Leiths: Intermediate Term, Week 5

Halfway, somehow. Week 5 of the Intermediate Term marks the halfway point of the course. We’ve done this much, and now we’ll do it all again.

I really feel like I should know what I’m doing by now.

Week 5 was brought in by the charming Storm Imogen, which caused chaos across the rail network and made me seriously grumpy about trudging towards my car through a vicious downpour in the pitch black on Monday morning. It didn’t seem like a particularly auspicious start to a day of all day cooking, but I was cheered by the thought of Chelsea buns and steak, as any reasonable person would be.

We’re required to cook our steaks medium-rare at school, and I am terrible at it. This is because I like my steaks blue, and it goes against every instinct I have to take them further, thus I always end up pulling them out of the pan too early by mistake. My first triumph of Monday, then, was accurately cooking my steak to medium-rare for the first time. Then I made my béarnaise too thin. Can’t win them all.


The day fell apart a bit after the steak, I must admit. My problems started when another student accidentally took my pastry from the fridge and used it, meaning I had to make another batch, leaving me way behind and playing catch-up for the rest of the session. Then we had a fire drill just as everyone was putting their pastry cases in the oven. Like anywhere else, when the fire alarm goes at Leiths you have to stop what you’re doing and leave the building, even if you’ve just put your delicate pastry cases on to bake. The whole school arrayed on the street – half of us in full whites – was quite a sight for the passers-by. My arms are crossed and my smile is forced because it was absolutely freezing outside.


I did feel like I was rather limping to the finish line, but I managed to serve my tarts and Chelsea buns in the end. My pastry was over-baked and my Chelsea buns were over-glazed (according to Leiths – I love them ‘over-glazed’ and would ideally add even more glaze than shown in the photo below), but I got everything up for service, which felt like a small victory in and of itself. I am in no way artistic, and arranging delicate fruit prettily on patisserie is not my main strength, as you can see. Some of my fellow students produced absolutely beautiful tarts though, and it was lovely to have a nosey around the kitchen and see what everyone else had come up with.


I was a bundle of tiredness by the time I headed home on Monday – being on your feet and cooking from 9am-5pm will do that to you – but unfortunately Storm Imogen was still out to play, and my train home to Oxford got cancelled due to debris on the line. I ended up having to take a couple of different trains on different lines to wend my way through deepest, darkest, windy-est Oxfordshire on the little local stopping services, and became very grateful for the Chelsea buns in my backpack.

I am pretty used to commuting at this stage and am largely blind to the foibles of my fellow travellers, but on Tuesday morning the man sitting opposite me on the train took out a toothbrush and toothpaste and started brushing his teeth. Just sitting in his seat. Using a coffee cup as a makeshift sink. My look of absolute incredulity went unnoticed and he proceeded to take off his shoes and put on huge, fluffy socks.


Nothing else as odd as that happened during the rest of the day. We started off with another wine lecture, this time on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and then moved on to ‘the liver day’, which seemed a shame because to everyone else it was Pancake Day and I think it could have been an excellent excuse to get some crêpe practice done. Instead we made chicken liver pâté and liver with bacon, onions, and cabbage. As mentioned in previous posts, I am all about the offal, so I was fine with this in principle. Unfortunately. I completely messed it up. The chicken liver pâté was for later in the week, but in the dish pictured above apparently my liver, bacon, and cabbage were all undercooked. At least I was wrong in consistent way.

We got a break from the kitchens on Wednesday when Peter and Graham came back for our second Meat Appreciation session. Once again, it was all about the offal. Well, at least mostly about the offal – it seems to be one of the themes from this term. A pig’s head made a brief appearance, and another very large chunk of cow was dismantled. I love watching all this and find it fascinating, so it was a happy day. I also purchased some feather blade steak and some duck legs, and journeyed home with a backpack full of meat, something which seems to be happening with increasing regularity.


We knew Thursday morning’s dem would be good when we walked into the dem room and were embraced by the warm smell of lots and lots of pastry. Hannah and Jane were treating us to flaky and hot water crust pastry in many guises. I must admit, I’m a bit nervous about making flaky and puff pastry for myself when the time comes, but they made it look simple and everything we tasted – including palmiers, a red onion and goats’ cheese tart, a steak and Guinness pie, pork pies, and duck pies, and probably some more stuff that’s been lost in the buttery haze of memories – was incredible. The making of flaky pastry requires you to be patient and precise, neither of which skills comes naturally to me, but the results are undeniably impressive, and I must admit that I kind of want to become the sort of terrible person who can say they make their own puff pastry in a vaguely smug way.


The afternoon cooking session was a bit of an odd one because, aside from making a quick soda bread, we were all doing different things to practice various skills and techniques we needed to work on. It was a lovely, relaxed few hours in the kitchen, free from the pressure of service times and harsh marking. I was turning vegetables – can you tell I’ve been having some issues with that? – and cooking some guinea fowl with a pan sauce. My sauce was too thin, but finally, finally, I did something right with meat cooking and my guinea fowl was pronounced perfect.


I spent Friday morning’s train ride becoming progressively more annoyed as two American tourists sitting in front of me in the quiet carriage talked loudly and took selfies for the entire hour-long journey. I wish I had the nerve to confront people who are behaving unreasonably on public transport but I never quite muster up the courage. Seriously though: it’s an eight-carriage train with ONE quiet carriage covered in bright pink signs denoting its status, and there must be some special kind of retribution for people that pick that carriage to have loud conversations about sports.

Sorry, I’m done.

Friday morning’s dem was on gateaux. Cake on a Friday morning: excellent timetabling decision. We’ll be making our own gateaux in class – more on that next week, I imagine – so it seemed a good idea to pay attention while Ansobe showed us how to make the perfect Genoise sponge, how to divide it into layers with cotton, how to make meringue-based buttercream, and other such crucial life skills. Obviously the best bit was at the end when we got to eat everything.

The afternoon was less gentle and less Friday-ish. We had to do a short order prawn dish – the less said the better, really, as it appears I am awful at short order – and a duck with cherry almond sauce dish with accompaniments of our choice. I went for potato and celeriac dauphinoise and kale, and as you can see, my presentation seriously let me down again. I did eat it all, though, and even if it looked a mess it did taste pretty great. Mind you, I was so hungry that I definitely wasn’t being picky. This session was also where I got my most ridiculous injury yet. In the rush to service, a fellow student and I half-collided, and her chef’s knife fell off her chopping board and onto my leg. The tip of the knife cut me through my trousers and my very thick kitchen socks: I barely acknowledged it at the time, bar a brief yelp of pain and surprise, but after the rush of service I discovered blood running down my leg. I was quite lucky it was not worse and also quite lucky that I am always freezing cold so wear huge hiking socks all the time.


And here we are, waving a goodbye to Week 5 which is, if not quite fond, tinged with weary affection. In lieu of half term we are being treated to a glorious four day weekend, so I’m off to, er, do some more school work. Culinary school: loads of fun; definitely not glamorous.


Leiths: Intermediate Term, Week 4

To kick off Week 4, we were visited by two very charming men who dismantled a large amount of cow for our learning pleasure. Also a pig. And a lamb.

It was awesome.


Peter Holmes and Graham Portwine are two retired butchers who have a wealth of fascinating knowledge regarding all things meat, which they were kind enough to share with us. It was a lovely way to spend a Monday: being gently eased into a new week spending hours drooling over unusual and premium cuts of meat and watching expert butchers turning an intimidating carcass into a hundred viable dinner options with consummate skill. I still cannot be completely relied upon to accurately butcher a chicken, so I gazed on with envious admiration as they delineated joints I had never even heard of. There was a hacksaw and about six different types of knife involved. They sold off all the meat at cost price at the end of the day and I went home with a rucksack full of bavette steak, shin beef, and Barnsley chops.

It was a good job we had a relaxing Monday, because we needed it to gear up to Tuesday and Wednesday. On Tuesday, it was our group’s turn to do the Cooking for 50 challenge. For context, I am going to pause briefly and explain how the teaching structure at Leiths works, because I don’t think I ever have before – do skip the next paragraph if you’re not interested or you already know.

There are roughly 100 students in a Diploma year group at Leiths, and we are divided in half into the White group and the Blue group. One week the White group will cook in the mornings and have dems in the afternoons while the Blue group does the opposite, and then the next week the schedule switches so that the White group are having dems in the mornings and cooking in the afternoons, and so on. Within each half of the year there are three classes of sixteen students, organised roughly by age, named A, B, and C. So I happen to be in White and in the middle group in terms of age, thus I am in class White B. Each class has a class teacher who looks after the class as a whole in terms of all the administrative issues, marking collation and progress reports and the like, and who also leads their own class for cooking sessions the majority of the time. So this year, both B classes belong to Heli, who is my class teacher. We usually have Heli for two or three cooking sessions a week, and the others are led by other teachers at Leiths who aren’t responsible for a specific class but take classes (seemingly at random) when they’re not being handled by the designated class teacher.

Back with me? Lovely.

So, the Cooking for 50 challenge involves groups of four people cooking for 50 people, i.e. the other half of the year group. I cooked with three fellow students from White B for the whole of the Blue group: we had the morning to make them lunch. It was so hectic that I did not take a single picture, so instead have a screenshot of our Mexican-themed menu.


I did not sit down or eat or drink anything from 9am to 2pm while we cooked and, later, cleaned up. It was manic and exhausting. I think (I hope) that the food went down reasonably well, and I am so pleased to have the challenge behind us. The upside of the whole thing is that we, the White group, are fed by teams of students from the Blue group throughout the term, so we have been the lucky recipients of many different and delicious lunches.


Due to the vagaries of timetabling, Wednesday (when I could really have used a nice sit-down) was an all day cooking session. With no dem in which to relax, absorb information, and be fed, we were in the kitchens all day and made (deep breath): steamed steak and kidney suet puddings; slow-roast pork belly with choy sum, mange toute, and a peanut chilli dressing; wholemeal beer bread, and Arnold Bennett omelettes glazed with hollandaise sauce. We were also supposed to be making stock, but it was decided that there simply was not enough hob space.

To be honest, I was worried about all day cooking right off the back of Cooking for 50, but I needn’t have been. The kitchen gods seemed to be smiling upon me, and somehow the session felt almost relaxed. Admittedly, this might have been because anything would have felt relaxed after Tuesday’s madness, but you take what you can get. I would also like to point out that the pudding pictured above wasn’t actually served like that: I just forgot to get a photo before the teacher cut into it for marking.


By the time Wednesday drew to a close I felt like so much had happened that it may as well have been Friday. The universe doesn’t really work like that though, so back into the kitchens we went. Everyone seemed pretty tired and there’s a nasty bug going around that meant there were a few people absent, so it was a rather languid morning really. We made our first attempts at an Espagnole sauce (think really, really fancy and time-consuming gravy), pastry cases from pâte sucrée, and vanilla soufflés. What’s that you say? We seem to be making an awful lot of soufflés lately? Why yes, I concur. This was our third or fourth attempt in recent weeks, and I am happy to say that mine was deemed to be a good effort this time around. I’m not going to pretend that’s due to any particular skill on my part though: the complete randomness of soufflé achievement does seem to have little to do with technique in my case. It must be almost entirely determined by karma or fate or star-signs or something.


In the afternoon we had our first normal dem for ages, after a few days of unusual timetabling, and it was a good’un. Led by Heli, we explored fresh pasta and shellfish (yes, it does seem like quite a random combination, but I love both of these things so I’m not complaining) and were shown examples of the perfect pasta dough, alongside examples of what happens when the dough becomes too wet, too greasy, too dry and so on. We were also shown how to properly prepare squid, followed by the serving of some deep fried salt and pepper squid that was so delicious people were essentially elbowing others out of the way to get samples. We finished with matelote, a classic fish stew made typically with eel and red wine, that lots of people were unsure about but which actually turned out to be delicious. Well, I thought so anyway.


Above, you have a rare action shot from Friday’s session. We’re not really supposed to take pictures during cooking time, but I had just managed to flip my potato rosti over – after much worrying – and I was so proud of it sitting there all golden and delicious in its butter-bath that I couldn’t resist taking a quick snap. The rosti was served with a veal steak, green beans, the dreaded turned carrots, and a Madeira sauce, and made a very satisfactory lunch. We also used our pastry cases from the day before to make chocolate tarts topped with honeycomb. My pastry lacked some finesse (I am going to have to put ‘lacking in finesse’ on my CV for the sake of honesty), but the tart itself was so tasty that I didn’t particularly mind.


Finally, we ended the week with a wine session. Friday afternoon is the perfect time to do a wine tasting, and this time we were particularly lucky as we were visited by Nancy Gilchrist, who took us through an introduction to the art of food and wine pairing. We sampled six different wines with varying combinations of the food on the very odd little tasting plate you can see below. There’s brie, blue cheese, dill, a strawberry, apple, grissini, basil. dark chocolate, salt, curry sauce, and black pepper. We like to have all the bases covered.


Despite the hectic start to this week, the last few days were lovely, and I really feel like I have settled into term now and am completely used to the rhythm of school. Now I’d best go and practice my vegetable-turning skills like I promised I would so that I don’t end up destroying any more carrots next week.