25 November 2005

Buffet bliss

Just when you start to get frustrated and make silly mistakes (and secretly fear that you might actually be rubbish in the kitchen after all), the gods of chef school will have a change of heart, and decide to rain some good karma down upon you.

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).

A bientot.

21 November 2005


Chefette is very excited! She just been offered a 2-week work placement during December with a contract caterer, working in the kitchens of a large PR company based in Canary Wharf. It will be for work experience only (meaning no money... yet), but will be something to put on the cv, and a chance to see how life works in a real kitchen with 700 customers. Start date is 5th December. Will keep you Loyal Readers informed of my adventures, natch.

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

Top five

Chefette has just finished Week 8 -- only two more weeks to go before the end of term. Next week is the last week of instruction, with dems on gift cooking, canapes and Christmas cooking. As a class, we also have to do a Buffet party for 30 for lunch on Wednesday. Three hours for 15 of us to bake bread and prepare and present 6 dishes for our counterparts in the other class. The thought of it terrified me three weeks ago when they gave us the assignment, but we managed to get ourselves organised at last, and I'm actually looking forward to it now. I've been assigned with two others to do the Thai Chicken Salad, and I'm going to have a trial run at the recipe this weekend to iron out any kinks, and make sure I know what I'm doing before the big day.

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

Return from the orient

Sorry for posting so late in the weekend, but Chefette has just come back from having a luxurious afternoon tea on the Orient Express for a friend's 40th birthday party. It was very posh indeed -- all polished oak veneer, silver tea service, and flowing champagne. We were seated in a first class Pullman railway carriage called Ione, built in 1928 for ocean liner services to Plymouth and Southampton. Fortunately, the couple seated opposite us were good conversationalists and it was a very enjoyable afternoon. My only teeny criticism being that the coffee eclairs they served were stale and underfilled -- not nearly as good as the ones we made in class a few weeks back!

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

Expanding waistline

First of all, Chefette has a correction to make. She has discovered that her class tutor (aka 'the Irishman') is in actual fact a Scotsman (!), which he happened to mention one day in class last week. Apparently, his accent is 'posh Scottish' -- of the huntin' and shootin' estate variety -- or at least according to one of the girls in my class who said he talked exactly like another posh Scot in her past. It's certainly the most neutral Scottish accent I've ever heard. Anyway, henceforth, he shall be known as 'The Scotsman'.

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.