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 8

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.


Leiths: Intermediate Term, Week 6

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.



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.


Leiths: Foundation Term, Week 6

Before I started at Leiths, I basically hadn’t done any sustained exercise since being on the netball B team in primary school in 1999. I have attempted several different sports – running, swimming, cycling, walking, yoga, badminton, pilates, lifting weights, dancing, roller derby, ice skating, working out at the gym – and every time I try to exercise, the universe steers me away by making horrible things happen to me. You think I am exaggerating, but I’m not. This is neither the time nor the place, but I could tell you many harrowing stories that end with me in tears, disgrace, and/or hospital.

So, six weeks ago when I started at Leiths, I wasn’t in great physical shape. However, what I lack in core strength and lung volume I make up for in wilful, blind, stubborn determination. I essentially thought I could force my body to cycle ten miles a day while carrying heavy loads, on top of being on my feet all the time and never quite having enough sleep, by just… not giving up. This sounds stupid and naive, but up until this week it was actually going pretty well.

Unfortunately, I have now crashed. Previously unable to sleep in public places, I have now become one of those people who is instantly unconscious on the morning train and has to be politely prodded awake by wary fellow commuters when we reach London, whereupon I smush my face into the train window and moan ‘Nooooo, five more minutes.’ If I sit on the sofa when I get home, I fall asleep. I find my eyes sliding closed while waiting at traffic lights on my bike. I frequently come to a complete standstill in the school kitchens, unable to remember what I am supposed to be doing. Luckily, my name is written on all my aprons, right over the school logo, or I’d probably forget who and where I am all the time too.


Correspondingly, my cooking this week started out pretty mediocre. On Monday we had a day of delicious joy, cooking chocolate mousse, blackberry pavlova, and sirloin steak. I love all of these things. However, I managed to over-fold my mouse and over-cook my steak. This last was particularly galling as I like my meat blue, and think over-cooking steak is a very sad thing indeed. However, we were instructed to cook the steaks medium-rare, and I cooked mine for two minutes per side, which turned out to be a massive over-shoot. The picture below shows stages of steak cooking, starting off with blue and progressing up to incinerated. I like my steak at a 1 one this scale, but for class was trying to cook it to a 3, but ended up at a 4. This is sort of like the unhelpful pain scale in hospitals, yes? But more delicious.


Tuesday was another disaster day. Due to general exhaustion and my brain not being in gear, I cut the lamb for my spiced stew into pieces which were too small. That’s a mistake you can’t really undo once it’s done, so I had to get on with the long process of assembling and cooking the stew (which carried on into the next day), knowing that I’d done something fundamentally wrong at the start. We then had to make fresh marzipan for scratch to cover our Christmas cakes, which was surprisingly tricky. Actually, not ‘surprisingly’, more like ‘expectedly’. I thought it would be hard, and it was. Marzipan is delicate and prone to cracking, and so when I tried to cover my cake with it the whole sheet started to fall apart and I had to madly seal up cracks as quickly as possible, without over-working it. It was not a pretty sight. Still, the Christmas cake has been drowned in Calvados, so how bad can it really be?

On Wednesday, I slightly redeemed myself. I finished off the stew and it actually, against all the odds, tasted good. I also made autumn crumble with my table partner, which was pretty delicious. I know this because I wolfed the whole thing down cold for lunch in the dem room out of tupperware with a plastic fork, because I missed my lunch break while trying to adjust a costings spreadsheet. My life: all glamour.


I was reliably informed that the fruit juices bubbling up from under a crumble topping make it look ‘more real’, and thus they are acceptable.


Our Thursday session began with us being reprimanded for how slow we’d been in our Wednesday session. Correspondingly, in our Thursday session we worked so quickly that we were done by 11.30am rather than 1pm, and ended up making choux pastry for Friday a day in advance so that we had something to do. That came after pork tenderloin in Marsala sauce with kale, and pizzaiola sauce for Friday. I surprised myself by making a good Marsala sauce and cooking my pork well. The pork-cooking was a complete fluke and I had no idea it was cooked well until Ansobe cut into it, but shh, they will never know. (I am seriously assuming that Leiths staff will never read this blog and realise what an incompetent fool I am).


By Friday, I was not the only one rendered insensible by exhaustion. Sensing this, perhaps, Leiths gave us what I thought of as the ‘children’s birthday party day’: cooking pizza and profiteroles in the morning, followed by a jelly and ice cream dem in the afternoon. Now, please don’t hate me, but I tend to be a bit lukewarm about pizza. I worked in a travelling food van with a wood-fired pizza oven over the summer, and that produced absolutely amazing pizza which was a joy to eat. As a general rule, though, pizza doesn’t particularly excite me. I tend to think that unless you are getting the absolute best stuff available, it doesn’t taste that amazing. Takeaway pizza and restaurant pizza is usually disappointing, and I’d always go for Thai, Indian, Chinese, or pretty much any other option over ordering a pizza delivery. Unfortunately, making my own pizza didn’t change my mind. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I totally ate it all, but without a proper pizza oven and the authentic techniques, it did not even slightly rock my world. Profiteroles, on the other hand, will always be a source of delight.


The jelly and ice cream dem with Hélène was a lovely, gentle way to ease out of the week. I haven’t done a huge amount of work with setting agents and I found the theory portion of the dem really interesting – learning about powdered and leaf gelatine, what the different gradings mean, what agar agar and rennet actually are, how vegetarian setting agents are made and so on – and it definitely inspired me to be less afraid of making things like panna cotta and made me lust after an ice cream machine all over again. We got to taste lots of things, my favourite of which was a completely delicious Perry jelly with caramelised pears. And I don’t even like cider. I might even make it at home and post the recipe on here if I ever get an hour free (perhaps in 2018).

I have now decided to work through the dems backwards to Monday in a completely chronologically illogical way. Thursday’s dem was shellfish, which was brilliant for me because I love all fish. Phil slightly scared me by warning us that having shellfish poisoning feels a lot like dying and thus it is vital to make sure your gastropods, cephalopods, and bivalves (little bit of mollusc definition lingo for you there) are very fresh and of good quality, lest you kill someone. Sadly, Oxford is incredibly bloody landlocked and I don’t know any good fishmongers around here, but if I ever find one then I will be making the mussel recipe we tasted in the dem because it was great.

Wednesday’s dem was delivered by Angela Malik, who came to visit us at Leiths to teach us about Indian cooking. I knew that Indian cooking is very regional, but I hadn’t understood before what the classic hallmarks of northern, southern, and eastern Indian food are, and it was incredibly interesting to learn about how different the cuisine is in various areas of the country and why. Tuesday’s dem was delivered by Michael and was on meat preparation and cooking. Against really stiff competition, I think it was one of my favourite dems so far in terms of the food we got to taste. Everything was delicious and I wanted to go home and try every single recipe, particularly the chicken with forty cloves of garlic. Although, really, I don’t have the patience for such things and would probably end up doing seventeen and calling it a day. Finally, we began the week (still with me?) with a dem on sugar syrups with Ansobe. I’ve done a bit of sugar work before, but nothing very technical – I tend to make dry caramel by simply dumping a pile of caster sugar into a pan, whacking it on a really high heat and hoping for the best. Unsurprisingly, this approach has given me mixed results in the past. On Monday we learned about the nine stages of sugar syrup, and how to make caramel safely without sustaining extensive and hideously painful sugar syrup burns. Always useful.

Week 7 approacheth, and I have blistered feet, burned knuckles, and lots of choux pastry in tupperware. Onwards.