In one of our many introductory talks, I distinctly remember someone saying that by the end of Week 5, everything would have started to fall into place. We’d be used to the routine of Leiths, we’d have built up some stamina, we’d have the basic skills to be able to navigate most of the recipes… we’d be amazing, basically. That last bit’s not what they said, but you know.
I don’t feel amazing, exactly, but I’ve settled into the routine. It now seems like a completely normal thing for me to get up at ridiculous o’clock and trek to London to cook daily. So much so that the clocks going back has thrown me off a bit. I’m used to leaving the flat in the dark: the new cold light of morning is not kind to my 6.30am face. Nevertheless, I now know exactly where to stand on the train platform so that the door of my favourite carriage judders to a halt directly in front of me: it’s the small satisfactions that get me through the commute.
Looking at our timetable this week, it initially seemed like Leiths was going easy on us Monday-Wednesday in order to make up for the fact that Thursday was our first all-day cooking marathon. More on that in a moment. Monday was fairly lovely as cooking sessions go – brownies, scones, tartare sauce, and feeding our Christmas cakes. We were delighted to find that we had been provided with a substantial vat of clotted cream and gigantic jars of jam for scone-garnishing purposes (cream then jam, obviously, you heathens) and spent a happy afternoon melting chocolate, shaping scone dough, and sampling the booze we’d brought to feed our Christmas cakes, in the name of science.
Things were slightly less relaxing on Tuesday, when we made pastry and chilli. Because we’ve made pastry four times now, we were expected to know what we were doing… and it turns out that I don’t. I messed up the shaping of my pastry in the flan ring, and even after I’d spent a good fifteen minutes perfecting the edges, it still ultimately came out of the oven ugly and misshapen. The chilli, while a relatively simple recipe, did involve sixteen people browning mince over high heat at the same time. Such was the heat of the oil that things occasionally went up in flames, and not on purpose. We later finished our chilli – mine came out incredibly spicy – and developed our little pastry cases into lemon meringue pies. My meringue was a bit of a mess, but my lemon filling was tasty and held well, so I’m calling that a draw.
Thursday, our first all-day cooking extravaganza, saw us making slow-cooked beef stew with caramelised baby onions and a potato and celeriac mash, individual loaves of white bread, goujons of plaice with tartare sauce, and fish stock. When I list it like that, it doesn’t actually sound like much. The thing is that at Leiths you can’t cut corners. If I was at home, for example, I’d whack my meat for browning in the pan all at once, and sort of vaguely get some colour on it whilst half watching 90s music videos on YouTube in the background and call it a day. At Leiths, we season and brown the meat in batches – being sure not to crowd the pan – lovingly turn each perfectly-sized piece in rotation to ensure all the meat is coloured evenly on all sides, and deglaze the pan after each batch and taste the juices. Obviously, doing everything properly takes much longer. Who knew? You can’t even have Mint Royale on in the background, and if you absent-mindedly start singing or whistling to yourself you get reprimanded, so you know they mean business.
Anyway, everything all went swimmingly. No, really. The day was absolutely fine, stress levels were pretty low, and the only real problem I had was that at the end of it I was so tired from being on my feet for eight hours that I had to sit on the floor while I waited for my bread to be marked because they could no longer carry me. And then I cycled 4.5 miles back to the station in the dark. And in the evening I went to bed at 9pm because I couldn’t keep my eyes open. But other than that.
Our Tuesday morning dem was with Belinda, who is a lovely, calming presence. She demonstrated many wonderful things that can be done with choux pastry (we demonstrated the eating of choux pastry – I always like to do my bit to be helpful), and we saw profiteroles, three types of éclairs, canapés, and savoury choux gougère. Wednesday was just as great, because it was steak day. Need I say more? Probably yes. Phil was technically demonstrating ‘tender cuts of meat and pan sauces’, but we all knew what that really meant: steak day. We got to sample bites of fillet, sirloin, rump, ribeye, and onglet, with various accompanying sauces and butters, and I felt quite spoiled. I don’t usually buy or order fillet steak because the price sort of scares me, so I’ve barely ever eaten it before, and it was gorgeous.
The dem of the week, though, against very strong competition, was Friday’s buffet session with Hannah and Hélène. They prepared us a gorgeous array of delicious buffet food, and stood back to let us feast. I don’t know what would happen to me if I had to prepare eight or ten dishes to feed fifty people in a morning, but I imagine it would probably end with me crying in a corner and begging for mercy. We all had second helpings of everything, and then dessert, and then I don’t really know what happened for the next hour or so because I was in a happy food daze.
Also, chocolate roulade? Surprisingly amazing. I have had very dry and crumbly roulades in the past, but this was moist and chocolatey and completely lovely, and I will definitely be making it at some point.
The trouble is that now we have to work in groups to produce buffets for 32 people, and making a buffet doesn’t sound quite as relaxing as eating one was. In our teams, we have to come up with a theme, design a menu, work out costings to a strict budget, source all the ingredients, and, er, cook the whole thing in three hours and serve it beautifully to a jury of our peers and teachers before receiving feedback and being marked. I am sure I will panic more about this in a future blog.
So Week 5 is over, and we are officially halfway through Foundation. Everyone keeps telling me I look tired and pale, last night I was so exhausted that I got confused and walked into a wall, and next week I will continue to work with lots of knives and fire while practically sleepwalking. Still, on Monday we get to make chocolate mousse, blackberry pavlova, and steak, so that will definitely ease the pain a little if I end up losing a finger.