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.