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