29 December 2005
Fortunately, it hasn't all been candy and junk food. The husband took me out to a wonderful Christmas day lunch at Pont de la Tour. Sorry to make you all jealous, but here goes ...
We got a beautiful table by the picture window overlooking the Thames, with views of Canary Wharf, St Katherine's Dock and the Tower of London. Then came a complimentary glass each of Pol Roget champagne, Santa hats for the pair of us, and crackers to pull. The wine list -- as we had been forewarned -- did not have much selection in the budget range, but the wine waiter gave an excellent recommendation at our (slightly higher than usual) suggested price point-- a 2003 white Burgundy, which went splendidly with the food. Mind you, the husband commented later that as a sommelier he should have been able to confirm the ingredients of the sauce of our main course in response to a question. But that was only a minor niggle in an otherwise fabulous afternoon.
I was the more fortunate on starters. My game terrine with toasted Poilane and cornichons had just the right balance between chunky morsels of pheasant and velvety smooth liver paste, whereas the husband's crayfish cocktail was ever so slightly unexciting. For the main course, however, we both lucked out with the Lobster Thermidor. It was sublime. A well-judged portion size served with just the right amount of buttery sauce, garnished with earthy, truffled boiled potatoes, and a dark green, mellow flavoured kale. Puddings were also quite tasty: a chocolate 'buche de noel' (which was a bit too large to finish), a chocolate fondant pudding with mint chocolate ice cream. All rounded off with coffees and mini mince pies (on which the pastry was so fine and buttery that I made the husband stuff the uneaten ones into his jacket pocket to smuggle out!)
As for my own cooking, I've kept my hand in a fair bit during the school break. Made a deliciously light Christmas breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs garnished with chives, which went down very nicely with a glass of champers. I also did a fair bit of gift cooking to give to friends. Most successful were the orange and cranberry muffins, which I improvised from a basic muffin recipe garnered from my work placement (using yoghurt rather than milk). Least successful were the cheese straws made with store-bought puff pastry. They tasted fine coming out of the oven, but went stale far too quickly.
Anyway, I've got a big cooking challenge coming up in the next few days, namely a drinks party for the evening of the 1st Jan. We are having friends round for 3 hours of canapes before heading off to a nightclub in celebration of turning the big 4-0. (Canapes for 30 people? What was I thinking? Am I mad???) Seriously, though, I'm looking forward to it, and feel like I'm up to the task, of getting well organised beforehand. Have even got disposable piping bags-- I feel ready for anything!
Will let you all know how it goes at some point after the 2nd of January. Happy New Year!
09 December 2005
It's all a big change from school, of course. And one that highlights in spades the massive gap between competent home cook and seasoned professional chef.
To start with, irony of all ironies, the station I had for the first 4 days was (you guessed it ......................) pastry. When I realised that's what I was going to be doing for a few days, I have to confess my tummy tied itself into a wee knot with dread. But it was all for the best in the end, as the pastry chef turned out to be a really great, down-to-Earth gal. She's South-East London through and through -- in a good way (on the 'cheeky cockney' end of the spectrum, far removed fom 'chav-ette'), and lives less than 5 minutes drive from our flat. Best of all, she's already given me a tip for a good butcher that's not too far away, who's got great lamb chops.
The other chefs have been pretty good to me, too. Despite the fact that they think I'm Positively Bonkers for leaving investment banking to go into food service. So despite a few terrifying moments -- i.e. , those very brief seconds when I've been alone on my section -- it seems to be going fairly well. At least I haven't completely humiliated myself. Yet.
What floors me is how often they cook from knowledge rather than actual recipes (the sole exception being the pastry station, where everyone has to weigh up accurately). Chef will say, "Knock us up a nice mango salsa", and you have to know what ingredients you've got to hand, and what your quantities/ratios need to be. It has hit home that I'm going to have to start benchmarking both quantities per serving and ratios of recipes (rather than actual amounts) in school if I'm going to be able to create instinctively during a busy service.
Another enlightening truth that has revealed itself is the sheer shortage of everything. Cutting boards, clingfilm, knives, containers and good serving platters. All are sought after and hoarded at various points during prep and service. As far as I can fathom, there is only 1 pastry brush in the whole of the kitchen where I'm working. (And a pastry brush is one of the most useful tools for any station.) On my second day, I overheard Chef asking for a pastry brush, and I told him he could use mine. Since then every day at least once, if not two or three times daily, chefs come to borrow my pastry brush. How amusing! At least one area where I'm welcomed in the kitchen.
Anyway, must dash to get my own dinner on the table. Anyone who wants to know about my trials and tribulations on muffins or meringue baskets can ask me when they speak to me next.
Ciao for now.
02 December 2005
Tuesday was one of those days when I felt like I should never have gotten out of bed. Not only was it exam nerves. The bad luck continued after the exam was over, when I managed to scald my thumb with boiling water from a hot kettle. Ironically, I didn't burn myself in the kitchen during the exam. I managed to do it after the exam, when I was making a cup of tea in the dem room. Go figure!
And of course this happened on a day when there was a burst water main outside the school, so there was no water from about 3 hours into the exam. No way to go to the toilet, let alone douse cold water onto a kettle burn. (Fortunately the school's first aider managed to get an ice pack on my hand, so the burn is already starting to heal.)
On the positive side, it wasn't only me who was having difficulties on the day, and it was a relief (and also quite funny) to hear some of the other students horror stories from their exams. One classmate managed to burn her stew. Another had to remake her pastry because she forgot to put the baking beans into it before baking it blind (it collapsed on itself in the oven). One lady accidently put her oven 100 degrees centigrade hotter than it should have been. And another poor girl forgetting entirely to prepare and serve her carrot batons. And still another girl forgot half her uniform, and had to borrow someone else's trousers who was at least 2 sizes too small for her. The list goes on ...
As for the Theory Exam from last Monday, the powers that be are still marking it, but I'm pretty confident that I did enough to pass that one (touch wood... ). Should get something in the post in the next 1-2 weeks.
Before I sign off, I'll try to add a wee photo of my Christmas cake. It has taken some damage from being brought home on the Tube in a soft-sided container, so try to imagine the finish looking a little sleeker.
25 November 2005
Chefette can happily say that she had just such an experience this past week. Couldn't quite get it together on a few days the previous week, and last Monday didn't start too auspiciously (late into class, overcooked bird, too much beurre manie whisked into gravy). But then came the good news about the work placement on Monday night, followed by a respectable performance on the practice exam.
And then best of all was our Buffet party on Wednesday. Went really swimmingly. Everyone in class cooked well together and enjoyed themselves. The positive vibe in the room was palpable, and our station was 'in the zone'.
Our team leader was the Frenchman, one of the most organised and efficient students in our class. The other girl on our team (let's call her Scooter) is one of those people who can get really creative under pressure. As for me, since I'd done a practice run of the dish the previous Sunday, I knew the recipe pretty well. So even though we had one of the busiest stations -- a Thai noodle salad with chicken that had lots of different elements to assemble -- and the fourth member of the team was stuck at home sick, we coped really well. Everyone loved our dish, and every last morsel either got eaten or taken home as leftovers. Felt really proud, and really enjoyed cooking with Scooter and the Frenchman.
(By the way, a good discovery from Scooter to share with foodies. If you are ever short on a number of limes or lemons for a given quantity of juice, you can stretch the quantity. Simply scrape as much as possible out of the pulp of the squeezed limes, put it into water to soak for an hour with some of the zest, and then sieve it. The resulting liquor is less concentrated than the straight juice, but it is still zingy enough to stretch it out.)
Thursday was a very relaxing session in the kitchen, with a fairly low-key programme of moules marinieres (delicious!) and pavlova (which I'd never tasted before, and loved). Then today, we all finished the week by decorating our Christmas cakes -- while the teachers served us mince pies, chocolates and tea and coffee. Everyone's cakes will be judged next Monday after the Theory Exam in a little competition. I promise to try to remember to take a picture of the cakes, some of them are really creative.
Anyway, I'll post again after the exams are over. Plenty of studying and practice cooking this weekend (a not-so-exciting exam menu of Vichysoisse, Family Beef Stew with carrot batons, and Lemon Meringue Pie).
21 November 2005
Also have found out the date of my final practical exam will be Tuesday 29th November, so I'll have a few days of downtime before the work experience starts. In some ways I'd have liked a later date for the practical (more practice time!!), but I suppose this way I'll have less time to stew about it, and of course some time to get the Christmas cards / shopping underway.
That's all for now. Ciao.
19 November 2005
Then in Week 10, it's all hands to the pumps for The Final Theory Test, which shouldn't be too bad, and The Final Practical Test, the thought of which is mildly terrifying. Cooking under the stern gaze of the instructors who will be watching my every move is going to be disconcerting, so everyone will need to Wish Me Luck!
Anyway, to finish off this post, Chefette has been noticing that her obsession with food is leading to a myriad of amusing little changes in her life, and so she offers for you this week a list of the Top Five Signs You're In Chef School.
5. You cycle home from school with a litre of fish stock, two portions of Lemon Sole Doria, and a loaf of banana bread.
4. You spend your lunch hour in search of fine grade sandpaper to smooth out the edges of base coat of royal icing on your Christmas cake.
3. You haven't read a newspaper in a week, but you know the recipes for choux pastry, creme anglaise and pate brisee off by heart.
2. You spend Friday night at home plucking and drawing a pheasant.
1. Your ironing pile has more aprons than shirts.
Catch you next week. Toodle pip!
13 November 2005
Had my first go at layered pastry last Tuesday when we made Rough Puff Pastry, which needs to be rolled and folded four times. The hard part was figuring out how long to leave it in the fridge between foldings. The butter needs to be soft enough to work with, but not so soft that it begins to melt and ooze out of the pastry. And with everyone in class opening and closing the fridge doors to put in and take out their pastries, the fridge temperature was up and down more times than a bride's knickers on her wedding night. But I managed to get my rough puff together in time to roll it out for making Eccles cakes, which were a hit with the husband.
Friday was a fun day in class, which we spent cooking Indian and Sri Lankan food in teams of four. We cooked rogan josh, methi poori, alu gobi and date chutney, mmm. (A nice change from some of the more boring, traditional dishes we've been doing in the beginners term, like stew or cauliflower cheese.) Then we all sat down and ate lunch together as a class. It made a good contrast to the sting of the weekly burden we all share, namely the Friday Clean. Every Friday, in addition to the regular cleaning, we all get extra duties to give the kitchens a deep cleandown. Glamourous tasks such as scrubbing and polishing the copper pans, washing out the drawers and shelves below our workstations, and cleaning the fronts of all the storage units. Not the most scintillating, but I suppose it has the benefit of getting us used to the hard work of a real kitchen.
Next week, I have a suspicion the pressure is going to crank up a bit as we get closer to our final exams. Tomorrow we have a theory lecture revising everything we've done so far this term, and then on Thursday we'll be cooking under 'exam conditions', whatever that means. Wish me luck!
Ciao for now.
04 November 2005
The Scotsman had an amusing cautionary tale for us all last week when he gave the demonstration on integrated pan sauces. He said that pan sauces were good for 'disaster scenarios', which he learned the hard way while working at a villa in Italy a few years ago. He had done his entire mis-en-place for dinner (normally a good few hours work), and had nipped outside for a quick coffee just before service. He came back to find the dog of the owner of the villa at his station in the middle of eating the food he'd prepped! Not knowing exactly what the dog had or had not touched, he couldn't use any of that food, and had to come up with something else last minute from fridge and stores. Evidently, he managed to survive the night by winging togther a couple of pan sauce dishes at the last minute to get through service.
One thing I've been working on during the past week or so is a Christmas Cake. Everyone in the school is doing them, and there is going to be a competition for best decorated cake at the end of the term. Normally, I'm not wild about CC. I hate all that marzipan and sickly sweet regal icing, and don't usually like the rich fruit filling either (all that sugary candied fruit). But having tasted my first ever handmade attempt last Thursday -- when I had to trim some cake off the bottom to level it -- it was surprisingly tasty. We've all had to bring in our own spirits to 'feed' the cake twice before icing it. I went for a golden rum from Barbados, and others went for brandy, cognac, and one person for calvados.
Now I have to figure out how to ice the cake, and practice at home working with regal icing (the thick, pliable variety). I'm thinking of icing it like a wrapped Christmas present, with a little gift tag 'from Santa'. But this cake endeavour is going to take a while yet. We still have to put on two layers of royal icing (the thinner, drier variety). Only then can we decorate the cake in a final coating of royal icing or regal icing. Can you imagine, 3 layers of icing?!? Yuck. I think I'm going to pull it off before eating the cake.
The other news to report from last week is that I've been cooking up a storm at home. Outside of class, I've done black sticky gingerbread cake, fried goujons of lemon sole with tartare sauce, spinach flan, and cracked wheat salad with red pesto amongst others. Today it's going to be roast beef with all the trimmings for Sunday lunch. Mmmmm. Husband has been appreciative of the improving quality of leftovers in the fridge, hopefully a good sign for my development as a chef (if not good news for my waistline!) Still more fish filleting to practise, though, before exam time.
Ciao for now.
28 October 2005
Mainly, I'm feeling a big wave of relief. After so many days during the first 4 weeks of feeling under pressure and under competent, this week was a major step forward. The first good omen came on Monday when the pastry gods smiled on me, and I didn't have to use my Disaster Pastry from the previous Friday. Someone my group was off sick, so one of the nice instructors -- who'd seen the Disaster Pastry -- said I could use theirs. Then I had 4 straight days of hitting my service times, without any cooking gaffes. My grilled mackerel with gooseberry sauce was even deemed "perfectly cooked". And to cap it off I'm even getting along a little better with Shwombo (although we weren't cooking on the same table this week, so that probably helped...)
Best news of the week came on Wednesday, when I had my mid-term assessment with my tutor, the unflappable Irishman. I didn't know what to expect, and to be honest had been secretly worrying that I wasn't doing well enough (having made some pretty basic mistakes like burning onions that were meant to be sweating down!). Fortunately, my fears were relieved. On a scale of 1 to 5 (1= worst, 5=best), I got mostly 4s and 5s (5s in white sauce, mayonnaise, timing and temperature), so am feeling a bit more confident that I can hit the required standard by the end of the term. The Irishman also made some encouraging noises re my organisation and hygiene, and said I will definitely have more chances to improve pastry and presentation, my two weakest areas.
Anyway, from the title this blog is supposed to be a tale of two puddings, so without further ado ...
Pudding 1: For years, I've never been able to make a Yorkshire pudding because whenever there was a roast involved, one of my husband's relatives from Yorkshire always did it. Mother, father, aunt and uncle -- I've eaten all their puds (including some of them cold with Lyle's golden syrup for breakfast on Boxing Day). But have never managed to make my own. Until today. And lo and behold, it turns out I must have absorbed some knowledge from the family experts, seeing them do it over the years, because mine came out the best in the class.
Pudding 2: We had a dem yesterday on gelatine, and one of the recipes made was a delicious Kir Royale jelly. As those of you who know of my great fondness for alcoholic jellies and for kir royales can well imagine, I was drawn to that particular recipe like a moth to a flame, and vowed to make them at home that evening to bring to a friend's birthday party on Friday night. After walking all the way to Tesco, imagine my despair when I found they had every ingredient except gelatine. So I had to wing it, and instead of making the recipe with proper creme de cassis and gelatine leaves, I had to substitute Basset's blackcurrant jelly cubes! The mixture didn't taste too dire, and so I've prettied them up with fresh raspberries and mint garnishes, and am bringing them to the party tonight.
On that note, I've gotta dash and get ready for the party. Great weekends all!
20 October 2005
Also have to mention last weekend, had a fun night on the town for Eve's hen party (evidence below). After a few weeks of being sweaty in hot kitchens and cycling to and from school, it felt great to be able to get my hair done and put on a party frock. Thanks again for organising that one, Kay.
Bad news is that I had another pastry nightmare today. ARGH! Managed somehow to get a large, u-shaped crack in it at the very last stage, and my attempts to patch it wouldn't hold. Tomorrow, I'll make a morning sacrifice to the pastry gods in a last ditch attempt get a brainwave on how to fix it. Honestly, it's frustrating for all of us in class, because it's so hard to the pastry thing nailed down. Basically, it's difficult to know how much water to add after rubbing the flour into the butter-- each batch of flour and butter will 'take' a different amount of liquid. The last one I did turned out fairly well, but this one is dire, and for the life of me I cannot figure out what I did differently.
As you can imagine, with all this frustration over pastry and with everyone trying to improve their multi-tasking, tempers in the class are starting to fray. And not just because of pastries.
One particular person in the class is really managing to annoy me, and a few others who she's been grouped with. To be frank, she's a bit of a 'shwombo' (She Who Must Be Obeyed). You know the type, always giving instructions to other people what they need to be doing, emphasizing to you all the time that she's only trying to be helpful, and managing to whine if every little teeny, tiny thing isn't done her way.
But I am determined to stay strong and keep focused on my own learning.
Am off to Paris this weekend. Think a couple of days downtime from the kitchen will do me some good, and reenergize me for next week. I shall be concentrating not on cooking (as our cooker was damaged by the leakage), but on eating. Mmmmm.
14 October 2005
For the non French speakers, MEP literally translates as 'put into place'. It's basically about getting all your equipment and ingredients for the task at hand organised and ready to go. And it's one of those things I'd thought I was getting pretty good at at home, having learned from a few unfortunate mishaps over the years. Oh, how naive!! Home conditions are miles away from a commercial / instruction kitchen, and it's easy to forget steps or miss things out when you're rushing against the clock to prepare and serve a full English breakfast, a treacle tart, and a beef stew -- and do all the associated cleaning -- within 3 hours.
The inseparable corollary of MEP-- also an integral part of Kitchen Discipline -- is 'working clean'. By that I don't mean turning up in pristine chefs whites, and having good food hygiene, although those are certainly part of it. What I mainly mean is having your workspace as clutter-free as possible. Think minimalist zen rock garden, as opposed to English country cottage garden.
Of course, these two rules -- having everything at hand, and being as clutter-free as poss -- are essentially in opposition with each other, so getting the right balance is an art form as much as a science. And boy, am I struggling to get the balance right.
One thing I am perfecting is the Art of the 3 Bite Lunch. I've been on the late side of service quite a few days this week. ('Service' = serving your dishes to the instructor, and getting his comments on your food.) When you're cooking in the morning, if you can serve before 12.45, you have a good hour to eat lunch, wash up, get changed, and get yourself down to the demonstration room. But if you're serving at 1.40pm, you've got less than 20 minutes to do all that. So I'm mastering the art of, when running late, taking 3 ginormous bites of whatever I've cooked and making it suffice for lunch. Yesterday it was three profiteroles filled with cream and topped with chocolate sauce. Today it was three mouthfuls of fish pie. Not terribly glamourous, but effective!
That's pretty much it, except to say I'm hopeful that I've hit the pass mark on my exam last Wednesday. Wish me luck.
08 October 2005
Next Wednesday I have my first written test, so I'll have to study for a while on Sunday and Monday. Keep your fingers crossed for me.
06 October 2005
I arrive early in the morning to try to beat the changing room scrum. There are as many as 30 of us in a space smaller than my bedroom at home, with no chairs or benches, and lockers stacked 3 high along two walls. Everyone's trying to juggle bags, uniforms, books, food containers, electric scales and knife rolls without bumping into each other and without losing track of their keys, egg whisks or piping bags. Needless to say, there's no door to the ladies changing area, so there are always a few unfortunates who have to can only change just inside the doorway, in full view of any one passing through the corridor. Anyone on their way to the toilet at around 9.20 in the morning would see as much thigh meat on display as a Kentucky Fried Chicken counter. Madness!
Tuesday night I had the first of two food hygiene classes from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. I now know far more about bacteria than can be shared in polite company. (I'll spare you discussion of the symptoms of staphylococcus aureus.) Some of the presentation was boring common sense. (Wash your hands.) More enlightening was the contaminants bit. Turns out one of the major UK supermarket chains has on 6 separate occasions had complaints about pen caps found in ready meals.
However, the real gross-out story came not from the environmental health officer, but from one of our instructors, who was emphasizing the importance of boiling your frozen raspberries before using them in a coulis. She knew of a catering organization that had served a dessert with raspberry coulis, only to find out that the guests who had eaten it all fell sick. Naturally, the caterers investigated thoroughly to try to find the source of the contamination. After testing the coulis ingredients, it turned out that the frozen raspberries -- which had been picked in Bulgaria -- had been urinated on. Ugh.
Cooking-wise, the only things to have caused me headaches this week were pastry and meringues. With pastry, I can rub butter into the flour beautifully, but can never seem to figure out the right amount of water to add. Meringues today were also slightly disheartening. Everyone at my table managed to get stiff, beautifully piped white rosettes with the merest blush of pale biscuit colouring. Mine looked like soggy blonde dog turds in comparison! Fortunately, I've had a good shepherd's pie, a delicious mushroom soup and a beautiful quiche lorraine this week, so all is not lost.
Wish Chet-ette luck with her meringue remake tomorrow.
29 September 2005
First the highs. I'm really starting to love the morning cycle ride. To say that cycling utterly beats taking the tube is akin to saying that crisp, golden chips cooked in beef fat taste better than their soggy, pale microwaved cousins. Last Wednesday morning, for instance, the sun was shining as I rode along Rotten Row through Hyde Park. Looked up on my left to see all the Horse Guards mounted in formation, kitted out in full regalia, as two stunt men suddenly rode past on a horse at full gallop while a film crew zoomed along on a dolly capturing it all on celluloid. You certainly don't get that on the Circle line!
Chef-wise, I've been getting very good feedback on seasoning and texture of soup/sauces. It's also been a revelation to be shown the time-tested methods. I've read loads of references in cookbooks in the past that refer to the need for a 'whirlpool effect' when poaching eggs, but whenever I'd tried it, the egg white always ran into ribbons. Having seen it demonstrated once, it became clear in an instant what I've been doing wrong all those years. (To any foodies out there keen to do it the right way, having created a vigorous whirlpool with your wooden spoon, you need to let the whirlpool slow down considerably before easing your egg into the simmering water.)
On the downside, it's blatantly apparent that I have a lot to learn before approaching the professional standard. My julienne carrots were criticised for being too close to 'matchstick' size. (Who knew there was a difference between julienne and matchstick?) And I never seem to be able to get cleaned down until 30 minutes after the session was meant to finish. Presentation is also going to be a weak point. It's not easy to garnish finely chopped parsley in a perfectly straight line over hard boiled eggs napped with mayonnaise, I can tell you.
But the instructors have been pretty kind to us at the beginning, and so I've ended this week with more enthusiasm than dread.
Good weekends all!
26 September 2005
Not sure yet what to make of the instructor for my class. He says he's really strict on "working clean". No doubt he'll have to drill some bad habits out of me (a tornado, who's used to sprawling bits and pieces all round a big kitchen). On the plus side he's Irish, so I'm hoping that he's long on people skills and common sense.
Only disappointment for the day was finding out how small the lockers are. Imagine trying to fit several food containers, two knife rolls, shoes, aprons, and uniforms, as well as a handbag, a cycle pannier bag and a helmet into a space the size of a small microwave oven. Am praying the receptionist will take mercy on me tomorrow, and let me hire a second locker for all my cycle gear.
Have found out there are two annual prizes, for the students with top marks in food and wine respectively. Definitely something to aim for.
25 September 2005
I'll try to regale you with as many mouth-watering and amusing exploits as possible in the coming months-- and will hopefully make all you working stiffs jealous as all hell as I enjoy my career break.