Before I started at Leiths, I basically hadn’t done any sustained exercise since being on the netball B team in primary school in 1999. I have attempted several different sports – running, swimming, cycling, walking, yoga, badminton, pilates, lifting weights, dancing, roller derby, ice skating, working out at the gym – and every time I try to exercise, the universe steers me away by making horrible things happen to me. You think I am exaggerating, but I’m not. This is neither the time nor the place, but I could tell you many harrowing stories that end with me in tears, disgrace, and/or hospital.
So, six weeks ago when I started at Leiths, I wasn’t in great physical shape. However, what I lack in core strength and lung volume I make up for in wilful, blind, stubborn determination. I essentially thought I could force my body to cycle ten miles a day while carrying heavy loads, on top of being on my feet all the time and never quite having enough sleep, by just… not giving up. This sounds stupid and naive, but up until this week it was actually going pretty well.
Unfortunately, I have now crashed. Previously unable to sleep in public places, I have now become one of those people who is instantly unconscious on the morning train and has to be politely prodded awake by wary fellow commuters when we reach London, whereupon I smush my face into the train window and moan ‘Nooooo, five more minutes.’ If I sit on the sofa when I get home, I fall asleep. I find my eyes sliding closed while waiting at traffic lights on my bike. I frequently come to a complete standstill in the school kitchens, unable to remember what I am supposed to be doing. Luckily, my name is written on all my aprons, right over the school logo, or I’d probably forget who and where I am all the time too.
Correspondingly, my cooking this week started out pretty mediocre. On Monday we had a day of delicious joy, cooking chocolate mousse, blackberry pavlova, and sirloin steak. I love all of these things. However, I managed to over-fold my mouse and over-cook my steak. This last was particularly galling as I like my meat blue, and think over-cooking steak is a very sad thing indeed. However, we were instructed to cook the steaks medium-rare, and I cooked mine for two minutes per side, which turned out to be a massive over-shoot. The picture below shows stages of steak cooking, starting off with blue and progressing up to incinerated. I like my steak at a 1 one this scale, but for class was trying to cook it to a 3, but ended up at a 4. This is sort of like the unhelpful pain scale in hospitals, yes? But more delicious.
Tuesday was another disaster day. Due to general exhaustion and my brain not being in gear, I cut the lamb for my spiced stew into pieces which were too small. That’s a mistake you can’t really undo once it’s done, so I had to get on with the long process of assembling and cooking the stew (which carried on into the next day), knowing that I’d done something fundamentally wrong at the start. We then had to make fresh marzipan for scratch to cover our Christmas cakes, which was surprisingly tricky. Actually, not ‘surprisingly’, more like ‘expectedly’. I thought it would be hard, and it was. Marzipan is delicate and prone to cracking, and so when I tried to cover my cake with it the whole sheet started to fall apart and I had to madly seal up cracks as quickly as possible, without over-working it. It was not a pretty sight. Still, the Christmas cake has been drowned in Calvados, so how bad can it really be?
On Wednesday, I slightly redeemed myself. I finished off the stew and it actually, against all the odds, tasted good. I also made autumn crumble with my table partner, which was pretty delicious. I know this because I wolfed the whole thing down cold for lunch in the dem room out of tupperware with a plastic fork, because I missed my lunch break while trying to adjust a costings spreadsheet. My life: all glamour.
I was reliably informed that the fruit juices bubbling up from under a crumble topping make it look ‘more real’, and thus they are acceptable.
Our Thursday session began with us being reprimanded for how slow we’d been in our Wednesday session. Correspondingly, in our Thursday session we worked so quickly that we were done by 11.30am rather than 1pm, and ended up making choux pastry for Friday a day in advance so that we had something to do. That came after pork tenderloin in Marsala sauce with kale, and pizzaiola sauce for Friday. I surprised myself by making a good Marsala sauce and cooking my pork well. The pork-cooking was a complete fluke and I had no idea it was cooked well until Ansobe cut into it, but shh, they will never know. (I am seriously assuming that Leiths staff will never read this blog and realise what an incompetent fool I am).
By Friday, I was not the only one rendered insensible by exhaustion. Sensing this, perhaps, Leiths gave us what I thought of as the ‘children’s birthday party day’: cooking pizza and profiteroles in the morning, followed by a jelly and ice cream dem in the afternoon. Now, please don’t hate me, but I tend to be a bit lukewarm about pizza. I worked in a travelling food van with a wood-fired pizza oven over the summer, and that produced absolutely amazing pizza which was a joy to eat. As a general rule, though, pizza doesn’t particularly excite me. I tend to think that unless you are getting the absolute best stuff available, it doesn’t taste that amazing. Takeaway pizza and restaurant pizza is usually disappointing, and I’d always go for Thai, Indian, Chinese, or pretty much any other option over ordering a pizza delivery. Unfortunately, making my own pizza didn’t change my mind. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I totally ate it all, but without a proper pizza oven and the authentic techniques, it did not even slightly rock my world. Profiteroles, on the other hand, will always be a source of delight.
The jelly and ice cream dem with Hélène was a lovely, gentle way to ease out of the week. I haven’t done a huge amount of work with setting agents and I found the theory portion of the dem really interesting – learning about powdered and leaf gelatine, what the different gradings mean, what agar agar and rennet actually are, how vegetarian setting agents are made and so on – and it definitely inspired me to be less afraid of making things like panna cotta and made me lust after an ice cream machine all over again. We got to taste lots of things, my favourite of which was a completely delicious Perry jelly with caramelised pears. And I don’t even like cider. I might even make it at home and post the recipe on here if I ever get an hour free (perhaps in 2018).
I have now decided to work through the dems backwards to Monday in a completely chronologically illogical way. Thursday’s dem was shellfish, which was brilliant for me because I love all fish. Phil slightly scared me by warning us that having shellfish poisoning feels a lot like dying and thus it is vital to make sure your gastropods, cephalopods, and bivalves (little bit of mollusc definition lingo for you there) are very fresh and of good quality, lest you kill someone. Sadly, Oxford is incredibly bloody landlocked and I don’t know any good fishmongers around here, but if I ever find one then I will be making the mussel recipe we tasted in the dem because it was great.
Wednesday’s dem was delivered by Angela Malik, who came to visit us at Leiths to teach us about Indian cooking. I knew that Indian cooking is very regional, but I hadn’t understood before what the classic hallmarks of northern, southern, and eastern Indian food are, and it was incredibly interesting to learn about how different the cuisine is in various areas of the country and why. Tuesday’s dem was delivered by Michael and was on meat preparation and cooking. Against really stiff competition, I think it was one of my favourite dems so far in terms of the food we got to taste. Everything was delicious and I wanted to go home and try every single recipe, particularly the chicken with forty cloves of garlic. Although, really, I don’t have the patience for such things and would probably end up doing seventeen and calling it a day. Finally, we began the week (still with me?) with a dem on sugar syrups with Ansobe. I’ve done a bit of sugar work before, but nothing very technical – I tend to make dry caramel by simply dumping a pile of caster sugar into a pan, whacking it on a really high heat and hoping for the best. Unsurprisingly, this approach has given me mixed results in the past. On Monday we learned about the nine stages of sugar syrup, and how to make caramel safely without sustaining extensive and hideously painful sugar syrup burns. Always useful.
Week 7 approacheth, and I have blistered feet, burned knuckles, and lots of choux pastry in tupperware. Onwards.