Halfway, somehow. Week 5 of the Intermediate Term marks the halfway point of the course. We’ve done this much, and now we’ll do it all again.
I really feel like I should know what I’m doing by now.
Week 5 was brought in by the charming Storm Imogen, which caused chaos across the rail network and made me seriously grumpy about trudging towards my car through a vicious downpour in the pitch black on Monday morning. It didn’t seem like a particularly auspicious start to a day of all day cooking, but I was cheered by the thought of Chelsea buns and steak, as any reasonable person would be.
We’re required to cook our steaks medium-rare at school, and I am terrible at it. This is because I like my steaks blue, and it goes against every instinct I have to take them further, thus I always end up pulling them out of the pan too early by mistake. My first triumph of Monday, then, was accurately cooking my steak to medium-rare for the first time. Then I made my béarnaise too thin. Can’t win them all.
The day fell apart a bit after the steak, I must admit. My problems started when another student accidentally took my pastry from the fridge and used it, meaning I had to make another batch, leaving me way behind and playing catch-up for the rest of the session. Then we had a fire drill just as everyone was putting their pastry cases in the oven. Like anywhere else, when the fire alarm goes at Leiths you have to stop what you’re doing and leave the building, even if you’ve just put your delicate pastry cases on to bake. The whole school arrayed on the street – half of us in full whites – was quite a sight for the passers-by. My arms are crossed and my smile is forced because it was absolutely freezing outside.
I did feel like I was rather limping to the finish line, but I managed to serve my tarts and Chelsea buns in the end. My pastry was over-baked and my Chelsea buns were over-glazed (according to Leiths – I love them ‘over-glazed’ and would ideally add even more glaze than shown in the photo below), but I got everything up for service, which felt like a small victory in and of itself. I am in no way artistic, and arranging delicate fruit prettily on patisserie is not my main strength, as you can see. Some of my fellow students produced absolutely beautiful tarts though, and it was lovely to have a nosey around the kitchen and see what everyone else had come up with.
I was a bundle of tiredness by the time I headed home on Monday – being on your feet and cooking from 9am-5pm will do that to you – but unfortunately Storm Imogen was still out to play, and my train home to Oxford got cancelled due to debris on the line. I ended up having to take a couple of different trains on different lines to wend my way through deepest, darkest, windy-est Oxfordshire on the little local stopping services, and became very grateful for the Chelsea buns in my backpack.
I am pretty used to commuting at this stage and am largely blind to the foibles of my fellow travellers, but on Tuesday morning the man sitting opposite me on the train took out a toothbrush and toothpaste and started brushing his teeth. Just sitting in his seat. Using a coffee cup as a makeshift sink. My look of absolute incredulity went unnoticed and he proceeded to take off his shoes and put on huge, fluffy socks.
Nothing else as odd as that happened during the rest of the day. We started off with another wine lecture, this time on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and then moved on to ‘the liver day’, which seemed a shame because to everyone else it was Pancake Day and I think it could have been an excellent excuse to get some crêpe practice done. Instead we made chicken liver pâté and liver with bacon, onions, and cabbage. As mentioned in previous posts, I am all about the offal, so I was fine with this in principle. Unfortunately. I completely messed it up. The chicken liver pâté was for later in the week, but in the dish pictured above apparently my liver, bacon, and cabbage were all undercooked. At least I was wrong in consistent way.
We got a break from the kitchens on Wednesday when Peter and Graham came back for our second Meat Appreciation session. Once again, it was all about the offal. Well, at least mostly about the offal – it seems to be one of the themes from this term. A pig’s head made a brief appearance, and another very large chunk of cow was dismantled. I love watching all this and find it fascinating, so it was a happy day. I also purchased some feather blade steak and some duck legs, and journeyed home with a backpack full of meat, something which seems to be happening with increasing regularity.
We knew Thursday morning’s dem would be good when we walked into the dem room and were embraced by the warm smell of lots and lots of pastry. Hannah and Jane were treating us to flaky and hot water crust pastry in many guises. I must admit, I’m a bit nervous about making flaky and puff pastry for myself when the time comes, but they made it look simple and everything we tasted – including palmiers, a red onion and goats’ cheese tart, a steak and Guinness pie, pork pies, and duck pies, and probably some more stuff that’s been lost in the buttery haze of memories – was incredible. The making of flaky pastry requires you to be patient and precise, neither of which skills comes naturally to me, but the results are undeniably impressive, and I must admit that I kind of want to become the sort of terrible person who can say they make their own puff pastry in a vaguely smug way.
The afternoon cooking session was a bit of an odd one because, aside from making a quick soda bread, we were all doing different things to practice various skills and techniques we needed to work on. It was a lovely, relaxed few hours in the kitchen, free from the pressure of service times and harsh marking. I was turning vegetables – can you tell I’ve been having some issues with that? – and cooking some guinea fowl with a pan sauce. My sauce was too thin, but finally, finally, I did something right with meat cooking and my guinea fowl was pronounced perfect.
I spent Friday morning’s train ride becoming progressively more annoyed as two American tourists sitting in front of me in the quiet carriage talked loudly and took selfies for the entire hour-long journey. I wish I had the nerve to confront people who are behaving unreasonably on public transport but I never quite muster up the courage. Seriously though: it’s an eight-carriage train with ONE quiet carriage covered in bright pink signs denoting its status, and there must be some special kind of retribution for people that pick that carriage to have loud conversations about sports.
Sorry, I’m done.
Friday morning’s dem was on gateaux. Cake on a Friday morning: excellent timetabling decision. We’ll be making our own gateaux in class – more on that next week, I imagine – so it seemed a good idea to pay attention while Ansobe showed us how to make the perfect Genoise sponge, how to divide it into layers with cotton, how to make meringue-based buttercream, and other such crucial life skills. Obviously the best bit was at the end when we got to eat everything.
The afternoon was less gentle and less Friday-ish. We had to do a short order prawn dish – the less said the better, really, as it appears I am awful at short order – and a duck with cherry almond sauce dish with accompaniments of our choice. I went for potato and celeriac dauphinoise and kale, and as you can see, my presentation seriously let me down again. I did eat it all, though, and even if it looked a mess it did taste pretty great. Mind you, I was so hungry that I definitely wasn’t being picky. This session was also where I got my most ridiculous injury yet. In the rush to service, a fellow student and I half-collided, and her chef’s knife fell off her chopping board and onto my leg. The tip of the knife cut me through my trousers and my very thick kitchen socks: I barely acknowledged it at the time, bar a brief yelp of pain and surprise, but after the rush of service I discovered blood running down my leg. I was quite lucky it was not worse and also quite lucky that I am always freezing cold so wear huge hiking socks all the time.
And here we are, waving a goodbye to Week 5 which is, if not quite fond, tinged with weary affection. In lieu of half term we are being treated to a glorious four day weekend, so I’m off to, er, do some more school work. Culinary school: loads of fun; definitely not glamorous.