Week 7 seems to have slipped by with unsettling speed, which probably has a lot to do with the fact that we had Monday off and assessments instead of a dem on Tuesday morning, so by the time we got started in earnest it was Wednesday and, hey, already halfway through the week! In my assessment I learned that I passed both my wine exam – thank god, as I really didn’t fancy doing it again – and my most recent Leiths theory test. Then we got back into our normal rhythm with an afternoon of scattershot cooking that saw us segmenting oranges, icing cakes, steaming mussels, and making caramel sauce without much rhyme or reason (at least in my case).
Weirdly, I found segmenting oranges to be the trickiest part of all this. It’s fiddly, and as I’ve mentioned before, I am clumsy and impatient. You have to remove every last bit of pith from each segment and make sure they are perfectly shaped with no straggly bits. I actually managed to get my first in-kitchen cut doing this – I’m surprised I made it all the way to Week 7 without this happening, frankly – because everything gets very slippery and the serrated knives are wickedly sharp, as I found out when mine sliced into my thumb. I think you’re supposed to wear these cuts like badges of pride. I wish I’d gotten mine doing something a bit more rock and roll than cutting up an orange.
Wednesday was a rather pleasant day in the kitchen, which saw us making smoked haddock, spinach, and tomato gougères. Gougère is savoury choux pastry with added cheese, and it’s stupidly delicious. It’s actually a bit of a cheeky shortcut to making a pie: far less faff than lining a tin with shortcrust or, god forbid, making puff pastry from scratch. You knock up your choux, which takes about ten minutes, then spoon it round the walls of your pie dish and whack it in the oven to expand and go gloriously golden while you get on with making your filling. Then you pop the filling into the crispy pastry to heat it through and that’s job done.
Thursday, on the other hand, was a bit less satisfying, and probably one of the worst days in the kitchen I’ve had so far at school. We were making coq au vin, and I did everything wrong. My chicken was overcooked, my mushrooms and bacon weren’t cut correctly, my sauce was too salty and yet under-reduced, my broccoli was overcooked, my presentation was awful… just bad bad bad. I also got burns on both my right arm and my face when someone’s hot chicken pan decided to spit a spray of sizzling oil up in my direction. All this failure took so long that we were delayed in leaving the kitchen, so I got out of school late and missed my usual train, meaning a harrowing cycle in traffic that was much heavier than what I am used to. Then, when I got to Paddington, there were crowds so huge that there were police controlling the scene because a big train had been cancelled. I made it onto the later train back to Oxford, just, but then it was delayed by twenty minutes because of some signalling problem, so I got back stupidly late, and then I got stuck in a standstill traffic jam trying to get home because there are ridiculous roadworks around the station and that evening there was the added complication of a burst sewer pipe. I was incredibly grumpy all evening and poor James had to put up with me sulking.
I’m not even going to show you a picture of the chicken because it was that bad.
Luckily, I managed to slightly redeem myself on Friday, by making well-cooked lamb cutlets with new potatoes en papillote, green beans, and a tomato salsa. I even got a good mark for knife skills, and, as we’ve established, my knife skills are generally rubbish.
It felt a bit odd having only three dems this week, but they were good ones. We started with pastry on Wednesday, then had healthy eating for a bit of a contrast on Thursday, and finished with game on Friday. The pastry and glazing dem covered delicious things that were fairly familiar to anyone who is an avid (read: obsessive) watcher of Bake Off, like myself. We saw Heli expertly demonstrate the endless rolling and folding that constitutes the making of rough puff pastry, and got to sample some beautiful Eccles cakes. There was also a stunning glazed fig tart on walnut pastry that I wish I had had the sense to get a photograph of, and a fiddly little apple flan which we will have to try and recreate next week.
Belinda and Sue talked to us about healthy eating and special diets on Thursday. I’m not completely inexperienced in this area as I’ve cooked for vegetarians, vegans, and coeliacs fairly often, and cooked for and lived with a diabetic at university (although he just ate whatever he liked and then corrected his blood sugar with insulin afterwards, so making him dinner was never exactly a challenge). Much as I love the near-constant stream of sugar I subside on at Leiths – and trust me, I love it – it was a good change to eat some fresh salads, soups, and stir fries and feel briefly virtuous before going home and eating all of the chocolate in the world (sorry about how there is no chocolate left for anyone else).
Friday’s dem was on game. This, I think, is Michael’s particular bailiwick, and he guided us through the basics of how to prepare and cook some furred and feathered game. See the picture at the top of this post? The reason that plate of food looks so pretty and professional is that I did not make it: Michael prepared woodcock for us in the traditional way, trussing it with its own beak. We all got to have a taste and I liked it, but I think I was perhaps the only person that did. Woodcock has, to put it mildly, a very distinctive game-y flavour – I like offal and I liked this, but lots of people were pulling faces. Less controversial were the delicious roast pheasant and slow-cooked venison shanks. Perfect autumnal fare. We have to pluck and draw pheasants on our own at some point in the next couple of weeks, which I can only assume will cause chaos and carnage.
I am writing this post curled up on the sofa in the boat, which is a warm haven, despite the fact that it’s currently being tossed about the river by a fairly vicious storm. It’s all very atmospheric and dramatic, and with the clouds scudding past and the fierce wind making waves smack against the boat’s hull it finally feels as through winter is truly drawing in. Only two more full weeks to go of Foundation term, and then the practical exam week (which we shall not mention, ever, please), and then I get to sleep in til 1pm every day, construct a duvet fort to live in, and stop cooking fancy meals so we can subsist on pain au chocolat and crisps.