Leiths: Foundation Term, Week 3

It’s been a funny old week. When we started at Leiths, we were told that by the end of the third week we’d be so exhausted that we’d basically be dragging ourselves around on our knees, begging for mercy and occasionally weakly lifting ourselves up to the stoves to attempt to make a white sauce before falling asleep. This is probably why Leiths went fairly easy on us this week – because they fear our collective complete collapse. We don’t get anything as lavish as a half term, but we do have a three day weekend, which is why I am writing this at 10am on a Friday morning in my PJs, having just eaten cheese on toast for breakfast and experiencing that odd feeling of unsettling freedom. You know, when you’re consciously aware that you’re allowed to be at home and barely moving, but you’re so used to rushing around all the time that your subconscious is quietly panicking and going ‘Come on, get your act together, woman! Up and at ’em! Go and do something! Anything!’. So I occasionally leap up and walk purposefully into the kitchen, turn around in a circle, realise there’s nothing I have to be doing in there, wash up a mug or something as a token effort, and then go and sit back down again.

Oddly enough, though, I’ve not been as tired as I’d expected to be. With the epic commute, the long days, cooking for hours on end, and trying to absorb huge amounts of new information, I thought I’d be sobbing quietly in a corner by now. But I’ve been surprised at what my body and my mind can handle. It might be because I am so used to being stupidly busy and working very hard, or it might be because it’s only been three weeks and I’m going to have my real crash in week five or something. Instead, what I’ve found tough is going back into an educational environment. Being observed, criticised, and tested, puts me on edge and basically makes me a rubbish cook. I mean, that’s my excuse, anyway. Perhaps I am simply just a rubbish cook.

You would think that sixteen nervous people flambéing Crepes Suzette in one kitchen would be a recipe for disaster and hair-aflame, but no, it was simply how we ended Monday. We’d started it with a wine lecture – tasting included, naturally – so having covered both drinking alcohol and setting it on fire, I went into the week feeling prepared for pretty much anything. I mean, frankly, what other life skills does one need? We were also informed that our wine exam would be, um, next week. This seems terrifyingly soon to me, but hey. I’m sure they know what they are doing. I will be able to confirm or deny this by the end of next Tuesday.

The wine lectures have been really interesting and it’s been great to branch out into a new area of the course, but I have to say, I’ve found it quite tricky. The theory has been fine, but I’m not very good at the tasting. I usually choose wine at the supermarket based on a) whether or not I can afford it and b) how nice the bottle looks. Seriously. So my wine-palate is not what you would call refined. Tasting wine is part of the lecture process (first thing on a Monday morning, which takes a bit of mental adjustment), and one of the first things to do is check the ‘nose’ of the wine to see what you can smell. People were offering answers such as ‘black cherry’, ‘leather’, and ‘oak’, but to be brutally honest, all I can ever smell is ‘wine’, and if I said I could smell anything else I would be lying. Still, it does sound quite impressive to throw out ‘herbaceous notes! Hmm… possibly mint?’, so sometimes I join in for fun. I particularly enjoyed the session on matching food with wine, during which we were presented with little taster plates of food to try with different wines to see the effect they had on each other.

Green apple + Sauvignon Blanc = very bad idea. Who knew?

On Tuesday morning, we had a fish dem. Now, I love fish and wouldn’t mind eating it for breakfast (which I essentially did that day), so I was a very happy culinary student, although I think sole meunière at 9.30am may have been a bit much for some people. Michael laid out a great display of various types of fish – I think fish are beautiful – and I considered stealing that turbot which is probably worth more than my laptop, but ultimately decided against it due to the impracticality of hiding stolen fish in a locker room. And my impeccable moral code, obviously. We even got to end the dem with delicious plaice goujons (posh fish fingers), freshly fried and dipped in home-made tartare sauce, before heading off to, er, eat more lunch.

Yes, all I do all day every day is eat. What of it?

This week also saw our first foray into bread-making. We made rosemary focaccia. We actually made it twice, as you can see from the picture, to make sure we had the method forever imprinted into our dough-weary heads. The 17.49 from Paddington that day was suffused with the smell of freshly baked bread, and as no one knew my rucksack was full of focaccia I think it may have caused some confusion. I distinctly heard one girl say to her friend ‘Am I going mad, or does it smell like bread to you?’ Stranger, you are not mad. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you so. You would have thought I was weird.


On Wednesday afternoon we made fish pie, which all went a bit wrong for me. I’ve made fish pie dozens of times, and I’ve noticed so far that somehow it’s the stuff I make all the time which I screw up, and the stuff I’ve never made before that I somehow manage to fluke my way through. We’d been given a specific service time to test our organisational skills, and were told that we’d lose points for being late. I took this all very seriously and worked as quickly as I could, only to find myself on course to finish about 45 minutes before the specified service time. Because I’m an idiot, I hadn’t initially understood that we weren’t allowed to serve early either, so at this point I had to come to a squealing halt and leave my pie sitting on the side for a while to kill some time.

I’ve also been told I am under-seasoning my food so far, so on fish pie day I went absolutely wild with the seasoning. I then tasted it and thought ‘Oh god, this is incredibly salty, I have massively over-seasoned’. The problem is that you can’t really reverse over-seasoning, but I thought ‘Ah well, at least I won’t be under this time!’. Of course, as I am sure you can guess, when my pie was tasted it was pronounced under-seasoned. Essentially, I think I must have a really bad palate, and I can’t tell when something is correctly seasoned, so that’s definitely something I have to work on. I was also really disappointed to have messed up the piping of my mash on to my pie in my haste to get finished – before I realised we couldn’t be early – because I do a lot of piping (as you can probably see from all the cupcake and birthday cake recipes on this blog), so I really should know what I am doing by now. All in all, a disappointing day.


Finally, Thursday began with a beautiful meringue dem from a fellow Hannah. (Side note: usually, there are a dozen other Hannahs wherever I go – in every class or group I’ve ever been in, in every job I’ve had – but I am the only Leiths student in our group this year called Hannah! I can just put my first name on everything without my surname initial! The Lauras and Emilys of my generation will also understand the delight of this). We got to taste an insane amount of meringue nest, pavlova, meringue roulade, and lemon meringue pie. They then cleverly gave us a test while we were completely hopped up on sugar. I think I refrained from simply scrawling ‘MORE MERINGUE please feed me delicious meringue forever’ across my test paper, but cannot be sure.

The day came to an end with my inexpert gutting and cooking of that beautiful mackerel up there. I think this week has been the toughest for me so far, but I have still learned loads and, although it’s slow and halting, I feel like I might have gradually started to make some progress.

Also, I can cycle all the way up the stupid hill on my commute now without feeling like my lungs are going to explode. So that’s good.


Leiths: Foundation Term, Week 2

So, the first week at a new school doesn’t really count, yes? I mean, you have to get through all the introductions and talks about where to find things, and you don’t know anyone, and you spend most of the time too scared and confused to take things in properly (please tell me that isn’t just me?), so it’s only in Week 2 when you can really expect to get a proper sense of your new routine. That’s what I told myself, anyway, to excuse the fact that during the first week I was so overwhelmed that I struggled to cook things I have been making for years without fuss or incident.

Week 2 was our first full week, and our group got to cook in the mornings, which was a massive relief for me as it means we leave school on time after dems at the end of the day and I get to catch a train which gets me home for 7.15pm instead of 8pm: believe me, when you have to go to bed at 10pm to get up at 5.30am, those extra 45 minutes make a world of difference. The morning trains are shockingly inconsistent. I wrote half of this on one that was delayed for 25 minutes and sat stock still near Radley for ages for no apparent reason, meaning that when I got to London I had to race to get to school, into my whites, and to the kitchen on time. But it’s all good. Really. Every time I get stressed or feel tired, I remind myself what I am getting to do and that I could still be at my old desk job, and then everything feels a bit better.

The only slight drawback to the brand new dawn of Week 2 is that this week it has decided to start raining. A lot. Last week was unseasonably, ridiculously beautiful, but now we’re settling into a standard rainy English October. Believe me, you can get properly wet on a 4.5 mile cycle through London. Soaked quite literally to the skin, through waterproofs. Monday was a bit of a dark day that saw me, dripping rainwater and smelling like a dog that’s swum through a river, crouched on the corridor floor of the train back to Oxford because there were no seats left.

Trains are so soul-draining that apparently a really quite extensive bar service has become necessary.

Anyway, enough moaning. Let’s get on to the good stuff. The food.

Every week we will be cooking in a different table group of four, and we also rotate between three kitchens, so it really was all change on Monday. We had a different class teacher every single day for the first week and most of the second. So what with new people, new kitchens, and new teachers, it really feels like we’re getting to experience lots of different ways of working at the start of the course, which I am sure will stand us in good stead later.

I looked at the schedule for this week initially and thought ‘Ha, they don’t really expect us to make all that? In one session? When last week we struggled to get two salads done in three hours? Haaaa.’ Well, they did expect us to make all that. And it’s been great. Mostly. Our table of four has been working well together this week and it actually feels like we’ve been super-speedy. Well, in comparison to last week, anyway, which isn’t saying a great deal.

On Monday the dishes we made included a gorgeous sweet potato, chilli, and lime soup. Now, I know my bowl below doesn’t look so gorgeous, but that’s because I keep forgetting to take photos of my food before it’s tasted and so by the time I remembered all the crème fraiche which I had artfully drizzled on the top had been stirred in. But I doggedly decided to take a picture of it looking rubbish anyway to prove I had actually cooked something. See? I made a thing!

Messy bowl of yummy soup. I definitely did not serve it like this.

Below is my avocado, mozzarella, and tomato salad, which, er, I actually did serve like that. Too many olives, not enough centre height, oversized portion, too much dressing, clumsy and thick slices… I really need to work on my presentation. I can already tell that it’s going to be something I’m going to struggle with. I am not naturally dainty and precise: I am cackhanded, clumsy, and prone to panicking. I only realise how tense I have been in the school kitchens when it comes to plating up and my hands are literally shaking. This is why I could never be a TV chef (yes, that, and a thousand other reasons, I hear you cry).

At least it tasted nice. It was my lunch.

On Wednesday our pastry was examined for the third time in two weeks. I may have had a slight ‘incident’ with this pastry that saw it somehow fly out of my hands and onto the floor. I still have no idea how this happened. But, in response to my panicked whisperings of ‘Oh f***, oh f***, oh f***’, our teacher that day shouted ‘Two second rule, it’s fine, pick it up and carry on!’, so carry on I did. I mean, it did get baked at 200C for ages afterwards so I hope that killed any floor bacteria. I ate quite a lot of it and I’m still alive. Anyway, flinging pastry onto the floor seems to be a great new technique, because this was my most successful attempt at pastry by far. My little quiche was the best thing I have yet made, and you have no idea how good it felt to get positive feedback. So I shall consider chucking future attempts at pastry onto the floor with gusto and confidence.

Leek, bacon, and parmesan quiche. Yes, I forgot to take a photo of it before service. Again.

On Thursday, it was chicken. Much chicken. Many chickens. Chicken everywhere. We each fully jointed two chickens at the start of class (just, you know, gently easing us in), and I was once again reminded of one of my key discoveries at Leiths, which is this: yes, you may have been doing something for many years, but you’ve probably been doing it wrong. Okay, I’m exaggerating – not wrong, per se, but certainly not the Leiths way. I have jointed chickens before, but in a slightly haphazard ‘Ah, that’ll probably be alright. Where did I put my glass of wine?’ manner, which doesn’t really pass muster at culinary school. I mean, the Leiths way is very efficient and precise and I am glad I know it, but bloody hell, it was tricky at first. Lots of ‘cut here, definitely not here, rotate, disclocate, turn over, use this joint…’. I’m not good at IKEA shelves either.

The reasons it looks like there is a lot of chicken on this plate is that there is a lot of chicken on this plate. It’s an entire jointed chicken.

Finally, on Friday, we each made a French omelette and a full roast pork lunch with all the trimmings as a table. The less said about my omelette, the better. Seriously, I’m not talking about it. The pork was a triumph, though, and made for a very delicious lunch indeed. We worked well as a team and completed the task with a minimal amount of fuss and panic. If you’d have told me at the start of last week that we’d have progressed so much in such a short space of time I would have had my doubts. But look!

Pork, roast potatoes, parsnips, and apple and sage sauce. There were also green beans and carrot batons but service was very quick and I didn’t have time to faff around getting them in shot.

Of course, it’s not all about me messing everything up in the kitchen. Oh no. We also get to see how it should be done properly.

We started the week on a dem high, with a session on vegetables from Heli and David. I mean, look at the spread at the top of the page. Beautiful, no? It was like being in an artisan greengrocer. A very informative and interactive artisan greengrocer. They made us countless recipes (as in, I literally can’t count – maybe ten?) and I feel like we only just scratched the surface of the subject. We also had a dem on sauces on Tuesday with Mike which began with the vital building blocks of making a roux and ended with us feasting (as much as you can feat on bitesize portions, anyway) on macaroni cheese, spaghetti carbonara, and chilli crab linguini, and a great chicken dem on Wednesday with the amazing Belinda – who was stunningly calm in the face of making seven or eight chicken dishes in a single afternoon.

Then, on Thursday, Ansobe taught us about the importance of organisation and multitasking by literally making three roast dinners with all the trimmings all at once, without having a panic attack (that last bit is where I would fall down). There was moist roast chicken, succulent roast pork, tender roast beef, and some perfectly cooked pigs in blankets, amongst other things. This was also, somehow, the first time I tried bread sauce, and it was glorious. I haven’t been avoiding it up until now, it just hasn’t come up in my life. I always thought it sounded a bit odd. Sauce made of… bread? That can’t be right, surely? Well, I was wrong. It was so right. I am sorry that I ever doubted bread sauce.

I think that by Friday the teachers sensed that we were reaching overload and needed a fairly kind afternoon dem, so Phil, working solo, demonstrated an array of delicious baked goods, including white bread, soda bread, foccacia, cookies, and brownies. There was a polite (ish) scrum at the end when he called us all up to the front for samples, and everything tasted wonderful.

So here I am on a Friday afternoon at the end of my second week of culinary school. I am typing this from an absolutely packed train, delicious brownies in my tummy and a lot of frozen chicken in my backpack, with two glorious free days stretching like a gentle river ahead of me. Of course, all I’m going to be doing all weekend is cooking. But at least no one will be marking me, and I can sing loudly and tunelessly to myself in my very own kitchen.


Prosciutto, Pesto, and Goats’ Cheese Soda Bread – Bake Off Bake Along Week 3

‘This is one of the trickiest challenges we’ve ever had’, said Paul.

Aaaaand that was me out of the show-stopper. I can barely make bread, let alone make a lion’s face out of bread.

Thank god for soda bread, eh? Essentially a free-form, savoury cake. My bet is that I will be one of many people making soda bread this week. I’ll try a show-stopper at some point, promise. Just not when it involves yeast.


Full disclosure: I did also actually try to make baguettes. I used Master Hollywood’s recipe, and I was really doubtful that it was going to work from the start, hence why I knocked up a soda bread during one prove of the baguette dough as insurance. I’m sure the recipe wasn’t at fault – the problem is that I’m really not set up for bread-making. I mean, let’s take a look, shall we?

  • ‘Lightly oil a 2-3 litre square plastic container…’ – fallen at the first hurdle, don’t have one of those.
  • ‘Put the flour, salt and yeast into the bowl of a mixer fitted with a dough hook…’ – oh, how I long for a mixer, but don’t have one of those, let alone with a dough hook.
  • ‘Put each tray inside a clean plastic bag…’ – those dough bags they have on the show look really useful, but I don’t have any of those.
  • ‘Slash each one 3 times along its length on the diagonal, using a razor blade or a very sharp knife…’ – turns out that I have neither a sharp enough knife to slice dough without dragging it, nor a kitchen razor blade.
  • This recipe doesn’t even mention the couche linen to tuck the baguettes up in to prove, but that would have also been really useful if I’d had it, which I didn’t.

I know, I know, a bad baker blames her lack of tools. I am the first to admit that I also don’t know what I am doing, which can’t have helped. I don’t know quite what happened, but although the first prove seemed to go fine, the baguettes actually got smaller on the second prove and collapsed and shrunk into themselves after only half an hour. I mean, I baked them anyway, but they came out more like large breadsticks than baguettes.


So, here we have soda bread instead. To be clear, I am aware that this looks absolutely horrific. A real mess. But it tasted really good, so I got over the fact that it looked a total state fairly quickly. See that quarter chunk cut out of the loaf in the first photo? I literally ate all of that as soon as I had finished photographing it. I only meant to cut off a little corner to try it, and one thing led to another, and before I knew it I had devoured the lot like a starving wolf.

I took the instructions from the show to heart, you see: soda bread shouldn’t be kneaded too much; it should be crumbly; the texture shouldn’t be like normal bread. Who knew?! (I know, I know, loads of people. But not me). As you can see, my soda bread is pretty damn crumbly, so… success?

Source: Since Alvin’s soda bread was so highly praised, I figured that I couldn’t go too far wrong if I started off with his recipe as a base.

Notes: I made my own pesto for this, because it’s really easy and much more delicious than the stuff in jars. That said, it all gets mixed into the bread dough so it probably doesn’t make a great deal of difference – if you have a jar kicking about, do use that.

The darker bits on top of this bread that look a bit burnt are actually just where I drizzled some pesto over the top of the loaf before cooking and it went dark quickly, but those bits tasted great even though they looked rubbish.

I ate this warm and spread with salted butter and I loved it. I particularly loved how easy it was, and how adaptable. You could pretty much make this with whatever odds you had in the fridge. Bit of meat, bit of cheese, some herbs, and you’re sorted.


450g plain flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp table salt
40g cold butter, diced
80g prosciutto, torn
200g log of goats’ cheese, cut into disks
100g (or thereabouts) pesto, fresh or from a jar
300ml buttermilk
1 tbsp butter, melted


  1. Heat your oven to 200C/ 180C fan/ gas 6, and line a baking tray with parchment or a mat. In your largest mixing bowl, sieve together your flour, bicarbonate of soda, and salt. Rub the butter in with your fingertips – I found that there was so little butter compared to flour that it never got quite to the ‘breadcrumb’ stage, but just keep going until you can’t feel the cold smoothness of the butter between your fingers any more.
  2. Reserve a couple of chunks of both the prosciutto and the goats cheese for the topping, and then add the remaining prosciutto and goats cheese to the flour mix, along with all the pesto. Give it a mix to disperse it.
  3. Mix your buttermilk with 25ml of water to thin it slightly, then make a well in your flour mix and add 3/4 of the buttermilk. Stir the mixture with a butter knife until it comes together into a shaggy, slightly sticky dough. Add more buttermilk if it feels dry and won’t hold together.
  4. Tip your dough out onto your baking sheet and shape it into a round-ish loaf. Dust it with flour and score the top in a cross shape deeply with a sharp knife – I found a bread knife best for this. Pop your remaining prosciutto and goats’ cheese on top. Bake for 40-50 minutes. When it’s done, put it on a wire rack and brush with melted butter.

The original recipe tells you to let it cool before eating it, but I thought it was best warm. Plus I am impatient and greedy, so…