HelloFresh Christmas Cheat Sheet

As I said in my recent post about how to host a hassle-free dinner party, the main trick to pulling off a spectacular meal is being organised. Planning ahead. Getting your prep done beforehand. But I admit that this sometimes feels a bit… dull. Even I, although I really do know better, sometimes can’t be bothered to plan things properly and just decide to wing it. And I always regret it.

At culinary school, we had to make a time plan before every single cooking session. Which meant writing one every day. Literally ‘11.30am: Second turn of puff pastry, start making caramel’, kind of thing. It was necessary to handle the hugely complex dishes we were putting together in class, but it’s not something I do in my day-to-day cooking. Even though I definitely plan, I don’t normally give myself a timetable. Except for Christmas dinner. And that’s where HelloFresh‘s cheat sheet comes in.


If you’re the kind of person that sighs and fidgets at the thought of putting together a cooking schedule for yourself on Christmas day, fear not. HelloFresh have literally done it for you. They sent me a copy of their cheat sheet to have a look at, and it’s absolute gold for an organisational nut like me. They’ve worked out what you can make ahead and do the night before. They’ve made you a scheduled timeline for your Christmas Day cooking. And they’ve even included lots of recipes for tasty side dishes, in case you’re struggling with what to do with your parsnips this year.

You can get the cheat sheet for free here.


It will be particularly useful if you’re the person in charge of Christmas dinner this year, but you’ve not done it before. Or if you’re stressed about the thought of cooking all those complicated bits and pieces and getting everything to be ready at the same time.

I cook the Christmas dinner in my family – when you have trained as a chef, you are responsible for the food at every family gathering for the rest of your life. Although some things stay the same every year, I like to mix it up too. We always have a goose, for example, but I like to try different ways of cooking and flavouring it. We always have braised red cabbage, but sometimes I try different ways of cooking other side dishes. There will be a Christmas pudding, but I always include another dessert as well, and that varies depending on my mood. The cheat sheet above has some great simple side dish recipes that you can try if you fancy mixing it up. I tested a few of them before writing this post, and I can guarantee that they are tasty.




Are you in charge of making the Christmas dinner in your family? Do you have any particular traditions? Do you like the exact same meal every year or do you mix it up? I’d love to hear! We never have bread sauce which, I am assured, means it’s we’re failing at Christmas…

Disclaimer: This post was sponsored by HelloFresh, but as always, all opinions are my own. 

Tips for Hosting a Hassle-Free Dinner

I don’t know about you, but my December calendar is already packed with festive lunches, dinners, pub trips, and parties. It’s that time of year. A lovely friend of mine asked me for tips on hosting a dinner at home, and I was only too happy to oblige, by writing out all my rambling ideas below. I am far from an expert – being trained a cook is not the same as being able to host! – but we have people over to eat pretty often and I am used to feeding crowds. So good luck to you if you are having people over to eat during the holidays, and I hope these tips are of some help.


1. Keep it simple

If you are not a in the habit of hosting dinners or cooking for loads of people, now is not the time to over-complicate things. If you’re an adventurous or confident cook, then absolutely go for it. But don’t feel like you have to serve soufflés or a croquembouche just because you have guests coming. People are absolutely and totally delighted, I promise you, with lasagne, salad, garlic bread, and a chocolate cake. It doesn’t have to be super-fancy or innovative. Everyone wants to see you and have a good evening, not feel your nerves as you are frantically trying to make your own puff pastry in the background.

2. Check dietary preferences

Unless you know the people coming over really well, always double-check dietary preferences before working out what you are going to cook. It’s awful when someone arrives and announces they have suddenly gone gluten-free or vegetarian, and you have to panic to scramble up a new dinner option for them.


3. Plan your dinner menu logically

For dinners of more than four people, I try to avoid anything that needs to be cooked or served individually, such a fillets of fish or cuts of steak. It tends to be much simpler, more convivial, and more economical, to serve the kind of food that you can put down in the middle of the table and let people help themselves to. It’s encourages general chat if people are digging in at the table and passing things round, and it means you’re not stuck in the kitchen plating up or frying individual pieces of sea bass.

Also, if you’re stuck on what to cook or what goes together, go for a vague theme and stick with it. Italian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, British, French – anything goes. Sure, if you want to serve bruschetta followed by a steak and ale pie followed by a m’hanncha then you absolutely can. But if you’re not too confident and just want everything to quietly work well together, try sticking to one cuisine. It also helps cut options down if you’re overwhelmed by all the possibilities. If you’re stuck for inspiration, I find recipe books more useful than the internet, because they are more likely to be based around some kind of culinary theme. Whereas Google just gives you TOO MANY CHOICES.

4. Courses

You don’t have to stick to the standard starter-main-dessert route if you don’t want to. Dinners at ours tend to be informal, partly because I just don’t have the space to seat many people, and so big groups end up sitting around the room on sofas or spare chairs dragged in from next door. But also, being flexible with courses means you have to do less serving and less washing up (we don’t have a dishwasher either).

Instead of a starter, I like to make something everyone can eat while having their first drinks, milling around, or sitting on the sofa. Think toasts or crackers with interesting toppings, homemade cheese straws (sounds and looks super-impressive but it’s literally pre-made puff pastry with grated cheese twisted and then baked), or hummus and crudités. I always have a main and a dessert and, sometimes, I do cheese if I am feeling fancy. Or feeling like I want to eat a lot of cheese. Which is often.


5. Prepare food ahead

You would be surprised how much you can do ahead of time, and how much time things can take. You might think ‘oh, I will just peel those potatoes when everyone gets here and pop them in!’, but really, that’s another fifteen minutes stuck in the kitchen while your guests are around.

I really try to avoid having lots of cooking to do during an actual dinner, and don’t like having the kitchen still strewn with used chopping boards and bowls of ingredients when people arrive. It’s much less stressful if things are already in place. Just think about each thing you’re making logically and whether or not it needs to be cooked to service, or can be prepared in advance.

For example, I always, always do a dessert that’s prepped in advance. When it comes to serving it’s just a case of either putting it on the table for people to help themselves or, sometimes, warming it through. You don’t want to be filling profiteroles in a kitchen strewn with mess while everyone waits for you. Stews, tagines, bakes, pies and so on can all be made in advance and then heated up when you’re ready. Potatoes and other vegetables can be pre-cooked or par-boiled. Sauces and gravies can be made and re-heated. Dips or sides can be made in advance and kept covered in the fridge. Salads and dressings can be made in advance, kept separately, then combined just before serving. Cook smart – past you needs to be helping future you.

6. Buy stuff in!

Short on time? Hate making desserts? Forgot to do nibbles? Buy stuff! Seriously. Don’t feel like everything has to be homemade. You can buy desserts, nibbles, dips, good bread, whatever. Sure, homemade is great if you have the time and the inclination. But no one will care (or notice, probably), if you buy your bread instead of making it.

Another tip is to buy something, but then do something to made it special. For example, you can buy hummus, but then instead of just serving it in its carton, mix it up with some chopped herbs, Greek yoghurt, or lemon juice, and serve in a pretty bowl drizzled with olive oil or sprinkled with cumin, sumac, or paprika. Or you could buy a baguette, then make your own garlic and herb butter (crushed garlic, chopped herbs, soft butter) to bread over it and bake and hey presto, you made your own garlic bread. Or you can buy a plain cheesecake, then top it with sliced strawberries and mint, or caramel sauce and chocolate chunks, or whatever you fancy. Looks impressive, takes three minutes.


7. Let people help

If you’re having loads of people over to dinner or if you just don’t particularly like feeding a crowd, let people contribute! Take people at their word when they say ‘what can I bring?’ You could ask someone to take care of wine, or dessert, or pre-dinner nibbles, or cheese, or to bring an extra side dish. Personally, when I ask this question and someone asks me to contribute I am delighted, because I genuinely want to help out. Also they usually ask me to make the dessert and I am well up for that. People like to be generous when given the opportunity.

8. Be organised

I guess the basic advice underpinning all this is be as organised as possible. Obviously, if you are very comfortable hosting a dinner and feel like you can pick stuff up on the way home from work and throw something together then go for it. But I can’t do that. I am an obsessively organised person who over-plans everything and so it comes naturally to me, but if you’re worried about hosting people and you’re not normally big on planning, now is the time to make an exception. You will enjoy the actual event much more if you’ve done the hard work beforehand.

Godspeed, everyone. If you have any questions, worries, or are desperate for menu suggestions, do comment and I’d be happy to help! Or if you have any other tips for hosting a dinner to add then I’d love to hear them.



We just got back from Seville, and, if I’m honest, I was mostly there for the food. James was very keen to go because of all the history, and architecture, and culture. I am interested in those things too. But not quite as interested as I am in tapas. Hey, we are who we are.

I did my research on the food in Seville before we left, because I cannot go to any new place without obsessively researching the food on offer to make sure I am not missing any of the good stuff. So I knew where the best markets were supposed to be. I had an idea of what the local specials were. I had a couple of restaurant reservations and a good list of places that didn’t take reservations that I wanted to try. Does anyone else travel like this, by the way? I mean, obviously I’d booked somewhere to stay and plane and train tickets too, but basically my holiday preparation consisted of learning as much as I could about the local food scene.

And the results? Well, to be honest, mixed. I’d heard so much about the great cuisine in Seville that I was actually a little surprised at how hit-and-miss our experiences were. The good stuff is definitely there, but you have to work to find it. Buckle up, because this is going to be a long and rambly post. Also probably of no interest to anyone unless you’re going to Seville in the near future, but never mind.


The first thing to get used to is that everything runs on a completely different schedule to in Britain. This may sound obvious to most of you, but I hadn’t been to Spain since I was a child and it took me by surprise. I am a naturally ‘early to bed, early to rise’ person, and unfortunately this is completely the wrong kind of person to be in southern Spain. Nothing seems to open before 10am, and most stuff doesn’t really get going until 11am. If you’re wandering round at 9am or before hoping to visit a food market or get some breakfast, then you’re going to struggle. However, if you’re a night-owl, you will be in heaven.

Secondly, most things close for siesta in the afternoons, usually from around 2-5pm. We had a few instances of going somewhere in the morning, only to find it wasn’t open yet, so coming back in the afternoon, and finding we’d accidentally hit the siesta period and missed the brief window of the place being open. You really need to plan carefully. I tried checking the times that everything was open online, but the information given was rarely accurate.

Thirdly, people in Seville tend to eat lunch around 3pm, and dinner around 9.30pm. Now, I have normally had breakfast by 7am, so if I have to wait until 3pm to eat lunch I am probably going to slaughter all the people around me. We found that most places opened for lunch around 1.30pm or 2pm and we could go then, but we’d usually be the only people there until 3pm, when things started to get going properly. Ditto dinner: most places don’t even open until 8.30pm or later, and everything is pretty quiet until 9.30pm. If, like me, you’re used to lunch at 12.30pm or 1pm, and dinner at 7pm, you really have to readjust.

The other issue we hit was that a lot of places either didn’t take bookings, or only took bookings over the phone. Unfortunately – and the fault is all mine – I do not speak a word of Spanish. Really, nothing. I did French at school and can bumble by passably in that but I know no Spanish. And, as we were told repeatedly, southern Spain is not like, say, Scandinavia, where most people speak incredible English so your lack of linguistic prowess is less stark. Generally, in Seville, people really did not speak English – and, indeed, why should they? This did mean, though, that I found it almost impossible to make restaurant reservations over the phone.



I’ll start with the bad, to get it out of the way.

One particularly memorable evening saw us first in a long queue outside a particularly well-recommended restaurant before its 8.30pm opening, only to get in and have them insist they were fully booked and turn the queue of people away. ‘No problem’, we thought, ‘let’s turn to our list of other restaurant recommendations in the area’. But the first one we tried was nowhere to be found. We walked round for fifteen minutes, puzzling over addresses and maps, but completely failed to locate the place where we wanted to eat. Seville is full of tiny, winding alleyways and hidden side-streets. ‘No problem’, we thought, ‘let’s move to the third place on the list’. This place, it turned out, was closed because it was a Monday, even though it was advertised as open online. We looked at the fourth place, only to find it was a half hour walk away, which we couldn’t quite manage, as by this time it was 9pm and we were starving (Seville hasn’t got a great public transport system and is very unfriendly to cars, so we walked everywhere throughout the holiday). So we decided to go to the local square, as it was lined with restaurants, and eat at the place that looked the most promising. Big mistake. The food we got was awful, bordering on inedible. Tapas done very, very badly. Not interesting in any way: just not at all nice.

The next night we had a table booked at a restaurant that had been highly recommended online. We started to have our doubts when we got in and saw it looked like it hadn’t been re-decorated since the late 80s. They provided us with some stale bread to gnaw at while we looked down the menu, which didn’t contain a single vegetarian dish. Neither of us are vegetarians, but it didn’t seem to bode well for the attitude of the restaurant that it didn’t cater to them.

It took 50 minutes for our bland starters to arrive. Everything was incredibly dated. My main course, advertised as the fish of the day, was a piece of hake and some plain boiled potatoes, untroubled by sauce or any vegetables. Everything was very unremarkable except for the fact that my fish was sneakily sprinkled with some sort of chilli seeds, which I didn’t immediately identify as such and so unwittingly bit into. I’m pretty good with spicy food, but this was literally the spiciest thing I have ever eaten in my life. The burning immediately spread through my entire mouth and was really quite painful. It was just such an odd thing to randomly sprinkle on top of plain white fish. James’s duck breast came, weirdly, with a border of sliced raw tomatoes and cucumber, and a very sweet sauce. The whole meal was also sickeningly expensive – the most we spent on any meal in Seville despite the fact we didn’t drink (there was no drinks list and we didn’t have the will to try to surmount the language barrier to ask if there were options). A complete rip-off and massively disappointing.

Happily, there were some food highs as well as lows. Mamarracha was the first excellent restaurant we went to, and it was a relieving balm by that point because we’d already had some bad food. The grilled squid and the Iberico pork particularly stood out, and with the bill they brought us some little shots of the most exquisite sherry. I’m not particularly a sherry fan, but it was dark and cold and satin smooth, full of toffee and plum flavours. I wish I knew what it was because I would buy a lot of it.


On a day trip to Cordoba, we snagged a table at Regadera. Meltingly tender carpaccio, ceviche butterfish on braised lettuce and teriyaki, spit-roast lamb with cous cous and pate and a yoghurt dressing, and a peanut toffee banana brownie that I haven’t really stopped thinking about since I ate it. The home-baked bread was excellent – always a good litmus test, I find – and the service was incredibly friendly.




Finally, on the last day, we managed to get into Contenedor, the restaurant we’d been turned away from on the first night. More informal than Mamarracha or Regadera, offering burgers and pastela and casual sharing dishes, but still excellent quality. It sounds odd to be very enthusiastic about rice, but they served us some of the best I’ve ever tasted: black rice, slightly crispy, topped with fried squid and aioli. Also an almost poetic hazelnut chocolate torte, and an apple cheesecake that I’m going to try to recreate. And even better, absolutely astonishingly cheap.


Finally, honourable mention must be given to Freskura. Not a restaurant, but an ice cream place a two minute walk from where we were staying. Some of the most delicious gelato I’ve ever eaten, dozens of intriguing flavours, and incredibly generous portions. I always made James come here with me for consolation ice cream after a disappointing meal and it was very cheering.



When we arrived in Seville, our host helpfully pointed out all the food markets on a map for us. It’s like he knew me. On our first morning, we headed off to the one he’d told us was the oldest and the best: Triana.

Firstly, of course, it wasn’t really ready when we got there at 10am – see earlier paragraph about everything opening late in Seville. The building itself was open and you could wander in, but most stalls still had their shutters down. So we went for a wander around the neighbourhood and came back an hour later. At which point it was maybe two thirds open.

From what we saw when we were in Seville, the food markets there are very traditional. We visited three, and they all seemed to have four types of stalls: meat and fish; fruit and vegetables; cheese; bread. These would be repeated three or four times throughout the market, and while I am sure they all had their own individual characters, the differences weren’t discernible to a passing tourist. I realise I have been very spoiled by the excellent food markets in the UK. While the produce we purchased from the stalls was of good quality, I was a little disappointed by the lack of variety. I was hoping for more unique stalls – maybe oils, spices, sauces, teas and coffees, chocolates, patisserie, or interesting alcohol on top of all the basics. There also didn’t seem to be much of street food culture – people were there to buy produce rather than eat. This is probably all to the good, because actual locals shop in these markets and they haven’t just been redesigned for tourists. Still, as a tourist, I wouldn’t have minded if they’d gone the other way a bit.



We stayed in an Airbnb rather than a hotel, so we made a couple of little supermarket trips to stock up on a few things to eat at our flat when we weren’t eating out. We never found any big supermarkets while we were there – it was mostly little local shops, although I am sure bigger places could have been found on the outskirts of the city. It’s always interesting (to me anyway) to wander around supermarkets in different countries and see what you can and can’t buy there. For example, in Seville the supermarkets all had a dizzying array of meats, particularly ham. However, we couldn’t find – literally, we couldn’t, we really looked – fresh milk sold anywhere. All that was on offer was UHT cartons. I don’t really care about this, but James drinks coffee and eats cereal so found it more problematic.

Also, generally things were a lot sweeter. I was surprised, because I wouldn’t think of Spain as a country that added sugar to things at random. But we couldn’t find any plain unsweetened yoghurt – even the stuff labelled plain Greek yoghurt was almost inedible as it was so sweetened. However, we were ‘reading’ labels purely through Google translate, so it’s entirely possible we could have been missing the good stuff. Juices and smoothies were much sweeter than our English palates were accustomed to. Good chocolate was also very hard to come by. I tried a couple of varieties when I was there and none were nice. There were piles of turron (Spanish nougat) everywhere though. This stuff is tasty, but again, pretty much pure sugar.


Bakeries and patisseries didn’t seem very common in Seville, and we only saw a couple during our time there. La Campana was excellent, and clearly beloved, because it was packed with winding queues when we visited. They sold a vast variety of little Spanish almond biscuits, and some intriguing pastries. I didn’t get to try one of those though because I was too busy eating an entire tray of the biscuits. I regret nothing.



This post probably sounds more negative than I intended it to. Of course, I am only talking about the food in Seville, and we also saw and did some wonderful things that were not food-related and so have no place on this blog. Also, we were only in Seville for four days, so barely scratched the surface of what the city has to offer. But, for what it’s worth (which I am aware is very little), these are my observations.


One final thing to add, and one of my favourite things about Seville, is that the orange trees are everywhere. Really, everywhere. Lines of them down every completely normal city street. I suppose for them an orange tree is the equivalent of our apple trees. But you don’t find apple trees flanking every standard city pavement. The oranges weren’t ripe enough for picking when we visited, but in a couple of months the sight will be even more extraordinary. It’s such a simple thing, but while we were in Spain I didn’t even come close to getting over the novelty of walking under orange trees wherever we went. It’s really something quite special.


Five minutes with Nadiya Hussain: reigning champion of The Great British Bake Off; the nation’s beloved kitchen goddess; queen of my heart

It’s perhaps unsurprising that if you tell a class full of culinary school students that you are going to meet and chat with Nadiya Hussain they become alternately jealous and excited.

‘You get to meet Nadiya!? Oh wow, you lucky thing.’

‘Can you tell her I love her? Like, really?’

‘Oh my god, and me! Tell her I love her too!’

Anyone familiar with this blog will remember that I spent ten weeks baking along with the 2015 Great British Bake Off and going on (and on, and on, and on…) about how happy I was to see Nadiya do well, how hilarious I found her, how much I adore her, and how much I thought she deserved to win. I’m actually a bit surprised they let me meet her at all, considering it’s clear I was a crazed fangirl and borderline gibbering fawning obsessive.

And yet, they did let me meet her.

My fellow student Tassy and I were given a cheeky five minutes with Nadiya before she did some filming for a TV show at Leiths. It’s not surprising they could only spare her for five minutes: she’s a terrifyingly busy person. Seemingly needing no rest after storming through GBBO, she’s made documentaries, guested on television shows, written for magazines, and put together her own cookbook, as well as meeting and baking for the Queen. She was also very kind and tolerant as I babbled at her nonsensically. Here’s what she had to say about Bake Off, self-confidence, and Benedict Cumberbatch…

Credit: S Meddle/ITV/REX Shutterstock (5239214u)

So, it’s been a year since Bake Off – what do you think is the most exciting project you’ve worked on since? 

Well, I’ve worked on a lot of things. Obviously the cookbook is the thing I’ve worked on the longest, but I think one of the most exciting things I’ve done would have to be baking the Queen’s 90th birthday cake. For me, that’s making history. I can’t believe that I actually got to do it: sometimes I have to pinch myself. It’s probably the most memorable thing that’s happened.

How did you manage to get that commission? 

I was actually doing a shoot for my cookbook and my agent called and told me about the email. I was like ‘No, somebody’s pulling your leg, there’s been a mix-up – they want someone who’s a proper baker to do it!’ Then when I realised it was for real I was like ‘…can I say no?!’ But of course, I didn’t want to say no! I was really nervous though; the pressure suddenly just kicked in. It was a big commitment.

Are you still in touch with all your fellow Bake Off contestants?

It’s really hard – we’re twelve very different people! We’ll have a reunion every year, I’m sure. But we do have a group phone chat. Randomly I’ll say ‘How good looking is Benedict Cumberbatch?!’, and then Flora and I will get into a conversation, and everyone else is like ‘Just shut up about Benedict Cumberbatch please both of you’.

You’ve spoken a lot about struggling with confidence – do you think winning Bake Off helped you overcome that? 

When I went into Bake Off I didn’t have a lot of confidence, but I don’t think it’s the winning that gave it to me – I think it was the things I had to go through to get through it, week by week. The process of doing things that I wasn’t comfortable with, and doing things alone without my children and my husband, really gave me that confidence. The win was just the cherry on the cake. It was great, but by that point, I already thought ‘Well, I don’t need to be that nervous, anxious person anymore.’

Obviously, you won Bake Off and then became an instant baking celebrity. Were you prepared to be suddenly famous? Have you enjoyed it? 

No, I definitely wasn’t prepared for everything that came after Bake Off! I did genuinely think I would fly under the radar and go back to normal life. It’s a new world, and it’s not something I know or recognise or am comfortable with. But I’ve kind of taken everything in my stride, and tried to enjoy it. I know there’s a sell-by date and I know there are going to be more Bake Off contestants, and so I want to enjoy what I’ve got and have no expectations.

Did Mary Berry give you any advice after Bake Off?

She always says ‘Just look after your family’. She’s the grandma you want to adopt. I mean, I have one, but I’d still like her! You can tell she is such a family orientated person and I think we had that in common, being in the spotlight, and having a family to look after.

Desert island dish? Marmite! Marmite crisps! I literally can eat six packets in one go.

Dream dinner party guest? David Attenborough. Every time.

Two kitchen essentials you couldn’t do without? My mixer and a good spatula.

Favourite cuisine to eat? Vietnamese.

Mary or Paul? Neither! I’m not answering that – no way!

Credit: photographed in London by Pål Hansen for The Guardian.

At this point, Nadiya was dragged away to do her actual job, but not before letting us get a quick picture with her. Meeting her was definitely one of the most exciting opportunities I got while I was at Leiths, although I am going to have to focus on learning to be a little bit more relaxed and a little bit less starstruck if I ever get to meet any more of my food heroes in the future.


Leiths: the end, and the beginning

The last ten months of my life have been completely dominated by Leiths. Rising in the dark at 5.20am and staggering home at some time past 7.30pm every weekday, ploughing through daily timeplans, doing endless whites washes, working out creative recipes, fretting over coursework, and frantically revising for exams, has left me with very little time to dedicate to anything else, and no energy to do so even if I wasn’t so busy. It’s funny; the things I have cared about so ferociously would seem insane to an outsider, but when you’re in the thick of something as all-consuming as Leiths things that would once have seemed tiny suddenly become overwhelming, and you find yourself devastated when you’re told you’ve only been scored a 3 out of 5 for your puff pastry or indignant when you end up staying late for extra cleaning for the third week in a term.

But for all the ridiculous lows, there are also giddy highs: being praised for finally managing to neatly and efficiently fillet a round fish; hitting a service time perfectly, down to the second; laughing hysterically to the point of tears with classmates over bread dough for no real reason.


On Tuesday, I passed my final practical exam. The theory exam was already over and done with, we’ve been given our marks for our continual assessment in class, and I know I passed my wine exam too. That means that, although we won’t be given our actual marks until July, I know I attained the full professional Leiths Diploma in Food and Wine. I also managed to get through the entire course without a single absence or late mark, despite living a stupid distance away. I know it sounds silly, but I’m proud of that too, even though it was pure pig-headed stubbornness and nothing more. The graduation is over, and that’s the end of my time at Leiths.


So, I guess that’s it then. I’ve done thirty-plus blogs on Leiths, and that’s the end of it.

Oh go on, one last ramble.

If anyone stumbles across this blog who is considering going to study the full diploma at Leiths, here are some things I have learned.

  1. The school will go on about you having to iron your whites. I don’t even own an iron. Not one single piece of my uniform has ever been ironed. This has caused no problems.
  2. You will inevitably lose perspective. When you feel like crying over a curdled custard or a mutilated fish fillet, remember that even though it feels awful, at least you’re not a brain surgeon or something. Of course you care about what you produce, but remember that culinary school, in the grand scheme, is not high stakes. No one has died.
  3. Take the chance to interact with all the people around you: they will come from a huge range of backgrounds and you can learn a lot from them. I mean the students, as well as the teachers. Don’t stay in the bubble of your own class group all the time – chat to people in other classes and the opposite half of the year. Help each other out, share knowledge, make friends. You never know who could be your next business partner.
  4. Try everything (unless, you know, you have a life-threatening allergy). Now is not the time to be picky. Junket? Octopus? Brains? Give everything a fair chance and have at least a bite while you have this amazing opportunity.
  5. Keep your attendance up if you can. Obviously, sometimes you might be truly ill and unable to crawl from bed, or there might be a genuine emergency which prevents you from getting to school, and such is life. But don’t slip into the habit of staying at home when you’re exhausted or hung over. The more time you miss in the kitchen, the fewer chances you will have to get high marks, and the more demonstrations you miss, the trickier you are making the theory exams for yourself. You paid a lot of money for this course: don’t waste it.
  6. Do actually read the wine textbook. I didn’t and I wish I had. It would have made things a lot easier down the road.
  7. Be generous with your resources. Help others, whether it’s by photocopying a lost handout, lending a spare piece of uniform, or giving a heads up and tips about a tricky cooking session. In a big group in a busy and pressurised environment, be a force for good and bring some light. It will all come back to you. And even if it doesn’t, at least you know you have been a positive presence. (This is my general advice for life as well).
  8. Get your mandatory work experience out of the way early and don’t try and do it all in the last possible week.
  9. Keep your knives sharpened as you go along. I didn’t do this and nearly wrecked them, which is a shame, as they are expensive and beautiful.
  10. Remember to enjoy it. You are very lucky.



Leiths: Advanced Term, Week 10

There are few feelings nicer than being able to chuck a file of revision notes in a drawer and forget about them. I have had the Leiths Techniques Bible sitting on my table for weeks, along with piles of flashcards, lists of culinary terms, diagrams of cuts of meat, and a collection of highlighters frankly obscene in range and number (colouring things in rainbow order makes them more memorable, right?). But now? It’s all been cleared away and my table is gloriously uncomplicated once more. Monday morning brought us the final theory exam of the course, and while it wasn’t a particularly welcome gift at the time, by Monday evening I felt like a chainmail vest had been lifted from my shoulders. No more memorising conversions and French technical terms. No more lying awake at night panicking because I can’t remember how much butter there is in a three egg quantity of choux pastry. No more people thinking I am crazy on the train as I mutter to myself about which fruits have high, medium, and low pectin. Yes, we still have the practical exam to contend with next week, but that a different kind of skill and a different kind of worry, and it’s good to have many and various anxieties.

So, Monday’s exam went, if not exactly swimmingly, certainly reasonably. And then it was an odd week, in the way it always is when it’s end of of term anywhere. Bitty and broken up, with the previous weeks’ rigid structure sliding away and a confusing mix of fear about the upcoming practical exam and joy that the wine and theory exams are out of the way. On Tuesday morning we had a skills session in the kitchen, which is basically an excuse for us to practice cooking whatever we fancy for lunch – I went with a rack of lamb and some scallops. The morning’s excitement was provided by Prue Leith herself, who dropped into the kitchens to visit for the very first time since we’d started the course. True, she was there to film an Australian TV show rather than to benefit from our sparkling company, but I’d like to think she did both in the end. I spent most of the session trying to dodge the TV cameras and look as busy as possible so that no one would try to interview me.

In the afternoon, Bruce Poole, formerly of the Michelin-starred Chez Bruce in Wandsworth and now half of the business partnership that owns Chez Bruce, The Glasshouse, and La Trompette, came to do a dem. He hates taster menus and restaurants that do small plates and likes to talk about his peeves at length. What a happy afternoon that was.


On Wednesday and Thursday we were focused on preparing for our last assignment of term: dinner parties. Well, lunch parties technically, but that’s not a thing. In groups of four, we made a three course meal for ourselves and four members of the other half of the year, the Blue group. The idea was to showcase some of the things we’ve learned this term and have a lovely lunch with some of the other students in the year who we don’t often get a chance to chat to. We made a smoked buffalo mozzarella salad, sous vide beef brisket, and a peach and raspberry mille feuille.


The picture below was taken by Leiths staff when I was in the middle of assembling the dessert. It’s made with almond biscuits, peach and raspberry crème pâtissière, meringues, pistachio crumb, fresh raspberries, raspberry purée, raspberry sorbet, and chargrilled peaches. Because I get carried away.


Not the neatest or the most well thought out dessert I’ve ever produced, but people seemed to enjoy it and it was undeniably bright and summery, despite the freezing rains and howling winds of a British mid-June day.

In the midst of all this madness, we had a dem from Atul Kochhar, who was completely charming, dryly funny in an understated way, vastly knowledgeable, and a master of Indian flavourings and spicing. He treated us to some fantastic Indian food and impressed us all with his terrifying schedule, which involves flying to Madrid for a day every week to work at the restaurant he’s set up there. It’s made me very keen to visit his London branch of Benares, so, you know, if anyone fancies taking me there for a post-Leiths treat…


On Friday, we were finally informed about what we’ll have to cook in the practical exam next week (salmon with braised vegetables and a chive beurre blanc, a lamb dish with a best end of neck which we’ll have to butcher and serve with creative farinaceous and vegetable accompaniments and a jus, and pithiviers with homemade puff pastry – oh god oh god oh god) and then were treated to a wonderful lunch by the group that we fed in our dinner party. They made us a Mediterranean vegetable salad starter with a gorgeous goats’ cheese cream, salmon on spinach tortellini in a watercress veloute, and a decadent chocolate and salted caramel dessert with caramelised peanuts. I ate lots of everything and drank much wine and successfully distracted myself from thoughts of the impending practical exam.

And that’s it, my friends. The last week of Leiths, done and dusted with icing sugar. I’ll probably check in next week to let you know if I passed my final exams (please send me good thoughts on Tuesday), so it’s not quite goodbye yet… but very nearly.


Leiths: Advanced Term, Week 9

On some lovely days, everything just goes better than expected. Monday was one of those days. We had a cooking session in exam conditions which I had been dreading, in which we had to make ravioli stuffed with chicken mousseline, wild mushrooms, and tarragon, served in a cream and morel sauce, in an hour and forty five minutes. This might sound like a lot of time, but when you factor in making pasta from scratch, passing chicken through a drum sieve, and assembling ravioli by hand, it all gets a bit tricky. Luckily, I pushed through, just about managed to serve on time, and was pretty happy with what I put up. I also learned that I passed my WSET Level 2 exam, thank god; I was genuinely worried I might have failed it and it had been eating at me ever since we sat the paper.


We also had an interesting session with Jennifer Joyce on food styling. It may not be apparent from the shoddy photos on this blog of late, but I love messing around with food styling and photography, and it was really useful to hear from an expert who clarified certain rules and ideas that I’d half worked out and half hadn’t really understood before. Hopefully, once I finish at Leiths and get a chance to start putting together recipes properly for this blog again, you might be able to see some improvement in my photos and food styling.

Tuesday morning was a prep cooking session, in which we readied ourselves for all day cooking on Wednesday. The first thing we had to do was make brioche dough, which we’d never attempted before. I’m fairly sure I’m going to end up with a puny left arm and an overdeveloped right arm from activities such as clearing, kneading, and dough-making. We had to make the brioche by hand the traditional way, working in butter a cube at a time and stretching the dough to shoulder height, and believe me, it definitely counts as exercise. We also prepped a very fancy chicken liver and fois gras parfait, and butchered our farmed rabbits for the following day’s creative session. I managed not to focus too much on pet rabbits and got the job done like a (semi) professional.


The afternoon session was another one on wine, but with a difference. We were visited by someone from Reidel, a company who make high end wine glasses. We were each given a selection of five glasses and had a wine tasting, sampling wines from various glasses to see how glass shape affected aroma and taste. It was really interesting, but basically my favourite part of the whole thing was the label on the wine bottle above, because the little animals drawn on it reminded me of Where The Wild Things Are. I am literally going to seek out this wine and buy it. I also liked the wine, I’m not quite nuts enough to buy it solely for the bottle. Ahem.


Wednesday was an all day cooking day, and I still haven’t quite recovered from it. We started off with a dish of Sauternes jelly, pear and saffron chutney, and the aforementioned chicken liver and fois gras parfait and brioche. This was to be my lunch, and it was incredibly delicious and satisfyingly fancy. We then moved on to our creative rabbit dish, pictured at the top, which was a MasterChef-style ‘do anything you like with this rabbit’ challenge, working from a list of ingredients and trying to use the rabbit in as many ways as possible. I went for (ready?): saddle of rabbit wrapped in pancetta and stuffed with a mousseline of chicken, rabbit livers, and tarragon; black pudding, confit rabbit leg and mustard bon bons; rabbit liver and tarragon paté; pomme purée with Dijon mustard; pea purée; salted pistachio crumb; sautéed baby carrots and leeks; and a rabbit and port jus. Ansobe said my portion was too generous. Yeah. Quite possibly true, but the more you put on the plate, the more you get to eat, so…


Friday was supposed to be creative red mullet day, but actually ended up being creative gurnard day, as Leiths had been let down by their fish supplier. Gurnard doesn’t sound quite as appealing as red mullet, and doesn’t really look it either: they have odd, triangular heads and loads of very sharp spikes everywhere. I also somehow got a fish that was literally twice the size of everyone else’s and was more like a small shark than anything. I was pleasantly surprised, though, by the fish’s tender meatiness once cooked, and would happily have it again in future. This was only an afternoon session rather than an all day cook, and so my plate is not as mad as the rabbit offering. I made pan-fried gurnard fillets, a Pernod and fennel risotto, pickled courgette ribbons, a Parmesan crisp, lemon caper dressing with parsley, and microherbs.

So next week is Week 10, my last full week at Leiths, and our practical exams are the week after that. I have one short story from my weekend which illustrates, if only to me, how much Leiths has taught me. On Friday night/Saturday morning, I got home at 1am, drunk and exhausted, but with a mad set idea in my head that I wanted to make some fresh bread for James and I for breakfast the next morning. So I stumbled in and, without a plan or a recipe, put together an enriched wholemeal spelt bread dough by eye. I left it kneading in the mixer while I brushed my teeth and got into my PJs, and then chucked it in the fridge to cold rise overnight. When I woke up at 7am I staggered to the fridge without my glasses on (thus almost totally blind), got the dough out of the fridge and popped it in a bread tin to prove. I then accidentally fell asleep again and woke up two hours later, at which point I popped the massively overproved bread in the oven. Despite my complete lack of attention and shockingly poor method, the bread came out lovely. Before Leiths, I would have seen making bread as a tricky project, and I would never have been able to put together a bread dough without a recipe. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to just leave it be and let it do its thing while I was completely unconscious. There’s some innate instinct in me that Leiths has developed that I didn’t have before.

Just to ease you out of the series, you will get a full blog post next week, and then a final farewell (to the Leiths blogs, not to me I’m afraid) after I have finished my practical exams. Have a lovely week, gang. And let me know if you want some bread.


Leiths: Advanced Term, Week 8

Week 8, my friends, and I am winding down against my will. The commute seems longer than ever, the lashing winds and chilling rain that ushered in June were less than appreciated, and I find myself fantasising about things like sleeping in until 7am, reading for pleasure without guilt, and cooking things that have nothing to do with the syllabus. This state of mind is unhelpful, because we still have Weeks 9 and 10 of cooking to get through, followed by exam week, but I am simply bone-tired, would really rather not have another round of terrifying tests both theoretical and practical, and am ready to hang up my necktie and stop doing four rounds of whites washes per week.

That said, if I were to have given up completely, I’d have missed Tuesday’s WI style session, in which we baked cake and made jam and chutney. Granted, the cake was a fiddly genoise base for a Gateau Opera, rather than a comforting lemon drizzle, but it was still a lovely calm morning. Our strawberry jams bubbled away happily, making the kitchen smell amazing, and our spiced pear chutneys reminded us, seasonally inappropriately, of Christmas.

In the afternoon, we were treated to a visit from charismatic cheese expert Tom Badcock. Tom told us that when he dies he wants to be buried with a large amount of Roquefort, and I can well believe it. The man knows his cheese. We sampled over a dozen varieties of the stuff, ranging from the standard ricotta and mozzarella to more unusual (and expensive) fare such as cave aged Kaltbach Gruyere, Munster, and Testun Barola. He also knows pretty much everything about the history of milk and cheese, and regaled us with interesting stories.


Wednesday morning’s cooking session was an odd combination of Opera cake and grilled sardines. I very much like both of these things, but not together, and it was odd jumping from butterflying fish to soaking sponge with coffee syrup. We also over-ran by about forty five minutes due mostly to the sheer complexity of the cake. Nonetheless, I managed to produce the cake you see above – a layered creation with sponges soaked in coffee syrup and stacked with coffee buttercream and chocolate ganache. Below is my delicious but unphotogenic lunch of griddled sardines, salsa verde, and roasted Jersey Royals. An optimistic summery meal to counteract the dismal weather.


In the afternoon we were visited by Hilary Cacchio, a bread expert who specialises in wild yeast starters. I have gently dabbled in making sourdough at home, but my starter is currently dormant with a layer of hooch sitting on it in the fridge, as I haven’t had time for serious bread making while at Leiths. Anyway, Hilary showed us how to do it properly and I’ve been doing it all wrong, so perhaps it would be best for me to start from scratch when I’ve finished at school. I learned loads from Hilary – I have been using unfiltered water and non-organic flour, for instance, which is apparently a  bad idea – and all the breads she made us were delicious.


Thursday was the day of the shellfish massacre. I mean, I’m being dramatic, but that’s basically what it was. We were cooking crab and lobster, and had to kill and prep them both. Reader, I am ashamed to say I couldn’t do it. I am not a vegetarian. And I mean I’m really not a vegetarian; I’ll eat offal, veal, raw meat, whatever. Yes, I am a hypocrite. It’s one thing to be comfortable with eating meat, but another thing to be comfortable with killing it yourself, and as someone who isn’t skilled or confident in the arena of crustacean murder, I was afraid of causing the crab and lobster allocated to me more suffering than was necessary. I love animals and don’t even like to kill spiders; I am also overly empathetic to a fault and feel the pain of other living things. Although I am not squeamish and am fine with butchering something already dead – I had no problem prepping the shellfish once they had been killed – I just couldn’t stab a knife through a lobster skull or a steel through the belly of a crab. Watching them being killed upset me: they wriggled and panicked and tried to get away. It is the first time I have ever actually considered vegetarianism, if only in passing. But no: I am not ideologically against eating meat that is raised and killed humanely. I’m just not happy doing the killing with my own hands. I was surprised at myself, but the reaction was immediate and completely innate, and although I was embarrassed about it – everyone else in the class was fine with killing the crab and lobster – there was really nothing I could do. I had to leave the room while someone else killed both my crab and my lobster for me.

Anyway, I also made scallops with hazelnut and shrimp crumble and pea purée, so that was nice.


Moving swiftly on, we ended the week with a relaxed cooking session on Friday morning, during which we only had to make one dish: the starter portion of grapefruit jelly, crab mayonnaise, avocado purée, diced grapefruit and avocado, white crab meat, and micro-herbs you see above. Considering it was such a tiny little dish, polished off in three bites or so, it took a surprising amount of time and skill to make. I had never picked all of the meat out of a whole crab before, and, though it was actually quite satisfying, my hands now bear lots of little cuts from sharp pieces of shell.

Coming up next week: a creative rabbit dish; my first time working with red mullet; and a foray into fois gras. Have a lovely weekend.


Leiths: Advanced Term, Week 7

The week started with a cancelled train. Checking the TrainLine app to see how the 6.55 was doing before I left the house (might burn me once…) I saw that its Monday morning excursion had been curtailed due to an ominous and non-specific ‘train fault’. Happily for me, this was the one morning that I didn’t have to be at school early, as we had individual assessment appointments and I was lucky enough to snag a later one. I had been planning to go into school at my normal time anyway to get some work done, but I saw the cancelled train as a fairly clear sign and jumped back into bed for an extra hour of dozing. This seemed like a fantastic idea at the time, but I’m pretty sure it was this change to my obsessive and rigid routine which put me off my game for the rest of the day. I have to point at something rather than admitting I’m just an idiot. We had a very light cooking prep session in the afternoon, but somehow I managed to mess up my Danish pastry dough, making it too firm despite following the recipe to the letter (still don’t know what happened), and burnt my fingers by using them to test the consistency of sugar syrup (I admit that this sounds very very stupid but this is genuinely how they tell us to test sugar syrup).


On Tuesday, though, the week got going in earnest and I perked up a bit. This week was the week of sugar, baking, patisserie, petit fours, and all things that are good and right in the world. Tuesday morning’s dem, delivered by Ansobe and Jane, was all about petit fours. Think macarons, marshmallows, nougat, caramels… most peple were groaning and sugar-dazed when the morning was done, but I was in my element. Nibble on those scrap ends of marshmallow? Yes please. Spare piece of nougat? Don’t mind if I do.

In the afternoon we continued with our Danish pastry dough (I was pretty sure mine was fundamentally wrong and doomed at this point but marched along regardless), and made a delicious fougasse. Crusty but light, soft and pillowy, spiked with sea salt and Italian herbs, a loaf bigger than your head – it was surprisingly easy and completely wonderful and I will definitely be trying it again at home. We used a biga for the first time (another word for starter), which gives the bread a depth of flavour that you don’t get without some form of slow-fermenting yeast. I’ve made sourdough at home so the process was not completely unfamiliar, but it was far less hassle than your standard starter and worth beginning 24 hours early.

On Wednesday we had our last ever in-house dem, delivered by Phil and Belinda. It was all about fish – which I love almost as much as I love all things sweet – so I was very happy to munch away on sardines, salmon, and cod, as well as more luxurious and exciting treats such as octopus, John Dory, turbot, and even caviar. I longed anew for a decent fishmonger in Oxford. Does anyone know where I can get octopus? Not a rhetorical question, I really want to try braising it at home.


The afternoon was unexpectedly lovely. The morning group had escaped the kitchen about forty minutes late, so we approached the session with trepidation, but it was very relaxed and I even got out a little early. We made the dessert pictured at the top of this post: almond panna cotta; apricot sorbet; almond crumble; hibiscus meringues; caramelised hazelnuts; sugar work; fresh apricots and raspberries; and micro herbs. You know, casual. It was marvellous, and I got told my plate was pretty, which is always a nice surprise. We followed it up with Danish pastries made completely from scratch (see previous moaning in this post). My pastry was pronounced a little tough, but overall everything went unexpectedly well and I think my fellow commuters were probably slightly confused by the overwhelming smell of fresh pastry on the 17.49 to Worcester.

Thursday was unphotogenic but interesting. We were visited by Chris Barber for an all-day session focused on how to set up a food business. As this is what I hope to do when I graduate, the whole day was very helpful and informative, and Chris was a compelling and knowledgeable presenter. We had to split into groups to prepare a business idea to pitch for the end of the afternoon, and then vote on the best plan. Our little group won the vote – thanks mostly to the excellent presentation skills of Laura – so basically I’m pretty sure we’ll all be successful business tycoons before the year is out.


Friday was the day I’d been looking forward to since I started at Leiths: petit fours day. It’s funny how divisive it was, as a day – some people were in their element, and some didn’t even bother coming in to school. As has probably become obvious by now, I am all about the sugar, and so I was definitely in the first camp. We had a lovely, relaxed day and, as a table, made chocolate caramels with vanilla sea salt, passion fruit pate de fruit, toasted pistachio and almond nougat, lemon sherbet marshmallows, macarons with pistachio and raspberry ganaches, and chocolate truffles covered with tempered chocolate. I love making macarons anyway, but the chocolate caramels were a surprise favourite too. I took a huge box of goodies home and it was both impressive and worrying how quickly James and I ploughed through it.


I am now at the end of a cheeky three day weekend, and somehow it’s almost time to go back to school again. Stay tuned for next week, which will include jam-making, an impressive cake, and an abundance of shellfish.


Leiths: Advanced Term, Week 6

I tend to write this blog assuming that I’m talking to myself, only to be surprised every now and then to hear from people who read it who I wouldn’t necessarily expect to do so. People who aren’t my family or closest friends – I assume they occasionally have a glance out of polite obligation – but passing acquaintances or friends of friends, people who I wouldn’t expect to be following along with my rambling story. So, strange as it feels to me to announce this as though I’m speaking to readers, I’m letting you know that you’re not getting a proper blog this week.

On Monday we had wine revision and an unexciting prep cooking session, on Tuesday we were out of school for a wine trip, on Wednesday we had all day cooking, on Thursday we had the day off for wine revision, and on Friday we had our wine exam. So, cooking wise, all I have to tell you about is Wednesday! I could describe the seven hours of travelling it took me to get to and from Sussex on Tuesday or the terror of the WSET Level 2 paper on Friday but, let’s face it, if you’re here at all you’re probably here for the food.


On Wednesday we only had two dishes to serve, and one of them we’d prepared on Monday. This sounds like an easy day, but oddly, it wasn’t. We started with a terrine made with pork, liver, and pistachio, served with sourdough and microherbs. Surprisingly easy and delicious, and perfect for making ahead and slicing and serving to guests. The second dish was a creative duck plate. Essentially, they gave us a duck and told us to do whatever we wanted with it and use as much of the bird as possible. I went for: pan fried duck breast; beetroot ravioli filled with duck confit, thyme and garlic; pickled baby beetroot and shallot rings; celeriac purée; baby carrots, peas, and micro herbs; and a duck and port jus. If you think that sounds complicated, you should have seen some of the dishes that other people came up with. They were seriously beautiful and professional and I am in awe of (and slightly jealous of) so many of my classmates. As we were all making complex dishes with multiple components to be brought together for service, it was a bit of a manic day and resulted in the most terrifying and comic washing up pile I have ever seen.

So, our big portfolio hand in deadline has passed, our WSET Level 2 exam is over (thank god, on both counts), and next week is Week 7. I can’t quite believe it, but we’re very nearly there.

And I’ll try to give you a proper blog post next week.