03 December 2006

Adrenalin high

Just got home from my best ever evening service at the restaurant. We had 40 (!) bookings, which is near maximum capacity for the tiny neighbourhood establishment where Chefette plies her trade. Plus a couple of walk-in tables. And although technically the hours of evening service are between 7pm and 11pm, in reality the tables are never evenly spaced over that time frame. Most of the diners on a Saturday evening arrive in two waves, the first at around 8pm, the second an hour later. All of this results in a frenetic hour-and-a-half-long tornado of concentrated physical and mental exertion, in which you're trying to whip out the best food you can in as short a time as possible.

Suffice to say, C and I were well and truly in "the zone" tonight. At one point, I had on the go -- simultaneously, mind you -- 5 bruschetta under the grill (finished with a rub of freshly cut garlic and a drizzle of olive oil), a pumpkin soup, 3 orders of beetroot tortelloni with gorgonzola sauce, 2 orders of mussels in beer batter in the deep fryer, 2 skewers of balsamic-marinated veal heart on the griddle plate, while also plating up a salad of rocket, buffalo mozzarella, parma ham and grilled figs. All with different cooking times, and at two different stations. If that's not multi-tasking on adrenalin, I don't know what is! Never in my wildest dreams in cooking school did I imagine I'd ever be able to do that kind of juggling and still turn out delicious food.

Looking back on it, what well and truly shocked me was... it didn't actually seem that hard. I've somehow started to tap into a new level of intuition at the cooker. A zen-like state of knowing instinctively which bits can be left to grill, fry or simmer while something else needs close attention. I still have to concentrate like crazy to get everything prepped and plated in the right order. But once I've spent 20-30 seconds figuring out the running time, the execution is falling into place more and more smoothly.

Best compliment we had tonight came from one of the guests who used to be a chef at the Ivy (one of the most famous restaurants in London). He told one of the waiters he recently moved to the area, and after reading our menus in the window these past few weeks, he vowed to give us a try. He came tonight with his wife and said he really loved the food. What a warm feeling of pride welled up inside me when I heard that!

To cap off the evening, C and I finished with a couple of glasses of chilled prosecco while we were cleaning down and turning out the staff meal. A perfect aftermath to the buzz of a busy service. But I can't leave you all thinking this restaurant malarkey is all sweetness and light. I just took a look down at my hands, and my fingernails are ringed with a thin layer of reddish black grime all the way round. Not all that glamourous, eh?

10 November 2006

Mastering pumpkin gnocchi

A very short posting from Chefette tonight, before she and the husband depart for a brief weekend getaway to Paris tomorrow.

Just this minute got home from a medium-busy Thursday night service at the restaurant. We didn't do too many covers (maybe around 2o, compared with a maximum of 45-50). But neither did we did have P, the incredibly hard-working (and hunky!) Polish kitchen porter. So whereas I usually never have to touch a mop or a dirty pan, tonight C (the head chef) and I had to do all the dishwashing and cleanup between us. Fortunately, C did almost all of the washing up. I got the easy end of the deal, putting things away, cleaning down the food prep surfaces and sweeping /mopping up the floor. Ah, the glamour of life as a chef ...

One good thing to come out of tonight's service was the realisation that I've now got a handle on the art of making pumpkin gnocchi. To the point where my gnocchi are noticeably superior to those made by our head chef. Tonight when I came in, she had me cook off the mixture she'd made yesterday, which was too full of flour, and consequently a bit too heavy and rubbery. Nor did it have much intensity of pumpkin flavour. She herself said that it turned out 'weird'.

So even though I'm away tomorrow and Saturday in Paris, when I offered to make her a batch for tomorrow, she positively jumped at the offer. It felt pretty cool to be able to simultaneously whip up a delicious, well-textured gnocchi mixture while simultaneously cleaning down.

So for any of you who are interested, I'll share my top 3 pumpkin gnocchi tips.
  • After whizzing the roast pumpkin into a puree in the food processor, be sure to cook all of the excess moisture out of the pumpkin puree before seasoning the mixture.
  • Season and add the flour to the puree while it is still piping hot. Nutmeg makes a good addition, as well as salt and pepper.
  • Add as little flour as possible to the seasoned puree. If in doubt, shape a little dumpling and test it in boiling water to see if it's too soft. Only add more flour if the gnocchi starts to disintegrate in the water. If it holds its shape, it's good to go.

Au revoir mes chers amis.

03 November 2006

Nothing good comes without a price

Chefette has been loving all the autumnal bounty these past few weeks. She has been positively lapping up sweet, nutty Savoy cabbages and rich, golden butternut squash. But topping the fall flavour hit parade have been wild mushrooms.

Check out the beauties pictured above. I bought them at Borough Market last weekend – a mixture of cepes, pieds de mouton, chanterelles, charcoal burners and boletes. They fulfilled their destiny in a wild mushroom soup I did last Sunday, when we hosted a lunch for some of the Husband’s work colleagues and their spouses. A soup that, while delicious, ended up nearly scuppering the whole luncheon …

The soup itself wasn’t too difficult to put together. I started off making 2 types of concentrated mushroom stock. One was nothing more than the strained liquor got from soaking dried cepes in hot water for 20 minutes (after which I drained the cepes and reserved them to one side). The other stock I made by browning 900g of ordinary sliced button mushrooms in a little oil until really, really dark brown, then simmering them in 4 cups of water with some sliced shallots and chopped parsley until all the flavour had been extracted from the browned mushrooms.

Once I had the two stocks made, I sautéed the finely chopped wild mushrooms with some more diced button mushrooms over high heat in batches until nicely browned. Lastly, I sweated off some Spanish onions in olive oil in a soup pot until nicely soft and sweet. At that point, I added in all the chopped sautéed mushrooms, the drained, soaked cepes, the two mushroom stocks, plus some Madeira and seasoning (a herb bouquet of thyme and bay leaves, plus some salt & pepper) and allowed it all to simmer slowly for an hour or so, to let the flavours meld together. I finished the soup by adding a swirl of warm double cream to each bowl, and topping with chopped fresh chives. Then I served them with simple bruschetta (toasted slices of sourdough bread rubbed with a cut piece of garlic and drizzled with olive oil). Mmmmmm.

None of that was really too difficult. But, as we all know, nothing that is truly good in this life comes without a price. And the painful bit of the whole operation was getting all of the mushrooms cleaned.
I don’t just mean the hour+ it took to brush / wipe off all of the excess dirt off the mushrooms. I’m referring to the surge of panic that coursed through my veins when I realised (a) how many little worms of the forest – still alive and wriggling – had made their homes in the tiny wild mushroom crevices; (b) how long it was going to take to get the critters out of my gloriously tasty fungi before the soup could be served to the guests (in the end, it took an additional hour). If it hadn’t been for the heroic efforts of the Husband, drafted in as an emergency commis on de-worming patrol, I never would have got the rest of the lunch out on time!

So the next time you enjoy your lovely wild mushroom soup, sauté or omelette, spare a thought to the hard-working kitchen slave or forager who lovingly cleaned (and de-wormed) them…

19 October 2006


The history of Chefette's fridge-freezers has been long and varied. There was the first ever university dorm room fridge, stocked only with Evian, Tab, and Beaujolais Nouveau. Then there was the fridge from the 16th Street apartment in DC, which she and the Husband accidentally punctured during an ill-considered attempt to chop away the layers of permafrost crystals that had built up in the freezer compartment with a 10-inch carving knife. (Which, incidentally, introduced Chefette to the importance of bribery in Nigerian culture, when the building superintendent made clear that he would gladly get us a brand new replacement fridge from the building management in exchange for the paltry sum of $50.) And let us not forget the fridge in Chefette's first ever London apartment, which was smaller than a table-top TV, and could barely hold a dozen eggs, let alone a pint of ice cream.

But the current model -- a beautiful ATAG brushed stainless steel number found by the Husband seven years ago -- has always been a loyal and trusted friend. The ice maker functioned perfectly no matter how many party guests we threw at it. The cheese drawer insulated the aromas from even the most smelly French chambertin. And the refrigerator compartment was so efficient we used to call it "The Good Time Machine", for its ability to keep foods fresh long past the Use By date.

So you can imagine the traumatic hand-wringing that ensued when we arrived back from a brief jaunt in New York earlier this week to find the ice-maker broken, the freezer compartment as hot as a warming oven, and the top half of the fridge compartment worryingly close to room temperature. I have had to write off loads of food from the freezer, including four beef marrow bones, a packet of duck breasts, half a pork belly, three chicken carcasses saved for stock, a batch of hand-made puff pastry, and enough yeast to make 10 loaves of bread.

So for the moment I am fridgeless, until I can get the repairman to come out to work his magic. Not much to be done week except to subsist on tinned tuna sandwiches and Chinese takeaways.

04 October 2006

New look Chefette

Chefette has been hit by that autumnal back-to-school feeling. Only instead of buying a shiny new case full of sharpened No. 2 pencils, she has decided to update the look of her blog.

Not sure what's been more fun today. Giving the blog a new makeover, or slow-roasting a thick end of pork belly with soy sauce and Chinese spices.

29 September 2006

The World's Biggest Coffee Morning

Today MacMillan Cancer Support has been holding a fundraiser called the World's Biggest Coffee Morning. People all over the UK have organised coffee mornings in the community, collecting donations to help people whose lives are affected by cancer.

We held a coffee morning today at the restaurant, and Chefette did her part by baking a couple of cakes and helping out with service. A fabulous excuse to eat cake and give to charity at the same time! Big thanks to my pals Lee, Nicola and Stephen who gave their support.

Here are a few photos from the day, including one of the gang with the Mayor of Southwark and the Southwark Town Crier.

27 September 2006

Un pique-nique delicieux

One of Chefette's little pleasures is to spend a couple of hours a week in front of the laptop, combing the blogosphere looking at other foodie posts.

Not sure if any of you saw it, but a couple of months ago the chappie at 'A la Cuisine' -- a mildly geeky and endearingly earnest young Canadian called Clement -- came up with his Theorem of Deliciousness, a mathematical formula expressing deliciousness not only as a function of ingredients and technique, but also nostalgia. His point was that delicious (as opposed to merely good tasting) food is about more than quality ingredients cooked in a sympathetic way. Truly incredible food evokes past experiences. We all have our own ways of identifying with this universal truth. I'm certain that my grandmother's recipe for blackberry cobbler will never appear in a three-star Michelin dining room. But to this day, taking a bite of any well-made warm concoction involving flaky pastry and sweet, juicy blackberries has the power to transport me to her farmhouse kitchen on a summer afternoon. I can taste it even now!!

Anyway, much as I am enamoured of the theorem, my trip to Paris last weekend made me realise that it has a major shortcoming. It's failed to take account of a vital component that can affect the deliciousness of food-- the Al Fresco factor. Good food tastes even better out of doors in good weather. I challenge any one of you to say it's not so.

Last Monday, on a park bench in Square Boucicaut, it all came together. The good ingredients, artfully prepared, with a big dollop of nostalgia and lashings of glorious autumn sunshine.

After a somewhat hectic morning spent accomplishing chores, the Husband and I decided we deserved a little reward, and so loaded up with picnic goodies from the Grande Epicerie at the Bon Marche department store on the Left Bank. How to describe this unparalleled grocery store? Suffice to say that every section is stuffed to brimming with delectable treasures, from spankingly fresh fish and seafood, to artisan bread and patisserie, to mouthwatering ready-prepared meals from every ethnic background. The cheese island alone is a veritable continent, with 200+ kinds of French cheese.

Naturally, the prices are a bit on the high side from a grocery perspective, even for Paris. But the value for money lies in the quality, which is unsurpassed. The price of our picnic was less than half of what we would have paid for a two-course lunch for two at any decent bistro in the 7th arrondissement, and the food was no less than fabulous. For just over 20 euros, we had: a ‘croque antipasto’ (mini multigrain baguette stuffed to bursting with grilled vegetables and lusciously dressed with fresh pesto), a ‘croque Parisienne’ (mini white+rye baguette with ham, cheese, rocket, olive oil and fresh capers), a seafood salad of prawns and crabsticks dressed with lemon oil, a Chinese noodle salad with crayfish tails, fresh white crab meat and coriander, and a small handful of perfectly ripe Reine Claude plums. Oh, and two bottles of mineral water as well.

And so, perched away in our secluded corner of the park, we savoured our bench-top ‘bouffe’, while soaking up the sunshine, and fondly remembering the many Parisian picnics that have gone before.

21 September 2006

Goats cheese with figs and radicchio

Two and a bit weeks in, and Chefette is starting to get her groove on in the restaurant kitchen. Not everything is going perfectly, you understand. Still the odd cock-up from time to time. Such as getting a bit flaky last night during a busy patch, and somehow misreading 'agnello' (lamb) for 'caprino' (goat's cheese). Luckily, the head chef caught it before it got sent out to the customer.

But my first attempt at ricotta cheesecake seemed to come out okay. And I think I have impressed everyone with the biscotti I made last week. Even the Italian waiter -- who criticizes everything as not being authentically Italian -- said they were really good, and asked me what I put into them.

Anyway, I thought I'd post an example of the kind of food we serve at the restaurant. We've been doing this dish for a couple of weeks now, and it's proved so popular that we're keeping it on the menu for a bit longer. We do it as a starter at the restaurant, but I think it would also be fabulous as a 'savoury' served at the end of the meal, with a nice dessert wine. Steps 1 and 2 can be done ahead of time.

Goats cheese with figs and radicchio

6 ripe figs
125 grams goats cheese
4 leaves radicchio
1 tsp honey
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
2-3 Tblsp extra virgin olive oil + extra for drizzling
Salt and pepper

1. Cut the figs in half lengthwise, and lay them cut side up on a lipped baking sheet lined with silicone paper. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper, and lightly drizzle over some extra virgin olive oil. Bake in a moderate oven until some juice just starts to run from the figs. (Maybe 15-20 minutes, it will depend on the ripeness of your figs.) Put the roasted figs into a bowl, and pour over the accumulated juices from the baking tray. Allow to cool to room temperature.

2. Make the honey-balsamic dressing. Start with a teaspoon of honey, a couple teaspoons of balsamic and 2-3 T of olive oil. Taste and season carefully, with a bit of salt and pepper. Adjust the balsamic-honey ratio as necessary so that they counterbalance each other. This vinaigrette will not emulsify, but that's okay -- you're going for that attractive 'split' look when you spoon it onto the plate, an archipelago of dark balsamic dots floating in small islands of olive oil.

3. Lay the roasted figs out in groups of three with the cut side up on a grill tray. Cover each trio with a couple of generous slices of goat's cheese. Put the tray under the grill until the cheese starts to brown and bubble slightly.

4. While the cheese is grilling, tear off a large-ish leaf of the radicchio for each plate. When the cheese is done, put three cheesey fig halves onto each leaf. Spoon some of the honey-balsamic dressing decoratively on top of the figs, and around the edges of each plate.

Let me know what you think if you try it.

07 September 2006

People, it's official

It's almost midnight. My hands smell of garlic. I've got the beginnings of a headache coming on. And the husband is tucked up in bed, far too deep into REM to dole out revitalising kisses. But none of that matters. Because, despite it all, inside I'm jumping with joy. Why?

I'll tell you why. 'Coz Chefette is now officially working as a chef, that's why. I just finished my first ever service as a hired gun.

After ever so much hmming and hawing last weekend, debating the pros and cons of the three job offers ad nauseum, I decided to go for the part-time role at the little Italian place in the neighbourhood. Which got a very good write-up in the Guardian last Saturday, by the way. (Assuming the preceding link works, it's the second restaurant featured in the article.)

Tonight I worked on the hot and cold starters, and did some mise-en-place for the head chef. To summarise the highlights: (a) I didn't have any major screwups; (b) the head chef said the pesto I made "was really good"; (c) all of the plates I sent out came back clean from the dining room.

Now all I have to do is get faster at plating up orders.

Sweet dreams all.

03 September 2006

Decision time

Well it's all happening on the job front. Three trials completed last week, and three job offers in hand. Now if only Chefette can figure out which one to take. Decisions, decisions.

First trial was on Tuesday, at one of the smaller restaurants in the gastronomic empire of a well-known British designer and restauranteur. It's got a fabulous riverside location, with a sunny terrace, and a modern European menu. The kitchen was light and well equipped, with a good layout and a calm atmosphere (possibly due to the fact that, on the day in question, only about 10 tables came in for lunch). The head chef was a vivaciously flamboyant chap with a plummy accent and a somewhat eccentric manner. Very enthusiastic, if slightly hard to understand. The sous chef, in contrast, was a more gentle, soft-spoken type. He had told me not to bother bringing my own knives for the trial day, which turned out to be a misfortune indeed. I spent my day on a variety of unglamourous prep jobs with only a blunt serated tool for company. (Try preparing a crate full of globe artichokes with a dull knife and see how long it takes you!) But the vibe in the kitchen was professional and calm -- no loud, annoying characters mouthing off at everyone.

My second trial was on Wednesday, at a large, bustling restaurant in Borough Market. Their emphasis was on unfussy, well executed British traditional dishes, which they turned out at breakneck speed (during the lunchtime service when I was there, they served 130 covers). The head chef was a hyperactive, jovial and boisterous man, who led his large kitchen brigade with a loud mixture of cajolery, praise, teasing, swearing and even towel-whipping. His love of produce and good British ingredients was effusive, as he passed me the first of the season's greengage plums to sample (succulent yellow-fleshed beauties that were both sweet and refreshingly acidic). And he proudly showed me the quality of the strip loin of beef going into his newly repaired mincer. He told me frankly that any new hires were on a probationary period for four weeks, and at the end of that time, to be hired permanently, they must get the nod not only from him, but from his other chefs. The kitchen had been buzzing with activity from the early hours of the morning (they do a breakfast service as well as lunch and dinner), and the vibe during service was an adrenaline-fuelled frenzy. I've no doubt I could learn loads, but I'd be starting as the lowliest of lowly peons among a staff of thousands, and there would be months of real hard graft before I could graduate from commis to chef de partie. It would definitely be a case of suffering for my art.

The third restaurant was the complete opposite of the second. A very small, local Italian bistro with a neighbourhood feel. The chef-patronne is a lovely Irish lady in her late 40s, with a relaxed attitude and a twinkle in her eye. For the past six years, one of her mates has helped her out in the kitchen, and the two of them together come across as fun and sensible in equal measure. No rigid kitchen hierarchy here! They both pitch in with everything from desserts to starters to mains. I worked a quiet Friday evening service with the patronne, during which time we chatted away amicably as we worked. I messed up one hot starter, but instead of dishing out a verbal bollocking she very kindly showed me how I should have done it, and let me get on with the rest of the dishes. At the end of the evening, she poured us out a couple of glasses of wine. A very relaxing and civilised cap on the evening. Despite my minor mess-up, she told me that she liked the say I worked, and that I was sure to get faster with practice. The only downside is that it would only be 3 shifts a week, but at least I would be doing some real cooking and not just cleaning muscles, dicing onions, and picking herbs all day! If I took that one, I'd need to find another part-time job to get some more experience.

Now, I must dash. I've told all three chefs that I'd call them on Monday with my answer. Not sure yet what that will be. I've got some soul-searching to do.

26 August 2006

Let the trials begin

Things have been moving on the job search front. Chefette has got two trials and one interview set up for the early part of next week. All with local restaurants.

Cue excitement and nervous anticipation in equal measure. And fervent hope that one of these possibilities will come good!

Improvising with samphire

Chefette had a rip-roaring culinary success last night with an improvised warm salad. It was one of those evenings when everything just worked in the kitchen. When previously random shopping instincts -- by which I mean buying whatever looks good in the market even though you have no idea what you're going to do with it later -- combine so fortuitously with random leftovers in the fridge that inspiration strikes, and cheffy brainwaves conjure up a new dish. The Husband was so bowled over that he insisted that I should immediately note down the recipe.

So, in response to the Husband's urgings, I have attempted to record it for posterity. It borrows in part from an old Nigel Slater recipe for chargrilled squid with parsley. But I think addition of the crunchy samphire and earthy sauté potatoes round it out into a delicious whole.

SAMPHIRE, if you haven't heard of it, is one of the most lovely wild vegetables. Chefette first tasted it in Norfolk a decade ago, having bought a bunch from a man at a roadside shack selling dressed crabs. A sort of 'asparagus of the sea', it's a form of edible seaweed, which might sound a bit slimy but I can assure you that the young stalks are nothing but succulent, tender crunch. It's a real delicacy, and absolutely worth trying if you can get it fresh. I've seen it sold in jars in France, but haven't ever tried it that way myself. If you can't get hold of samphire, it might work by substituting very fine young green beans instead (and increasing the blanching time a bit).

Would feed four as a starter, or two as a main.

Squid & Samphire Salad


450-500g squid
3 large handfuls of samphire
3 medium floury potatoes -- cooked whole and cooled in their skins (i used leftover baked maris piper potatoes)
bit of vegetable and/or peanut oil
2 juicy limes
1 clove garlic, peeled and bruised

For the dressing:
4T good quality extra virgin olive oil
1 bunch of coriander
Small bunch flat parsley leaves
2 red chillies
Salt & freshly ground pepper for seasoning


1. Clean the squid, and reserve tentacles (take care to remove the beaks). Slice the main body cavity into thick rings. Trim off long tentacles to same length as shorter tentacles, keeping each bunch of tentacles intact. Rinse prepared squid and pat dry with kitchen paper. Reserve in fridge until ready.

2. Wash and pick over the samphire, removing any woody stems.

3. Make the dressing: Put the olive oil into a mixing bowl. Finely chop the herbs, and add to the oil. Remove the seeds and membranes from the chillies, and dice very finely. Add to the dressing. Season dressing with salt and pepper.

4. Peel the cooked, cooled potatoes. Break them up into irregular, bite-size chunks. Make sure they are dry, and well seasoned. Heat a bit of vegetable or peanut oil a non-stick pan together with the bruised clove of garlic. As soon as the garlic clove starts to colour, remove it. Add the potatoes to the garlicky oil, and saute until the outsides are crispy and golden. Do not rush this stage-- start with very hot oil, and then turn heat down to low and continue cooking the potato chunks without turning too often. You want them to have a golden, crispy exterior. Hold in a warming oven.

5. While the potatoes are sauteing, heat up a cast iron griddle plate or skillet, and bring a large pot of water to boil. You'll need these ready to cook the squid and samphire, respectively, as soon as the potatoes are done.

6. Toss the squid in a bit of oil, and squeeze over the juice of one and a half limes. Cook the squid on the hot griddle plate, about 1 minute each side or perhaps less. Don't let it go too long or it will be tough. Remove the squid and immediately turn it through the dressing.

7. Blanche the samphire for 30 seconds, then drain well in a colander. Put into a serving bowl, and squeeze over the juice from the remaining half lime.

8. Add the saute potatoes and dressed squid to the samphire, and mix once or twice to coat everything evenly in the dressing. Taste and correct seasoning if necessary. Serve warm.

21 August 2006

A-hunting she will go

A big, enthusiastic 'howdy' to you all. Chefette is back from a brief hiatus, which encompassed a three-week holiday with the Husband, lots of catching up with friends, and a mini assault on some chores. Think of it as Chefette's petite fermeture annuelle.

Before I forget, heartfelt thanks to those (few) of you who were kind enough to notice and lament the dearth of Chefette postings these past several weeks. Possibly all the rest of you have been on holiday, and would have noticed and lamented eventually. . .

Now, of course, the pleasures of student life have come to an end, and the job hunt has officially kicked off. I have already had the good fortune of two job offers, but neither one was what I'm particularly looking for. The first came before I went away on hols, which was a chance to be the manager of the food side at a local neighbourhood deli. While it might have been fun working in the neighbourhood, it was truly a managerial role, and there wouldn't have been much hands-on cooking. Plus, the fact that there would have been five (!) different owners to report to and keep happy didn't really seem a great situation to be going into as a novice food manager.

The other offer -- a commis chef position with a corporate contract caterer -- came last Tuesday. The manager there remembered me from a work experience stint I did with the company last December, and called me as soon as the company got my CV. I asked him if I could work there for a day or two before making my decision, which turned out to be a good move, as it helped me to narrow down my focus. I've come to the conclusion that I need to be working someplace where the food inspires me, and not just somewhere the hours would be good. Don't get me wrong, it felt great to be back in a commercial kitchen for a couple of days, helping with the mise-en-place and working a couple of lunchtime services. But the food they were doing simply didn't turn my head. And let's face it, life is too short to be turning out food you don't love!

So it's back to the drawing board, and getting out more CVs. I'm starting with local restaurants / gastropubs, and if that doesn't work out I'll be expanding to other ideas. People, wish me luck!!

Meanwhile, Chefette is trying to keep her skills up with lots of entertaining and adventurous home cooking. Had a good success at a dinner party for 6 last week with a variation on a Jamie Oliver recipe for tortellini of ricotta, lemon, parmesan and sage butter*. It took
me around 90-minutes to roll out, fill and shape c. 3 dozen tortellini, but these little efforts in the name of Pasta Practice are all good. By the end I was pressing and folding and churning out the little critters in record time. Well, at least I seemed to get a little faster.

* recipe can be found in Return of the Naked Chef, page 120

06 July 2006


Cool news. Chefette passed her Final Practical exam. As per usual, it was as stressful and nerve-wracking an examination as could be conjured up by the mind of man. But thankfully I had 5 days to prepare, and with all that practice time under my belt everything was pretty under control on the big day. Everything, that is, except the clearing of my lemon jelly, of which I can only say that, of the three Great Virtues of lemon jelly -- clarity, sparkle, and magnification -- it had nary a one.

But never mind that. There's even more cool news-- Chefette won the 'Wine Student of the Year' prize at school. Wah-hay! She and the Husband will get a corporate hospitality trip of 1 day and 2 nights to the corporate headquarters in the Burgundy region of France. Which, oddly enough, is the very first place that Chefette ever tasted wine, at the tender age of 15 years old when she visited the home of her friend Veronique's grandparents in Pernand-Vergelesses. (Cue warm, fuzzy feeling of having come full circle on some sort of Great Introduction to Wine Path.)

Now, it's a few weeks off for summer holidays before buckling down to The Big Job Search, which starts anon. In the meantime, I'll keep on posting my cooking and eating exploits (assuming, that is, you people want to keep on reading it?).

Toodle pip, there's a mojito calling to me.

26 June 2006

Quick update

Chefette is busy preparing for the Final Practical exam, so apologies for an extremely pithy posting this week.

The good news is that the written test last Friday went pretty well.

The bad news is that the final exam -- which I have to do on Thursday -- is going to be majorly difficult. We start cooking at 9am, and have five hours in which to make and serve the following three course menu:
  • Puff pastry feuillete cases filled with spinach and trout, and served with sauce vierge (to be served at 1.15pm)
  • Boned, stuffed quail with rosemary jus, spring vegetables and potatoes of our choice. To be accompanied by a loaf of walnut bread (both to be served at 1.45pm)
  • Lemon jellies with fresh raspberries (to be served at 2pm)
Yesterday I attempted a practice run-through, and it was a disaster. I didn't get the first course ready until 1.40pm. I didn't even get my vegetables washed, let alone cooked. Nor did I get the stuffing made for my quail. I burned the jus, underbaked the bread, and my lemon jelly wouldn't clear.

In short, I have a lot of work to do over the next three days to get myself up to speed!! Oh dear.

16 June 2006

Fergus's magic

The course is almost over. Chefette can hardly believe it, but the tangible proof is sitting on the dining table. To wit, a one-and-a-half page list of topics that we have covered over the past 9 months, which could have questions on the Final Theory Test. The principal of the school went over them with us at last Friday's revision session. Quite a few of them are from previous terms and aren't fresh in the mind. So mild pre-exam nerves are starting to nibble away at the far reaches of Chefette's conscious mind, and as of today she is diving head-on into theory revision. For the next 7 days, best try to avoid her, as her head will be filled with thoughts on 'reasons for failure in breadmaking', or 'method for jus' or 'seasons for feathered and furred game'.

At least there have been a couple of good omens from the Gods of Marking during the week. I found out that I passed my wine exam with distinction, along with several others in my class, so am still in the running for the wine prize. We won't find out until Friday 30th June (prize giving day) who the winner is, but at least this girl can still hope.

Also found out that the principal liked my portfolio. The Scotsman asked me to fix a couple of spelling errors and then bring it back in to school. It is going to be one of the portfolios sent to an external assessor, who will decide who wins the prize for best portfolio. Don't really think mine will win this category, but at least it was nice to be on the shortlist!

One last thing I have to tell you about. We had a talk yesterday from Fergus Henderson, the head chef (and part owner I think?) of St John's Restaurant in London, as one of his chefs from the restaurant demonstrated four dishes for us. Henderson is famous for his 'nose to tail' approach to eating, always ordering whole animals at the restaurant, and serving up as much of the animal as possible to customers in a menu that changes as the chefs work their way through the butchered cuts of meat. He's one of that remarkable breed, the English Eccentric, so beloved in British society. His appearance is dominated by his thick, round glasses that are at least two sizes too small for his florid face. That and the tell-tale signs -- shaking hands and arms -- of his unfortunate affliction with Parkinson's disease. But it was his poetic philosophy of cooking and his flair for odd, attention-grabbing turns of phrase that charmed me utterly.

He opened with the statement that he was going to talk about magic in the kitchen. He said that one of the best examples were fennel twigs, which created a force field when tied around a whole rabbit so that it can be cooked a long time while remaining completely moist. He discovered this in Italy, apparently, when everything on the menu said 'with fennel', but none of the meat -- which was uniformly well cooked, but without any trace of dryness -- was actually served with fennel. It puzzled him for ages until he found out about fennel twigs, and after experimenting with them he became convinced that one could achieve this magical effect by trying bundles of twigs around the joint of meat, and then braising it for a long time. When we tasted the rabbit cooked this way it was utterly delicious, completely moist, and best of all uncomplicated to make.

And there were other simple but delicious preparations. A whole turbot served on a bed of sweated down green and white vegetables (celery, leeks, onions, garlic, fennel) that had been finished with a bit of white wine and some thyme. Paper thin slices of marinated ox heart that were flashed on a very hot griddle. Breaded, golden fried pig's tail, which he said children always love. And last but not least the signature dish of his restaurant. Roast marrow bones, with a side of parsley salad and toasted homemade bread.

While his chef was making up the parsley salad, he told us -- with utter seriousness -- not ever to dice your vegetables too fine, because it was wrong to take them too far away from their original shape. Thinly slicing the shallots for the parsley salad was fine. That allowed you to tame the shallot and show it who's boss, without robbing it of its elegant curved profile. And when adding the capers you must always think about eating sultana bran. When eating sultana bran, you wanted just enough sultanas but not too many. Otherwise you wouldn't experience the joy of discovering one or two sultanas on your spoonful of bran. If every spoonful was guaranteed to have one or more sultanas, you couldn't possibly have the same magical eating experience as you do when you aren't sure whether or not you'll be lucky enough to taste a sultana in your next mouthful of bran.

Make of that what you will. Toodle pip!

09 June 2006

Summer in the kitchen

Chefette can happily announce that summer has officialy arrived in London this week. Hundreds of people have been cooking themselves to a bright shade of pink in Hyde Park over the past few days. And at school, Kitchens 2 and 3 have been getting really hot. Think swollen feet, pink face and sweaty hair hot. The Scotsman, bless him, has been touchingly concerned with our welfare, and keeps reminding us to drink lots of water.

Did a work experience evening at a stylish, well-known London restaurant the other day. (A rooftop establishment, with a spectacular view from the Thames -- hint, hint). Thought their food was very over styled, over clever, and over handled. Their 'tuna nicoise' starter consisted of a thin toasted strip of pita bread, on top of which was aligned, from left to right: a round disk of chargrilled tuna loin, a single quail's egg dipped in paprika, a tiny cluster of folded anchovies, a chunk of bright purple potato, a few lightly dressed snow peas, and something else I can't remember. How pretentious is that? I mean, why not just give us a normal nicoise salad with beautiful ingredients? But the team there were great to me, and it was good to experience another working kitchen. I did get to plate up a few dishes during service on the cold starter section and the dessert station. Also got some good experience opening oysters, thankfully without any nasty cuts and scrapes.

Loads going on at school of late. We've been doing shellfish this week, and I did pretty well with the scallops, less well at the crab. I've also learned how to cut the top off a bottle of champagne with a sword. Evidently it's a ceremonial thing, known as 'sabrage'. I've no idea if it will ever come in useful as a party trick, but I may try it on the husband one of these days just to show the old dog still has a few tricks up her sleeve (works with a knife also, not just a sword). As a new year's eve baby myself, I'm predisposed to believe that anything pertaining to champagne is probably good.

Best thing about today was my dessert. A rich and utterly mouthwatering raspberry creme brulee, with a thin, golden caramelized crust on top and a luciously soft set to the cream. The Scotsman couldn't taste very well since he had a cold, but his assistant pronounced it very good indeed. I was a little worried when the recipe said the ramekins would set in 20 minutes in a bain marie in the oven, and mine took an hour (!). But they were so good I ended up making a complete pig out of myself, finishing two individual portions of it. Made the cycle ride home in the heat a bit difficult I can tell you ...

We also had a cheese guy in for a demonstration, who fed us loads and loads. Around 20 different cheeses we tasted. A slightly odd fellow, but boy did he know amazing amounts about cheese. Indeed, had Got Religion on cheese. He kept sounding off with messianic zeal about how crazy the EU regulations are for prohibiting the sale of raw (unpasteurised) milk. And how it's practically a criminal offence to serve unripe cheese. Then he would lament how the British public -- who for generations have wanted only inexpensive cheese -- now had unsavably bad palates, and wouldn't know the good stuff if it bit them in the ankle. When I asked him about transporting cheese back on the train from Paris to London, he told me I could bring pretty much anything back without any concerns about hygiene, even if it is out of the fridge a good few hours. Can't really say I fully grasped his argument, but it was along the lines of 'good, artisan cheeses often have so much naturally occuring bacteria in them anyway, that there's no room for the food spoilage bacteria to develop'. If that means anything to you let me know!

Must dash shortly and get some dinner on the table. In the meantime, a humourous anecdote for you. One of those bizarre random London interactions with urban fauna. I was at the computer the other weekend and happened to glance outside the window. What did I see but one of the local fox population -- one that lives near the rubbish bins behind the parking lot of the apartment building next door --stretched out and sunning itself on the roof of the green soft-top sportscar that parks in space number 36. It had actually climbed up the car to get on top of the roof. How on earth it started doing that, I shall leave you all to ponder.

28 May 2006

Portfolio on the brain

Sorry for the inexcusably long hiatus between posts. Suffice to say that real life has been encroaching onto blog time in a Major Way, but Chefette is starting to get things under control.

As you probably remember (I've been droning on about it enough!), the deadline is approaching for our portfolios to be handed in. Come Tuesday 30th May, all students have to turn in their tomes, with a minimum of 8 three course menus and 8 lists (each one a separate category with at least 15 dishes, eg 'Hot Starters' or 'Poultry and Game Main Courses'), together with a bibliography of all recipes. We also have to include a cv, and complete a costing exercise for a major banquet of 400 diners.

After multiple afternoons and evenings spent goggle eyed in front of the computer, I'm now about 95% done-- everything except the updated cv, which I will be polishing off tomorrow morning. The menus weren't too hard. Once you think of a theme or an occasion, it's not too much of a stretch to propose some appropriate dishes, as long as you let seasonality be your guide. To give you an example, for my Spring Bistro Lunch menu, I've suggested a salad of baby leeks and asparagus, followed by a main course of roast duckling with honey and spices, and a dessert of rhubarb & strawberry pie.

The hard part has been the lists. I must have combed through 30+ cookbooks during the past month, trying to put together lists with sufficient balance and variety, that will appeal to a wide range of palates, yet wouldn't be too hard to do if you had to cook them for 50 people. And of course you have to keep economics in mind-- you won't make much money if all you're turning out is lobster and ribeye, as expensive ingredients tend to eat into your gross profit!!
All I can say is bring on Tuesday evening, when the yoke will have been lifted and I shall be experiencing a newfound feeling of liberation to have the whole thing turned in.

In the meantime, the regular classwork ticks on. We made croissants last week, which are a labour of love to say the least. They need to be made over three days to let the flavour develop. Lots of stages, with rolling out and layering butter, and popping the dough in and out of the fridge at various points in the process to allow for rising and then chilling into shape. I wish I could say they were not worth the effort, but they were utterly delicious, and about 10 times better than the version at my local supermarket. (Of course, the ones in Paris are yet another 10 times better still ...)

The other experience of note was getting to go on a tour of Billingsgate fish market (at in the morning, of course). The quality, variety and freshness of the seafood there was glorious to behold. We saw metal filing drawers flat and wide enough to accommodate architect blueprints that were filled to bursting with wriggling eels. Styrofoam boxes the size of dinner tables covered with shining John Dory. And best of all were the lobsters, live in tanks and feisty as playground bullies. A merchant pulled one out of the tank that was as long as a putter from claws to tail. He estimated its weight at over 25 pounds (!), and said it would cost over 150 pounds to buy. Fortunately for Chefette, he had some smaller ones available, and she took a couple home for dinner with the husband that night. They fulfilled their destiny by being simply boiled and served with chive butter. A taste of heaven.

16 May 2006

Stuck indoors

A little pity, if you please, for Chefette. As the weather has begun to turn sunny, and all of London is out strolling in parks or sipping Pimm's at sidewalk tables, she's had to spend more and more time shut up in the flat in full-time study mode. Last weekend, it was preparation for the wine exam. Or, to give its full name, the Wine and Spirits Education Trust's Level 2 Examination, which we took yesterday.

I basically spent all of Saturday afternoon and most of Sunday revising everything we'd covered in the past 16 weeks. To give you an idea of what was covered on the exam, we had to know the basic factors important in winemaking, the characteristics of the most popular international grape varieties, and the key regions where they're grown (including both premium and bulk wine production). We also had to know about the different tasting profiles for the style of wines produced in different countries and regions, as well as the labeling terms and production methods. To top it off, there were sections of the test on sparkling wines, fortified wines, liqueurs and spirits, as well as food & wine matching and the principles of good storage and service.

Fortunately -- and thanks in large part to sympathetic efforts of the husband, who quizzed me for almost two hours on Sunday -- the exam went pretty well, and I hope I'm set up for a high mark. In fairness, I should perhaps admit that there was an extra motivation to study hard for this particular exam (in addition to the warm, happy glow that comes from academic excellence, I mean). Each year at school, the top wine student wins a prize, which includes a wine tour in France. Sounds fun, n'est-ce pas? Anyway, I'm not sure I've done enough to come top. But a girl can hope, can't she?

Not all was wonderful news yesterday. Chefette had her mid-term assessment with the Scotsman, and the marks for her classroom food are not as good as they have been in previous terms. The situation isn't completely dire, but it's not great either. Classroom marks are awarded in various categories on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 the lowest and 5 the highest. To get points towards your end of term score, you have to get at least a 4 (which is awarded 0.75 points) or a 5 (which is 1 point). Last term at the mid-term stage, I had pretty much all 4s and 5s, with a few 3s. To pass, you have to have at least 1 point in every category by the end of term. So far this term, out of a total of 31 marks, I have 8 5s, 11 4s, and 12 3s. Not as good as I would like!!

The Scotsman's take on it all is that I'm still doing pretty well, and I should relax about the whole thing. He says I need to have more fun in the kitchen, and stop putting pressure on myself. If I chill out and have more fun, the marks will come, and the food I put out will be better. Probably he's right, but when you're a slightly obsessive A-type, that kind of relaxation doesn't come easy. If I goof something up, I tend to get angry with myself and then instead of focusing on how to fix it, I get frustrated and make stupid mistakes on other things. This is exactly what happened last Friday. When I didn't go a good job of browning my lamb fillet, the next thing you know I over-reduced my jus, then undercooked my lamb in the oven, then missed my service time by 10 minutes. I ended up plonking all of the food down on my plate in a frustrated humpf, whereas if I was thinking logically I would have simply (a) let down my jus with water to the right consistency, and (b) tested my lamb for doneness with a skewer.

In the meantime, there are more weekends to spend indoors. I've realised now that there are only two weeks left before we have to hand in portfolios, during which time I've still got 6 more menus to create, a few more lists to polish off, my CV to update, and a major costing exercise to get started on. Apologies to all you friends I never see!!

08 May 2006

Little niggles

For any of you regular readers, you'll know that the words 'Chefette' and 'successful pastry' don't often go together in the same sentence. I did get a break last Friday, though-- I managed to crank out a pretty tasty batch of sablee biscuits. And not just me. The Scotsman said they were by far and away the most successful pastries we had made as a class.

The serious cooking, though, was on Saturday. And come to think of it, on Friday night as well! Anyway, what sparked this hive of activity chez Chefette was that the Husband's former boss was coming over to dinner with her boyfriend. She's one of those high-flying, high-achieving City gals who eats out a fair bit, and who knows her food. Not to mention being a natural born socialiser and networker-- it was she who got me the introduction to the head chef at Le Caprice. So, in thanks for her help with my getting the Caprice gig (and in the secret hope that she might hire me as a caterer or recommend me to friends at some point in the future), I obsessed about menus for a few days, and then dove headfirst into the kitchen, hoping to turn out some decent nosh that would knock her socks off.

Organization-wise it went pretty well. I managed to get the first course and dessert done on the Friday night, so all I had to do was the main course and my sauces/garnishes on Saturday. Took things at a relaxed pace, and was fairly in control. First course was a ballotine of salmon, garnished with keta (a sort of caviar made from salmon roe) and creme fraiche. Main course was a marinated, butterflied leg of lamb with bubble & squeak parcels and a red wine jus. Dessert was a hazelnut and espresso cake, served with cream. The Husband and I even managed to sneak in an impromptu cheese course before the dessert, when we remembered at the last minute that there was a wedge of flavourful, melty brie from Neal's Dairy Yard in the cheese drawer of the fridge. (Purely to do justice to the red wine that the guests had brought, you understand...)

The salmon ballotine came out really well, and I'd definitely make it again for a summer meal or a buffet. But the rest of the meal could have been better, if I'm honest. The lamb was meltingly tender, but it wasn't as pink as I would have liked. (Lesson learned-- don't get too chatty with your guests and forget the time!!) Also, the bubble & squeak parcels were a teensy bit overdone and the cake was ever so slightly underbaked. (At least on the cake, I don't think the High Flyer noticed, since she professed a love for it and asked me to send her the recipe.)

It's funny, but even though my cooking has been improving, it doesn't always seem that way. I suppose I'm starting to see the little niggles more and more. I read once that the mark of a truly top chef is that he'll cook everything the right way all the time, as a matter of routine. Even if he's only boiling a simple plate of green beans at home, he'll make sure they're all perfect. Contrast to Chefette's case, where she can get dishes 95% there, but can still make little mistakes. All I can hope is that I'm at least learning from them.

29 April 2006

My truffles

They're a bit bashed up from bouncing around inside a hard plastic container on the cycle ride home across London's potholes, but nevertheless here's what they look like.

28 April 2006


Today was an all-day chocolate workshop at school. Between the hours of 10.00 and 16.00 BST, Chefette and her fellow etudiants de cuisine ...
  • tempered chocolate using both the 'tabling' method and the 'seeding' method
  • made and flavoured our own individual batches of ganache
  • created our own truffles
  • baked chocolate puddle cakes
  • formed teardrop-shaped dark chocolate cups using acetate
  • filled the cups with white chocolate mousse
Okay. There are probably a few friends out there reading this who are, shall we say, of a chocoholic bent. You know who you are. But before you exclaim, 'Wow, nothing could be better than making (and eating) chocolates all day!!' Allow me to enlighten you to the less glamourous side of the chocolatier's art.

For one thing, working with chocolate is messy. When tempering it (to give it a nice shine and a crisp shell), you have to keep heating it up, cooling it, and trying to hold the chocolate at 29-31C, while you paint it into little moulds with small paint brushes, and swipe great blobs of it out onto trays, tables, etc at various points. Not to mention that you have to keep checking and taking out the chocolate thermometer every few minutes to wipe it off in an attempt to get a more accurate reading, thus enabling more dripping and smearing. Naturally, during all this palaver the warm chocolate gets everywhere, and then dries itself in big, streaky clumps as it sets up. Et voila! Instant mess. (I must admit, though, that it was amusing to see the build-up of little chocolate smears on everyone's faces, arms, aprons, etc.)

The other negative I discovered is that making, tasting, smelling and cleaning up after all that chocolate can put you over the edge. Makes you feel downright chocolated out. We were unanimous by the end of the afternoon that (a) we didn't even want to look at another chocolate, and (b) if we did happen to look at another chocolate, it would make us feel really queasy.

But my truffles turned out pretty well for a first go. In the outer dark chocolate shell, I inlaid a drizzle pattern of white chocolate. The central filling (called a ganache), I flavoured with some dark rum and vanilla. So hopefully in a couple of days my appetite for chocolate will go back to normal, and I'll want to eat them. Anyway, I'll post up a photo of my six best truffles, so have a look and tell me what'cha think.

Tasting with an open mind

Got a reminder this week that it's really important to taste things with an open mind. We had an advanced meat demonstration on Thursday, with all sorts going on: thyme wrapped lamb, ox cheek daube, roast duckling, pressed tongue, ballotine of chicken and wild mushrooms, braised lamb's tongues, crepinette of chicken, roast suckling pig, and braised pig trotters. When I'd seen the list of dishes, the last thing on my mind was that the lamb's tongues would be the best dish, but they were fantastic. I am absolutely going to make them at home (provided, of course, that I can figure out a way to camouflage them so the husband doesn't know what he's eating. When it comes to lamb's tongues, I suspect his is a negative predisposition). They tasted like the most tender, slow-roasted succulent pieces of lamb you've ever eaten, and were served with a Madeira sauce on a bed of spinach. The ox cheek daube was also very tasty.

Off to Paris for the weekend. Don't forget you all to tell me what you are eating over this bank holiday!

22 April 2006

Back at school

Chefette started back at school this week. And with the exception of a couple of choice saddle sores (as the old posterior muscles get accustomed to the cycling commute once again), it feels good to be returning for the final term.

Happily, on our first day back, the Scotsman announced that he will no longer give us weekly assignments of who we have to work with. We are now allowed to partner ourselves up each week, and can therefore tactfully avoid working with anyone who gets under our skin in the kitchen. For me, this means not having to be paired up with Shwambo. Which realisation brings unrestrained glee! The only caveat is that we can't be with the same person every week. I spent last week working very productively and contentedly with a posh lady in her early 50s, whom I shall call Berkshire. (I know for a fact she's not from Berkshire, but her accent is so plummy and she's so well mannered that she positively exudes Home Counties breeding.) Suffice to say that she's polite and sensible, we get on swimmingly in the kitchen, and we've agreed to partner up whenever possible this term.

Food-wise, I got off to an okay start last week. My first attempt at making puff pastry -- the hardest of the layered pastries -- wasn't too bad, and nor was my vanilla panna cotta with rhubarb and strawberries. But my presentation is still far short of restaurant standard, and I worry about getting left behind when I see the creativity of some of my fellow students. I have got to pull up my socks. And soon. We are supposed to be presenting restaurant-standard food by the end of this term, which means I have less than 9 weeks to get into gear. The realisation has sunk in that I've got to learn to imagine how to make a dish look better in my head well before the cooking has started. So far, the Scotsman has been too polite to tell me that my presentation skills are rubbish, but it's clear that he has sussed out my weakness. He has started giving me polite, sotto voce suggestions of what might look more attractive ...

The other thing that's going to be hard this term will be the battle to stop the expanding waistline. Food I brought home from class yesterday included fillet steak en croute, chicken liver pate with brandy, and a mixed salad consisting of green leaves garnished with lardons (fried), black pudding (also fried), and pigeon breast (yes, you guessed it, fried). Not exactly diet fare! And next week's lesson plan includes making gateau pithivier (frangipane encased in puff pastry) and a day-long chocolate workshop, making chocolate truffles, ganache, white chocolate mousse, and chocolate puddle cakes. Perhaps if I keep cycling everywhere and up my intake of baked fish??

I'm off now for a work experience day at an events caterer, helping them out on a wedding in Chelsea. I'll spend half the day at their kitchen doing mise-en-place, before accompanying them this afternoon to the venue. Am hoping to pick up some good banquet tips (and make some more contacts).

13 April 2006

Learning from the big boys

A busy couple of weeks for Chefette, what with work experience at Le Caprice, two separate visits from family, and numerous attempts to perfect her hollandaise ahead of the upcoming country house weekend with friends (when she will be making eggs benedict for 17). But, as is becoming ingrained into the fibre of my being, a good chef must Never Say No to a bit of hard work. Coz let's face it, a bit of hard work is really the only way to become efficient.

And if I learned anything from Caprice, it's that there are zillions of ways I can become more efficient. That place has loads of systems in place. Systems that have been honed over time. That everyone knows, from chefs to waiting staff down to lowly kitchen porters. So even if disaster strikes from out of the blue (such as a porter accidentally dropping a bucket of oil over the chargrill during service), things just keep ticking over nicely as the fire extinguishers are spraying.

For one thing, the mise-en-place was far more organised than anywhere else I've been to date. All the meat and seafood, and anything prepared in the fridges / freezers, was either individually clingfilmed or vac-packed. Everything was date stamped and on trays. All the ingredients except herbs and salad leaves were weighed and portioned out exactly for service. And every chef de partie communicated what needed doing with their counterparts before the next shift.

Perhaps the most fun part was getting to watch the chef orchestrate a busy service at the passe. At first it all looks like mayhem. The orders are flying in, and the chef is barking them out in a rapid fire, barely discernible shorthand code. The line chefs, who are already trying to concentrate on cooking and keeping straight 5 separate items for 2 different tables, must acknowledge with a loud 'oui' the new lists of items as they are shouted out, and try to watch out for which order is up next. But the longer I watched, the more I could discern the organisation in the chaos. The way the chef would replenish new haddock portions a couple at a time to the girl on the deep dryer as she would cook off orders. The way the cold section chef would co-ordinate with the hot line chefs (anticipating how many minutes it would take them to finish their risotto, or warm up the base of the onion tart) to ensure that hot and cold starters for the same table arrives at the passe simultaneously. The way the printed tickets would move from the 'starter away' position to the 'main away' row.

Besides watching service, I had plenty of jobs to do. Most of them (let's be honest) were the at the less-than-glamourous end of the spectrum. I prepped a bucket of onions the size of a deep snare drum for lyonnais. I did finely diced shallots by the gallon container. I rolled out and cut up biscuit dough into 4cm x 10cm leaves. Not to mention picking over trays of herbs, washing and prepping cartons of watercress, iceberg, leeks, etc. But the compensating factors were myriad. I learned the right way to cook white asparagus (poach briefly in a cooking liquor of water acidulated with lemon juice, plus salt and a little sugar, and remove from heat completely to finish cooking and cooling in the same pan). I tasted wild garlic, wild chervil, and bitter cress for the first time. And best of all I got to help out on the cold station during one lunchtime service, plating up salads that actually got served to customers. (Cue brief moment of glowing pride.)

I was meant to have two days with them, but I managed to convince the chef to let me come in for a third day. Secretly, I would have loved an extra three or four days, but at least things ended on a good note-- he very generously let me take a few recipes with me, and also gave me a Le Caprice cookbook as a parting gift.

Tomorrow the husband and I leave for the country house weekend. I've done my prep lists for the two meals that I will be responsible for, and have already had an email from one of the other guests offering to help out in the kitchen (thank the Lord), so hopefully things will all go smoothly. Friday night will be a pasta al forno with garlic bread and green salad. And Saturday brunch will be eggs benedict, accompanied by fruit salad, sauteed mushrooms, hash browns, and bread baskets.

Toodle pip.

02 April 2006

Exam results and prematch nerves

Chefette is just back from a lovely weekend in Paris. Some top notch food, as per usual. Breakfast on Saturday included a meltingly luscious pain au raisin from the delightful artisan boulangerie that is a mere 5 minutes walk from the flat. (Yes, you are allowed to be jealous.) Also a delicious Thai buffet brunch at the Blue Elephant on rue de la Roquette, which the husband and I enjoyed earlier today. Highlights were the Thai beef salad with fresh mint, the lobster & celery cooked in coconut milk (a dish with the texture of a velvety, yet chunky, curry) and the banana cake with bits of fresh grated coconut. Mmm.

Anyway, on arriving back to London, I walked through the door to find an envelope with my exam results. Thankfully, the upshot of which was I did better than expected on the practical. Certainly not perfect, but on an encouraging note the principal added a handwritten message which said "your blind-tasting food mark in the exam was one of the highest." A nice confidence booster.

And it comes at a perfect time. Tomorrow morning I report in at 8am for one of two work experience days at Le Caprice, a top kitchen in London. Am Really Nervous!! But looking forward to it as well, learning a bit about how a class joint is run.

22 March 2006

I have survived

Well it certainly wasn't pretty. But Chefette has survived her end-of-term exams in one piece.

Monday was the written exam, which will account for 15% of our marks for the intermediate term. We won't find out how we did for another couple of weeks, but I'm pretty confident that I'll hit the pass mark. Most of questions were fairly easy, in that you could anticipate and prepare for the sorts of things they would ask on the major methods, recipes, and ratios. But the examiners definitely lobbed in a few googlies. Like a big section on game, which we only covered in the previous term. And some pretty detailed wine questions on New World wines, which I don't know as well as France, Spain and Italy.

But that was the side show. The main event came Tuesday. The practical exam, a.k.a. the Big, Scary One. You can imagine the atmosphere. You're trying to achieve maximum efficiency, speed and skill while under the examiners' gaze, as they silently watch you cook an ambitious menu in four and a half hours, scribbling down notes on their papers. In an ideal world, of course, you'd be the epitome of non-stop concentration, have effortless speed, and would cook each dish to utter perfection. Or even to the standard to which you usually cooked during class. But the pressure of the clock is there, and it's easy to do stupid things you wouldn't normally do, or to panic when you get behind your timeplan.

On the day of the exam, we all arrived at the school in time to be dressed and in the dem room at 8.30am, with our timeplans and knife rolls. At 8.45, we were taken up to the kitchens, and given half an hour to weigh up ingredients. A good amount of time, but certainly not long enough to get everything weighed up. Then at 9:15, we started to cook. We were to serve 2 cheese souffles each at 12.45pm (with 5 minutes leeway either side). Then at 1.15pm we were to serve the rest of the dishes, namely:

  • A pan fried sirloin steak served medium rare
  • bearnaise sauce
  • potatoes of our choice, to complement the steak
  • turned carrots
  • coffee bavarois
  • pate frollee biscuits (almond pastry)
  • chelsea buns with apricot glaze
At 1:20, we all had to vacate the kitchens, hopefully with everything laid out on our tables for service.

In my case, the problem wasn't doing anything particularly stupid. I just wasn't as efficient as I should have been, and was playing catch up for most of the day. I had a nice, soft dough for the Chelsea buns, but the softness of the dough meant that mine took a bit longer to knead than others', and so I was 15 minutes behind my timeplan from about 10am onwards. I almost forgot my biscuits while trying to multi-task (making apricot glaze, sauteing potatoes and checking chelsea buns simultaneously). Fortunately, I managed to save them just before they went too dark.

Then I had to crank to get my souffles out at 12.45, overcoming a mild panic when my souffle base was really lumpy. (Managed to save it by whisking out the lumps aggressively with a sauce whisk.) But by that time I was a bit mentally exhausted, and was making stupid mistakes. Like not allowing enough time for my steak and my carrots. When the examiner said we could call for second service, my steak was still rare and my carrots were well undercooked. But somehow I managed to get everything plated up, and so scraped though by the skin of my teeth. I've no idea what my mark was, but one of the junior examiners took pity on us and told those of us who'd passed. Fortunately for me, I wasn't the only one who had problems. No one in kitchens 2 or 3 served on time, so I suspect there were a few underdone steaks. And at least 2 people failed (out of a total of 15), and will be offered retakes.

Thankfully it's all over now, and I can concentrate a few fun cooking escapades ahead. To whit. Making an empanada for the class party on Friday. And helping cook for a group of friends at a country house weekend over Easter, when we will be celebrating several birthdays.

I'll keep you all posted of any highlights over the break.

13 March 2006

Approaching exams

A very brief post from Chefette today, as there's not a whole lot to report. Much of our time last week was focussed on revising for end-of-term exams, and we had two afternoon revision sessions in lieu of demonstrations. The theory exam will be on Monday 20th March, followed by my practical exam on Tuesday 21st.

We do have one big assignment coming up before the exams, namely dinner party cooking on Thursday of this week. All of us have been assigned into groups of 3 or 4, and we will spend a morning cooking a three course meal for ourselves and 3-4 people from another class. We will then serve the meal while entertaining our guests, before cleaning up and getting a debriefing from our teachers.

It all sounds nice and straightforward, but it's slightly complicated by the fact that the Scotsman had the not-so-brilliant idea of assigning us into groups, rather than letting us decide our own teams. In my particular case, he managed to assign to the group two of the students in the class who don't get on, and who barely even speak to each other. One of them is, to be frank, a bit of a lad who always comes to class late, who never knows the assignments, and who really doesn't take the course very seriously. While all the other groups have had two or three group meetings over the past few weeks, we have yet to have one meeting where all 3 of us were together at the same time. We have managed to put together a menu -- minestrone soup with foccacia bread, followed by pappardelle with wild boar ragu and a chocolate fondant pudding for dessert -- but still have not got ourselves organised enough to get a group timeplan together. I suspect it will be myself and the other responsible guy who will end up doing the lion's share of the work this week ...

And now off to school for our last week of term before exams. Lots of revision ahead!

04 March 2006

Terry and Peter. And learning to skin an eel.

If Chefette were to tell you that there's been a renaissance in food in Britain since the 1970s, she probably wouldn't be telling you anything you didn't already know. Everyone who lived in or visited Britain during that time has their horror stories from the olden days. Of dry overcooked roasts and thin watery gravy. Of refried chicken and chips. Of reconstituted custard with a thick, unnatural skin. And of rope-like Christmas turkeys with soggy brussels sprouts, all washed down with Liebfraumilch.

Oh how far the mighty pendulum has swung. On Saturday I was at Borough Market, fighting my way through the hordes in search of a shoulder of wild boar, juniper berries and a free range chicken. The quality and variety of the food on display continues to improve, and was positively breathtaking. There were boxes of fresh morels graded into various sizes. Razor clams and octopus on the fishmongers slab. (I've no idea who took these pictures of the market, but I found them on Flikr they kind of capture the spirit of the place.)

Anyway, there are a lot of good things happening in British markets and kitchens today, for which I am truly thankful. But I am also coming to realise that there have always been Brits who knew and cared about food in Britain. Who tried to serve the best food they could, and were proud to bring it to you.

I got to meet two such gents last Tuesday. Two butchers -- Terry and Peter -- who have been coming to the school for years and years. They were doing the first of two Meat Appreciation days for our class. They brought in 3 gigantic cuts -- a whole lamb, a side of pork, and a forequarter of beef -- and proceeded to butcher them for us in succession on a massive table, explaining all the different cuts and showing us different ways to bone them out.

Terry was the real character. 82 years old, and full of enthusiasm for life. He didn't do any of the large butchery cuts, but he did do all the trimming, boning and dressing of the various joints. He worked at Smithfield meat market in London over four decades, and had the tales and the wisecracks to prove it. He also gave us insight into the typical margins & business methods of modern butchers.

His colleague Peter was also thoroughly knowledgeable and experienced. He had that effortless, flowing efficiency of a really skilled artisan as he slashed, cut and sawed. He described the attributes of the animals and the details of the various cuts really clearly, all the while giving us the butcher's insight into what he was doing. Such as different ways he would cut the belly of pork depending on whether or not it's summer barbecue season!

Anyway, as a result of these fellows we learned all sorts of useful things, like how to determine the sex of a lamb carcass, and the virtues of thick end belly pork. I bought a thick end belly off them after the demonstration for only £7.50, and when I cooked it off, it made a positively delicious roast that could easily have served 8, with loads of crisp and melting crackling. Even better, the leftovers have kept the Husband and I in pork stir fry and pork fried rice these past couple of days ...

The butchering theme continued on Thursday, when the Scotsman announced in his fish demonstration that -- although it was strictly voluntary -- for anyone who wanted to watch, he was going to demonstrate killing and skinning an eel at 1.30. Naturally, Chefette had to witness this. (You knew it was going to be interesting when you saw several of the other teachers come by to watch as well.)

He pulled out a live, but slightly groggy eel of just about a meter in length from a cardboard box, where it had been wrapped in a wet tea towel. He stunned it first, by giving it a strong chop with the blunt end of a cleaver just behind the vent on the belly. Then, while it was unconscious, he put a hook through its jaw up into it's skull to kill it instantly. The other end of the hook he attached to the tap above the sink. He then gutted and cleaned it, before proceeding to make very shallow cut around the circumference of the neck just behind the head. To finish, he loosened the thick neck skin, then grabbed a pair of pliers and using a very high degree of force proceeded to pull away the skin in one long inside-out piece, like removing a knee sock. Quite an impressive feat! (I asked him later how many eels he'd skinned, and he said at least a couple of dozen.)

Ciao for now.

PS: For those of you who asked for it, see comment for the Peter Gordon biscotti recipe.

25 February 2006

Happiness, pride and relief on Lamb Day

As you can imagine, Chefette had a moment to savour this week. Her First Ever Cheque for catering services. Truly, although it is a mere fraction of previous pay slips awarded for the sweat of her brow during the investment banking days, she is infinitely happier. People, give in to your career change desires!

Anyway, my kitchen karma was dire at the start of the week. On Tuesday, I served undercooked chicken (a spatchcock poussin, in this case), had an insufficiently reduced sauce (too acidic and runny!!), and then missed my dessert service time by around 25 minutes. Not the most auspicious omen before the dinner party.

But it all turned around, and by Thursday I was in the zone. We had "creative lamb" that day, and had to serve a boned, stuffed shoulder of lamb per 2, along with an individual leg of lamb dish of our choice, with two garnishes. I did a Nigella Lawson recipe for marinated, butterflied leg of lamb, along with saute potatoes and a skewer of grilled marinated vegetables. It was a variation of dishes I'd done before, and so felt in control of the whole process and pretty pleased with the result. Things went so smoothly, I had time to make the gravy for the shoulder, and felt proud when my partner said he liked it. Felt even more proud when he proceeded to drink around 300 mls of it directly from a jug at room temperature. Hit all my service times that day, and even managed to help out a fellow student who was "in the weeds", by giving her one of my vegetable skewers to present when her dish didn't happen.

So I guess all of that good luck with lamb put me in a really relaxed mood before the dinner party (where I was cooking rack of lamb). I had done quite a bit of mise-en-place in the preceding days (racks of lamb french trimmed and dry marinated, stock and sauce bordelaise made, chocolate pots filled in the client's special ramekins, etc.). Not to mention trying out several presentations of dishes on the Husband. So I had a really good idea of how the evening needed to go when I dropped off the food and in a cab at the client's house before school.

And in the end it all went off pretty well. The exacting hostess commented favourably on the presentation of the starter. The lamb came out unevenly, but with enough pieces at medium-to-medium rare to serve out to all the guests with the correct degree of pinkness. The best part was just feeling calm, in control and able to work cleanly at my own natural pace.

The only minor crisis was when the top oven - a proficient but extraordinarily overengineered and tempermental beast that was faintly incompresensible to me - developed a fault and stopped working. Rather than faffing about, I calmly got the hostess, and with the aid of the manual, we managed between the two of us to figure out how to get it going again in about 5 minutes.

When I went to pick up my cheque the next morning, the hostess said she'd definitely use me again before June. And then when she paid, she rounded up the cheque a bit.

Gotta dash now, off to get the Saturday chores done. Will hopefully be making a Chocolate Roulade cake on Sunday morning.

20 February 2006

The DP approaches

'DP' being the big dinner party on 23rd February. Otherwise known as Chefette's First Ever Paying Gig. (Cue drumroll.)

Turns out I'll be cooking for 10 people. Not quite so nerve-wracking as the originally planned 12, but still more than a little daunting.

Menu I'll be doing is:


Bruschetta with slow roast tomatoes & prosciutto


Rack of lamb with a herb & mustard crust
Sauce Bordelaise
Garlic roast potatoes
Fine green beans


Chocolate pots laced with brandy


Please, please send your messages of support for Chefette as the big day approaches. She'll welcome all the positive vibes she can get on this one!

Meanwhile, in class, presentation continues to be a struggle for quite a few of us. The Scotsman now wants us to be visualising our presentation of each dish before we even come into class. His new requirement is that we all have to make a little drawing every day on our timeplans showing how we are going to present each dish. Seeing as I'm rubbish at drawing (and not particularly gifted in terms of 3-D visualisation) I'm not wild about this new edict, but I'm willing to try anything if it will help me improve.

Best experience of the week last week was a demonstration by Peter Gordon, the head chef of The Providores in Marylebone High Street, and big-time advocate of 'fusion' food (using flavours and ingredients with a global perspective). Personality-wise, he was incredibly down to earth and generous with his advice to us students, even if he was somewhat shameless about plugging his new cookbook. He gave us some great recipes, including quite a good venison tataki and a very tasty saute of snails with sherry jus.

But his funniest advice was that, if he really hated something, he always tried to put it on the menu. I'm still not sure I can figure out the logic of this, unless it is just to push yourself into conquering a food phobia. Good advice or no, friends can rest easy that I have absolutely no plans to put andouillette on any of my menus in the near future! (Apologies to the husband, who loves andouillette....)

10 February 2006

Conquering the February blahs

Mes chers amis. Apologies for lack of a post last week. This was partly due to an influx of chores after being in Paris the other weekend, and partly due to the usual wave of unenthusiasm that afflicts me pretty much every February, after enduring the many long weeks of darkness that constitute a London winter. (Londoners, you'll know what I'm talking about.)

On the school front, Chefette also hasn't been terribly enthusiastic about some of the recipes we've been doing lately, which are starting to feel a bit same-y in terms of ingredients. Lots of flour, eggs, cream, butter and cheese. Pretty much all the students in my class are agreed that it's hard to get excited about cheese souffle (which no more than a white sauce with cheese lightened by egg whites) when you've just been doing lots of white sauce with cheese. Although don't get me wrong, we are united in the knowledge that learning souffles is Good For Us. We know we need to know it.

The other class bugbear of the moment -- a skill we have to know for this term, which has the dual sins of being (a) hard to master and (b) completely out of culinary fashion -- is Turning Vegetables. To whit, cutting veg into even sized little barrel shapes with anywhere from 5 to 8 even facets, so that the veg will lie flat on a plate. Took me over half an hour (!) to do just a handful in class last Wednesday.

The Scotsman, bless his heart, sensed my frustration with the little beasties, and when I served he told me I "didn't do too badly with them". However, the ugly reality was that Wednesday simply wasn't my day in the kitchen. I didn't manage to get my Espagnole sauce consistency / flavour right-- having been in such a rush that I served it without having tasted it, a pretty silly and basic mistake for an Intermediate student! Then I proceeded to make the dough for my Chelsea buns without adding egg, and in frustration threw my dough into the rubbish bin. The Scotsman gave me a bit of a stern look when he found out, telling me that I could still have saved it, by incorporating the egg in the Magimix. As it was, I had to come in early the next day and remake my dough. Oh well, live and learn. Won't make that mistake again...

Anyway, the good thing to come out of all these little class frustrations, is an increased self-awareness. I have realised I'm just not the type of student who will always do brilliantly under the time pressure of class-- although I'll still have my good days, there will be a good few bad ones as well. So to compensate I have resolved to practice more at home. And good things are coming from it already. In the past 3 days I've made a 750g bread loaf at home, put together a roast aubergine dip, boned out chicken thighs and cooked them individually wrapped in Serrano ham with fresh sage, and cooked teppan-yaki style beef with shitake mushrooms and spring onions (on the cast iron griddle plate I got for 10 pounds in the sale at Selfridges!)

Best news of all, I've found a full-service catering butcher, Ashby, only two streets away from where I live, and who will do any any small orders I'd like for pick up between 5am and 3pm Monday-Friday. None of the retail butchers I tried before would do bones for stock, even as a special order. Today I rang Ashby asking for veal bones to roast off for stock, and a smoked ham hock. He told me on the phone they could do me a kilo of bones for around £1, but couldn't do a smoked ham hock. Yet when I went to pick up the order, about 2 hours later, the proprietorer said in fact they did have smoked gammons, and he so got one of the butchers to stop what he was doing and cut off a hock for me specially, exactly where I wanted on the joint. Now that's full service. Can't wait to try their best end neck of lamb next week, and get some practice with French trim before my dinner party on the 23rd.

Happy eating to all.

PS: My kitchen is full of the gorgeous smell of roasting veal bones. Wish they had a Smell Option on the Internet that I could waft over the airwaves.

26 January 2006

The wisdom of Auntie

Sorry, Loyal Readers, for a fairly rushed post tonight-- Chefette is off to Paris tomorrow after school for a relaxing weekend with the husband. Or rather, it would under normal circumstances be a relaxing weekend. Instead, it's going to be a busy chore weekend, as we have to get some things done on the flat.

Now normally, the prospect of a chore weekend would cast a bit of a shadow on my mood, as it means no time for a long, slow lunch on Saturday (one of my favourite things to do in Paris). But this time the blow is slightly softened by the fact that I have booked my first ever external catering job. I have been asked to do a dinner party for 10-12 people next month, by a client who wants to hire a student. Thankfully, there's plenty of lead time for me to get organised, make lists, and fit in a couple of practice cooking sessions to see how much I can (successfully) prep in advance.

One of the most well-loved and experienced teachers at the school is always passing along little tips and suggestions for when we start going out on jobs. I'll call her Auntie, as she is in many ways a British version of my Aunt Jeanine, particularly in her enthusiastic fondness for Christmas and for cake decorating (she's the nice one who didn't make me use the Disaster Pastry back in the first term). Anyway, her advice is really good, and she had quite a few pearls of wisdom from the pasta dem today which I thought the ambitious home cook contingent might appreciate.

  • Never wash your pasta rolling machine. Simply brush off excess flour/particles and then rub dry with a clean tea towel. It will never perform as well again if you wash it.
  • Never sprinkle your pasta rolling machine with flour. Instead, put the flour onto the pasta, then roll it through. To sprinkle on the machine gunks up the works.
  • Put a whole handful of salt into a large pot of boiling water for pasta. Italians apparently think anything less makes the pasta taste insipid.
  • Always have an emergency bag of fresh pasta on hand at a job -- ideally homemade -- so that you could make something simple for a finicky eater or unannounced vegetarian at the last minute.

Gotta dash, and get myself packed. A bientot.

20 January 2006

Knowing the price of everything

Chefette begins this week giving thanks and praises to Kiwi chef Peter Gordon, for bequeathing unto the world his recipe for Fruit & Nut Biscotti. Made them in class the other day and was really pleased with the outcome. So generously crammed with apricots, dates, almonds and other little treasures, they make you realise what a rip-off are the ones from Starbucks, Costa, et al. These coffee chains have the gall to charge around £1 for what amounts to a bit of flour, egg and sugar, with the odd sultana or nut inside. In all, probably less than 5p's worth of ingredients. People, I'm outraged that they can get away with it, when there are much more delicious biscotti in the world that wouldn't cost very much more! (Okay, tirade over.)

Other than that, last week's class repertoire focused heavily on traditional gelatine-based puddings of the type that were probably popular in the 1950s and 60s (vacherin, bavarois, cold souffles, etc), and weren't hugely interesting to me. I'm willing to bet, though, that one of these will be on the practical exam. Lots of tricky technique -- mastering the stages of sugar syrups, bringing gelatine mixtures to setting point, folding in whipped egg whites and cream -- all the better to separate the men from the boys on exam day.

Top dem of the week was on Friday. We had an outside presenter come to the school to do a game demonstration. This chap worked previously as personal chef to the Prince of Wales for 11 years, and had several stints with Michelin restos before becoming a food consultant. He did a couple of pheasant dishes, including a crown roast with the breast and a crepinette with the leg meat. But the piece de resistance was a superb dish of pan-fried fillets of hare, served on a mound of earthy lentils and morels that had been enriched with veal stock. (He says that, with the exception of venison, he never uses game stock in game dishes, as it simply makes the taste too strong.)

Anyway, all the while he was cooking, he was tossing out any pearls of wisdom that popped into his head, whether about ingredients, the style of cooking he liked, or showing us successful alternatives to some of the 'rules' we've been taught. The more we get to talk to experienced chefs, the more I've come to realise: that chefs know the price of everything; that in order to be successful, you have to obsess constantly on how to make dishes that are profitable as well as delicious; and that anyone who launches a full-time venture into this cooking malarky at age 40 is going to have a harder time of it than those who started young, just because of the physical demands of the profession!

Last bit of news is that I got a lead on a paying job for a dinner party. A lady wants to hire a student, in the hopes that if the one dinner party goes successfully, they can do a number of dinner parties in the future. Anyway, I don't want to talk about it too much in case I curse it. Suffice to say it was a nice little confidence booster to find out that my name was one of only a few from our class put forward by the Scotsman.

A bientot a tous.

13 January 2006

Steak & guinness pie

WARNING: A sizeable dosage of Chefette's ramblings this week are going to be targeted to the foodies. So for those of you who couldn't care less what temperature hollandaise splits at, or the number of rolls & folds to do when making flaky pastry, she will put the brief non-foodie news item up front for you.

To whit. Found out that Shwambo got practically a perfect score on her practical exam, almost 20 points above Chefette's own humble mark. Cue a couple of hours of grumbling envy within when I found out. (Why oh why does she have to be one of those "perfect" ones with looks, smarts, slimness and brains?) I snapped out of it, though, when I remembered how the Scotsman has openly shown displeasure with her little Naomi-esque mood swings.

Now to the foodie bit.

Made steak & guinness pie for the first time and it was really successful. We cooked the filling over 3 days (!), in increments of about 1 to 1 and a 1/2 hours, fridging in between. We got a really lucious gravy with it, mmmmmmm. As for the flaky pastry, bizarrely it turned out to be easier to make shortcrust pastry, although it took a bit of time. The most critical part is remembering where you are at the various stages of rolls and folds. In class we did 6 rolls and folds in all, then topped the pie dishes, and decorated and glazed them. When it was finished, the top third of the pastry was golden and crisp, the middle third was an accordion of flaky layers, and the bottom third was deliciously soggy with the rich, 3-day gravy.

(The roll & fold bit of flaky pastry sounds harder than it is: Basically, you roll the pastry out into a long, thin rectangle. Fold the bottom third up, and the top third down. Turn it 90-degrees. Seal the edges with your rolling pin, and roll out again. Alternate putting in layers of butter or lard on the pastry between folds, and resting the pastry in the fridge.)

Last little titbit of foodie wisdom concerns how to save a curdled hollandaise. I had managed in class this morning to make a beautiful (if slightly underseasoned) hollandaise, and was holding it in a bain marie while poaching my monkfish. To my horror, my hollandaise completely split about 1 minute later when my head was turned, as the bain marie had become too hot (over 55 degrees C). If this ever happens to you, it's saveable. Immediately get it out of the heat into a cooler bowl. In a second bowl, put a room temperature egg yolk. Then, in the bain marie, gradually incorporate your curdled mixture into your new egg yolk. I can wholeheartedly testify that it works. Memo to self: always have an extra egg at room temperature in case you have an emergency.

On that note, I'm off to cook dinner. Making grilled mackerel tonight, with a risotto starter. Not sure yet whether or not the husband and I will eat the two individual pecan pies brought home from class for our dessert. But I suspect we will, seeing as it is Friday night!

06 January 2006

The canape party

Good news. Chefette's canape party went off without any major hitches, hoorah! Got some nice feedback on the food, especially the mini Yorkshire puddings with horseradish cream and the brownies. Menu below is posted below in case anyone is interested. (To any friends who were there and liked the food, remember to tell your friends that I can be hired for weekends at extremely favourable rates!) Only thing that I fluffed during preparation was the chevre mousse, as I put too much egg white in and couldn't get the correct consistency. Didn't bother to serve that one ...

Other good news is that the husband and I still have 9 (!) bottles of champagne left over from the party for use during the year. It will not be drunk until after the end of January, though. Reason being that the husband and I will be eschewing all booze and getting back into shape for a few weeks as soon as we finish the 40th birthday celebrations tomorrow (lunch at the Ivy).

One thing about turning 40 is that you have to work harder at controlling the waistline. I swear, this month my cooking at home is going to be all about brown rice, fresh vegetables and steamed fish. (Needless to say, all my good intentions are being counteracted during my first week back at school when we have to make beef & guinness pie, creme caramel, and pecan pie!)

Help me be strong.

Canape menu
Spiced mixed nuts
Crostini, spread with:
-Mushroom & black truffle tapenade
-Tomato & mozzarella
-Gorgonzola with marsala
Crudites with 2 dips, hummus & dill mayo
Thai chicken skewers
Herring in sour cream on black rye
King prawns with pesto dip
Mini Yorkshire puddings with roast beef & horseradish cream
Quail's eggs with rosemary scented salt
Mini chocolate brownies
Mini blueberry muffins