During the first-thing-on-a-Monday-morning (why, dear god, why?) wine lecture and tasting that kicked off the Advanced Term, my friend and I were interested to see something unusual being carried into the dining room for us to taste with our Pinotage. ‘Ooh, looks like they’re giving us canapés!’ exclaimed Charlie. And they were, sort of. It’s just that the ‘canapés’ were brandy snaps topped with blue cheese, dark chocolate, and coffee powder, to be enjoyed with red wine that smelled like smoky ash. Surprisingly tasty, actually, although I don’t think I’ll be passing the combination round next time I have people over for dinner. I then spoiled everything by accidentally spilling red wine on poor Will’s lovely shirt. In my defence, we only get a tiny amount of space in wine lectures and it’s tricky for someone as naturally clumsy as me to deal with a textbook, a workbook, writing implements, food, water, and two glasses of wine simultaneously.
This, by the way, is my rambling and evasive introduction to the first in the series of blog posts that will chart my final term at Leiths. The Advanced term, you guys. I should be advanced by now. I sliced my finger open peeling a potato last week. I am so not advanced.
Stumbling on, though, for our first cooking session of the term we made dauphinoise potatoes and the components of an onion tart, ready to be assembled on Tuesday. Getting back into the school kitchens after a break always feels a bit odd: everything is very familiar, and yet you’ve forgotten where little things are kept and you keep wanting to start singing or watching TV in the background like you would do at home. Then someone shouts ‘Service!’ and you snap back to the odd reality of the situation. Apparently we’ve all forgotten how to make shortcrust pastry properly, which is worrying, as it’s one of the first and most basic skills we covered.
Tuesday began with the first proper dem of term, which was on advanced breads and led by the lovely Hannah. The photo you see above is of some delicious craquelins, a Flemish take on a brioche bun made with mixed peel, orange zest, Grand Marnier, and crushed sugar. Along with those, we got to taste pumpernickel bread, brioche loaf, ciabatta, English muffins, and cinnamon raisin bagels. It was a glorious carb fest.
The afternoon cooking session was typically manic. We started by baking and serving the tarts that had begun their lives on Monday. Unfortunately, the egg yolks I used in my custard turned out to be too small and so the tart refused to set, meaning that the end result was not structurally sound. It was still pretty edible though – rich, creamy, spiked with caramelised onions and served with a sharp salad.
We then moved on to lamb fillet, wrapped in pancetta and served with dauphinoise potatoes and ratatouille. Now that we’re in the final term, we’re supposed to be aiming for refinement and restaurant style presentation. Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever eaten at my dinner table will attest to, refinement is not a particular strength of mine. I’m more a ‘make a huge dish of lasagne and let everyone help themselves’ kind of girl. Hence my incredibly shoddy presentation of my lamb dish, shown below for the sake of honesty. It’s definitely something I have to work on.
Wednesday began with Heli’s last dem before she disappears to go on maternity leave (sob). Luckily, it was a good one. Puff pastry is one of those things that I think you only make from scratch while you are at culinary school, because in the rest of the world, even in most restaurants, it’s considered a mad and unnecessary thing to do. I mean, it’s much more effort than buying a pack from a shop, but it’s actually not so bad in comparison to, say, boning a quail (more on which later). Or maybe Heli just made it look easy. Anyway, we got to eat little individual quail pastries and mille feuille, so I’m not complaining.
In the afternoon we boned a quail. A teensy little bird. With lots of teensy little bones. Sense some resentment coming from this direction? Ever boned a quail? No, you haven’t, because no normal person bones a quail. They are tiny, around the size of a clenched fist, and the bones are fragile and break apart when you try to get them out, and there’s so little flesh on the birds anyway the it hardly seems worth the trouble of boning them. One of my biggest flaws is having very little patience: I am easily frustrated and not good at slow, fiddly little tasks. Suffice to say I will not be boning any quails voluntarily in the near future. Having said that, we served them stuffed with spinach and chorizo on a soft polenta and they were completely, surprisingly delicious.
Thursday began with a dem from Michael on confiting, smoking, and preserving. You know, how to make your own breasola, duck ham, tea smoked mackerel, and pickles and so forth, as one does on a Thursday morning. Personally, I love to eat those sorts of things, but the thought of putting them together myself makes me feel a bit nervous. Everything has to be kept at a specific temperature and humidity for preserving and you have to be careful with moisture for confiting and home-made smokers look a bit tricky and… basically, my problems are fear and ignorance. We’ll be doing this sort of thing in class this term though, so I’m going to have to get over it.
In the afternoon, we made a dish of smoked haddock on new potatoes, topped with poached egg and a mustard beurre blanc. The key element here was the mustard beurre blanc. Described by one of my fellow students as ‘the devil’s emulsion’, it’s a tricky sauce to make because it basically contains only butter, and you have to get that butter to form an emulsion with a tiny dribble of reduced vinegar liquid. Unlike in other emulsions such as mayonnaise and hollandaise, there is no handy egg yolk for the fat to bind with, so the whole thing is incredibly unstable and prone to splitting and impossible to bring back once it’s gone. Thankfully, I got lucky on my first try (some people had to make it three or four times), and I am very proud of the thick, shiny sauce you see in the photo above, mostly because it involved about twenty minutes of tense and concentrated hand-whisking, which is the most exercise I’ve done in a month.
Finally, Friday crawled around, and launched right in with a technical dem from Belinda on clearing. For the uninitiated (i.e. me, before the dem), clearing refers to the clearing of liquids so that they are crystal sparkling and transparent, for example in the case of a consommé or a clear jelly, through the use of a raft of egg whites and egg shells. Yeah. We have to do this next week and I am afraid.
We finished the week by making boudin blanc, a white sausage, from scratch, and serving it with a hot and crunchy beetroot and caramelised apple, as pictured above. I have definitely never made my own sausages before. Did you know you can do them with a piping bag if you don’t have a sausage machine? Yes, you’re welcome. I know what you’ll be doing this weekend.
I know you’re bored of hearing this, but I’m so very tired. Getting back into the punishing commute and routine has been tough, and I have definitely had a few falling-asleep-standing-up moments this week. Apologies to the friendly fellow commuter who had to wake me up when my Wednesday evening train got to Oxford because I was asleep with my mouth open and refusing to move. Still, it’s the last term, I’ve made lots of delicious things already, and I fully intend to make the most of Leiths before my time there is up.