Full disclosure: it took me ages to come up with a proper name for this recipe, because at home we call it ‘chicken-y bacon-y goats’ cheese-y thing’. At least once a month, when I’m stuck for any original ideas regarding what to make for dinner, I will turn to James and say ‘Chicken-y bacon-y goats’ cheese-y thing?’ and he’ll say ‘Works for me’, and that will be that. I have stated before that I think chicken and goats’ cheese make excellent bedfellows. Also: goat cheese; goat’s cheese; goats’ cheese. I go with the latter because I think it denotes milk from multiple goats, which seems to make the most sense, but who knows? Also, well done if you got to the end of this paragraph without falling asleep.
I have been making this recipe, or some variation of it, for years. There are lots of versions of ‘chicken breast stuffed with some sort of cheese and wrapped in some sort of meat’ recipes on the internet, so this certainly isn’t an original concept, but this is how I make it.
James and I are by no means vegetarians, but we’ve been eating less meat recently, having it as a treat rather than a staple of every meal. This means a recipe like this is now something of a luxury, rather than a standard weeknight dinner, and it’s made me rather fond of it – hence it suddenly popping up on this blog.
You may think that stuffing chicken with something and wrapping it in something else seems like kind of a tricky faff, but it’s far easier than it perhaps sounds and it only takes ten minutes to put together. I am kind of lazy about this sort of thing and I don’t find it too onerous. The chicken also goes well with most grains, potatoes, salads, and greens, so it’s pretty versatile in that you can serve it with whatever you have knocking about.
Notes: This recipe will feed four, assuming you make a side dish, or you can do what James and I often do and eat two pieces of chicken for dinner and have the other two the next day. Also, all quantities are easily halved.
The side dish in the pictures is a lentil salad type deal that I often make. It is very, very simple so I haven’t included the recipe, but let me know if you have a desperate yearning to know what is in it.
Preheat oven to 210C/190C fan/gas 5. Grab some sort of roasting dish or tray. Roughly chop your thyme, crush your garlic, and set both aside. If you’re using tomatoes, cut them in half or into quarters (depending on size) and chuck them in your roasting tray.
Lay your chicken breasts flat, and cut a slit into the side of each, trying not to cut them in half completely. Cram about a quarter of your goats’ cheese into each chicken breast, then wrap each up tightly in streaky bacon – you need about three rashers for each. Lay them in your tray, directly on top of the tomatoes if using.
Rub each piece of chicken with crushed garlic, and sprinkle with thyme. Season with plenty of pepper – you can use a little salt too if you like but I usually don’t, because bacon is inherently salty. Drizzle the whole thing with a little olive oil, then bake for 25-30 minutes until the meat is cooked through, the bacon is crispy, and the garlic is golden. Serve with a drizzle of the juices from the pan.
This recipe is not revolutionary, or glamorous. It’s not authentic, or the definitive version of anything. It’s not even seasonally appropriate, now that I can actually see the sun, and some daffodils, and have abandoned one outdoor layer (but still wear a coat at all times, obviously, because I’m not some kind of crazy risk-taking daredevil who wishes to court hypothermia). It is only something simple that James likes. He asked me to write it down for him, and since I was writing it down for him anyway I thought I may as well write it down for you too. Also, apparently this blog now only covers soup and macarons.
This is the kind of chicken soup that takes a little time, and a little effort, although it isn’t at all difficult. It is genuinely healthy (something that can be said of very few things on this blog). It requires care, and attention. It is the sort of thing I make for people when I want to show them kindness in some way (I am only able to show kindness through the making of soup, bread, and cake, all of which I randomly leave on the doorsteps of friends in the neighbourhood because social interaction requires too much effort and I am useless). It is supposedly the sort of thing one uses to cure illness, and though this claim has no scientific basis that I am aware of, I merrily presume it is true anyway and make it for those who seem to be somehow ailing. This is why I would make a terrible doctor.
Notes: This recipe is obviously infinitely adaptable, so go ahead and add whatever vegetables and herbs you have kicking about. This is just my version among thousands of others.
You will need a large saucepan or pot that you can comfortably fit a whole chicken into.
1 whole chicken (I usually get one that will feed three-four people even if I am cooking for two, so that we have plenty leftover)
3 large carrots
2 stalks celery
1 white onion
a bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley
3 bay leaves (fresh or dry, either is fine)
handful of dry black peppercorns
1 fresh red chilli
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger
1 nest of dried noodles (egg or rice, or whatever you have, is fine)
Roughly chop 1 carrot, both stalks of celery, and the onion into large pieces – no need to peel. Put them in the bottom of your largest saucepan or pot, along with the stalks (not the leaves) from the bunch of parsley, the bay leaves, and the peppercorns. Take any string and packaging off the whole chicken and add it to the pot, then cover the bird with cold water. Add a generous pinch of salt. Put the pot on a low heat, cover, and bring the water to a gentle poaching simmer. Let the chicken poach for around 1 – 1.5 hours until cooked through, checking it occasionally to make sure it is still covered in water. When cooked, the legs should be loose and completely floppy, coming away from the chicken when tugged.
Remove all of the chicken from the pot, and turn the heat on the pan up to high, letting the liquid reduce. Meanwhile, strip all of the meat from your chicken and set it aside – you will either have to wait for it to cool slightly, or wear gloves. Discard the skin, and place the chicken bones back into the pot. Bubble the stock away for another half hour or so, tasting occasionally – it should be full of chicken-y goodness.
Meanwhile, prep the rest of the soup ingredients. Roughly chop your parsley leaves, peel your shallots and cut them into slim rings, chop your chilli (seeds in or out, up to you), and peel and dice your ginger. When your stock is reduced and tastes delicious, strain it and discard the original vegetables and the chicken bones. Put the stock back into the original pot.
Finally, add your shallots, chilli, and ginger to the liquid. Cook gently for 10 minutes, then add your chicken meat and your noodles. Cook until the noodles are soft (usually around four minutes). Take your soup off the heat, stir in your chopped parsley, and taste and adjust seasoning, adding more salt and pepper as required.
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.
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.
It was when we were tunnel boning the huge joints of lamb, gleaming kitchen ringing with chatter and boning knives flying and scraping through meat, that someone on my table commented ‘I bet not many other people come in to London to do this on a Monday morning’. This prompted us all to briefly reflect on what we would have been doing at 10am on a Monday morning a year ago. For most of us, it would have involved sitting in an office. Perhaps chatting idly to the colleague at the next desk, flicking through emails, or wandering off to making another procrastinatory cup of tea. And I hate tea.
Finally, after a twenty five minute battle, the bone came free from my leg of lamb and I carefully eased it out, leaving the meat intact. It was huge, as long as my arm, knobbly with odd twists and turns and festooned with thick, dangling sinews. I was first to extract my bone and I briefly held it above my head in triumph, my trophy. I grinned at Will across the table.
Then I got on with my pasta dough.
Monday was creative lamb day, which saw us all boning out gigantic pieces of meat which we were then free to do whatever we wanted with. I made parsley pappardelle from scratch and minced down some lamb to make a spicy ragu. I was a little bit put out when I realised that everyone else had done beautiful, elegant, restaurant-style dishes, and that all I had to offer was a big old bowl of pasta, the likes of which grace many home dinner tables every night. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love a big bowl of pasta, but there were people turning out some seriously impressively presented plates of food and I just can’t do that. However, I was slightly heartened when Shauna pronounced my dish delicious and said she wanted to stand there and keep eating it. Then three other students came over to try a spoonful of ragu. At least it tasted good, right?
Our afternoon consisted of another wine lecture, this time on fortified wine – think lots of sherry and port tasting. I try to come in to every wine lecture with an open mind, but I have to admit that I have never liked sherry or port and I still don’t. Sherry reminds me of Christmas and port reminds me of terrible university stereotypes and bad times. However, the presenter, Richard, was clearly passionate about the subject and I am willing to admit that my aversion is simply down to me being fussy.
Tuesday morning was pretty relaxed and the lamb theme continued with us roasting a shoulder stuffed with a gorgeous feta and sundried tomato mixture. We ate our roast for lunch and it also included potatoes lovingly pan-fried in butter for ages, tenderstem broccoli, and a red wine gravy. I know it’s not a looker, but believe me, it tasted great. I ate so much that I actually felt a little sick and spent the rest of the afternoon making ‘oof’ noises whenever I had to bend down.
If possible, Tuesday afternoon was even better. We had an ice cream dem with Ansobe and Annie and, just for once, instead of trying one small bite of everything, we were allowed to come up to the front and eat as much as we liked. Pistachio ice cream, ginger ice cream, palm sugar ice cream, blackcurrant ice cream, apricot sorbet, marscapone sorbet, tuilles, brandy snaps, crumble, chocolate sauce, pistachio praline… it was wonderful. After finishing the morning swearing that I didn’t even want to look at food again lest I simply die from being hideously full, I managed to eat a stunning amount of ice cream. I don’t know if the unfettered access to desserts was Ansobe’s way of bribing us into saying it was the best dem ever, but if it was then well played: it was the best dem ever.
I know it doesn’t look too inspiring, but this is my blackcurrant soufflé and it’s the best one I have ever made. Granted, it had sunk a bit and had a spoon stuck in it by the time I got to taking this photo, but Belinda had no negative comments – it’s always a rare and satisfying treat when your food receives no criticism.
We also made marinated spatchcocked poussin. A poussin is an adorable tiny chicken, for those unaccustomed to dealing with miniature poultry (i.e. me before I started at Leiths – but now it’s all about the poussin, the partridge, the guinea fowl, the pigeon… Name the tiny bird and I’ve cooked it, probably badly). It was a delicious lunch that made me feel like a giant.
In the afternoon we were visited by the charming Peter Gordon, a New Zealander settled in London who has had a really interesting career as a chef and opened many restaurants. He is a champion of fusion food, having travelled seemingly pretty much everywhere, and was one of the first people to bring the concept to London restaurants. He was also a genuinely lovely person (or possibly a very good actor), and he cooked us lots of delicious food, including the wondrous invention of chorizo mashed potato. So simple, and yet so brilliant. I have no idea why I’ve not done it before, but I will certainly be doing it now.
Unfortunately, Thursday was just one of those days. You know? They’re not kitchen-exclusive. A day where you spend all your time rushing around in a panic trying to do seven tasks at once, and yet seem to get nothing done as time slips further and further away from you, and before you know it, it’s the afternoon, and wasn’t it just 9.30am five minutes ago and why is that sugar syrup caramelising and is that raspberry juice on your hat and where has all the time gone? We were making raspberry coulis and blackcurrant ice cream for Friday, as well as a hazelnut meringue cake and a salad with poached eggs. Our teacher for the day told me that if she’d been served my salad in a restaurant she’d have sent it back, which is never what you really want to hear. I am ate so much meringue cake I went a little bit sugar-hysterical.
Luckily, to make up for Thursday, Friday was just a lovely day. We made a sumptuous dish of sea bream (filleted by my own mauling hands, naturally), on a seafood stew with fennel, white wine, cockles, mussels, and shrimp. I was really happy with my dish and would make it again at home if only I had access to a decent fishmonger. At Leiths, we are completely spoiled by being given very high quality seafood to work with, and without it, a simple dish like this wouldn’t be nearly so satisfying.
We finished by compiling our dessert plates, which consisted of brandy snaps, blackcurrant ice cream, raspberry coulis, and fresh berries. Presentation is something I am really trying to work on, and it’s sometimes disheartening to see the absolutely stunning plates other people are serving up that wouldn’t be out of place in a high end restaurant. You can really feel that people are improving quickly and the standards of the group are rising week by week. I’m doing my best not to get left behind, but I have never had an artistic streak and making things beautiful doesn’t come easily to me.
Ursula Ferrigno led our session on Friday afternoon and it was all about Italian food. She was one of my favourite guest lecturers thusfar. Her love of what she was doing shone through and she was such a genuine and warm person that I couldn’t help but smile while watching her cook. I also really enjoyed her food and was inspired to try my own take on her recipes – I am sure they will be appearing on the blog soon. And when I say soon, I mean in a couple of months when I get a free moment. Maybe not even then.
The pace at Leiths is relentless, but I am slowly beginning to feel like I belong in a kitchen. A real kitchen, I mean, rather than my own one with the broken hob and tiny fridge. Week 9 is beckoning, exams are on the horizon, and the Intermediate Term is nearing its conclusion.
This is a bit of a sneaky cheat of a blog post, because Week 6 was really only three days long and therefore doesn’t actually qualify as a week, and thus this doesn’t really qualify as a weekly update. It’s all going to mulch round here. Literally: the flood waters are creeping up around our little town, I have trudged through many rain-sodden commutes, and I don’t think my feet have been properly warm and dry for several weeks.
Wednesday – our new Monday for one week only – tripped along pleasantly enough. We began our cooking session in the morning by making pasta by hand for the dish above, namely cracked black pepper pasta with truffle oil, parmesan shavings, and basil. I have made pasta before, but only using a machine, so this was my first experience of hand-rolling pasta dough. I was surprised to find it really enjoyable: usually anything painstaking and slow and fiddly grates on my impatient soul, but there was something lovely about making the pasta by hand and my dish received lots of positive feedback (if it had received lots of negative feedback I’d probably be saying making pasta by hand was a pain). The slightly less pleasurable part of the Monday cooking session was another short order challenge. This time, we had 25 minutes to make a cheese soufflé. I’m really starting to dislike short order challenges. I never seem to perform particularly well and I find the adrenaline and stress and uncertainty of the whole thing a bit sickening. On the plus side, I had a pile of pasta to eat for lunch, so it certainly could have been worse.
The afternoon saw another wine tasting session, this time on Sauvignon Blanc and sweet wines. You know, I used to think I didn’t like sweet wines, but since starting the WSET sessions and tasting some good quality ones (you know, instead of the usual rubbish I can afford to drink when other people aren’t paying), I have definitely moved into the ‘pro sweet wines’ camp. In this session we had a Tokaji so delicious I actually noted it down to try and hunt it out myself. Not that I’ll ever get round to it, mind you, but the intention was definitely there.
Now, I admit that the above picture looks dull and unimpressive in a beige sort of way, but what you must appreciate is that this is my successful attempt at a genoise sponge, the Leiths hallowed grail of gateaux glory. It’s a tricky cake, requiring much whisking of eggs to exact stages and meticulously gentle folding while reciting various pagan incantations, and even though I’ve made other more delicious things, there was a certain satisfaction to seeing it emerge from the oven on Thursday looking beautifully bronzed and triumphantly risen. It was the first stage of preparation for our gateaux freestyling (within the expected constraints of course – let’s not go crazy now), of which more in a minute.
The afternoon dem was on meat preparation, and poor Phil got us when we were all a bit exhausted as a group, for no apparent or justifiable reason since we’d just had a four day weekend and spent the morning faffing about with cakes. Still, I know I wasn’t the only one feeling like curling up in a ball and taking a restorative nap. Nonetheless, with his customary good cheer, Phil made us some delicious food and, crucially, showed us how to tunnel bone lamb and remove all the bones from a chicken. I hope I was paying enough attention, because we will have to do both of those things in the coming weeks.
Friday was perhaps one of my favourite mornings in the kitchen we have yet had. It was all about the baking, as we assembled our lemon tarts and our genoise-based gateaux. Let’s start with the failure: the lemon tart. It was a honourable failure, because the tart was still delicious, but it did fall apart a little bit. I didn’t feel too bad though, as it happened to about 80% of the people in our class. The above picture, somewhat dishonestly, is of another student’s tart to give you an idea of what the tart was actually supposed to look like. We didn’t know that we had to bake the pastry for a bit longer than we normally would to make sure if could support a very liquid filling, and I was further hampered by the fact that we had another fire alarm about thirty seconds after my tart went into the oven. When the fire alarm goes, all the gas ovens automatically switch off. This is very sensible for obvious reasons, but not so great for delicate lemon tarts, because it meant my wet filling was sitting coldly on pastry for about twenty minutes before I could get the oven back up to temperature, slowly seeping into it and weakening the structure.
Now on to the triumph: the genoise gateaux. I am very rarely happy with stuff I do in the school kitchens, but I was happy with this. I brushed each of the three layers with an orange, passionfruit, and Grand Marnier syrup, then spread them with a dark chocolate ganache, then covered the cake in a chocolate meringue buttercream and finished it with dried raspberries, raspberry powder, and candied orange peel. It was delicious.
I am now watching the Great Sport Relief Bake Off, and feeling much better about my collapsed lemon tart in the context of some of the stuff they’re getting away with on there. I will finish with the latest in my ongoing attempts to capture the absolutely beautiful sunrises I see on the way in to London every morning: believe me, it’s not an easy task when all you have is a phone camera and you’re on a train that’s moving at 125 miles per hour.
Let this week go down in history as the week that I actually seasoned some things correctly. On Monday, I made cauliflower cheese, and the seasoning was pronounced acceptable.
Let us all take a moment to consider this achievement.
Let’s bask in the glow of a correctly seasoned cauliflower cheese.
The ride continued when, on Tuesday, I produced well-seasoned spinach and chicken in tomato sauce. Then, on Wednesday and Thursday, well-seasoned fish. Want to know the secret? Loads of salt. Seriously. You season something as you normally would. Then add more salt. Add more salt. Think that’s enough? Ha. Fool. Add more salt. Now you’re good.
Another first, though less triumphant: this week I got my first burn. Not my first burn ever, obviously, but my first at Leiths. I took a tray from a 200 degree oven using oven gloves that had a hole in them. I didn’t realise they had a hole in them until the whole pain and burning flesh bit. Ow ow ow. Aren’t burns annoying? You sort of forget how inconvenient they are until you get one and then you remember the stinging. Oh, the stinging. On the plus side, that was on the Monday morning that we made roast beef as a table of four, and everything went surprisingly swimmingly. We had so much to do that morning that we thought we’d be stymied from the off, but we worked efficiently as a group and hit the service time perfectly. Also, best lunch ever.
Continuing down First Lane, we had our first real and proper exam this week: the WSET Level 1. Now, luckily we weren’t examined on our wine tasting skills, because as I have mentioned before, I am a bit, um, terrible at tasting wine like a professional. It tastes of booze, damnit, now bring me the bottle and stop asking questions. Instead, we had a 45 minute multiple choice question paper. Luckily they don’t tell us the results until just before Christmas, so I’ve got ages before I have to find out how badly I’ve done.
On Wednesday, we filleted sole. Tip: do not wield a very sharp filleting knife if your hands are shaking. Luckily we got to have another go at filleting on some beautiful plaice on Thursday and I managed to avoid completely cocking it up. We also made delicious meringues of joy (technical term for you there). You know, I thought I wasn’t that mad on meringues – I mean, I’ll eat them, I’m not crazy, it’s dessert – but when Hannah made them in the dem last week they were so good that I changed my mind, and luckily mine went well too. Perhaps I have just been doing them wrong for years. Anyway, I am a meringue convert.
We also had a cake dem with Sue, which was amazing because, well, cake dem. Scones, fruit cake, Swiss roll, ginger cake, yoghurt cake, Victoria sandwich… this was right after the meringues as well, so I floated home on a cloud of sugar. That’s a lie, obviously: it poured rain that day and I slogged back to the station to cram onto a train as always. But that’s a less romantic image.
This week, we also made Christmas cakes. In October. We’re going to lovingly feed and nurture them with alcohol for the next few weeks until we get to decorate and, hopefully, eat them. I must admit that traditional fruit cake is not usually my favourite, but when we tried some in Sue’s cake dem it was actually delicious. I am quite happy with how my little cake came out and am really looking forward to tasting it. In a few weeks. We’re all about the delayed gratification.
I went into the week thinking that Friday would be a lovely day, as we were starting with a slow-cooking meat dem and finishing by making lots of cake. Unfortunately, I reckoned without my comically brilliant ability to injure myself in ridiculous ways. I got up at 5.30am as usual, got into the shower, leaned down to pick something up, and my back went. I’ve been having issues with my back since an accident way back in July (I was trying roller derby and the universe always warns me off organised sports by making terrible things happen to me), but this is the first time I have had the experience of my back going from fine to completely not fine in one second for no apparent reason. I was literally paralysed, couldn’t move my legs, and thought I was going to black out from the pain. Poor James was sleeping, as normal people generally are at 5.45am, and was roused by me hysterically shouting for him in panic. He had to carry me out of the shower and lay me on the bed and together we slowly worked to get my legs moving again. Romance isn’t dead, people.
At this point, I was crying with pain, prostrate on my back, and half-paralysed, but bullish and determined to make it into school because I am a massive idiot. I took many painkillers and put on a heat pack and practised walking slowly around the bedroom until I felt less like collapsing. Of course, this all took such a long time that I missed my train, and I knew there was no way I’d be able to ride a bike for 4.5 miles at the other end of the journey anyway, so I decided to drive from Oxford to London. It was after I’d been stuck in solid, unmoving, accident traffic on the M40 for half an hour, still in agony and starving because I’d not had the chance to have breakfast, that I started to think that perhaps I should have admitted defeat and stayed in bed.
It was all worth it in the end though, because Heli did the slow cooking dem for us, and the food was pure, delicious comfort. Cottage pie, lamb daube, carbonnade of beef, oxtail stew, and loads of mashed potato. I sat in the dem room and slowly calmed down, aided by occasional injections of slow cooked meat and carbs. Then I limped through an afternoon of baking. My Victoria sandwich was one of the messiest cakes I have ever made, but I was happy with my Swiss roll, and even happier that I got to gently medicate myself with sugar all afternoon.
On Monday we begin Week 5, the completion of which will mark the halfway point of the first term. Somehow it’s nearly November, the leaves are going, I’m back in wool tights and knee-high boots, and the fact that there are Christmas things in the shops doesn’t seem utterly ridiculous.
I bought some Calvados to feed my Christmas cake. That’ll work, right?
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.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
I hadn’t actually cooked a full roast by myself until I got to university. In my second year, I lived in a beaten-down student house with four friends, and had the run of the shabby old kitchen. The gas oven there was horrific – old and unreliable with uneven heat and prone to turning itself off for no particular reason – but the great thing about roasting huge lumps of meat is that they’re not too precious about things like consistent oven temperature.
My best friend, Annis, and I once decided to host a pre-Christmas dinner there before everyone went home for the holidays. We walked up the road to the supermarket and bought so much stuff that we had to take the trolley back to the house with us because we had no hope of carrying it otherwise. In the end, there were seventeen people crammed into our little house, eating food off whatever random assortment of china, plastic, and paper plates we could find and drinking very cheap wine. We tried to make it look Christmassy.
The humble roast chicken is still my favourite. Yes, beef and pork and lamb are all special and delicious, but for me, you can’t beat roast chicken. It’s cheap, easy, and customisable. Everyone likes it (um, except vegetarians – sorry guys), whereas I have friends who object to beef, pork, and lamb. Best of all: leftovers. I always buy a bigger chicken than we need, to ensure that when we’ve eaten I get to pick the carcass clean (oddly satisfying) and fill a Tupperware box full of delicious meat for the next day.
A cold roast chicken sandwich is a glorious thing – lightly toasted fresh bread, a little bit of garlic mayo, salad leaves, maybe some bacon, and piled high with cold roast chicken. But this time, I fancied a change.
In defiance of the spectacularly non-existent summer we’ve had, I’ve made a light, summery salad, perfect for outdoor gatherings or long, lazy suppers on warm, light evenings. I mean, yes, in reality we ate this on the sofa under a blanket with the central heating on, but never mind. The salad still had that summery spirit I was hoping for.
Notes: I’ve made enough here to feed two people, but you can easily multiply it as needed. The quantities are pretty flexible – really, just use your common sense and base it on how much of everything you have lying around.
I’ve made the pesto from scratch here, because I think it tastes so much nicer and in a salad where pesto is a key ingredient it seemed worth it to me. But the pre-made stuff in a jar will do too if you’re pushed for time. I always do it by eye and it’s a very forgiving thing to make, so don’t worry too much about quantities.
200g cold roast chicken, torn into bite-size pieces
100g soft goats’ cheese, torn into lumps
4 apricots, stoned and halved
salad leaves of your choosing – here, I’ve used one of those mixed bags of watercress, spinach, and rocket
for the pesto (if making it from scratch)
1 large handful of basil leaves
1 small handful grated parmesan
1 small handful toasted pine nuts
juice of 1 lemon
1 garlic glove, crushed
6 tbsp good olive oil (or thereabouts)
salt and pepper
If you’re making the pesto, do this first. Put all of your ingredients in a food processor and blitz until you have a glorious green paste. If it isn’t loose enough, add more oil. Taste it. Does it need more lemon? Cheese? Salt? Adjust accordingly, then set aside.
Heat a grill pan on the hob until very hot. Brush your apricot halves with olive oil on both sides, and lay them cut-side down in the pan. Grill for two minutes, then flip. You should have the beginnings of a charred bar pattern – if you want it darker then leave them for three minutes per side. If you don’t have a grill pan, you can do this under a grill in the oven.
Assemble your salad. If you want this done prettily on a serving platter for a gathering, start with your leaves, and then place the apricots, chicken, and goats’ cheese on top and drizzle with the pesto. If you’re not fussed about presentation, whack it all in a bowl and give it a good mix. It will still taste great.