was a great day to finish a great course, and as we left that day, full of trepidation at the week ahead and the weekend of revision needed to get through it, I am sure I was not the only one having the occasional headshake of disbelief at just how much we had learned so far. I am so glad to have blogged it all!

Thursday, 3 April 2014

"You see, pidge..."

"...when you're footloose and collar-free, well, you take nothing but the best!"
(Disney's 'Lady and the Tramp')

I am proud to declare that today, I made some beautiful food. Both to the eye and the palate. And, hopefully, some beautiful doughs. This we shall find out about tomorrow! The doughs in question were for brioche and for croissants. This weekend, it seems, I will mostly be eating French breakfast goods.

Bring it on. 

Brioche dough is known as an 'enriched' bread dough as it contains a higher proportion of eggs, fat and sugar than other doughs. We made it by beating butter with sugar until very soft and loading this into a piping bag so that we could dose it carefully into our dough. We mixed fresh yeast with warm water and a little sugar, as well as beaten eggs. Meanwhile, we sieved strong bread flour and salt into a large bowl and gave this a good mix by hand, using a clawed hand. While still mixing, we gradually poured in the yeasty-watery-eggy mixture to make a sloppy dough. We piped the butter and sugar mixture in little by little, fully incorporating each addition into the dough. This dough can be made quite well in a mixer with a dough hook, and can be flavoured by mixing a flavoured butter through it, with additions such as dried fruits, saffron or cooked chestnuts as long as the quantities are kept consistent with the recipe. We left our dough to slowly prove in the fridge overnight and will finish our brioches tomorrow!

Next, we moved on to croissant dough. Croissants are made with a 'laminated dough', which means a dough is made and then layered up with butter. They are best made with French ingredients, we were told, as the French know what they are doing when it comes to their pastries! French butter, for example, will be more pure, meaning it can hold its shape at higher temperatures and it is also drier than English butter. We used French 'T45' flour, which is soft and relatively low in gluten. It is also best to ensure the flour used is no more than six months old, as it loses nutrients and natural sugars over time. So, first we made our dough by sieving the flour into a bowl and mixing through sugar, crumbled fresh yeast and then a little salt. To this we mixed in egg and milk beaten together and kneaded it a little before putting it into a lightly oiled bowl to prove it in the fridge for a couple of hours while we got on with other tasks.

 One of these was to place a block of butter between two sheets of greaseproof paper and tap and roll it with a rolling pin until it was a rectangle about the size of an A5 piece of paper. This was kept at a cool room temperature. After the dough had proved a little in the fridge, we rolled it out to a rectangle that approximately measured the length of the butter rectangle in width, and three times the butter's width in length. Then we placed the butter on the dough so the two were facing the same way, meaning the butter spread oer half of the length of the dough and had a little perimeter around the three other edges. We folded the 'free' edge of dough one third over the rest of the dough, and the 'buttered' edge of dough that remained was then folded over this. Keeping up? At this stage we had a folded piece of dough with butter in the middle, vaguely resembling a massively yummy business letter. We chilled it like this for a short while to re-chill the butter a little. Keeping the worksurface dusted, but the top surface as dust-free as possible, we then rolled this dough out to stretch it into a rectangle a similar size as the first dough rectangle had been, with the 'twist' edges now becoming the longer sides of the rectangle. Then we repeated this folding process twice more, and put the dough in the fridge with a weight on top to stop it expanding too much during an overnight prove. We will also finish these tomorrow!

Two last things we did for tomorrow were to make a suet pastry, and a beef stew ready for steamed puddings tomorrow. Suet is basically "dessicated" fat, typically surrounding beef kidneys. That may sound gross enough to make you reach for the vegetarian version, but that is made with palm oil, responsible for massive deforestation. A tough call either way.  We sieved self raising flour and added salt, chopped thyme and the suet, along with a little pepper. We then added in milk a little at a time to made a sticky dough, which we kneaded lightly to achieve a slightly smoother ball of dough which will also rest in the fridge until tomorrow. Suet dough should not be kept for more than one day as the flour will oxidise and it will turn grey! It can, however, be frozen. To make the beef stew, we seared chunks of rump steak in a hot pan with a little oil, before removing them to a casserole pan and using the pan to brown chunks of carrot, onion, celery and leek. We removed this to the same casserole, added a little more oil and chopped garlic to the hot pan before deglazing the pan with a little madeira. We had rehydrated some dried wild mushrooms in hot water before squeezing these dry and chopping them, and we added the remaining stock to the casserole, and the mushrooms went with the madeira along with thyme and a bay leaf. Everything then went into the casserole and was covered with veal stock before being brought to a simmer and put into the oven for four hours at 160°C. 

= Some of my life I'll never get back
Finally, it was on to making lunch. Prep for this involved two rather tricky tasks. First, peeling walnuts. This job is a proper pain in the a***. Bring water to the boil and drop the walnuts in there before taking it off the heat and leaving them in there for at least 30 seconds. After this point they are painstakingly peeled using a turning knife, or your fingers, and a massive dose of patience! Once the walnuts were peeled, we made a caramel by heating sugar until it melted to a golden colour, took it off the heat and dipped the nuts into it using a cocktail stick to coat them in caramel.

The second job was to butcher pigeons to get the breasts ready for lunch. This was fairly similar to our duck butchery task a few weeks ago, only slightly fiddlier due to the facts that pigeons are considerably smaller than ducks, with teeny, snappable bones, and a likelihood of shot, bulletholes or broken wings. We removed the wing but kept the skin on the breast as well as the mini fillet as both keep the breast moist during cooking. Our last bit of prep was a celeriac remoulade which we made by chopping celeriac into matchstick pieces and salting while we mixed a little mayonnaise, wholegrain mustard, lemon, capers, seasoning and chopped chives. We rinsed the celeriac and mixed it through. 

To cook the pigeon breast, we poured a little rapeseed oil into a hot pan and placed the salted breasts, skinside down, into the pan, applying a little pressure to prevent it curling up. After two minutes, we turned the breast over, added butter, a bashed garlic clove and some thyme to the pan and basted the breast continuously for a further two minutes. Then we rested the breasts while we prepared our plate.

Chef Tom had made a spiced apple jelly by mixing juice with agar agar and allowing it to set - I cut mine into discs. He also made an apple puree and apple pearls, by dropping the agar agar solution into cold olive oil, draining and rinsing the resulting pearls, and a tarragon oil powder by whisking tapioca maltodextrin through a little of the oil. A little carving of breasts, loading a chef ring with the remoulate, and artful arranging later, I loved how my lunch looked - almost as much as how it tasted! 

Such a beautiful lunch deserves an equally beautiful dessert. Yesterday we made chocolate and cointreau mousse and glass biscuits, as well as a raspberry reduction made by simmering raspberries with a little water and sugar before straining through a fine sieve to remove pips. Chef had made raspberry pastilles by heating raspberry purée with sugar and pectin, lemon juice and liquid glucose up to 108°C. This had been chilled overnight and today was tipped onto a board coated in caster sugar and cut into pieces, before we were set loose to freestyle our plate. 

I'm hoping tomorrow will look and taste just as delicious. Check back to find out!

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

My kind of sausage roll

Today was our last day being taught by Chef Phil and it was just as much fun as ever. By now, we have reached the stage where banter flies back and forth all day between teacher and students, so when I ran out of ingredients and asked for help with a dish today, chef kindly donated some of his, but I was quick to point out that they weren't as nicely prepared as mine!

Most of the morning was dedicated to preparing an amazing lunch. Meanwhile, we were set separate tasks in groups and mine was to make veal stock. We roasted two huge veal knuckles until brown, turning halfway, then spread tomato puree and honey on them and roasted some more. These went into a pan and were covered with water while we browned a mirepoix (chunky cuts of carrot, onion, celery, leek and parsley stalks) in the oven. Once the water was simmering, we skimmed fat and impurities from the surface before adding the mirepoix to the pot and leaving it to 'talk to itself' all day, skimming the surface occasionally. At the end of the day, we allowed the stock to cool a little before straining it and storing it in the fridge.

Chef also demonstrated to us how to make a consommé with the venison stock we had made yesterday, by whisking egg white with finely chopped leek, carrot, celery and onion, a little tomato puree and herbs and stirring this into warm stock. The stock is brought to the simmer, stirring occassionally to ensure the egg does not stick to the bottom of the pan until the egg forms a 'cake' on top of the stock. At this point it is left there while the stock simmers for about 40 minutes so that the egg can absorb impurities from the stock, at which point it is passed through muslin. This can be served with finely chopped vegetables to make a broth, or a poached quails egg, or can have gelatin added to make a clear jelly to set in the base of a glass plate, or cut into cubes for a garnish.

Yesterday we had prepared and marinaded a loin of venison and today was eat day! Lunch had various components, as follows:
Pommes Anna - we placed a tatin tin in a hot pan, added a little oil and layered thinly-sliced potato discs in a circle before encouraging them to cook down in the pan. Once they had begun to sink in the pan and brown around the edges we added butter, seasoning and chopped thyme before repeating the process. Once the second layer looked to be browning around the edges we added even more butter, removed the tin from the pan, flipped the potato 'cake' and cooked it on the other side to brown to base. Once both sides were cooked the 'cake' was put on a baking tray ready to be reheated later.
Cabbage parcel - I have made a lovely pot-roasted partridge with chestnut, sage and sausagemeat-stuffed cabbage parcels a few times around Christmas, with great success, and as the recipe has disappeared from the interweb, you will have to trust me when I assure you of its deliciousness. Today's cabbage parcels were made by blanching cabbage leaves and using them as a wrapper for a stuffing of sautéed shallot, garlic, lardons and shredded cabbage. This was wrapped tightly in clingfilm into a ball and steamed for service.
Braised shallots - I peeled shallots and kept most of the root intact to prevent them from disintegrating before gently frying them in butter and oil, turning carefully once brown. When they had browned on both sides we added some of the venison stock from yesterday with a sprig of thyme and braised them further in the oven. Once they were tender we removed them from the pan and reduced the sauce a little to glaze them.
To serve with all of this we made a chocolate-infused jus by softening some finely chopped shallot and garlic before adding madiera and reducing this to a glaze. At this point we added venison stock and reduced it to a third of its volume before straining the sauce and further reducing it a little. We added seasoning to taste before a few Valrhona chocolate drops were melted into the sauce off the heat as well as a small knob of butter to add gloss and thicken.
The venison itself was seared on both sides before being wrapped in rolled puff pastry, trimmed to resemble a sausage roll, egg washed and baked at 200°C. Lunch today was one of my favourites yet on the course.

After lunch we made praline soufflés. Earlier in the day we had made pastry cream, which you may recall from profiterole day a little while ago.  We mixed a little of this with some of yesterday's praline, before folding into this egg whites that had been whisked to stiff peaks with caster sugar. This mixture was gently poured into ramekins that had been brushed with melted butter (in upward strokes to encourage the egg to rise) and dusted with caster sugar. The surface of the mixture was levelled with a palette knife before the edge of the ramekin was wiped clean and then a little groove was created between mix and ramekin edge with a thumbtip. This went into the oven for 10 minutes while they rose beautifully before we dusted with icing sugar and ate straight away! Mine needed a more decisive 'thumbtrick' as they were a bit shy to rise, and one of mine looked more like a muffin when it came out! Still, I started out today planning to be less afraid of soufflés, and now I certainly am.

Ready for another dessert-fest tomorrow, we made a chocolate mousse by melting dark chocolate and orange juice in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water before stirring in cocoa powder and when cooled, adding egg yolks and Cointreau. We folded lightly whipped cream into the chocolate mix, followed, very gently, by eggs we had whisked with caster sugar to glossy stiff peaks. This was piped into chef rings bottom-sealed with clingfilm and will be chilled overnight.

We also made glass biscuits by melting butter, sugar and glucose together in a pan until melted before stirring in sifted flour. We cooled this mixture for a while until hardened before placing flattened marble-sized blobs on a baking sheet. After baking for four minutes at 180°C we removed them from the oven and place a silicon mat on top before rolling them really flat and baking for a further four minutes. At this point we quickly shaped or cut them as they rapidly cooled, into curves, bowls, shards and strips ready to decorate our plates tomorrow. Check back to see how they look!

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Meat sweats

Today we were taken through our paces by the inimitable Chef Phil, who we duly got stuck in with for group tasks like making a stock, having a go at large-scale butchery and helping make staff lunch for the next day. Yesterday's mock, as well as the fact we are now a month into the course, has got us working well as a team together so all in all, it was a good day.

Fred the fillet steak. 1/4/14 - 1/4/14. RIP.
We started the day with an enormous, beautiful and expensive beef fillet, ready for Steak Day. Phil explained that the fillet is an underused muscle, found underneath the sirloin ribs across the back of the animal. He pointed out that the muscle is particularly underused in castrated bulls, for obvious reasons.... The various cuts from the fillet were then explained - the chateaubriand at the wider end, the centre cut, used for fillet steak, beef wellington or steak tartare, the filet mignon towards the tapered end, and meat at the end of the fillet that can be used for stroganoff. Other cuts were mentioned too; the ribeye being the last cut from the forequarter before the sirloin (best eaten medium rare to medium due to its higher fat content), the sirloin, which is removed from the rib unless it is called a porterhouse, where it is left on the bone, and a T-bone having the sirloin on one side and the fillet on the other. The 'rump' is fairly self-explanatory; a rump steak is cut thinner than a fillet, as is a sirloin and should be cooked medium as the meat is tougher, but arguably more flavoursome due to its fat content.
We all took turns in trimming sinew from the fillet to get a feel for it and chef rolled it in clingfilm to give it a consistent shape before cutting it into fillets about 180g each and allowing us to pick our own steak. I called mine Fred. Fred had beautiful marbling and I felt very optimistic about our relationship.
We were to come back to making our amazing steak lunch later, so keep dribbling for just a little longer...

Next, we got onto a bit of venison butchery. Venison is a very lean meat with a gamier flavour than beef, only available during hunting seasons and shot in the head or heart at around 18 months old. Phil described good hunting practises and rationales and presented us with a venison saddle before demonstrating how to cut the meat from the carcass by cutting down the spine and carefully cutting the meat away from the ribs, allowing us each to have a go. Once the saddle meat had been removed, it was separated from the skin, trimmed of any sinew and the large cuts of meat were marinaded in a mix of red wine, crushed juniper berries, coriander seeds and peppercorns, chopped shallot and garlic and bruised bay and thyme. Smaller pieces were trimmed and tightly wrapped in clingfilm to give it a consistent shape, ready for use in canapes. The carcass bones were hacked into smaller pieces, roasted with a little oil to colour before honey and tomato puree were spread on the bones and roasted a little longer. Meanwhile we roasted a mirepoix (chunky cuts of celery, carrot, onion, leeks and parsley stalks) in one oven, and halved onions in another. The bones were covered in a good quantity of water, brought to a simmer and skimmed before the vegetables and aromats were added to make a stock that would carry on simmering throughout the day. It smelled amazing, and it was great to all take turns keeping an eye on it, skimming the surface to remove any impurities, adding water if necessary and sieving it at the end of the day. All being well, we will make a consomme with it tomorrow, which I am very much looking forward to!

Tomorrow we will make a soufflé (oh dear God! Soufflé!! The potential for catastrophic failure is HUGE!) and the base of this soufflé will be praline, which we made next. We toasted some hazelnuts in the oven before shaking vigorously in a closed tub to rub off their skins and finishing this process with a clean cloth. Then we melted some sugar in a pan until it began to caramelise and turn golden, at which point we added the hazelnuts and some almonds which we coated in the caramel, poured the praline out onto a baking sheet and allowed to cool. When the praline had hardened, we blitzed it to a crumb in a food processor. I may have had a cheeky taste *just to check* and found it delicious. So, what with marinaded venison saddle and praline soufflé, tomorrow is shaping up nicely.

Before we knew it, it was time to start pulling together our lovely steak lunch, the last of the dishes we had to learn for next week's assessments. We cut Maris Piper potatoes into even-sized chips which we triple cooked. Cook one is to bring them to a simmer for about 10 minutes, to the point where the edges are beginning to go a little translucent and the chips have a 'flop' developing. They are left to steam dry (not on paper, which will stick to them!) and cool a little before they are deep-fried at 120°C for cook two, drained on kitchen paper and reserved for 'go time', at which point they were deep-fried at 190°C (cook three) until golden for service with a sprinkle of salt. We peeled a large mushroom and removed the stalk (all trimmings going straight into that lovely stock), and roasted this on a bed of thyme stalks with some cherry tomatoes on the vine, having drizzled both with a little oil, salt and pepper and aged balsamic.

Fred went to a Very Good Place
To accompany our steak meal, we made a béarnaise sauce. Béarnaise sauce essentially has a hollandaise base, and for that reason it scared me. Note the past tense there. As of today, I can successfully make hollandaise and béarnaise! First, we reduced some tarragon vinegar (white wine vinegar with benefit!) with some very finely chopped shallot and peppercorns. We whisked egg yolks in a bowl over a pan of simmering water and added a little of the reduced vinegar before very slowly whisking in warm clarified butter until the sauce had thickened and was leaving ribbons. It is critical not to overheat the egg or it will scramble, not to add too much vinegar for the same reason and not to let it get too cool so that it doesn't solidify too much or fail to cook. Once the sauce is made, it should be kept warm until just before it is served, at which point chopped tarragon and chervil is stirred through.

Then, it was on to the steak! I oiled and salted Fred on both sides before placing him delicately in a rather hot pan and cooking him for two minutes on each side before adding butter to the pan and giving him a lovely bath. He then went onto a baking tray and into the oven for 3 minutes before a quick rest while the rest of the meal was pulled together. It. Was. Lush.

I might have had to finish this for dinner.
As if that wasn't enough, we had to drag our meat-sweaty, food-comatose selves in from the sunshine to make bread and butter pudding for dessert! We buttered thick slices of bread that had been left to dry overnight and cut it into rounds, which we halved and layered up in a cappuccino cup along with some sultanas. We then made a custard base of milk, cream, egg, egg yolks, sugar and vanilla seeds and poured this on top of the bread. Leaving the pudding to absorb the custard at this point is crucial, and something that I have neglected to do before. After ten minutes or so, the custard can be topped up as it will have been absorbed into the bread. We put it in a deep oven tray in the oven and poured boiling water halfway up the cups before baking for about 40 minutes at 180°C. They puffed up quite a bit as they cooked, so once they were out of the oven and had cooled and settled a little, we topped them with a dusting of cocoa, cinnamon and icing sugar and tried to eat them! The inside was a lovely hug of squidgyness, with just the right level of sweet warm egginess. Presenting such a comfort food staple in this new way was great, and has given me a few new ideas!

Now, no beef-and-venison-butchery-steak-and-chips-and-breadandbutterpudding day would be complete if it wasn't for also making a cake. Gluten free, of course. We creamed butter and sugar, added in ground almonds and vanilla seeds before slowly mixing in beaten egg to avoid causing the mixture to split. We had zested a lemon and let it sit in lemon juice to infuse the oils, and at this point we strained the zest out and added it to the mix, along with a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice to taste. Polenta was folded in, along with a small amount of baking powder and the cake batter was piped into rings that had been buttered and coated in caster sugar. The little cakes took about 15 minutes in the oven at 200°C and we served them with sultanas that had been soaking in warm marsala all day.

Last job of the day was frosted hazelnuts. Quite scary, but really easy and pretty cool. Mix equal amounts of sugar and water and dissolve over heat before adding an equal amount of skinned hazelnuts. Keep heating and keep stirring. Eventually the water will evaporate and the sugar will return to its crystallised form, at which point you will need to stir lots to get the hazelnuts coated, and take the pan from the heat before pouring the nuts onto a baking tray to cool. Try not to set fire to the teatowel holding your pan, like I did. When something I'm a bit nervous about turns out not to be all that scary, I have to make it frightening somehow!

Speaking of frightening times, check back tomorrow to find out how that soufflé goes!