I began Week 4 in a bit of a haze, due to a heady weekend cocktail of seeing Derren Brown live, May Day celebrations in Oxford, and an ecstatic, unexpected, unplanned evening at Bellowhead’s last-ever gig. I proudly wore my Bellowhead Farewell Tour t-shirt to school on Tuesday, and since no one there seems to know who Bellowhead are (or were), it meant nothing to anybody but me, and I was reminded again of the vast gulf between my school life and my home life. Different priorities, different cities, different people, different me.
Our Monday morning session was a gentle one in which we produced a salmon mousseline to be quenelled and poached in a Thai-style fish broth. I was a bit unsure about the mousseline, because I adore salmon and sort of hated the idea of blending it to death, pushing it through a sieve, and beating it with cream before faffing about quenelling and poaching it. Well, I should really stop being so suspicious, because the dish was lovely (although I am terrible at quenelling and, by and large, would still prefer to pan-fry a salmon fillet whole).
I wasn’t massively looking forward to the afternoon session on spirits and liqueurs (see opening paragraph regarding weekend of excess), but our presenter was the charming Peter Wilson, who quickly won me over by cleverly peppering his slides with pictures of his adorable dog. Unfortunately, even cute dog pictures couldn’t bring me round to liking whiskey, but the session was very interesting nonetheless. Did you know that according to EU regulations, rum cannot be flavoured, and thus spiced rum is not technically rum but a liqueur instead?! I did not know this and as we have ‘spiced rum’ at home all the time (it’s James’s favourite pre-show sharpener) it blew my mind quite seriously.
We were visited by a Professor of Molecular Gastronomy on Wednesday. Peter Barnham, scientist, food fanatic, and penguin lover, came to talk us through some of the technical explanations of why certain elements of cooking work as they do. We got to eat ice cream made in seconds with liquid nitrogen, watched a lightbulb exploding in a microwave, and learned why salting water for cooking green vegetables is absolutely pointless. It was a fascinating morning, and we only began to very gently graze the surface of this huge and complex subject.
We were a little worried about the afternoon cooking session, as the morning group ran over by at least forty five minutes and left the kitchens looking mildly traumatised. It was a busy prep day that involved a lot of cleaning and sterilising of work surfaces in between making puff pastry from scratch and boning, stuffing and rolling a chicken for a ballotine, as well as finishing off two loaves of walnut and raisin bread. Making puff pastry feels almost routine by this point, but making chicken ballotine is, frankly, kind of a hassle and not an experience I am keen to replicate in my own kitchen.
Thursday was a double dem day. We started with preserving fruit in the morning with Michael, which gave us an excellent excuse to eat scones with raspberry jam, marmalade on sourdough toast, and quince paste with cheese. There is definitely an art to making jams, conserves, and jellies, and my tried and true ‘bung it all in a pan and boil it to death’ method probably isn’t going to work out too well for me at school. In the afternoon, Hannah expertly steered us through the buttery seas of croissant and Danish creation. Everything she made was glorious and it was easy to delude myself into thinking I could get similar results. Did you know that it takes three days to make croissants from scratch the proper, traditional way? Again, I am pretty glad they make us do it at school, because I simply don’t have the time or patience to do it at home myself. Also, I have pretty effectively convinced myself that all the butter I eat at school doesn’t count, somehow.
Friday was an all-day cooking session, and also our last day with our lovely class teacher Heli (sob), as she is off on maternity leave. We began with the seafood feuilletées, one of which is pictured at the top of this page. We saw them in a dem and have made them ourselves, and yet I still have no idea how to pronounce the word feuilletée. Luckily for me, this is a blog, so I don’t have to be able to pronounce it – ha! A victory for ignorance. Anyway, they were puff pastry cases filled with a chervil beurre blanc, samphire, salmon, prawns, and lemon sole, served with more seafood and topped, in my case, with crispy salmon skin. They also had to be very precisely measured. Heli told us that the cut pastry had to be 1.2cm thick, and she literally and genuinely came up to my table, got my ruler, and got down to eye-level with my pastry to determine that it looked ‘a bit more like 1.3cm than 1.2cm’ thick. Advanced term, people. Anyway, my very precisely measured feuilletée made a delicious lunch.
In the afternoon we served our chicken ballotines filled with a dark meat, porcini, and thyme stuffing, with spring greens, chicken and thyme jus, and the potato accompaniment of our choice – I went with dauphine potatoes, which are a mixture of mashed potato, choux pastry, and cheese mixed together and deep fried. Sounds delicious, right? Not going to lie, they were completely lovely and I ate all five pictured on the plate very soon after service. Sadly my ballotine skills need a lot of work but, as mentioned above, ballotining is not my favourite pastime.
And thus ends Week 4. Coming up in Week 5 (this is like a bad TV show trailer now), croissants, sweetbreads, tortellini, and oysters, amongst other things. See you there.