Wine Cake

Are you a lark, an owl, or a hummingbird? I am a lark, and have been for as long as I can remember. I find it really genuinely hard to sleep in of a morning: I wake up early and once I’m awake, that’s it, I am not getting back to sleep. Even if James and I have been out until 2am, I can’t stay in bed past 8am. As soon as I am up my mind is going full pelt and I am usually chatty and busy and keen to organise the day in excruciating detail (this is incredibly annoying for my husband, because he is an owl and cannot hold a real conversation until he is dressed, breakfasted, and topped up with coffee). I do my best work first thing in the morning: I will sit down at my laptop and start blasting through emails and tick seven tasks off my list before 9am.

If you are thinking that I am incredibly smug and irritating and getting ready to slap me, then let me tell you the flipside of this: I am utterly, completely, totally useless in the evenings. I can’t do any meaningful mental work past about 9pm, and really ideally I’d stop all work before dinner. I find it nearly impossible to stay up late – if I had my way I’d sleep from about 10pm to 6am, but sadly my life doesn’t allow for this as I teach in the evenings and we do a lot of late-night socialising. I have fallen asleep on friends’ sofas and in pubs and on the backseats of cars because I have been forced to stay out late and my body is just not having it. I am always to first to bail out of any rowdy late night social occasion. Basically, I am deeply uncool.


And I am in the minority! I understand this. Most people glare at me when I start cheerily rambling on at them at 7am. Everyone sighs at my pathetic nature when I leave the pub and head for bed at 9.30pm. Normal people have decadent weekend lie-ins and wish for a later start to the workday, while I merrily got up at 5.30am for a year and trundled onto the 6.55am train to get to London, loving the empty streets and sunrises.


Anyway, here is my effort to join in with the crowd that is out late drinking, whilst still being at home before dark and spending all my time baking instead of socialising. Wine cake. I should really call this cake something more sophisticated but, guys, let’s be real: it’s got Moscatel and grapes in it. It’s wine cake. Wine. Cake. What is not to love?

Source: Adapted from BBC Good Food.

Notes: Dessert wines often have hints of honey, apricot, and other citrus fruits. That’s why I think the demerara sugar and the lemon and orange are lovely in this cake, it all works together. It’s not overly wine-y – it just has a pleasant backnote of wine. The oil makes it lovely and moist, and it keeps well.

I talk about using a mixer (which could be a hand whisk, a food processor, or a kitchen aid type thing), but it would be fine to do it by hand. I am just lazy.



250ml dessert wine (dessert wine can be super-expensive, but I use Sainsbury’s Moscatel de Valencia, which is only £5.35)
175ml extra-virgin olive oil
200g light muscovado or light brown soft sugar
100g softened butter
zest 2 oranges
zest 2 lemons
3 eggs
225g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
150g seedless grapes, any colour, halved
5 tbsp demerara sugar


  1. Bring the wine to boil in a small pan over a medium heat, then simmer for around ten minutes to reduce to 100ml. Pour into a jug, then add the olive oil and leave to cool. Meanwhile, butter a 23cm cake tin, then shake 1 tbsp of plain flour around it and tap out the excess. Heat your oven to 180C/ 160C fan/ gas 4.
  2. Beat sugar and butter together with the zests until creamy and smooth then, with the mixer running, add the eggs one by one. Weigh your flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl. With the mixer running, pour around a third of your wine and oil mix into the batter, then a third of your flour mix, then a third of your oil mix, and so on, alternating the liquid and dry mixes until everything is in and it’s all well-combined. You will be left with a smooth, fragrant, fairly liquid batter.
  3. Pour the batter into your tin, then scatter it with the halved grapes and the demerara sugar. Bake for around 50 minutes, or until it’s firm and risen and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Start checking at around 40 minutes. Leave to cool for fifteen minutes in the tin before removing, and eat warm (lovely with cream or ice cream for a dessert) or cool.

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.


Leiths: Advanced Term, Week 2

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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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


Leiths: 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 9

Have I forgotten what March is like or is it really chilly for March? It’s below freezing when I leave the house in the mornings, and I’m still having to pour hot water over my car before I can drive to the station. It feels colder than winter did, and yet it’s supposedly spring.

I felt like I’d entered a slightly altered parallel universe this week when I stepped onto my very familiar morning train and found it not so familiar – instead of the blue and pink colour scheme to which I had become accustomed, everything was green and grey. I know this doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when the trains are re-carpeted, re-painted, and re-upholstered seemingly overnight it’s oddly disorientating.

After I’d gotten over whining about the cold and the trains, our week began with a visit from Michael North, the Michelin-starred chef patron of The Nut Tree. I was hugely excited about this because The Nut Tree is one of my favourite restaurants in Oxfordshire and it was so lovely to have someone from my area to come and visit rather than another London-based chef. Don’t get me wrong, all of our guest lecturers from London have been great, but it’s wonderful to have a reminder that there is a culinary scene out in ‘the sticks’ too. Michael broke down a haunch of venison for us and made a couple of stunning dishes with it which were deceptively simple but big on flavour and precise technique. An inspiring masterclass.

The afternoon brought us a fairly relaxed cooking session, as we were basically prepping things for dishes in the week ahead and therefore didn’t have any specific service times. This always means we tend to chat and dawdle more and inevitably end up leaving the kitchen late, but it’s still good sometimes to slightly slow the frenetic energy of the kitchen and just focus on making something well. We made flaky pastry from scratch as well as fillings for the savoury tarts that the pastries were destined for, and began the process of making pear sorbet. I always forget how delicious pears can be – I think of them as a bit bland – but the sorbet mix was so good that I started eating spoonfuls of the stuff and had to have it dragged away from me so I’d have enough left to freeze. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) it’s a surprisingly easy sorbet to make and can be done at home without an ice cream maker.


On Tuesday we started off with a wine lecture by Laura Clay on varieties of white grapes we hadn’t yet covered, and then moved on to a cooking session that went, for me, fairly disastrously. My flaky pastry, which I had spent Monday afternoon lovingly making, completely failed to rise when baked. Making flaky pastry is a convoluted six stage process, and it’s disheartening to put all that work into something only to see it fail, especially when you have no idea what went wrong: it seemed totally fine all the way through until it came out of the oven. I got an awful mark for my pastry, but my tart filling of roasted butternut squash, feta, and a walnut and gruyere pesto was pronounced delicious. This was also the day another student – who is completely lovely – very accidentally whacked me fairly hard in the face with a big commercial roll of cling film. I’m not even sure how it happened, but I had to spend twenty minutes holding ice over my eye to try to stop it from bruising.


Unfortunately, Wednesday wasn’t much better. We were making hot cross buns and, for some reason, my dough rose much more slowly than everyone else’s, meaning I put them in the oven very late and it ran into my service time for our pear desserts. When I finally got them served my haste showed through, as my crosses were uneven and wonky. I had such grand plans for my pear plate – a scoop of pear sorbet, a tuille biscuit and crumb, flaked almonds, pear crisps, and a salted caramel sauce – but I was such a ball of stress that I ended up randomly blobbing my caramel onto the plate, under-drying my pear crisps so that they weren’t crisp enough, and making my tuilles too thin. All in all, very disappointing.


Wednesday also brought us a visit from Louise Talbot, a professional cheese maker, who gave us a demonstration on how to make all sorts of different cheeses, and butter, from scratch at home. We got to sample some incredible home-made halloumi and mozzarella, and the halloumi in particular was so much better than any version I’ve ever eaten from a supermarket; light, soft, and perfectly balanced.

Hand-stretching mozzarella.

Thursday started with a wine revision class, in which we attempted to identify different wines in a blind tasting. Normally we are given a tasting sheet which includes the details of each wine we’re given, along with the bottles themselves. This time the tasting sheet was disconcertingly blank, and the bottles were shrouded in mysterious black velvet cloaks. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that I am very bad at identfying types of wine from a blind tasting. Nonetheless, the session with Richard was fun, and it was definitely useful to go over all we’ve covered this term, as there is a huge amount of material and I keep getting my Muscat and Muscadet and Pouilly-Fumé and Pouilly-Fuissé mixed up.

We were a bit nervous about our afternoon cooking session when we saw that the morning group, who are usually pretty speedy, were leaving half an hour later than usual, which is never a good omen. We were making espagnole sauce, salt and pepper squid, and filleting and dressing the huge trout that we had poached the day before. Luckily, everything went much more smoothly than expected. My salt and pepper squid was just about acceptable, apart from my terrible knife skills, which need work.


Leiths is not averse to the occasional foray back into the seventies, and so it came about that we found ourselves poaching, filleting, and dressing an entire trout. It’s actually much trickier than it looks. Filleting such a big fish once it’s cooked is a challenge, as the flesh is very delicate, and getting all the bones out and reforming the fish requires some careful manoeuvring. Luckily, my partner Laura and I had some success with this retro classic, and our fish was pronounced perfectly cooked and beautifully dressed with its Tudor style watercress collar. The whole process was oddly satisfying, and, lucky for me, Laura doesn’t isn’t keen on trout and so I got to take all of that lovely fish home with me. Fish cakes, curries, pies… the possibilities are limitless. James is going to have to put up with eating a lot of trout.


On Friday morning we had a visit from Sue and Sarah who gave us a very informative and entertaining talk on setting up a catering business. I must say, I’m not sure I could handle the pressure and the sheer volume of logistics becoming a self-employed caterer seems to require, but Sue and Sarah were very knowledgeable and made us all laugh with tales of mayhem and mishaps that I perhaps shouldn’t share on this blog.

Please excuse the blurry photo – my hands were shaking with adrenaline/fear.

I was completely dreading Friday afternoon because it held our mock practical exam in store, bringing with it the harsh reminder that the real thing is less than two weeks away. Historically I have performed terribly in mock practicals, so I entered the kitchen full of anxiety and dread. We were tasked to make a cheddar and spinach souffle, and a venison steak with spring greens, a peppercorn sauce, and a potato accompaniment of our choice. In the end, I hit all the service times, but my soufflé was overcooked, my fondant potatoes were undercooked, and the outside of my venison was apparently scorched. Sigh. Not much more to be said there. No good being fast if you food isn’t up to standard.

And so concludes, incredibly, Week 9. Next week we have our theory exam, and the week after that our practical exams, and then we’ve lumbered through the Intermediate Term and have Advanced bearing down upon us.


Leiths: Intermediate Term, Week 7

I’m going to make a sweeping, reductive statement and say that I’m not really a fan of red wine. If my mother is reading this, I’m pretty sure she’ll be shaking her head and tutting that I can’t possibly be her daughter, but I can’t help it: it’s never been ‘my drink’. White wine is beauty, gin and tonic is even better, but red? I’ll pass, thanks.

Monday, then, was a bit tricky for me, as it began with a wine lecture and tasting based entirely around Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Even the hardcore red wine fans struggled with it a bit first thing on a Monday morning. Our most regular WSET instructor, Richard, is funny and charming, and while it was very interesting learning about the different flavours one can theoretically find in Merlot, I was hard pushed to detect anything other than ‘red wine’ from my glass. Still much to learn there.


Monday afternoon, however, was an unexpected delight. We made gluten free citrus polenta cakes and a Moroccan spiced spinach and chickpea strudel (pictured above – believe me, tastier than it looks). Both of my dishes received actual praise from Ansobe and I was glowing all afternoon. Anyone who reads this blog will likely have noticed that I make a fair bit of cake, so that wasn’t too much of a challenge, but it was my first time with filo. Of course, we had to do it all by hand. Even Queen Mary Berry says on Bake Off that filo is the one pastry she would buy rather than make, so that should give you an indication of how high the Leiths standards are. Filo pastry, from scratch, by hand. People: we are not messing around here. It was actually quite enjoyable in the end, and though I don’t think I’ll be doing it at home any time soon, the end result was an achievement.


Tuesday’s cooking session was slightly less serene. We had to skin whole slip soles, so that we could serve them grilled with burnt hollandaise, which is a retro throwback of a dish that I doubt will be gracing my dinner table. Pulling skin off a whole sole is oddly satisfying: if you do it right, you should be able to rip the whole thing off in one go, leaving the flesh below intact. I am slowly gaining confidence with hollandaise. I usually have to stop myself eating it from the bowl with a spoon and remind myself that it’s supposed to be used to glaze fish/ top an omelette/ smother poached eggs and so on, as opposed to simply being a tasty snack. My fish was a teeny little bit undercooked, but my sauce was well made and seasoned and I am finally getting the hang of turned courgettes, so Tuesday was fairly good to me.


Wednesday was an all day session on food safety and hygiene, finished by an exam, which enabled us to achieve our CIEH Level 2 Award in Food Safety. It’s a compulsory part of the Leiths Diploma and it was exactly as fun as it sounds. As there are no photos of the actual event, please enjoy this picture of the sunrise from the train.

Thursday’s morning of cooking was all about preparation for our all day kitchen session on Friday, so we made and shaped hot water crust pastry ready for our veal and gammon pies (no standard pork pies here), prepared our pie fillings, and cooked a spicy tamarind chutney. Hot water crust pastry breaks all the normal pastry rules. It’s hot, and we’re used to taking elaborate measures to keep pastry as cold as possible. You have to work it, and we’re using to touching pastry as little as we can. It’s very forgiving and can be shaped like plasticine, and we’re used to pastry tearing at the slightest provocation. Basically, it’s awesome.

In the afternoon we were visited by another Leiths alum: Henry Harris, formerly of Racine. While telling us interesting stories about his career in restaurants, he prepared us brains in black butter, duck hearts on toast, scallops with crab and celeriac remoulade, and steak au poivre. I think even some previously self-professed offal haters were won over by the brain dish, which was lovely, and it’s always a treat to take a bite from a lump of fillet steak that probably would have cost me half my weekly food budget in a restaurant.


Finally Friday: all day cooking. These sessions used to inspire fear simply because they’re so full on, but now that we do them reasonably often our stamina has improved and they don’t feel so much tougher than a normal half day. That said, I did wish there had been somewhere convenient to have a little nap at lunch. We finished the above dish first – spicy pea and potato cakes with poached eggs and tamarind chutney, which was a very satisfying meal. Then it was on to the parade of pies. Okay, so we only did two pies each, but in a class of sixteen that totals 32 pies, which is not to be sniffed at. The pie below is a chicken and red pepper special, which may not look too remarkable at first, but is crowned by my first (and happily successful) attempt at making flaky pastry from scratch. I am quite proud of the way all the layers have puffed up, even though it was pronounced underbaked. This was entirely my fault, because I was so impatient to get it out of the oven and see the pastry that I didn’t want to give it another five minutes.


Finally, the hand raised veal and gammon pie. This was a labour of love, constructed over three days, and I have to say it was worth the effort. It was absolutely delicious, even though it was so heavy that it could have easily qualified as a weapon. I literally had to take an entirely separate bag home to accommodate all the pie, and ended up borrowing spare tupperware from my kind classmate Shalini when my own supply was exhausted. The businessman sitting next to me on the train home to Oxford looked at me oddly as I lovingly cradled my bag of pie on my lap all the way home.

So we say goodbye to Week 7 and move on to Week 8, and the end of term looms terrifyingly close. Onwards.


Leiths: Intermediate Term, Week 3

Isn’t it amazing how a four day week feels like a special and magical treat when you are used to a five day working week routine? Only one day off, and suddenly everything seems much more lovely. Thursday is the new Friday. Wednesday is the new Thursday. By the end of Tuesday, you’re already halfway through. It’s excellent.

Can you tell I had a four day week this week?

Once again, we started our Monday morning with a wine lecture. It’s a bit of an odd curriculum choice, because I never particularly feel like wine quite so early, especially not on a Monday. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I still drank it. I’m only registering that it feels strange. We also got served food to taste with the wine to see how they affected each other, which I was very happy about because the food included goats’ cheese and duck. Might be too early for wine; never too early for goats’ cheese. That’s my new motto.


Monday afternoon featured a disarmingly relaxing cooking session. We started off by making a lovage cream. Don’t know what that is? Me neither, really: before I started this course I hadn’t a clue what lovage was, let alone how one might make a cream out of it. I’ll show you a picture in a minute and then you will be enlightened. We also made cheese soufflés, which I don’t have a picture of because mine were rubbish. A savoury soufflé is a dish that requires both a soft, slightly undercooked centre and a risen, proud and golden dome. Suffice to say it’s quite tricky to achieve both these things and mine ended up looking a bit anaemic. Still ate them, obviously.

Tuesday morning started with an offal dem, which I was happy about because I love offal, and which I estimate around 85% of students were not happy about because they decidedly did not love offal.


In the picture above you can see Phil lovingly caressing the ‘pluck’ from a pig. This is the entirety of a pig’s innards which have been plucked from the animal and left intact. This was the morning during which we ate liver, kidneys, sweetbreads, heart, and bone marrow. All frightfully good for you and absolutely delicious.

In afternoon we served our lovage cream, which had set from the day before, and I actually got complimented on my presentation for the first time in approximately, ooh… forever.


We then made a honey bavarois to serve the following day – on which more later – and our first attempt at pâte sucrée, a French sweet pastry. We made it the classic way (of course), which involves no whizzing up of ingredients in a machine but rather smushing (the technical term is ‘pecking’, but it felt like smushing to me) butter, sugar, and egg yolks together with our fingers directly on to the table top. This very much appealed to the five year old in me who misses finger painting, and all in all it was much more fun that shortcrust.

Wednesday’s dem had a far wider appeal than Tuesday’s offal offering, because it was on steaming. Think treacle sponge, steak and kidney pudding, and stacks of steamed vegetables. I have never steamed a pudding in my life (well, had never, I should say, because we did one the next day), and while it did all seem like a bit of a hassle, I have to say the end results were absolutely delicious and have almost inspired me to purchase a pudding basin. I might cheat and buy one with its own lid though, so as to avoid faffing around making a water-tight foil and greaseproof seal and a handle out of string.

The afternoon saw the return of offal, with the preparation of the kidney dish you see below. Kidneys are actually surprisingly tricky little things to prep: you need to remove their outer membrane and internal vein system, both of which are pretty fiddly and hard to do without damaging the delicate meat. I was praised on the taste of my sauce but criticised for my sloppy presentation, which is pretty much the norm for me.


We also served our honey bavarois, made the day before (told you I’d come back to it), with roasted rhubarb and pâte sucrée biscuits. A bavarois, for the uninitiated, is a custard lightened with cream and set with gelatine, and I was very happy with mine because it was completely delicious. I made lemon and ginger biscuits to go with it, along with the rhubarb you see there. I love the sharpness of rhubarb and can eat it raw – yes I know you’re not supposed to do that – so I left it with a bit of bite and sourness to contrast with the sweetness of the bavarois and biscuits. This turned out to be a bad idea which slightly horrified the tastebuds of the teacher marking that day.


We ended the week on Thursday with another dem from Phil, this time on sauces. It’s not as theatrical a subject as offal but Phil managed to keep it interesting and everything we got to taste was amazing. Sauces are one of those things that aren’t too flashy or necessarily particularly theoretically exciting, but worth getting right because a really good one can boost an average dish into another category.

In the afternoon we got to exercise our newly acquired steaming skills to make a treacle sponge. The collective amount of effort it took in the kitchen to get the entire classes’ sponges neatly wrapped up and kept snug in a pot of cheerfully bubbling water that never boiled dry was pretty astounding, and I went back to thinking it was all too much of a pain to manage until I tasted mine and it was airy and sweet and warmingly lovely and I started thinking about buying a pudding basin again. We also made a wood pigeon salad, which you may have noticed at the top of the page. It was my choice cover photo this week because once again I was actually praised on my presentation. Either my class teacher was feeling very forgiving or perhaps I am finally learning something.


My fabled three day weekend has now almost drawn to a close, along with Week 3. I am firmly back in the swing of term now: gone are the holiday days of binge-watching Orange Is The New Black and baking experimental brownies. Come at me, Week 4.


Leiths: Foundation Term, Week 3

It’s been a funny old week. When we started at Leiths, we were told that by the end of the third week we’d be so exhausted that we’d basically be dragging ourselves around on our knees, begging for mercy and occasionally weakly lifting ourselves up to the stoves to attempt to make a white sauce before falling asleep. This is probably why Leiths went fairly easy on us this week – because they fear our collective complete collapse. We don’t get anything as lavish as a half term, but we do have a three day weekend, which is why I am writing this at 10am on a Friday morning in my PJs, having just eaten cheese on toast for breakfast and experiencing that odd feeling of unsettling freedom. You know, when you’re consciously aware that you’re allowed to be at home and barely moving, but you’re so used to rushing around all the time that your subconscious is quietly panicking and going ‘Come on, get your act together, woman! Up and at ’em! Go and do something! Anything!’. So I occasionally leap up and walk purposefully into the kitchen, turn around in a circle, realise there’s nothing I have to be doing in there, wash up a mug or something as a token effort, and then go and sit back down again.

Oddly enough, though, I’ve not been as tired as I’d expected to be. With the epic commute, the long days, cooking for hours on end, and trying to absorb huge amounts of new information, I thought I’d be sobbing quietly in a corner by now. But I’ve been surprised at what my body and my mind can handle. It might be because I am so used to being stupidly busy and working very hard, or it might be because it’s only been three weeks and I’m going to have my real crash in week five or something. Instead, what I’ve found tough is going back into an educational environment. Being observed, criticised, and tested, puts me on edge and basically makes me a rubbish cook. I mean, that’s my excuse, anyway. Perhaps I am simply just a rubbish cook.

You would think that sixteen nervous people flambéing Crepes Suzette in one kitchen would be a recipe for disaster and hair-aflame, but no, it was simply how we ended Monday. We’d started it with a wine lecture – tasting included, naturally – so having covered both drinking alcohol and setting it on fire, I went into the week feeling prepared for pretty much anything. I mean, frankly, what other life skills does one need? We were also informed that our wine exam would be, um, next week. This seems terrifyingly soon to me, but hey. I’m sure they know what they are doing. I will be able to confirm or deny this by the end of next Tuesday.

The wine lectures have been really interesting and it’s been great to branch out into a new area of the course, but I have to say, I’ve found it quite tricky. The theory has been fine, but I’m not very good at the tasting. I usually choose wine at the supermarket based on a) whether or not I can afford it and b) how nice the bottle looks. Seriously. So my wine-palate is not what you would call refined. Tasting wine is part of the lecture process (first thing on a Monday morning, which takes a bit of mental adjustment), and one of the first things to do is check the ‘nose’ of the wine to see what you can smell. People were offering answers such as ‘black cherry’, ‘leather’, and ‘oak’, but to be brutally honest, all I can ever smell is ‘wine’, and if I said I could smell anything else I would be lying. Still, it does sound quite impressive to throw out ‘herbaceous notes! Hmm… possibly mint?’, so sometimes I join in for fun. I particularly enjoyed the session on matching food with wine, during which we were presented with little taster plates of food to try with different wines to see the effect they had on each other.

Green apple + Sauvignon Blanc = very bad idea. Who knew?

On Tuesday morning, we had a fish dem. Now, I love fish and wouldn’t mind eating it for breakfast (which I essentially did that day), so I was a very happy culinary student, although I think sole meunière at 9.30am may have been a bit much for some people. Michael laid out a great display of various types of fish – I think fish are beautiful – and I considered stealing that turbot which is probably worth more than my laptop, but ultimately decided against it due to the impracticality of hiding stolen fish in a locker room. And my impeccable moral code, obviously. We even got to end the dem with delicious plaice goujons (posh fish fingers), freshly fried and dipped in home-made tartare sauce, before heading off to, er, eat more lunch.

Yes, all I do all day every day is eat. What of it?

This week also saw our first foray into bread-making. We made rosemary focaccia. We actually made it twice, as you can see from the picture, to make sure we had the method forever imprinted into our dough-weary heads. The 17.49 from Paddington that day was suffused with the smell of freshly baked bread, and as no one knew my rucksack was full of focaccia I think it may have caused some confusion. I distinctly heard one girl say to her friend ‘Am I going mad, or does it smell like bread to you?’ Stranger, you are not mad. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you so. You would have thought I was weird.


On Wednesday afternoon we made fish pie, which all went a bit wrong for me. I’ve made fish pie dozens of times, and I’ve noticed so far that somehow it’s the stuff I make all the time which I screw up, and the stuff I’ve never made before that I somehow manage to fluke my way through. We’d been given a specific service time to test our organisational skills, and were told that we’d lose points for being late. I took this all very seriously and worked as quickly as I could, only to find myself on course to finish about 45 minutes before the specified service time. Because I’m an idiot, I hadn’t initially understood that we weren’t allowed to serve early either, so at this point I had to come to a squealing halt and leave my pie sitting on the side for a while to kill some time.

I’ve also been told I am under-seasoning my food so far, so on fish pie day I went absolutely wild with the seasoning. I then tasted it and thought ‘Oh god, this is incredibly salty, I have massively over-seasoned’. The problem is that you can’t really reverse over-seasoning, but I thought ‘Ah well, at least I won’t be under this time!’. Of course, as I am sure you can guess, when my pie was tasted it was pronounced under-seasoned. Essentially, I think I must have a really bad palate, and I can’t tell when something is correctly seasoned, so that’s definitely something I have to work on. I was also really disappointed to have messed up the piping of my mash on to my pie in my haste to get finished – before I realised we couldn’t be early – because I do a lot of piping (as you can probably see from all the cupcake and birthday cake recipes on this blog), so I really should know what I am doing by now. All in all, a disappointing day.


Finally, Thursday began with a beautiful meringue dem from a fellow Hannah. (Side note: usually, there are a dozen other Hannahs wherever I go – in every class or group I’ve ever been in, in every job I’ve had – but I am the only Leiths student in our group this year called Hannah! I can just put my first name on everything without my surname initial! The Lauras and Emilys of my generation will also understand the delight of this). We got to taste an insane amount of meringue nest, pavlova, meringue roulade, and lemon meringue pie. They then cleverly gave us a test while we were completely hopped up on sugar. I think I refrained from simply scrawling ‘MORE MERINGUE please feed me delicious meringue forever’ across my test paper, but cannot be sure.

The day came to an end with my inexpert gutting and cooking of that beautiful mackerel up there. I think this week has been the toughest for me so far, but I have still learned loads and, although it’s slow and halting, I feel like I might have gradually started to make some progress.

Also, I can cycle all the way up the stupid hill on my commute now without feeling like my lungs are going to explode. So that’s good.