Leiths: Advanced Term, Week 2

So Week 1 is down, which means there are nine weeks left of term… which means that in nine weeks I have to go and get a proper job again. I don’t know why this has only really hit me today, but there you have it. I’ve always known that this term ending would mark my re-entry into the real world, but for some reason I didn’t really feel that until Week 1 raced passed without so much as waving farewell, and I actually began to understand how quickly this term will go and how little time I have left. And I still have no idea what I am going to be when I grow up. For now, I am going to leave my little existential crisis at the door of this blog post, but please do assume it’s bubbling away in the background until further notice.


Talking of crises, we cooked calves’ liver on Monday morning. Not a crisis for me, because I like offal and was raised on much weirder food (thanks, Mum), but for some I think it’s fair to say that it wasn’t how they would have chosen for the week to begin. We served it with caramelised shallots, a coriander crumb, and a Japanese tare sauce which was sweet and sour and sticky and unctuous and lovely: if it didn’t contain about ten different expensive ingredients I would be making it every day. It would be completely wonderful as a dipping sauce for some blue sirloin.

In the afternoon we had our weekly wine lecture and tasting. This time, the focus was on Syrah, Grenache, and Riesling. I’m afraid I have now taken against Grenache completely after sampling an example that tasted like metal to me, but a surprisingly crisp and mouthwatering German Riesling somewhat made up for it. That and the cheese and salami and bread.

Not much to report from Tuesday’s cooking session; it was a prep day with no services. The afternoon dem, on the other hand, was a delight. Michael and David presented ‘vegetable garnishes’ for us, which doesn’t sound very thrilling, but gets much more exciting when you start including potatoes as vegetables and bring in things like a Bloody Mary sorbet and deep fried artichokes dipped in aioli. That on top of gnocchi (one of my favourite things), fondant potatoes, and pomme puree (think mashed potato at its most excellent and heart-stopping) made for a very happy afternoon.


I was excited about Wednesday’s cooking session because we were making gnocchi from scratch, which is something I have always wanted to do but never have because for some reason I had the impression that it’s really difficult. But it’s not! It’s so easy! And of course the advantage to making them from scratch (apart from them being tastier than the shop-bought versions and the happy smugness that comes from achieving such things) is that you can flavour them with whatever cheese or herbs or spices you fancy. The ones in the dish above are a simple Parmesan, but they’d be lovely with ricotta or cheddar, or with finely chopped dill or parsley running through them, or a dash or paprika. We served them with spring vegetables, and braised artichokes. I have never prepared an artichoke before in my life because I have always been a bit scared of them, and actually they are a bit of a hassle and a pain. Good to know how to do it, but I think I will continue to cheat and buy the pre-prepared versions.


We finished the morning by serving the lemon jellies we had spent the last two days lovingly preparing, each completed with a strawberry suspended delicately in the middle. The idea is that the jellies are translucent and sparkling because we had to make them through a process called ‘clearing’, which involves creating a raft of egg white foam and crushed egg shells to filter the liquid through. Yeah. It’s actually a lot more tricky and convoluted than I’ve made it sound and it takes ages. I am impatient by nature and so this sort of thing is not my friend.

In the afternoon, we had a pasta dem. Pasta is one of my favourite things, and the dem was led by Sue and Annie, who were a great double act and kept us all both fed and entertained. We’ve made simple pasta at school before, but now we’re looking at ravioli, tortellini, garganelli, scialatelli, and lots of other things I can’t spell or pronounce.


Thursday was our first all day cooking session of the term, and probably my favourite so far. We prepared everything on the board above from scratch: beetroot and herb cured salmon; jasmine smoked mackerel; rye bread; dill pickled cucumber; and a horseradish crème fraiche. We then served the dish below, which is an artichoke and green olive pithivier – for which we made the puff pastry from scratch – and a heritage tomato salad with baby basil leaves. I barely stopped for about seven hours straight and was shattered by the end of the day, but it’s gratifying to make things that you really can enjoy, and even though the plating on my board was a mess, I did get some praise for the simple neatness of my salad, which is definitely progress.


Finally, we got a cheeky half day on Friday to allow us some time in the afternoon to work on our portfolios, a massive project which is due in worryingly soon. The morning dem was on butchery and jus, and Phil began it, completely without introduction or context, by declaiming the lyrics to Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy with complete earnestness and solemnity, as it was the morning after his death. He got a spontaneous round of applause afterwards. It was even more impressive than the beautiful assiette of rabbit, pictured below, that he served up at the end of the session.


We are now fully in the swing of the final term, and there’s definitely been a noticeable step-up in the level and quality of food expected from us these days. My biggest struggle at the moment is my inability to plate anything properly: I can usually get stuff done on time and tasting reasonable enough, but I can’t present it well, and that’s really hindering my ability to make professional looking dishes. Next week, look out for tarte tatin, rabbit ravioli, and our first forays into sous vide cooking. I’m off to do one of the many, many loads of laundry that you have to do when you’re at culinary school, because my life really is all glamour.


Leiths: Foundation Term, Week 7

Week 7 seems to have slipped by with unsettling speed, which probably has a lot to do with the fact that we had Monday off and assessments instead of a dem on Tuesday morning, so by the time we got started in earnest it was Wednesday and, hey, already halfway through the week! In my assessment I learned that I passed both my wine exam – thank god, as I really didn’t fancy doing it again – and my most recent Leiths theory test. Then we got back into our normal rhythm with an afternoon of scattershot cooking that saw us segmenting oranges, icing cakes, steaming mussels, and making caramel sauce without much rhyme or reason (at least in my case).


Weirdly, I found segmenting oranges to be the trickiest part of all this. It’s fiddly, and as I’ve mentioned before, I am clumsy and impatient. You have to remove every last bit of pith from each segment and make sure they are perfectly shaped with no straggly bits. I actually managed to get my first in-kitchen cut doing this – I’m surprised I made it all the way to Week 7 without this happening, frankly – because everything gets very slippery and the serrated knives are wickedly sharp, as I found out when mine sliced into my thumb. I think you’re supposed to wear these cuts like badges of pride. I wish I’d gotten mine doing something a bit more rock and roll than cutting up an orange.


Wednesday was a rather pleasant day in the kitchen, which saw us making smoked haddock, spinach, and tomato gougères. Gougère is savoury choux pastry with added cheese, and it’s stupidly delicious. It’s actually a bit of a cheeky shortcut to making a pie: far less faff than lining a tin with shortcrust or, god forbid, making puff pastry from scratch. You knock up your choux, which takes about ten minutes, then spoon it round the walls of your pie dish and whack it in the oven to expand and go gloriously golden while you get on with making your filling. Then you pop the filling into the crispy pastry to heat it through and that’s job done.

Full disclosure – this is actually a picture of my fellow student Jack’s gougère. I forgot to photograph mine before the teacher cut into it, and after a tasting your pretty food always looks a mess. But mine looked pretty much exactly like this.

Thursday, on the other hand, was a bit less satisfying, and probably one of the worst days in the kitchen I’ve had so far at school. We were making coq au vin, and I did everything wrong. My chicken was overcooked, my mushrooms and bacon weren’t cut correctly, my sauce was too salty and yet under-reduced, my broccoli was overcooked, my presentation was awful… just bad bad bad. I also got burns on both my right arm and my face when someone’s hot chicken pan decided to spit a spray of sizzling oil up in my direction. All this failure took so long that we were delayed in leaving the kitchen, so I got out of school late and missed my usual train, meaning a harrowing cycle in traffic that was much heavier than what I am used to. Then, when I got to Paddington, there were crowds so huge that there were police controlling the scene because a big train had been cancelled. I made it onto the later train back to Oxford, just, but then it was delayed by twenty minutes because of some signalling problem, so I got back stupidly late, and then I got stuck in a standstill traffic jam trying to get home because there are ridiculous roadworks around the station and that evening there was the added complication of a burst sewer pipe. I was incredibly grumpy all evening and poor James had to put up with me sulking.

I’m not even going to show you a picture of the chicken because it was that bad.

Luckily, I managed to slightly redeem myself on Friday, by making well-cooked lamb cutlets with new potatoes en papillote, green beans, and a tomato salsa. I even got a good mark for knife skills, and, as we’ve established, my knife skills are generally rubbish.


It felt a bit odd having only three dems this week, but they were good ones. We started with pastry on Wednesday, then had healthy eating for a bit of a contrast on Thursday, and finished with game on Friday. The pastry and glazing dem covered delicious things that were fairly familiar to anyone who is an avid (read: obsessive) watcher of Bake Off, like myself. We saw Heli expertly demonstrate the endless rolling and folding that constitutes the making of rough puff pastry, and got to sample some beautiful Eccles cakes. There was also a stunning glazed fig tart on walnut pastry that I wish I had had the sense to get a photograph of, and a fiddly little apple flan which we will have to try and recreate next week.

Belinda and Sue talked to us about healthy eating and special diets on Thursday. I’m not completely inexperienced in this area as I’ve cooked for vegetarians, vegans, and coeliacs fairly often, and cooked for and lived with a diabetic at university (although he just ate whatever he liked and then corrected his blood sugar with insulin afterwards, so making him dinner was never exactly a challenge). Much as I love the near-constant stream of sugar I subside on at Leiths – and trust me, I love it – it was a good change to eat some fresh salads, soups, and stir fries and feel briefly virtuous before going home and eating all of the chocolate in the world (sorry about how there is no chocolate left for anyone else).

Friday’s dem was on game. This, I think, is Michael’s particular bailiwick, and he guided us through the basics of how to prepare and cook some furred and feathered game. See the picture at the top of this post? The reason that plate of food looks so pretty and professional is that I did not make it: Michael prepared woodcock for us in the traditional way, trussing it with its own beak. We all got to have a taste and I liked it, but I think I was perhaps the only person that did. Woodcock has, to put it mildly, a very distinctive game-y flavour – I like offal and I liked this, but lots of people were pulling faces. Less controversial were the delicious roast pheasant and slow-cooked venison shanks. Perfect autumnal fare. We have to pluck and draw pheasants on our own at some point in the next couple of weeks, which I can only assume will cause chaos and carnage.


I am writing this post curled up on the sofa in the boat, which is a warm haven, despite the fact that it’s currently being tossed about the river by a fairly vicious storm. It’s all very atmospheric and dramatic, and with the clouds scudding past and the fierce wind making waves smack against the boat’s hull it finally feels as through winter is truly drawing in. Only two more full weeks to go of Foundation term, and then the practical exam week (which we shall not mention, ever, please), and then I get to sleep in til 1pm every day, construct a duvet fort to live in, and stop cooking fancy meals so we can subsist on pain au chocolat and crisps.


Sort of.