Five minutes with Nadiya Hussain: reigning champion of The Great British Bake Off; the nation’s beloved kitchen goddess; queen of my heart

It’s perhaps unsurprising that if you tell a class full of culinary school students that you are going to meet and chat with Nadiya Hussain they become alternately jealous and excited.

‘You get to meet Nadiya!? Oh wow, you lucky thing.’

‘Can you tell her I love her? Like, really?’

‘Oh my god, and me! Tell her I love her too!’

Anyone familiar with this blog will remember that I spent ten weeks baking along with the 2015 Great British Bake Off and going on (and on, and on, and on…) about how happy I was to see Nadiya do well, how hilarious I found her, how much I adore her, and how much I thought she deserved to win. I’m actually a bit surprised they let me meet her at all, considering it’s clear I was a crazed fangirl and borderline gibbering fawning obsessive.

And yet, they did let me meet her.

My fellow student Tassy and I were given a cheeky five minutes with Nadiya before she did some filming for a TV show at Leiths. It’s not surprising they could only spare her for five minutes: she’s a terrifyingly busy person. Seemingly needing no rest after storming through GBBO, she’s made documentaries, guested on television shows, written for magazines, and put together her own cookbook, as well as meeting and baking for the Queen. She was also very kind and tolerant as I babbled at her nonsensically. Here’s what she had to say about Bake Off, self-confidence, and Benedict Cumberbatch…

Credit: S Meddle/ITV/REX Shutterstock (5239214u)

So, it’s been a year since Bake Off – what do you think is the most exciting project you’ve worked on since? 

Well, I’ve worked on a lot of things. Obviously the cookbook is the thing I’ve worked on the longest, but I think one of the most exciting things I’ve done would have to be baking the Queen’s 90th birthday cake. For me, that’s making history. I can’t believe that I actually got to do it: sometimes I have to pinch myself. It’s probably the most memorable thing that’s happened.

How did you manage to get that commission? 

I was actually doing a shoot for my cookbook and my agent called and told me about the email. I was like ‘No, somebody’s pulling your leg, there’s been a mix-up – they want someone who’s a proper baker to do it!’ Then when I realised it was for real I was like ‘…can I say no?!’ But of course, I didn’t want to say no! I was really nervous though; the pressure suddenly just kicked in. It was a big commitment.

Are you still in touch with all your fellow Bake Off contestants?

It’s really hard – we’re twelve very different people! We’ll have a reunion every year, I’m sure. But we do have a group phone chat. Randomly I’ll say ‘How good looking is Benedict Cumberbatch?!’, and then Flora and I will get into a conversation, and everyone else is like ‘Just shut up about Benedict Cumberbatch please both of you’.

You’ve spoken a lot about struggling with confidence – do you think winning Bake Off helped you overcome that? 

When I went into Bake Off I didn’t have a lot of confidence, but I don’t think it’s the winning that gave it to me – I think it was the things I had to go through to get through it, week by week. The process of doing things that I wasn’t comfortable with, and doing things alone without my children and my husband, really gave me that confidence. The win was just the cherry on the cake. It was great, but by that point, I already thought ‘Well, I don’t need to be that nervous, anxious person anymore.’

Obviously, you won Bake Off and then became an instant baking celebrity. Were you prepared to be suddenly famous? Have you enjoyed it? 

No, I definitely wasn’t prepared for everything that came after Bake Off! I did genuinely think I would fly under the radar and go back to normal life. It’s a new world, and it’s not something I know or recognise or am comfortable with. But I’ve kind of taken everything in my stride, and tried to enjoy it. I know there’s a sell-by date and I know there are going to be more Bake Off contestants, and so I want to enjoy what I’ve got and have no expectations.

Did Mary Berry give you any advice after Bake Off?

She always says ‘Just look after your family’. She’s the grandma you want to adopt. I mean, I have one, but I’d still like her! You can tell she is such a family orientated person and I think we had that in common, being in the spotlight, and having a family to look after.

Desert island dish? Marmite! Marmite crisps! I literally can eat six packets in one go.

Dream dinner party guest? David Attenborough. Every time.

Two kitchen essentials you couldn’t do without? My mixer and a good spatula.

Favourite cuisine to eat? Vietnamese.

Mary or Paul? Neither! I’m not answering that – no way!

Credit: photographed in London by Pål Hansen for The Guardian.

At this point, Nadiya was dragged away to do her actual job, but not before letting us get a quick picture with her. Meeting her was definitely one of the most exciting opportunities I got while I was at Leiths, although I am going to have to focus on learning to be a little bit more relaxed and a little bit less starstruck if I ever get to meet any more of my food heroes in the future.


Leiths: the end, and the beginning

The last ten months of my life have been completely dominated by Leiths. Rising in the dark at 5.20am and staggering home at some time past 7.30pm every weekday, ploughing through daily timeplans, doing endless whites washes, working out creative recipes, fretting over coursework, and frantically revising for exams, has left me with very little time to dedicate to anything else, and no energy to do so even if I wasn’t so busy. It’s funny; the things I have cared about so ferociously would seem insane to an outsider, but when you’re in the thick of something as all-consuming as Leiths things that would once have seemed tiny suddenly become overwhelming, and you find yourself devastated when you’re told you’ve only been scored a 3 out of 5 for your puff pastry or indignant when you end up staying late for extra cleaning for the third week in a term.

But for all the ridiculous lows, there are also giddy highs: being praised for finally managing to neatly and efficiently fillet a round fish; hitting a service time perfectly, down to the second; laughing hysterically to the point of tears with classmates over bread dough for no real reason.


On Tuesday, I passed my final practical exam. The theory exam was already over and done with, we’ve been given our marks for our continual assessment in class, and I know I passed my wine exam too. That means that, although we won’t be given our actual marks until July, I know I attained the full professional Leiths Diploma in Food and Wine. I also managed to get through the entire course without a single absence or late mark, despite living a stupid distance away. I know it sounds silly, but I’m proud of that too, even though it was pure pig-headed stubbornness and nothing more. The graduation is over, and that’s the end of my time at Leiths.


So, I guess that’s it then. I’ve done thirty-plus blogs on Leiths, and that’s the end of it.

Oh go on, one last ramble.

If anyone stumbles across this blog who is considering going to study the full diploma at Leiths, here are some things I have learned.

  1. The school will go on about you having to iron your whites. I don’t even own an iron. Not one single piece of my uniform has ever been ironed. This has caused no problems.
  2. You will inevitably lose perspective. When you feel like crying over a curdled custard or a mutilated fish fillet, remember that even though it feels awful, at least you’re not a brain surgeon or something. Of course you care about what you produce, but remember that culinary school, in the grand scheme, is not high stakes. No one has died.
  3. Take the chance to interact with all the people around you: they will come from a huge range of backgrounds and you can learn a lot from them. I mean the students, as well as the teachers. Don’t stay in the bubble of your own class group all the time – chat to people in other classes and the opposite half of the year. Help each other out, share knowledge, make friends. You never know who could be your next business partner.
  4. Try everything (unless, you know, you have a life-threatening allergy). Now is not the time to be picky. Junket? Octopus? Brains? Give everything a fair chance and have at least a bite while you have this amazing opportunity.
  5. Keep your attendance up if you can. Obviously, sometimes you might be truly ill and unable to crawl from bed, or there might be a genuine emergency which prevents you from getting to school, and such is life. But don’t slip into the habit of staying at home when you’re exhausted or hung over. The more time you miss in the kitchen, the fewer chances you will have to get high marks, and the more demonstrations you miss, the trickier you are making the theory exams for yourself. You paid a lot of money for this course: don’t waste it.
  6. Do actually read the wine textbook. I didn’t and I wish I had. It would have made things a lot easier down the road.
  7. Be generous with your resources. Help others, whether it’s by photocopying a lost handout, lending a spare piece of uniform, or giving a heads up and tips about a tricky cooking session. In a big group in a busy and pressurised environment, be a force for good and bring some light. It will all come back to you. And even if it doesn’t, at least you know you have been a positive presence. (This is my general advice for life as well).
  8. Get your mandatory work experience out of the way early and don’t try and do it all in the last possible week.
  9. Keep your knives sharpened as you go along. I didn’t do this and nearly wrecked them, which is a shame, as they are expensive and beautiful.
  10. Remember to enjoy it. You are very lucky.



Leiths: Advanced Term, Week 10

There are few feelings nicer than being able to chuck a file of revision notes in a drawer and forget about them. I have had the Leiths Techniques Bible sitting on my table for weeks, along with piles of flashcards, lists of culinary terms, diagrams of cuts of meat, and a collection of highlighters frankly obscene in range and number (colouring things in rainbow order makes them more memorable, right?). But now? It’s all been cleared away and my table is gloriously uncomplicated once more. Monday morning brought us the final theory exam of the course, and while it wasn’t a particularly welcome gift at the time, by Monday evening I felt like a chainmail vest had been lifted from my shoulders. No more memorising conversions and French technical terms. No more lying awake at night panicking because I can’t remember how much butter there is in a three egg quantity of choux pastry. No more people thinking I am crazy on the train as I mutter to myself about which fruits have high, medium, and low pectin. Yes, we still have the practical exam to contend with next week, but that a different kind of skill and a different kind of worry, and it’s good to have many and various anxieties.

So, Monday’s exam went, if not exactly swimmingly, certainly reasonably. And then it was an odd week, in the way it always is when it’s end of of term anywhere. Bitty and broken up, with the previous weeks’ rigid structure sliding away and a confusing mix of fear about the upcoming practical exam and joy that the wine and theory exams are out of the way. On Tuesday morning we had a skills session in the kitchen, which is basically an excuse for us to practice cooking whatever we fancy for lunch – I went with a rack of lamb and some scallops. The morning’s excitement was provided by Prue Leith herself, who dropped into the kitchens to visit for the very first time since we’d started the course. True, she was there to film an Australian TV show rather than to benefit from our sparkling company, but I’d like to think she did both in the end. I spent most of the session trying to dodge the TV cameras and look as busy as possible so that no one would try to interview me.

In the afternoon, Bruce Poole, formerly of the Michelin-starred Chez Bruce in Wandsworth and now half of the business partnership that owns Chez Bruce, The Glasshouse, and La Trompette, came to do a dem. He hates taster menus and restaurants that do small plates and likes to talk about his peeves at length. What a happy afternoon that was.


On Wednesday and Thursday we were focused on preparing for our last assignment of term: dinner parties. Well, lunch parties technically, but that’s not a thing. In groups of four, we made a three course meal for ourselves and four members of the other half of the year, the Blue group. The idea was to showcase some of the things we’ve learned this term and have a lovely lunch with some of the other students in the year who we don’t often get a chance to chat to. We made a smoked buffalo mozzarella salad, sous vide beef brisket, and a peach and raspberry mille feuille.


The picture below was taken by Leiths staff when I was in the middle of assembling the dessert. It’s made with almond biscuits, peach and raspberry crème pâtissière, meringues, pistachio crumb, fresh raspberries, raspberry purée, raspberry sorbet, and chargrilled peaches. Because I get carried away.


Not the neatest or the most well thought out dessert I’ve ever produced, but people seemed to enjoy it and it was undeniably bright and summery, despite the freezing rains and howling winds of a British mid-June day.

In the midst of all this madness, we had a dem from Atul Kochhar, who was completely charming, dryly funny in an understated way, vastly knowledgeable, and a master of Indian flavourings and spicing. He treated us to some fantastic Indian food and impressed us all with his terrifying schedule, which involves flying to Madrid for a day every week to work at the restaurant he’s set up there. It’s made me very keen to visit his London branch of Benares, so, you know, if anyone fancies taking me there for a post-Leiths treat…


On Friday, we were finally informed about what we’ll have to cook in the practical exam next week (salmon with braised vegetables and a chive beurre blanc, a lamb dish with a best end of neck which we’ll have to butcher and serve with creative farinaceous and vegetable accompaniments and a jus, and pithiviers with homemade puff pastry – oh god oh god oh god) and then were treated to a wonderful lunch by the group that we fed in our dinner party. They made us a Mediterranean vegetable salad starter with a gorgeous goats’ cheese cream, salmon on spinach tortellini in a watercress veloute, and a decadent chocolate and salted caramel dessert with caramelised peanuts. I ate lots of everything and drank much wine and successfully distracted myself from thoughts of the impending practical exam.

And that’s it, my friends. The last week of Leiths, done and dusted with icing sugar. I’ll probably check in next week to let you know if I passed my final exams (please send me good thoughts on Tuesday), so it’s not quite goodbye yet… but very nearly.


Leiths: Advanced Term, Week 9

On some lovely days, everything just goes better than expected. Monday was one of those days. We had a cooking session in exam conditions which I had been dreading, in which we had to make ravioli stuffed with chicken mousseline, wild mushrooms, and tarragon, served in a cream and morel sauce, in an hour and forty five minutes. This might sound like a lot of time, but when you factor in making pasta from scratch, passing chicken through a drum sieve, and assembling ravioli by hand, it all gets a bit tricky. Luckily, I pushed through, just about managed to serve on time, and was pretty happy with what I put up. I also learned that I passed my WSET Level 2 exam, thank god; I was genuinely worried I might have failed it and it had been eating at me ever since we sat the paper.


We also had an interesting session with Jennifer Joyce on food styling. It may not be apparent from the shoddy photos on this blog of late, but I love messing around with food styling and photography, and it was really useful to hear from an expert who clarified certain rules and ideas that I’d half worked out and half hadn’t really understood before. Hopefully, once I finish at Leiths and get a chance to start putting together recipes properly for this blog again, you might be able to see some improvement in my photos and food styling.

Tuesday morning was a prep cooking session, in which we readied ourselves for all day cooking on Wednesday. The first thing we had to do was make brioche dough, which we’d never attempted before. I’m fairly sure I’m going to end up with a puny left arm and an overdeveloped right arm from activities such as clearing, kneading, and dough-making. We had to make the brioche by hand the traditional way, working in butter a cube at a time and stretching the dough to shoulder height, and believe me, it definitely counts as exercise. We also prepped a very fancy chicken liver and fois gras parfait, and butchered our farmed rabbits for the following day’s creative session. I managed not to focus too much on pet rabbits and got the job done like a (semi) professional.


The afternoon session was another one on wine, but with a difference. We were visited by someone from Reidel, a company who make high end wine glasses. We were each given a selection of five glasses and had a wine tasting, sampling wines from various glasses to see how glass shape affected aroma and taste. It was really interesting, but basically my favourite part of the whole thing was the label on the wine bottle above, because the little animals drawn on it reminded me of Where The Wild Things Are. I am literally going to seek out this wine and buy it. I also liked the wine, I’m not quite nuts enough to buy it solely for the bottle. Ahem.


Wednesday was an all day cooking day, and I still haven’t quite recovered from it. We started off with a dish of Sauternes jelly, pear and saffron chutney, and the aforementioned chicken liver and fois gras parfait and brioche. This was to be my lunch, and it was incredibly delicious and satisfyingly fancy. We then moved on to our creative rabbit dish, pictured at the top, which was a MasterChef-style ‘do anything you like with this rabbit’ challenge, working from a list of ingredients and trying to use the rabbit in as many ways as possible. I went for (ready?): saddle of rabbit wrapped in pancetta and stuffed with a mousseline of chicken, rabbit livers, and tarragon; black pudding, confit rabbit leg and mustard bon bons; rabbit liver and tarragon paté; pomme purée with Dijon mustard; pea purée; salted pistachio crumb; sautéed baby carrots and leeks; and a rabbit and port jus. Ansobe said my portion was too generous. Yeah. Quite possibly true, but the more you put on the plate, the more you get to eat, so…


Friday was supposed to be creative red mullet day, but actually ended up being creative gurnard day, as Leiths had been let down by their fish supplier. Gurnard doesn’t sound quite as appealing as red mullet, and doesn’t really look it either: they have odd, triangular heads and loads of very sharp spikes everywhere. I also somehow got a fish that was literally twice the size of everyone else’s and was more like a small shark than anything. I was pleasantly surprised, though, by the fish’s tender meatiness once cooked, and would happily have it again in future. This was only an afternoon session rather than an all day cook, and so my plate is not as mad as the rabbit offering. I made pan-fried gurnard fillets, a Pernod and fennel risotto, pickled courgette ribbons, a Parmesan crisp, lemon caper dressing with parsley, and microherbs.

So next week is Week 10, my last full week at Leiths, and our practical exams are the week after that. I have one short story from my weekend which illustrates, if only to me, how much Leiths has taught me. On Friday night/Saturday morning, I got home at 1am, drunk and exhausted, but with a mad set idea in my head that I wanted to make some fresh bread for James and I for breakfast the next morning. So I stumbled in and, without a plan or a recipe, put together an enriched wholemeal spelt bread dough by eye. I left it kneading in the mixer while I brushed my teeth and got into my PJs, and then chucked it in the fridge to cold rise overnight. When I woke up at 7am I staggered to the fridge without my glasses on (thus almost totally blind), got the dough out of the fridge and popped it in a bread tin to prove. I then accidentally fell asleep again and woke up two hours later, at which point I popped the massively overproved bread in the oven. Despite my complete lack of attention and shockingly poor method, the bread came out lovely. Before Leiths, I would have seen making bread as a tricky project, and I would never have been able to put together a bread dough without a recipe. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to just leave it be and let it do its thing while I was completely unconscious. There’s some innate instinct in me that Leiths has developed that I didn’t have before.

Just to ease you out of the series, you will get a full blog post next week, and then a final farewell (to the Leiths blogs, not to me I’m afraid) after I have finished my practical exams. Have a lovely week, gang. And let me know if you want some bread.


Leiths: Advanced Term, Week 8

Week 8, my friends, and I am winding down against my will. The commute seems longer than ever, the lashing winds and chilling rain that ushered in June were less than appreciated, and I find myself fantasising about things like sleeping in until 7am, reading for pleasure without guilt, and cooking things that have nothing to do with the syllabus. This state of mind is unhelpful, because we still have Weeks 9 and 10 of cooking to get through, followed by exam week, but I am simply bone-tired, would really rather not have another round of terrifying tests both theoretical and practical, and am ready to hang up my necktie and stop doing four rounds of whites washes per week.

That said, if I were to have given up completely, I’d have missed Tuesday’s WI style session, in which we baked cake and made jam and chutney. Granted, the cake was a fiddly genoise base for a Gateau Opera, rather than a comforting lemon drizzle, but it was still a lovely calm morning. Our strawberry jams bubbled away happily, making the kitchen smell amazing, and our spiced pear chutneys reminded us, seasonally inappropriately, of Christmas.

In the afternoon, we were treated to a visit from charismatic cheese expert Tom Badcock. Tom told us that when he dies he wants to be buried with a large amount of Roquefort, and I can well believe it. The man knows his cheese. We sampled over a dozen varieties of the stuff, ranging from the standard ricotta and mozzarella to more unusual (and expensive) fare such as cave aged Kaltbach Gruyere, Munster, and Testun Barola. He also knows pretty much everything about the history of milk and cheese, and regaled us with interesting stories.


Wednesday morning’s cooking session was an odd combination of Opera cake and grilled sardines. I very much like both of these things, but not together, and it was odd jumping from butterflying fish to soaking sponge with coffee syrup. We also over-ran by about forty five minutes due mostly to the sheer complexity of the cake. Nonetheless, I managed to produce the cake you see above – a layered creation with sponges soaked in coffee syrup and stacked with coffee buttercream and chocolate ganache. Below is my delicious but unphotogenic lunch of griddled sardines, salsa verde, and roasted Jersey Royals. An optimistic summery meal to counteract the dismal weather.


In the afternoon we were visited by Hilary Cacchio, a bread expert who specialises in wild yeast starters. I have gently dabbled in making sourdough at home, but my starter is currently dormant with a layer of hooch sitting on it in the fridge, as I haven’t had time for serious bread making while at Leiths. Anyway, Hilary showed us how to do it properly and I’ve been doing it all wrong, so perhaps it would be best for me to start from scratch when I’ve finished at school. I learned loads from Hilary – I have been using unfiltered water and non-organic flour, for instance, which is apparently a  bad idea – and all the breads she made us were delicious.


Thursday was the day of the shellfish massacre. I mean, I’m being dramatic, but that’s basically what it was. We were cooking crab and lobster, and had to kill and prep them both. Reader, I am ashamed to say I couldn’t do it. I am not a vegetarian. And I mean I’m really not a vegetarian; I’ll eat offal, veal, raw meat, whatever. Yes, I am a hypocrite. It’s one thing to be comfortable with eating meat, but another thing to be comfortable with killing it yourself, and as someone who isn’t skilled or confident in the arena of crustacean murder, I was afraid of causing the crab and lobster allocated to me more suffering than was necessary. I love animals and don’t even like to kill spiders; I am also overly empathetic to a fault and feel the pain of other living things. Although I am not squeamish and am fine with butchering something already dead – I had no problem prepping the shellfish once they had been killed – I just couldn’t stab a knife through a lobster skull or a steel through the belly of a crab. Watching them being killed upset me: they wriggled and panicked and tried to get away. It is the first time I have ever actually considered vegetarianism, if only in passing. But no: I am not ideologically against eating meat that is raised and killed humanely. I’m just not happy doing the killing with my own hands. I was surprised at myself, but the reaction was immediate and completely innate, and although I was embarrassed about it – everyone else in the class was fine with killing the crab and lobster – there was really nothing I could do. I had to leave the room while someone else killed both my crab and my lobster for me.

Anyway, I also made scallops with hazelnut and shrimp crumble and pea purée, so that was nice.


Moving swiftly on, we ended the week with a relaxed cooking session on Friday morning, during which we only had to make one dish: the starter portion of grapefruit jelly, crab mayonnaise, avocado purée, diced grapefruit and avocado, white crab meat, and micro-herbs you see above. Considering it was such a tiny little dish, polished off in three bites or so, it took a surprising amount of time and skill to make. I had never picked all of the meat out of a whole crab before, and, though it was actually quite satisfying, my hands now bear lots of little cuts from sharp pieces of shell.

Coming up next week: a creative rabbit dish; my first time working with red mullet; and a foray into fois gras. Have a lovely weekend.


Leiths: Advanced Term, Week 7

The week started with a cancelled train. Checking the TrainLine app to see how the 6.55 was doing before I left the house (might burn me once…) I saw that its Monday morning excursion had been curtailed due to an ominous and non-specific ‘train fault’. Happily for me, this was the one morning that I didn’t have to be at school early, as we had individual assessment appointments and I was lucky enough to snag a later one. I had been planning to go into school at my normal time anyway to get some work done, but I saw the cancelled train as a fairly clear sign and jumped back into bed for an extra hour of dozing. This seemed like a fantastic idea at the time, but I’m pretty sure it was this change to my obsessive and rigid routine which put me off my game for the rest of the day. I have to point at something rather than admitting I’m just an idiot. We had a very light cooking prep session in the afternoon, but somehow I managed to mess up my Danish pastry dough, making it too firm despite following the recipe to the letter (still don’t know what happened), and burnt my fingers by using them to test the consistency of sugar syrup (I admit that this sounds very very stupid but this is genuinely how they tell us to test sugar syrup).


On Tuesday, though, the week got going in earnest and I perked up a bit. This week was the week of sugar, baking, patisserie, petit fours, and all things that are good and right in the world. Tuesday morning’s dem, delivered by Ansobe and Jane, was all about petit fours. Think macarons, marshmallows, nougat, caramels… most peple were groaning and sugar-dazed when the morning was done, but I was in my element. Nibble on those scrap ends of marshmallow? Yes please. Spare piece of nougat? Don’t mind if I do.

In the afternoon we continued with our Danish pastry dough (I was pretty sure mine was fundamentally wrong and doomed at this point but marched along regardless), and made a delicious fougasse. Crusty but light, soft and pillowy, spiked with sea salt and Italian herbs, a loaf bigger than your head – it was surprisingly easy and completely wonderful and I will definitely be trying it again at home. We used a biga for the first time (another word for starter), which gives the bread a depth of flavour that you don’t get without some form of slow-fermenting yeast. I’ve made sourdough at home so the process was not completely unfamiliar, but it was far less hassle than your standard starter and worth beginning 24 hours early.

On Wednesday we had our last ever in-house dem, delivered by Phil and Belinda. It was all about fish – which I love almost as much as I love all things sweet – so I was very happy to munch away on sardines, salmon, and cod, as well as more luxurious and exciting treats such as octopus, John Dory, turbot, and even caviar. I longed anew for a decent fishmonger in Oxford. Does anyone know where I can get octopus? Not a rhetorical question, I really want to try braising it at home.


The afternoon was unexpectedly lovely. The morning group had escaped the kitchen about forty minutes late, so we approached the session with trepidation, but it was very relaxed and I even got out a little early. We made the dessert pictured at the top of this post: almond panna cotta; apricot sorbet; almond crumble; hibiscus meringues; caramelised hazelnuts; sugar work; fresh apricots and raspberries; and micro herbs. You know, casual. It was marvellous, and I got told my plate was pretty, which is always a nice surprise. We followed it up with Danish pastries made completely from scratch (see previous moaning in this post). My pastry was pronounced a little tough, but overall everything went unexpectedly well and I think my fellow commuters were probably slightly confused by the overwhelming smell of fresh pastry on the 17.49 to Worcester.

Thursday was unphotogenic but interesting. We were visited by Chris Barber for an all-day session focused on how to set up a food business. As this is what I hope to do when I graduate, the whole day was very helpful and informative, and Chris was a compelling and knowledgeable presenter. We had to split into groups to prepare a business idea to pitch for the end of the afternoon, and then vote on the best plan. Our little group won the vote – thanks mostly to the excellent presentation skills of Laura – so basically I’m pretty sure we’ll all be successful business tycoons before the year is out.


Friday was the day I’d been looking forward to since I started at Leiths: petit fours day. It’s funny how divisive it was, as a day – some people were in their element, and some didn’t even bother coming in to school. As has probably become obvious by now, I am all about the sugar, and so I was definitely in the first camp. We had a lovely, relaxed day and, as a table, made chocolate caramels with vanilla sea salt, passion fruit pate de fruit, toasted pistachio and almond nougat, lemon sherbet marshmallows, macarons with pistachio and raspberry ganaches, and chocolate truffles covered with tempered chocolate. I love making macarons anyway, but the chocolate caramels were a surprise favourite too. I took a huge box of goodies home and it was both impressive and worrying how quickly James and I ploughed through it.


I am now at the end of a cheeky three day weekend, and somehow it’s almost time to go back to school again. Stay tuned for next week, which will include jam-making, an impressive cake, and an abundance of shellfish.


Leiths: Advanced Term, Week 6

I tend to write this blog assuming that I’m talking to myself, only to be surprised every now and then to hear from people who read it who I wouldn’t necessarily expect to do so. People who aren’t my family or closest friends – I assume they occasionally have a glance out of polite obligation – but passing acquaintances or friends of friends, people who I wouldn’t expect to be following along with my rambling story. So, strange as it feels to me to announce this as though I’m speaking to readers, I’m letting you know that you’re not getting a proper blog this week.

On Monday we had wine revision and an unexciting prep cooking session, on Tuesday we were out of school for a wine trip, on Wednesday we had all day cooking, on Thursday we had the day off for wine revision, and on Friday we had our wine exam. So, cooking wise, all I have to tell you about is Wednesday! I could describe the seven hours of travelling it took me to get to and from Sussex on Tuesday or the terror of the WSET Level 2 paper on Friday but, let’s face it, if you’re here at all you’re probably here for the food.


On Wednesday we only had two dishes to serve, and one of them we’d prepared on Monday. This sounds like an easy day, but oddly, it wasn’t. We started with a terrine made with pork, liver, and pistachio, served with sourdough and microherbs. Surprisingly easy and delicious, and perfect for making ahead and slicing and serving to guests. The second dish was a creative duck plate. Essentially, they gave us a duck and told us to do whatever we wanted with it and use as much of the bird as possible. I went for: pan fried duck breast; beetroot ravioli filled with duck confit, thyme and garlic; pickled baby beetroot and shallot rings; celeriac purée; baby carrots, peas, and micro herbs; and a duck and port jus. If you think that sounds complicated, you should have seen some of the dishes that other people came up with. They were seriously beautiful and professional and I am in awe of (and slightly jealous of) so many of my classmates. As we were all making complex dishes with multiple components to be brought together for service, it was a bit of a manic day and resulted in the most terrifying and comic washing up pile I have ever seen.

So, our big portfolio hand in deadline has passed, our WSET Level 2 exam is over (thank god, on both counts), and next week is Week 7. I can’t quite believe it, but we’re very nearly there.

And I’ll try to give you a proper blog post next week.


Leiths: Advanced Term, Week 5

So, everyone has a base carbohydrate, right? Apart from people on paleo or Atkins (is Atkins still a thing?), I suppose. But whether it’s pasta, bread, potatoes, or rice, I think most of us have a favourite substance for comforting after cold days, for bulking things out, for soaking up flavours, for making life a little bit nicer. For me, that carbohydrate is pasta. I could eat it by the tureen-full simply with butter or cheese and a little seasoning. I am still, after four years of student-dom, far from sick of packaged dried spaghetti with pesto from a jar. So learning to make ever-fancier pasta at Leiths is cause for celebration from this quarter.

On Monday, we made crab, prawn, and scallop tortellini, served with chives in a prawn bisque sauce. What’s not to love, really? Well, actually, I didn’t massively love grinding the beautiful scallops down into a mousseline, but the actual act of making tortellini is immensely satisfying. It all made for a very delicious and luxurious lunch.


In the afternoon we were visited by David Bailey from Wholefood Heaven. David specialises in vegetarian food, and has a very interesting background, having made the leap from being a restaurant chef to running a very successful street food van. I am no stranger to working in food vans, and it was lovely to hear his perspective on the industry. Turns out, though, that even fancy renowned foodie vegetarians still miss bacon and have nut roast at Christmas. Everything he made was delicious, and I might even have been convinced to give tofu another go.

Tuesday’s cooking session looked simple on the timetable, and then somehow turned out to be surprisingly tiring. I’m not sure why. Actually, wait, I am sure why: making sabayon by hand. Whisking furiously over a hot stove with a manual whisk surrounded by fifteen other people doing the exact same thing for twenty minutes. It’s a bit spirit-crushing. My outlook was slightly improved by the fact that the elderflower sabayon was made to be served with cinnamon maple French toast with balsamic strawberries and baby basil, which made a wonderful early lunch. My sabayon, despite twenty minutes of vigorous hand-whisking over heat, still did not have enough volume to it, but to be quite honest I was not physically capable of whisking it any more, so flat it had to be.


The afternoon brought a restorative chocolate dem with Ansobe. I love working with (read: eating) chocolate, so it was pretty much my happy place, and I only wish I had the equipment to re-produce all the beautiful chocolates at home.

Wednesday morning saw the cumulation of three days hard work: we finally baked the croissant dough we had been working on all week. As I mentioned in the last blog, croissants are not an endeavour for the faint-hearted, but like most things of these nature, they are incredibly satisfying. My croissants browned incredibly quickly in the unreliable gas oven and are thus looking a bit more bronzed than I would have liked, but I was praised for their perfect bake and lamination, so they were very tasty even though they won’t be winning any croissant beauty contests. That was also the morning we shucked oysters in order to deep-fry them and serve them with a citrus mayonnaise and pickled vegetables. I have never been particularly talented in the oyster-shucking department and was slightly worried about stabbing myself in the hand, but managed to get through unscathed and even avoided any deep-frying disasters, only to sustain a burn on my arm when the oven door swung back and caught me unexpectedly. It’s the little things. I now have a distinct oven door lock mark burn on my wrist, because I love Leiths and its ovens so dearly I’ve had to brand myself to prove it.


In the afternoon, Michael gave us a guided tour through the wonderful world of terrines, with a focus on the use of fois gras. Terrines are great because you can make them in advance and they don’t have to be too tricky (although they can be) but they can look all fancy and professional and you can pretend you know what you’re doing. Or at least, Michael’s terrines looked fancy and professional. I can’t promise the same of my attempt next week.


Thursday was another all day health and safety session, so not much to say there, but Friday was an all day cooking session. We seem to be having all day cooking sessions every week these days, and they vary. Some are fun opportunities to work on something more involved in the kitchen, some a gruelling slog with multiple service times which leave me fit only for lying on the floor and moaning quietly. I was worried this week might be one of the latter as I heard from the group that had done it first that they had lost the will to live by the end of it. It was definitely a long day but I was really happy with some of the food I produced. Above is a seared tuna salad with fennel, asparagus, and radish, and a mixed vegetable vinaigrette. Fresh tuna steak is one of my favourite foods in the world, so getting to cook and eat it in class felt like utter luxury, even if I did need a little more colour on the crust. Below is a dish of pan-fried sweetbreads on a pomme purée with baby leeks and carrots, as well as peas and a Madeira jus. I get the feeling I am in the minority in the class here, but I love sweetbreads, and thought the dish was delicious – I was even praised for my presentation, and believe me, that doesn’t happen often.


Finally, we finished with a raspberry-themed dessert: pâte sablée biscuits and crumb, served with raspberry coulis, raspberry sorbet, and fresh raspberries. You can perhaps see that I was getting a bit tired by this point – I was aiming for abstract arty presentation and ended up with a bit of a mess – but I ate everything on that slate and the ensuing sugar rush was very welcome indeed.


We’ve got a busy week next week, with a big portfolio deadline, a field trip to a vineyard, and our WSET exams (gulp), along with an all day cooking session. It really does feel like we’re in the advanced term now, with our food getting ever more complex, and the real world of post-Leiths employment is right around the corner. If anyone wants to hire me as their private chef and fancies living on a diet of tuna steak and raspberry sorbet, please get in touch…


Leiths: Advanced Term, Week 4

I began Week 4 in a bit of a haze, due to a heady weekend cocktail of seeing Derren Brown live, May Day celebrations in Oxford, and an ecstatic, unexpected, unplanned evening at Bellowhead’s last-ever gig. I proudly wore my Bellowhead Farewell Tour t-shirt to school on Tuesday, and since no one there seems to know who Bellowhead are (or were), it meant nothing to anybody but me, and I was reminded again of the vast gulf between my school life and my home life. Different priorities, different cities, different people, different me.

Our Monday morning session was a gentle one in which we produced a salmon mousseline to be quenelled and poached in a Thai-style fish broth. I was a bit unsure about the mousseline, because I adore salmon and sort of hated the idea of blending it to death, pushing it through a sieve, and beating it with cream before faffing about quenelling and poaching it. Well, I should really stop being so suspicious, because the dish was lovely (although I am terrible at quenelling and, by and large, would still prefer to pan-fry a salmon fillet whole).


I wasn’t massively looking forward to the afternoon session on spirits and liqueurs (see opening paragraph regarding weekend of excess), but our presenter was the charming Peter Wilson, who quickly won me over by cleverly peppering his slides with pictures of his adorable dog. Unfortunately, even cute dog pictures couldn’t bring me round to liking whiskey, but the session was very interesting nonetheless. Did you know that according to EU regulations, rum cannot be flavoured, and thus spiced rum is not technically rum but a liqueur instead?! I did not know this and as we have ‘spiced rum’ at home all the time (it’s James’s favourite pre-show sharpener) it blew my mind quite seriously.

We were visited by a Professor of Molecular Gastronomy on Wednesday. Peter Barnham, scientist, food fanatic, and penguin lover, came to talk us through some of the technical explanations of why certain elements of cooking work as they do. We got to eat ice cream made in seconds with liquid nitrogen, watched a lightbulb exploding in a microwave, and learned why salting water for cooking green vegetables is absolutely pointless. It was a fascinating morning, and we only began to very gently graze the surface of this huge and complex subject.

We were a little worried about the afternoon cooking session, as the morning group ran over by at least forty five minutes and left the kitchens looking mildly traumatised. It was a busy prep day that involved a lot of cleaning and sterilising of work surfaces in between making puff pastry from scratch and boning, stuffing and rolling a chicken for a ballotine, as well as finishing off two loaves of walnut and raisin bread. Making puff pastry feels almost routine by this point, but making chicken ballotine is, frankly, kind of a hassle and not an experience I am keen to replicate in my own kitchen.


Thursday was a double dem day. We started with preserving fruit in the morning with Michael, which gave us an excellent excuse to eat scones with raspberry jam, marmalade on sourdough toast, and quince paste with cheese. There is definitely an art to making jams, conserves, and jellies, and my tried and true ‘bung it all in a pan and boil it to death’ method probably isn’t going to work out too well for me at school. In the afternoon, Hannah expertly steered us through the buttery seas of croissant and Danish creation. Everything she made was glorious and it was easy to delude myself into thinking I could get similar results. Did you know that it takes three days to make croissants from scratch the proper, traditional way? Again, I am pretty glad they make us do it at school, because I simply don’t have the time or patience to do it at home myself. Also, I have pretty effectively convinced myself that all the butter I eat at school doesn’t count, somehow.


Friday was an all-day cooking session, and also our last day with our lovely class teacher Heli (sob), as she is off on maternity leave. We began with the seafood feuilletées, one of which is pictured at the top of this page. We saw them in a dem and have made them ourselves, and yet I still have no idea how to pronounce the word feuilletée. Luckily for me, this is a blog, so I don’t have to be able to pronounce it – ha! A victory for ignorance. Anyway, they were puff pastry cases filled with a chervil beurre blanc, samphire, salmon, prawns, and lemon sole, served with more seafood and topped, in my case, with crispy salmon skin. They also had to be very precisely measured. Heli told us that the cut pastry had to be 1.2cm thick, and she literally and genuinely came up to my table, got my ruler, and got down to eye-level with my pastry to determine that it looked ‘a bit more like 1.3cm than 1.2cm’ thick. Advanced term, people. Anyway, my very precisely measured feuilletée made a delicious lunch.


In the afternoon we served our chicken ballotines filled with a dark meat, porcini, and thyme stuffing, with spring greens, chicken and thyme jus, and the potato accompaniment of our choice – I went with dauphine potatoes, which are a mixture of mashed potato, choux pastry, and cheese mixed together and deep fried. Sounds delicious, right? Not going to lie, they were completely lovely and I ate all five pictured on the plate very soon after service. Sadly my ballotine skills need a lot of work but, as mentioned above, ballotining is not my favourite pastime.

And thus ends Week 4. Coming up in Week 5 (this is like a bad TV show trailer now), croissants, sweetbreads, tortellini, and oysters, amongst other things. See you there.



Leiths: Advanced Term, Week 3

It is quite hard not to be impressed by someone opening a bottle of sparkling wine with a massive knife. There’s no escaping it: it just looks awesome. This was demonstrated by our most regular wine instructor, Richard: he’s a great presenter who isn’t averse to a bit of theatre. Starting the week with sparkling wine, smoked salmon, and strawberries is an excellent way to mitigate Monday morning languor, and I’d thoroughly recommend it, although I understand that most workplaces might not be so obliging. I did not waste a drop of the alcohol we were given to taste, and was happily buzzy by lunchtime after a morning of Prosecco, Cava, Champagne, and even an English sparkling wine. It was probably my favourite wine lecture so far, although I am still absolutely terrified about the WSET Level 2 exam which is bearing down on us.

I wasn’t feeling too clever on Monday afternoon, but luckily it was a prep session in the kitchen with no services and not much to report. The only thing I have a picture of from Monday is this very dramatic storm that swept over West London as I was leaving school. Behind me was brilliant sun and ahead was a sky that can only be described as ominous. Needless to say, within five minutes of this photo being taken I was completely drenched, having walked straight into the danger zone.


Phil and David treated us to a sous vide dem on Tuesday morning. I do find sous vide very interesting, and it’s certainly fun to play with, but I have to say, it’s not exactly my cooking style of choice. Also, it’s a bit galling to spend a year being taught to cook things to perfection in pans and on hobs, using skill and all our senses to determine when things are ready, only to find that the same effect can be achieved with a vac pac machine, a temperature probe, and a timer. And several thousand pounds. Still, the food was lovely, particularly the caramelised white chocolate ice cream, and we got to see a lot of technical cooking, such as the experiment with varying times and temperatures for cooking with short ribs, pictured below.


In the afternoon we made rabbit ravioli from scratch – homemade pasta dough, rolling and cutting by hand, braising our own rabbit, the whole deal. For once, I was really happy with the way my dish came out. It could have looked prettier, as always, but I didn’t get any negative feedback, and making your own ravioli is incredibly satisfying. It’s the sort of thing I could I technically do at home but never would get around to, so it was great to get the chance at school. Also great that someone else did the rabbit butchery so I didn’t have guilty thoughts about adorable pets.


Wednesday began with a dem from Sue and Ansobe, a winning combination we had never experienced before. It was a shellfish dem, so Ansobe obviously wore lobster socks to fit in with the theme, and there was a general atmosphere of merriment, slightly tempered by the fact that Sue and Ansobe had to kill crabs, langoustines, and lobsters in front of us. They did so very calmly and professionally, but I’m not sure I will be quite as collected when it’s our turn. I’m a hypocrite, you see: I am very happy to eat anything, but not so enamoured with the idea of killing things myself. I love animals – not just the obviously cute and fluffy ones, but pretty much everything, and I could very easily become attached to a crab or lobster given sufficient opportunity. More on this to come, I’m sure.

The afternoon saw our second foray into the weird and wonderful world of clearing, this time in the guise of a roasted tomato and red pepper consomme. It’s not particularly evident from the picture below, but my consomme was lovely and clear, and my garnish (which we were asked to serve on the side so as not to mar the soup, this wasn’t just some odd presentation whim of mine) was praised too.


Unfortunately, it all went a bit downhill with my tart tartin and vanilla ice cream. My hand made puff pastry was fine (thank God, as it took hours), but my apples weren’t caramelised enough and I still can’t quite work out why. Full disclosure: the picture below is of my table partner Jack’s perfect tart, as I forgot to take a photo of mine before it was ripped into for service and then rapidly eaten by me. I mean, it wasn’t technically good, but I’m still not turning my nose up at an apple tart.


On Thursday we had what was basically, for me, the dem of dreams: plated desserts. As anyone who has glanced at this blog or met me in person for more than three minutes will know, I have a worrying sweet tooth and would probably live on chocolate brownies if I could get away with it medically. Annie and Jane delighted us with a range of gorgeous and complex dessert plates, including Peanuts, Popcorn, and Caramel, Fennel, Lemon, and Olive Oil, and my obvious clear favourite, Textures of Chocolate. They also treated us to chunks of one of my favourite things: caramelised white chocolate. It’s tricky to make without a sous vide machine, but I will be trying to recreate it in an oven soon and using it in a recipe, or perhaps just gorging on it until I cannot move.

In the afternoon we served two dishes and I had a minor breakthrough: I was actually happy with my plating and presentation for both. Below is my sous vide egg, cooked in a water bath at 63 for 1 hour and served with asparagus, Parmesan, and truffle oil. The picture at the very top of the post is of my pan-fried scallops with picked mooli, breakfast radishes, and an Asian style chilli, peanut and coriander dressing. My egg dish received praise, and my scallops were pretty good, save one big sucker who was a bit undercooked. I still totally ate it, of course.


Ben Tish, then man behind the Salt Yard group of restaurants, came to visit us on Friday morning, and cooked us some absolutely delicious food, including baby squid stuffed with chorizo and some amazingly tender grilled octopus. I wish there was a place in Oxford where I could buy this stuff, but sadly octopus is a bit hard to come by here. Ben was a great guest and I think at least half the group left with immediate plans to book a table in one of his restaurants.


In the afternoon we served two dishes, although one of them had so many components that it felt like serving about six dishes. The first was a salsify and purple sprouting broccoli salad with a herb and caper buerre noisette. Having never cooked salsify before I had pretty much no idea what I was doing – it’s sort of like a cross between a parsnip and a Jerusalem artichoke, for anyone wondering – but it all seemed to turn out alright in the end. We also made sous vide lamb with (deep breath): wilted spinach; lamb and thyme jus; smoky baba ghanoush; mint and lemon yoghurt, and a courgette and harissa cous cous. I did absolutely nothing pretty with the plating and just shoved everything into ramekins, because really – lamb jus with baba ghanoush and yoghurt? Seriously?


So that’s me done for now. Over and out on Week 3.