Date and Almond Spelt Bread

Okay, so I know I said I wasn’t going to post the recipes from the final Bake Off Bake Along bread challenge. But I changed my mind. I liked the little date and almond ones so much that I made a proper full-sized one the next day. This date and almond spelt loaf is my new favourite bread. I make a big loaf at the weekend, slice and freeze it, and then work my way through it over the next week. It makes all of life more delicious. It is amazing with cheese, but also with peanut butter. Also just eaten straight out of the oven with barely a pause on the way to my mouth. Maybe some butter if I am feeling patient.


Spelt flour isn’t gluten free but it has less gluten than traditional wheat flour, so might be easier to digest for people who have a gluten sensitivity or intolerance. I have neither, but I really like the warm, nutty flavour it brings to bread. It also lends itself very well to complementary additions. I have obviously gone for date and almond here, but you can add whatever fruit and nuts you like. Raisins or apricots would be lovely, as would walnuts or hazelnuts.



This is a very forgiving bread. It doesn’t need a huge amount of kneading, and it just has one slow prove, so it’s very low in terms of hands-on time. I know spelt flour might sound intimidating if you’re not used to making bread (you can buy it at any big supermarket) but it’s really easy to work with and rewardingly delicious.


butter, for greasing
350g strong wholemeal spelt flour
150g strong white bread flour
1 sachet dried yeast
2 tsp salt
100g whole blanched almonds, roughly chopped
100g dates, chopped
40ml extra virgin olive oil
300ml tepid water


  1. Grease a loaf tin thoroughly with butter. If you’re using a mixer with a dough hook, literally just put all of the ingredients into the bowl and mix on a medium speed for five minutes until smooth. If you’re making the bread by hand, mix both flours, yeast, salt, almonds, and dates together in a large mixing bowl. Add the oil and the water, stirring with a wooden spoon until it begins to form a dough. Knead by hand for around seven minutes until smooth. Don’t worry if the dough seems a little damp or sticky.
  2. Shape your dough into a rough log and pop it in your prepared tin. Dust it with flour. Slash the top with your sharpest knife. Put your tin into a plastic bag, covering the dough but leaving air and space within. Leave in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size. It’s a long. slow prove, around 2-2.5 hours.
  3. Preheat oven and bake at 220C/200C fan/gas 8 for 20 minutes, then turn the oven down to 200C/180C fan/gas 6 and bake for a further 20 minutes, or until the bread is risen and dark with a good crust and sounds hollow when tapped underneath. Cool on a wire rack.

The Bake Off Bake Along: Bread Basket

Oh, Prue. Prue. I sympathise, I really do. We’ve all had that heart-shrinking, teeth-grinding ‘Nooooo!’ moment when we realise we have sent a message about a person to that person, or misdirected a work email, or foolishly texted an ex when drunk. You try, desperately, to recall the message you’ve put out into the ether, but it’s too late. Everyone has seen it. What is done cannot be undone.

I happened to be on Twitter when Prue casually revealed the winner of the Bake Off about nine hours before it actually aired, so I was ‘spoilered’ immediately. I didn’t really mind though. As anyone who knows me will know, I always want to know the end of everything. And I was glad that Sophie was our winner. It definitely seemed like the right choice out of the final three bakers.


I can’t quite believe I’ve managed to make it all the way through this year’s bake off bake along. It has involved a lot of rushed early morning baking in a panic. I’m glad I’ve limped through to the finish line, though, because it’s given me some very good weeks. Let’s not talk about the bad weeks. My particular favourites have been the peanut butter fondants and the cannoli. Happy days.


Fittingly, finals week was actually the trickiest week for me in terms of choosing a challenge. I didn’t have the kit (and I’m not sure I have the skill, to be honest) to go for an entremet. I wasn’t feeling inspired by the technical challenge. Ginger biscuits are fine, but very fiddly icing is not up my street – all about the look, not at all about the taste. So, somehow, making twelve loaves of bread started to seem like the sensible option.


I could have made my life slightly easier and done three full size loaves, or one batch of four small ones. But, in the end, I decided to make a proper go of it, safe in the knowledge that it will be at least a year before I put myself through this process again.

And actually, it went surprisingly well.


When you put your mind to it, it’s quite astonishing how much bread you can make in a morning. And because I was bound by the constraints of the Bake Off challenge – i.e. I had to make one spelt bread, one filled bread, and one shaped bread – I ended up making up some new recipes. Which I am often too lazy to do.

My final loaves were spelt boules with almonds and dates, wholemeal walnut loaves filled with blue cheese, and simple white plaits. I’ve never actually made a plaited loaf before, and even though it seems a bit pointless – since the fancy shape doesn’t in any way make the taste more interesting – I admit it was quite satisfying. I don’t think my bread would have been accused of being underproved or overworked. The walnut and blue cheese bread was stupidly delicious: James and I ate an embarrassing amount of it very quickly. And I’ve always liked baking with spelt, and fruit and nut bread is very satisfying. So, three thumbs up. If I had three thumbs. You know what I mean.


I’m not going to post the recipes here because three recipes in one post would be a bit much. Also, I was kind of winging it. But if you are particularly interested in any of the three, do let me know and I will send a recipe your way.

Goodbye for now, Bake Off. See you next year. I hope. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with all my free weekend time now. I mean, probably still baking, to be honest. But in a less structured way.



Pesto, Bacon, and Mozzarella Bread

A good time to make this Pesto, Bacon, and Mozzarella Bread would be when you’re planning to feed a crowd. Possibly you have a big family. Maybe you are inviting friends over. Perhaps you need to feed hungry work colleagues. In all of those instances, this bread would be an excellent thing to bake. A slightly insane time to bake this massive bread is when there are only two of you in the house. And you just kind of fancied a bit of bread. But, of course, that’s what I did.

To give you an idea of the scale of this bread: it only just about fit in my oven. I had to cut it up for the photos. If left whole, it didn’t fit on the board, or actually even into the shot when I was trying to take pictures.

In other words, it’s awesome. A ridiculously huge loaf of bread filled with pesto, bacon, and mozzarella? What’s not to like?

This is an ideal weekend project. Pop the dough on when you get up, and then gently potter around, finishing it off in time for a luxurious brunch. Yes, it takes quite a long time, but most of that time is just passive while you’re waiting for it to prove. And there is really nothing more satisfying that making your own bread for scratch. As this particular bread is stuffed with tasty fillings, you don’t even have to had anything with it. Although it would make some epic sandwiches.





I made the dough for this in a mixer fitted with a dough hook. You could do it by hand, but the dough is essentially a brioche. It’s very wet and a bit of a pain to get all the butter in by hand. They made us do brioche without a machine at culinary school, obviously, but… yeah. It’s not an experience I am massively keen to repeat.


500g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
10g salt
10g dried yeast (from sachets is fine)
150ml warm milk (heat it for around 30 seconds in the microwave until it’s about skin temperature)
3 eggs
200g butter, room temperature, cut into cubes
300g bacon lardons
150g pesto, fresh if you can get it
2 x 150g balls mozzarella, drained
1 egg, beaten
handful of parmesan, grated
fresh chives to finish, optional


  1. Put your flour, salt, yeast, milk, and eggs into the bowl of your mixer. Beat with the dough hook on a medium speed until it’s smooth. Slowly – over about a five minute period – add your butter, bit by bit, letting each chunk get beaten in before adding the next. You should have a glossy dough. Pop it into an oiled bowl. Cover with cling film. Leave to rise in a warm place until doubled in size (at least an hour). You can also do this step the night before you want your bread, and let it rise overnight in the fridge.
  2. While your dough rises, pop your bacon into a frying pan on a medium heat (no need for oil). Gently fry it until cooked but not too coloured – it will cook more in the oven and if you get it too dark now it will only burn later. Tip it onto kitchen roll to drain excess fat and let it cool.
  3. When your dough has risen, line your largest baking tray with baking parchment or a silicone mat. Sprinkle it with flour. Carefully tip your dough out onto it, then, with oiled hands, gently press it out into a rectangle about 1cm thick and roughly 45cm long, with the long side facing you. Spread the dough with your pesto, scatter it with your bacon, and tear up your mozzarella into strips and lay it over the top. Roll it all up from the long end like a sausage. This is the best way to make sure the filling is evenly distributed. Join the ends of the sausage together to make a ring. It’s a delicate dough with a lot of filling so inevitably bits will tear and spill out as you move it, but this is good, because those bits will be exposed to the heat of the oven and taste delicious. Put your baking tray into a plastic bag and leave your bread to prove for another hour.
  4. Heat your oven to 220C/ 200C fan/ gas 6. Brush your bread with beaten egg, scatter the whole things with grated Parmesan, and bake it for around 25-30 minutes until golden brown. Keep an eye on it, because the enriched dough can catch and burn – if it’s starting to look too dark too early then cover it with foil.
  5. When your bread is baked, let it rest for ten minutes. Finish with a sprinkling of chopped chives, for colour, if you like. Enjoy warm or cold.




Sun-dried Tomato and Olive Focaccia

Sometimes I think there wasn’t much point in my going to culinary school, because all anyone really ever wants me to make is brownies and bread. Seriously. Those are the things that I get asked to make the most often, and those are the things which always inspire the most delight among the people I cook for. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I understand it. Brownies and bread are delicious. But they are also easy. So easy! I could make these things before I expended vast amounts of time and money and effort getting a culinary diploma. Still, at least now I know in my heart that I could make a blackcurrant souffle. Even though no one ever asks me to.


If you are ever going round to someone’s house and you want to bring them something a bit special, then I really recommend that you bake some bread. People go absolutely nuts for the stuff and they will think that you are amazing, even though really all you have done is mix flour and water and yeast together and then let them do their thing. I am now pretty much obligated to make focaccia for family gatherings, because I did so once and it’s like when we fed the teeniest, tiniest bit of gammon to the cat and now that she knows about the existence of gammon she cannot be happy unless she is actively eating gammon.


When I bake bread from scratch for something, someone always says ‘Oh, I can’t be bothered with making bread. Doesn’t it take ages?’ Well, yes and no. Yes, the time from starting the bread-making process to starting the bread-eating process is a couple of hours, but in those couple of hours you will have about fifteen active minutes in which you have to do things to the bread. For the rest of your time, feel free to be gainfully employed in plumbing the depths of Netflix, alphabetising your spice cabinet, or trying to placate your gammon-crazed pet.



I’m not going to lie: this is much easier to make if you have a mixer with a dough-hook. I did not have one until last year and owning one has now made me magnificently lazy. With normal bread dough, ten minutes of kneading by hand is no big deal, and can actually be pretty satisfying (plus I always count it as my exercise for the day). With focaccia, though, the dough is really more like a batter because it is so wet, and kneading a batter is a bit trickier, so it’s much easier to shove it in a mixer. The high water content is what gives the bread its light texture and irregular crumb structure: the water in the dough evaporates as the bread bakes, leading to that classic focaccia look. That said, I made this at my parents’ house at Christmas, and I had to do it by hand because they don’t have a mixer with a dough-hook, and it was fine. Although I did whinge about it a bit.

Obviously you can substitute other things for sun-dried tomatoes and olives if you have anything interesting lying about. I have done this with feta, artichokes, red onion, prosciutto, and various herbs. You can see from the pictures that I had some artichokes in the fridge, so in they went. It’s all good, and it would be fine with just salt and olive oil too.


500g strong white bread flour
2.5 tsp salt
2 sachets dried fast action/ easy bake yeast (don’t worry too much about what it says on the packet – anything that comes in 7g sachets will be fine)
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (if your sun-dried tomatoes or olives come in good olive oil, you can use that for extra flavour)
400ml cold water
more olive oil, for drizzling
fine sea salt
handful of sun-dried tomatoes
handful of olives
fresh rosemary


  1. If you’re making this in a mixer, pop your flour, salt, yeast, oil, and water in the bowl and start mixing on the slowest speed. Once it’s all combined, turn it up to a low-medium speed and let it mix for around 5-7 minutes. When you’re finished, leave the dough in the bowl and cover it with cling film. If you’re doing it by hand, put all the same ingredients in a large bowl but only use 300ml of the water. Mix it together with a wooden spoon to begin with, and when it comes together as a batter, gradually add your last 100ml water, working it in. Then you’re going to have to move to hand-kneading – I find that coating your hands in olive oil first stops the dough from sticking to you so badly. Knead it in the bowl for about five minutes, by stretching it up to shoulder height. When it starts to come together you can tip it out and knead it on an oiled surface for another five minutes. After you have finished, oil the bowl you started with, pop the dough back in, and cover it with cling film. Either way, leave in a warm place for an hour.
  2. Line a large baking tray with parchment paper and then grease it with a little olive oil (I use a 33x20cm brownie tin for this, but size isn’t too important as long as it’s fairly large. You can also make two smaller loaves if you prefer). Oil your hands, tip the dough onto the baking tray, and flatten it out so that it reaches all the corners and sides. Cover and leave to prove for another hour.
  3. Heat your oven to 220C/ 200C fan/ gas 6. With oiled fingers, poke your sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and sprigs of rosemary into the surface of your dough, pressing them right down so they don’t spring out during baking. Drizzle the whole thing with plenty of olive oil, sprinkle it with salt (the good stuff, Maldon or Cornish), and then bake it for around 20-25 minutes or until it’s golden and risen with a firm crust and the smell of fresh bread is driving everyone in your house crazy.



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 4

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.



Leiths: Advanced Term, Week 1

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.


Leiths: Intermediate Term, Week 10

Week 10 dawned bright and cold, and brought with it our last full week of Intermediate Term, along with our theory exam and the promise of a practical assessment next week. We get two weeks off for Easter and I am booked up for every single day of the break, but a change is as good as a rest (I mean, it’s not, that’s clearly nonsense, but I’m trying to kid myself), and it will be a pleasure to have a pause on the 5.15am starts and constantly being freezing cold. I intend to spend as much of my time off as possible curled like a lizard in front of the wood-burning stove on our narrowboat, as an antidote to the school’s consistently Arctic air-conditioning and Spring refusing to get its act together.

But first, the last couple of hurdles. Monday morning started inauspiciously when my train from Oxford to London was completely cancelled. This of course happened on the morning of my theory exam, one of two or three days of term when I absolutely had to be in school on time. I had a little panic and then worked out an alternative route which involved a local stopping service and a terrifying mad dash in an anxious crowd of fellow commuters to make a tight connection, followed by the dubious pleasure of being rammed in a standing-room only carriage for a while. I had hoped for a serene hour in my usual seat on the quiet coach of the train to get some revision done, but it was not to be, and though I got to school on time in the end I was already frazzled. Consequently, the theory exam could definitely have gone better.


Luckily, Tuesday began with a skills session. These are always very relaxed as they involve no service times, and we all gently pottered about trying to perfect various techniques. I made bread and flaky pastry, and while my wholemeal beer loaf had a bit of ovenspring, my flaky pastry finally rose up proudly and dispelled last week’s failure from my mind (almost). Also, I now have loads of flaky pastry to make palmiers with. I should probably do something with the leftover flaky pastry I always have other than making palmiers, but unfortunately I find them irresistibly delicious.

On Tuesday afternoon we were treated to a visit from Phil Harrison, the chef from local pub The Anglesea Arms. I have never visited the pub before but now intend to get there at the earliest opportunity, because all the food Phil made us was fresh, seasonal, expertly cooked, and so delicious I was very sad to only be allowed to try a taste of each dish. Phil was a lively and entertaining presenter, who claimed to be very nervous, although I have to say the nerves didn’t translate to the food at all. We had poached duck eggs with Jerusalem artichokes cooked several ways, a glorious turbot dish with wild garlic and morels, saddle of lamb with kidneys and anchovies, and crème brulee with rhubarb and pistachio. Yes, they’re spoiling us. I never eat turbot because it’s frighteningly expensive; Phil told us the fish he was prepping for us to taste cost around £100.

On Wednesday we returned to butchery, a process I usually really enjoy, and luckily this time was no different. We had been given the task of boning out a chicken. I remember when this concept was first broached thinking it sounded mad and completely impossible, but that which can be spoken can be achieved and so on, and sure enough, I was eventually left with an entirely boneless chicken, which I then reformed around a ricotta and herb stuffing, ready for roasting the following day. It’s a bit of a hassle and not something I’m going to be cracking out every weekend, but nonetheless, it was oddly satisfying.

Annie and David then took us for a canapé dem, giving us a whistlestop tour of the twelve incredible canapés they dreamed up for the end of term canapé party on Friday. They managed to pack a huge amount into the afternoon, and we jumped from beetroot meringues with almond and goats’ cheese to bavette steak with onion and thyme to passionfruit brulée on pate sucrée, with several other stops along the way. Canapés, though miniscule, are a huge amount of work, and it’s a real skill to turn out hundreds of little mouthfuls of food that are all delicious, identical, and beautiful, so the whole thing was very impressive.


Thursday morning’s cooking session was basically an exercise in preparing lots of intricate and tasty food which we then got to eat for our lunch. My spaghetti vongole, pictured above, features pasta made, rolled, and cut by my very own hands (well, with a pasta machine, but the pasta was fed through the machine with my very own hands). Below you can see the results of Wednesday’s foray into chicken boning, sliced atop a bed of an Ottolenghi salad containing quinoa, red rice, pistachios, and apricots, amongst other delights.


Our guest dem in the afternoon was given by Jeremy Pang from the School of Wok. I do not know nearly enough about Chinese cuisine, or Asian food in general, so it was a treat to be guided through by an expert. Jeremy’s dim sum demonstration made shaping the intricate little dumplings look easy, but this was entirely down to his professional skill and years of practice, as we realised when we came up to have a go at shaping ourselves and realised just how difficult it is.

Finally, on our last proper day of term (I am not counting the practical exam next week as a proper day) we helped prep the canapés for the evening’s party – I got to pipe out hundreds of little beetroot meringues – and finally were told what we will be cooking for our end of term assessment. In case you’re curious, we’ve been tasked with cheese soufflés, sea bream (scaled, gutted, and filleted) with sauce vierge and skordalia, vanilla bavarois with raspberry coulis, and a loaf of beer bread. Sounds like quite a big ask for a four hour exam, right? I’m off to go and panic quietly in a corner. I hope you all have weekends far more relaxing than mine is about to be. See you on the other side.


Leiths: Intermediate Term, Week 4

To kick off Week 4, we were visited by two very charming men who dismantled a large amount of cow for our learning pleasure. Also a pig. And a lamb.

It was awesome.


Peter Holmes and Graham Portwine are two retired butchers who have a wealth of fascinating knowledge regarding all things meat, which they were kind enough to share with us. It was a lovely way to spend a Monday: being gently eased into a new week spending hours drooling over unusual and premium cuts of meat and watching expert butchers turning an intimidating carcass into a hundred viable dinner options with consummate skill. I still cannot be completely relied upon to accurately butcher a chicken, so I gazed on with envious admiration as they delineated joints I had never even heard of. There was a hacksaw and about six different types of knife involved. They sold off all the meat at cost price at the end of the day and I went home with a rucksack full of bavette steak, shin beef, and Barnsley chops.

It was a good job we had a relaxing Monday, because we needed it to gear up to Tuesday and Wednesday. On Tuesday, it was our group’s turn to do the Cooking for 50 challenge. For context, I am going to pause briefly and explain how the teaching structure at Leiths works, because I don’t think I ever have before – do skip the next paragraph if you’re not interested or you already know.

There are roughly 100 students in a Diploma year group at Leiths, and we are divided in half into the White group and the Blue group. One week the White group will cook in the mornings and have dems in the afternoons while the Blue group does the opposite, and then the next week the schedule switches so that the White group are having dems in the mornings and cooking in the afternoons, and so on. Within each half of the year there are three classes of sixteen students, organised roughly by age, named A, B, and C. So I happen to be in White and in the middle group in terms of age, thus I am in class White B. Each class has a class teacher who looks after the class as a whole in terms of all the administrative issues, marking collation and progress reports and the like, and who also leads their own class for cooking sessions the majority of the time. So this year, both B classes belong to Heli, who is my class teacher. We usually have Heli for two or three cooking sessions a week, and the others are led by other teachers at Leiths who aren’t responsible for a specific class but take classes (seemingly at random) when they’re not being handled by the designated class teacher.

Back with me? Lovely.

So, the Cooking for 50 challenge involves groups of four people cooking for 50 people, i.e. the other half of the year group. I cooked with three fellow students from White B for the whole of the Blue group: we had the morning to make them lunch. It was so hectic that I did not take a single picture, so instead have a screenshot of our Mexican-themed menu.


I did not sit down or eat or drink anything from 9am to 2pm while we cooked and, later, cleaned up. It was manic and exhausting. I think (I hope) that the food went down reasonably well, and I am so pleased to have the challenge behind us. The upside of the whole thing is that we, the White group, are fed by teams of students from the Blue group throughout the term, so we have been the lucky recipients of many different and delicious lunches.


Due to the vagaries of timetabling, Wednesday (when I could really have used a nice sit-down) was an all day cooking session. With no dem in which to relax, absorb information, and be fed, we were in the kitchens all day and made (deep breath): steamed steak and kidney suet puddings; slow-roast pork belly with choy sum, mange toute, and a peanut chilli dressing; wholemeal beer bread, and Arnold Bennett omelettes glazed with hollandaise sauce. We were also supposed to be making stock, but it was decided that there simply was not enough hob space.

To be honest, I was worried about all day cooking right off the back of Cooking for 50, but I needn’t have been. The kitchen gods seemed to be smiling upon me, and somehow the session felt almost relaxed. Admittedly, this might have been because anything would have felt relaxed after Tuesday’s madness, but you take what you can get. I would also like to point out that the pudding pictured above wasn’t actually served like that: I just forgot to get a photo before the teacher cut into it for marking.


By the time Wednesday drew to a close I felt like so much had happened that it may as well have been Friday. The universe doesn’t really work like that though, so back into the kitchens we went. Everyone seemed pretty tired and there’s a nasty bug going around that meant there were a few people absent, so it was a rather languid morning really. We made our first attempts at an Espagnole sauce (think really, really fancy and time-consuming gravy), pastry cases from pâte sucrée, and vanilla soufflés. What’s that you say? We seem to be making an awful lot of soufflés lately? Why yes, I concur. This was our third or fourth attempt in recent weeks, and I am happy to say that mine was deemed to be a good effort this time around. I’m not going to pretend that’s due to any particular skill on my part though: the complete randomness of soufflé achievement does seem to have little to do with technique in my case. It must be almost entirely determined by karma or fate or star-signs or something.


In the afternoon we had our first normal dem for ages, after a few days of unusual timetabling, and it was a good’un. Led by Heli, we explored fresh pasta and shellfish (yes, it does seem like quite a random combination, but I love both of these things so I’m not complaining) and were shown examples of the perfect pasta dough, alongside examples of what happens when the dough becomes too wet, too greasy, too dry and so on. We were also shown how to properly prepare squid, followed by the serving of some deep fried salt and pepper squid that was so delicious people were essentially elbowing others out of the way to get samples. We finished with matelote, a classic fish stew made typically with eel and red wine, that lots of people were unsure about but which actually turned out to be delicious. Well, I thought so anyway.


Above, you have a rare action shot from Friday’s session. We’re not really supposed to take pictures during cooking time, but I had just managed to flip my potato rosti over – after much worrying – and I was so proud of it sitting there all golden and delicious in its butter-bath that I couldn’t resist taking a quick snap. The rosti was served with a veal steak, green beans, the dreaded turned carrots, and a Madeira sauce, and made a very satisfactory lunch. We also used our pastry cases from the day before to make chocolate tarts topped with honeycomb. My pastry lacked some finesse (I am going to have to put ‘lacking in finesse’ on my CV for the sake of honesty), but the tart itself was so tasty that I didn’t particularly mind.


Finally, we ended the week with a wine session. Friday afternoon is the perfect time to do a wine tasting, and this time we were particularly lucky as we were visited by Nancy Gilchrist, who took us through an introduction to the art of food and wine pairing. We sampled six different wines with varying combinations of the food on the very odd little tasting plate you can see below. There’s brie, blue cheese, dill, a strawberry, apple, grissini, basil. dark chocolate, salt, curry sauce, and black pepper. We like to have all the bases covered.


Despite the hectic start to this week, the last few days were lovely, and I really feel like I have settled into term now and am completely used to the rhythm of school. Now I’d best go and practice my vegetable-turning skills like I promised I would so that I don’t end up destroying any more carrots next week.


Leiths: Intermediate Term, Week 2

It wasn’t a great week. I think it’s important to be able to say that. Yes, I am doing something amazing (and expensive), and yes, I am very lucky to be able to do the course that I have wanted to do literally for years. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t really hard, and it doesn’t mean that every week is going to go my way. Just because you are lucky, and happy, it doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to also feel fed up, and exhausted. There have been a few things that have made it challenging over the last few days: the sudden cold snap; the fact that this week’s schedule has been brutally overloaded; excessive train delays; having no time to unwind; feeling like nearly everything I cooked went wrong. I embarked upon Week 2 with a new rule: no cycling in sub-zero temperatures. It’s just no fun. A friend at Leiths came off her bike on ice and dislocated her shoulder last week and that decided it for me. If it is literally freezing, I am getting the tube, and then walking twenty minutes from Goldhawk Road to school. This new rule saw me crammed onto the Hammersmith and City line with many rambunctious school children on Tuesday, grateful for the heating but less grateful for one of the more hyperactive children jumping on my foot.

Monday morning was what our teacher for the day called ‘a bit hectic’ and I call ‘fairly close to madness’. I think, as a group, we used every single pan in the kitchen. We made French onion soup with Gruyère croûtons and pot-roast partridge on a bed of puy lentils with pancetta and cavalo nero. Soups seem to be treating me kindly thusfar this term: last week, a well-reviewed artichoke soup; this week, a well-reviewed French onion soup. Apparently the key is to cook the onions absolutely to death, which is what I did, so there you go. Wander away from your pan and forget you left your onions on a high heat and you too can achieve culinary brilliance.


After those dizzying heights of praise, the partridge dish could only pale in comparison, so it was no surprise to me when my bird was pronounced both over-cooked and under-cooked in different areas (this is why it is very tricky to win with partridge). I was still drifting around on a cloud of oniony-happiness though, so I didn’t mind too much. We then had a lovely afternoon of wine tasting after which I managed to race off and catch the early train and get home… well, not before dark, that would be madness, but before 7pm, which is pretty good going. Monday, my friend, you were good to me. Unfortunately, it was sort of downhill after that.


Tuesday morning didn’t get off to a particularly auspicious start, due in no small part to the fact that my car doors were iced shut, making driving to Oxford station a tad problematic. I have a scraper and de-icing spray, but keep both of these things – perhaps unwisely, I now think – in the car, to which I could not gain access. My approach was to swear, panic, run inside and get jugs of hot water to pour over the car doors until I could prise them open. I am sure there are better was to deal with this problem, but it was 6.30am and cold and confusing. I then drove as fast as I (safely and legally, naturally) could to the station and sprinted for my train, which was very full because the one before it had been cancelled.


So I arrived at school on Tuesday in a slightly less than optimum mood, only to be thrust into another mad morning in which we used all the pans again. I think that’s just how it’s going to be from now on. I made aubergine salad with parmesan and chive crisps (above – very nice) and skate wing with caper beurre noisette and turned vegetables (the less said on this, the better. Especially regarding turned vegetables. See those poor, innocent vegetables that have been inexpertly hacked to bits below? They should look like even, smooth barrels. Oh dear).


Luckily, the afternoon dem was on enriched breads, with Hannah. Hannah is excellent and enriched breads are excellent and I spent a very happy afternoon drooling over pecan sticky buns and beer bread and nabbing as many samples as I reasonably could. The picture at the top of this post is of the bread rolls she made, by the way, which is why they are good.

Unfortunately, Wednesday properly kicked my arse. In the morning I left five minutes early and came out with a jug of hot water to pour over the icy car, feeling all smug and prepared. I got to my train in a leisurely fashion and it was all going swimmingly until the train stopped. Outside Maidenhead. For a very long time. ‘Signalling problems’ was the official excuse, but that’s what they always say. How hard can it really be to make functioning train signals? I mean, based on my commuting experience, really hard, but why? I’m genuinely asking: can anyone explain to me why train signals break all the time? Are they not essentially traffic lights? I mean, we can pull an atom apart. Traffic lights work pretty reliably. Why is this difficult?

Anyway, the train arrived into Paddington 50 minutes behind schedule. I wasn’t cycling, because of the ice, so I sprinted to the tube and then later ran the mile or so from Goldhawk Road station to school, leapt into my whites, and arrived in class just as everyone was gathering for the register. This meant I missed the opportunity to do my cooking prep and was on the back foot for the entire morning. That’s my excuse, anyway, for why everything was awful. We made white dinner rolls and a sea bass dish with pickled shallots, Pernod sauce, spinach, and clams, which was delicious, but sickeningly complicated and designed in a way which involved the maximum amount of mess and fuss. We’re supposed to be out of the kitchens by 1pm. That day, I got out at 1.50pm, leaving me ten minutes to fly downstairs and change before the 2pm dem, having not had lunch or a sit down or even three minutes to not be dashing about ever since my train got in late to Paddington.


The afternoon dem was on meringue cuite and gelatine. We had been told in advance that this dem would be technical and it would be important for us to be attentive, so it was unfortunate that I was shattered and too stressed to properly understand what was going on. We got fed, though, which was good because we’d not had time for lunch. Basically I sat there dazed and confused and perked up a bit whenever anyone handed me a mousse to taste.

I know this is becoming a litany of whinging, so I’m sorry to say that Thursday wasn’t great either. Any session in which we have to cook three different things under tight time constraints is always tricky, and we were doing cold lemon soufflé, meringue cuite, and a cellophane noodle stir fry. Suffice to say I haven’t got any pictures of my stir fry because it looked dreadful, lots of people had to remake the soufflé and the meringue, we were given ‘a bit of a talking to’ as a class, and we got out late again. The afternoon dem was also on soufflés, and I am fairly sure that was the night that images of sunken soufflés started to haunt my dreams.

On Friday morning we made twice-baked goat’s cheese and thyme soufflés (see picture below – I was told mine were both too dense and not structurally sound enough, making them wrong in an improbable way), and served our cold lemon soufflés from the day before with blueberry compote and meringues. Unfortunately, my lemon soufflé was sitting out for so long that by the time it was seen it has started to melt and all the blueberry compote had run into it and it just looked terrible. It was also apparently too sweet and (this seems to be my issue with all soufflé-making) too dense.


I was feeling pretty exhausted and dispirited when it came to the Friday afternoon dem, and just wanted to go home and eat brownies for dinner. Luckily, the dem was on French pastries and led by Heli, and it actually managed to perk me up. All of the pastries we tried were delicious and the whole thing was much more up my street than the soufflés of terror. The picture below is of a beautiful little tart filled with crème patisserie and topped with plums that Heli made (I mean, obviously I didn’t make that) amongst other various delights.


So I am limping into the weekend feeling pretty pummelled by Week 2. It’s hard to not be doing very well at something you care a lot about, and it can be a bit spirit-crushing to put loads of hours and effort into something only to be told it isn’t serveable. Nonetheless, even on the hard days, I remind myself that I would much, much rather be at Leiths than back behind a desk at an admin job, and that nothing worth having comes easily. Hopefully, trying very, very hard and getting back up over and over again is what is going to make me a good cook at the end of this year: I’m at Leiths to learn, and if I was perfect already then I wouldn’t need to be there.

Now I am going to go out and order a massive burger for lunch. A proper one, with loads of bacon and cheese and stuff. And maybe a gin and tonic.