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.