Practice makes perfect

After last week’s ‘hiccups’ I’ve confined myself to the kitchen cottage over the weekend to practise some of the tricky things that threw me.  Lets start with gnocchi piemontaise, the Italian version of gnocchi made with potato and served with pesto.  Mine tasted great but I struggled with the shape in class.  The recipe said 2 eggs and that’s what Chef Paul used but the ones on my tray were huge and I think that’s why the mixture was too soft.  This time I don’t add all the egg and it’s spot on.  I roll out the potato dough into long thin sausages, cut off 2 cm pieces, roll them into a ball and run each one across the back of a fork to give the ridged affect, before flipping it over on itself and voila!  They were really good but a tiny bit too big.

squares of gnocchi


boiling gnocchi

served gnocchi

The other form is gnocchi Parisienne, made with choux pastry and cheese.  Once again in class my mixture was too runny and it wouldn’t break off nicely as  I piped it into the simmering water.  But I got it the right consistency this time and it turned out really well.  When you cook out the paste you need to make sure you dry it out as much as possible.  Also there’s quite a technique to squeezing the pasta out of the bag and cutting it off.  It takes practice.  And I have an inclination when cooking to make everything bigger than it should be.



pot 2


And lastly, the rhubarb financiers.  The name comes from their popularity in the stock exchange area in Paris.  They are supposed to resemble gold bars. Of course, mine didn’t.  The rhubarb at Martinborough isn’t ready yet so I used frozen raspberries.  I made them in friand tins, hence the design on the bottom.  They were delicious.  I can start the new school week with renewed confidence.  Roll on Monday.


Some days are diamonds and some days are stone

The trouble with writing a daily blog is that when you have a bad day you still have to put pen to paper and I’d much rather sit in a dark room with a cup of tea and forget about lesson 14.  There’s nothing particularly unusual about the menu – pretty standard really – crab bisque, gnocchi Parisienne with passata sauce and rhubarb financiers.   But it’s quite fiddly and there’s a lot of juggling.

I start by peeling off some strips of rhubarb to soak in sugar syrup, dry in the oven and then curl for decoration. Purple splodges of rhubarb juice fly across my work station and splay out onto my Chef’s jacket.  I wash and iron my uniform every day and I’m irked that the practical session starts with me looking a mess.

I check the passata sauce which is in a pot in the oven.  I remember my ghastly experiences in Basic when I’d forget that the pot handles are hot so I take care when lifting out the pot –  not enough care and the palm on my right hand sizzles as a large welt appears.  It hurts as I pull apart and wash the crab. I’m not thinking and I add all 100mls of brandy to the bisque instead of saving 50mls for the end.

Crab bisque underway

Crab bisque underway

Stirring in the eggs to the panada dough for the gnocchi Parisienne takes too much time.  The melted butter for the financier has hardened so I need to remelt it before adding it to the egg whites and dry ingredients.  It just doesn’t look right and my instincts are to start the butter process again, but I don’t.  Big Mistake.  They’re in the oven and the butter has split so instead of being cake like, they are crater like.

The consistency of my gnocchi is not right and I’m having a devil of a job piping neatly shaped 2cm squiggles into the simmering water.  On a positive note I know that they will taste good because I cooked one and added more seasoning before putting the goo into the piping bag.  It’s the only bright spot in an otherwise frustrating and unsatisfactory day in class.  I’m relieved the school week is over. I’m grateful to Michael for picking me up.  And I’m glad I’ve got plenty of Napisan.

Bisque de crabes

Bisque de crabes

Pork, potatoes and a passionfruit pudding

Passionfruit is one of my favourite fruits so I’m looking forward to making the bavarois today.  It’s a classic dessert from the repertoire of 19th century chef Marie-Antoine Careme  and is a mixture of a custard and flavouring, gelatine and whipped cream.  There are some tricky things to watch out for.  If the custard goes over 83 degrees it becomes scrambled eggs. You also have to cool it very fast.  If the water used to soften the gelatine is not cold enough, the gelatine will fall apart, and the cream must be very softly whipped. Everything goes smoothly for me and the only hurdle left is to get them out of the moulds in one piece once they have set, and make them look really pretty.  They take a bit of coaxing but eventually I create the necessary air pocket down the side of the moulds and the rich creamy mounds infused with tropical fruit plop onto the plate.  I take my time with the decoration and feel really chuffed with the result.

My bavarois aux fruits de la passion

My bavarois aux fruits de la passion after Chef’s taste test

Is there a better vegetable dish on this planet than one made with potatoes, onions, butter and more butter?  The lesson includes Pommes Boulangere, so-named because the dish needs long slow cooking, and what better place than a baker’s oven once the bread is done.  It’s not just a matter of slicing the spuds though. This is Cordon Bleu and so we have to cut the potatoes into cylindrical shapes and produce even slices from the dreaded mandolin.  It’s the one word that makes most of us shudder but the class gets through the experience unscathed this time.   The long slow cooking produces a dish of beautifully soft textured potatoes underneath a crispy brown top that glistens with melted butter.  It’s not quite as indulgent as gratin which has cream and cheese but it is easily as tasty.

Pommes Boulangere

Pommes Boulangere

We also make braised chicory.  I don’t get chicory.  The fact that it’s a forced crop grown in complete darkness makes it sound unappealing. And it looks very unappetising on the plate,  is slightly slippery to touch and even though blanching removes the bitterness …  well, it is obviously an acquired taste.

Now pork is something I can get excited about, especially pork cutlet Normandy style which translates into pork, apple, calvados and cream.  Instead of the usual apple sauce, we shape quartered apples into barrel shapes and cook them in butter.  We’re to serve the pork slightly pink.  Mine is too pink and the apples haven’t been cooked slowly enough but the sauce is luxurious.

Cote de porc a la Normande

Cote de porc a la Normandy by Chef Francis

I need help getting all the food home.  It’s not easy juggling 12 bavarois, a container of potato and a plate of pork cutlets on a bike.  What a shame I had to sacrifice the chicory!

A big lesson to start the week

Chef Paul tells us there’s a lot to get through.  It’s a big lesson alright: French onion soup, gnocchi with pesto, and a cold chocolate souffle with coffee Anglaise.  He says we need to allow about an hour for each course.  The soup is all about getting the right intensity of flavour; too much reduction and you’ll only be able to eat a couple of spoonfuls, too little, and it will be insipid and really boring. The gnocchi is about using floury dry potatoes, getting the shape right and not overcooking it, and the souffle, well, there are so many obstacles to getting this right that it gets a paragraph on it’s own.

It’s sort of like a mousse in texture but with more air, and when it’s chilled it sits beautifully above the ramekin, thanks to gelatine and a raised collar. So firstly we have to prepare the ramekin by wrapping a band of acetate around the sides so that it sits about 3 cm above the height of the dish.  It must be even. ( I remember the Genoise sponge last week.)

The prepared souffle, ready for chilling

The prepared souffle, ready for chilling

The filling is a combination of the four bowls of mixture: a sabayon, melted chocolate, meringue and whipped cream, each prepared to precise instructions.  Once mine is in the fridge I feel a sense of relief although it’s taken over an hour and I still have to make the coffee anglaise.

The gnocchi appears the easiest dish in this lesson but my mixture seems too moist, not at all like Chef’s dough.  I gently turn the small squidgy pieces across the back of a fork to get the nice ridges and they only just hold together.  I hope that putting them in the fridge a while will firm them up. The pesto however is a beautiful colour and has an intense taste.

I start on the soup knowing that it will be a chance to test my ability to get the flavour just right.  The onion slicing holds me up.  I’m still painfully slow at preparing vegies and the onions have to be thin, even juliennes.  I’ve reduced the two stocks, veal and chicken, and think they taste pretty good  so in they go with the sweated onions and herbs.  I’m feeling confident that I will have something special to present to Chef.

Not so the gnocchi which I would rather not talk about.  The pieces are too big.  I see that now.  The fridge hasn’t made much difference to the texture.  They start to fall apart in the boiling water and there’s nothing I can do.  I think about not presenting the dish at all which would of course mean scoring 0.  But the pesto is really good so I box on even though I’m not at all proud of the plate.  It’s no surprise that Chef doesn’t say much.

I scuttle back to my work station to plate up the soup and the dessert.  The soup is so good it warrants a hand shake and a huge smile. And the souffle is perfect, as is the coffee Anglaise.

My souffle froid au chocolat, sauce au cafe

My souffle froid au chocolat, sauce au cafe

Soupe a l'oignon avec crouton by Chef Paul

Soupe a l’oignon avec crouton by Chef Paul

Two out of three ain’t bad, but it’s the gnocchi I’m thinking about as I bike home as fast as I can, the gentle evening breeze cooling me down and removing some of the fluster that remains after nearly five hours of intense concentration in a hot kitchen.

The Joys of Pasta

I reckon I’m finally getting the hang of the seasoning thing.  I have been trying to really taste the food and analyse the flavours rather then just hoover it down which is my natural instinct.  You know when you go a restaurant and the food is amazingly good and you wish you could replicate it?  I now know some of the secrets.  One of the basics is, of course, great stock.  Another is really fresh high quality ingredients.  And something that really hits home for me today is the importance of reducing the liquids.  Some of you expert cooks will think that maybe I have been a bit slow to cotton on to this but in my defence I am a pretty impatient person, and it takes time to make a good reduction.  The cream sauce for the tortellini we make today is a good example.   The shallots are sweated, the finely chopped mushrooms added with a bay leaf and then wine is reduced. And then the stock is reduced.  And lastly the cream is reduced.  I taste enthusiastically throughout the whole process to experience how the sauce develops.  When it’s finished it has a depth of flavour that enhances the pasta pockets of veal and a consistency that enables it to nestle around the belly button-like creases of the tortellini.

Tortellini with cream sauce

Tortellini with cream sauce

My tortellini doesn’t start off the right shape and by the chatter around the rest of the room, I’m not the only one who hasn’t quite got the knack. I try not to let my frustration show as Chef Francis tells me they don’t look good – I’ve already done about half and there’s no undoing them.  Luckily I have heaps of veal filling and once Chef shows me the correct technique, I’m off.  I get faster and more accurate with each one and have plenty of perfectly shaped walnut sized pieces to serve at the end of class.

The ravioli filled with spinach and feta is much easier to prepare but it still takes time and patience to cut out each mound the exact same size.  I hardly need to think about the tomato concassee that goes with it.  Blanching, skinning, de-seeding and dicing the tomato for the sauce is almost automatic now.   As is the tasting and seasoning.  I even have time to lightly fry sage leaves to place a crispy green slither on each tortellini.  And it’s Chef who’s stuffed at the end of class having tasted 11 tortellini and 11 ravioli.  It’s a tough job …..

Ravioli with spinach and feta filling

Ravioli with spinach and feta filling, and yes, that is butter around the plate.

Genoise Sponge and Chocolate Pudd

After the hectic pace of the last few weeks, a cake and a pudding look like a doddle.  Sure, it’s a Genoise Sponge that looks like something in the window of a patisserie and the pudding has to spew molten chocolate from a perfectly formed outer crust, but compared to other lessons not too much can go wrong.

Chef Francis

Chef Francis

My risk radar is still  pretty highly attuned.  I have learnt much from my favourite pastime of making duck egg Victorian sponges. (I do also occasionally read books and watch documentaries on telly).   Measurement is going to be critical, as is folding in the dry ingredients and melted butter – and what about the oven?  We are all guilty of opening the oven door too often to check on our precious creations but it could be fatal in this class – but how to deal with it?   I dislike the thought of sounding like a bossy old shrew in class so decide to raise it with Chef.  Will it be important Chef, to keep the oven door closed?  “Ah oui, yes, all cakes in the oven at the same time or you wait.”  Whew!

Another possible hurdle is the buttercream which will smother the cake.  We’re adding butter, and loads of it, to an Italian meringue.  You add a hot syrup (116 degrees) to beaten egg whites and then mix in the butter.  (This is not the type of icing we put on the chocolate and banana cakes we made as kids).  And then, there’s the decorating.

Genoise Sponge

Genoise Sponge

I know I can make a good cake but the fancy stuff often alludes me.  I decide I am going to seriously take my time and maintain 100 percent concentration until the cake is safely delivered in all it’s glory to Chef. I cut the cake in half. Perfect!  I spread it liberally with jam and pipe on the creme chantilly. Perfect.  I start on the buttercream. It’s painfully slow but I get great satisfaction at how it looks.  The flaked almonds cover every single millimeter of the sides.  The buttercream on the top is smooth and rosettes aren’t too bad at all.  I am expecting Chef to be very impressed.  He examines the cake closely,  bends down to eye ball it and declares it is uneven.  One side is slightly higher than the other – only ever so slightly, in fact until he pointed it out I hadn’t noticed.  The fact that the sponge and buttercream were perfect doesn’t matter. It’s about the whole package.

As for the pudding, after 11 and a half minutes cooking and two minutes resting the crust forms on the outside and when Chef cuts into it, the liquid goo spreads out across the plate to the strains of Ooh la la.  And to top it all off it’s a one tea towel day, meaning I was Miss Neat and Tidy.  Now that’s worth celebrating.

Buttometer reading 1935 grams

A complete meal to finish school for the week

Even though I feel dead on my feet, I am looking forward to class.  We’ll be filling the vol-au-vent cases with lamb ragout, making a marinated goat’s cheese salad and using the brioche we made yesterday to make a creamy bread and butter pudding and serving it with an orange and tamarillo compote.

The puff pastry ready for converting into the vol-au-vent full of lamb ragout

The puff pastry ready for converting into the vol-au-vent full of lamb ragout

The finished product

The finished product

Once the lamb is simmering away in stock, cepes and vegies, I start the two syrups for the oranges and tamarillos and put the oranges on to blanch.  I get distracted and leave them too long.  They look mushy.  I have to peel off the rind to julienne it, and then fillet out each orange segment.  I have to be so careful because they are too soft. It takes ages.  I’m going to be one of the last to finish again.  But the two syrups are looking and tasting incredible.   The orange syrup has palm sugar and spices like cloves and cardamon and the tamarillo one has red wine, cinnamon and mint.  They are fragrant and beautifully coloured.

Orange and tamarillo compote

Orange and tamarillo compote

The brioche pudding is a flash version of the traditional bread pudding. Circles of brioche layer the bottom and top of small ramekins, a few cherries and sultanas are added and a custard is poured over the top.

Brioche Pudding

Brioche Pudding

I’m thinking the salad is the easiest component today. We just have to marinate the goat’s cheese, grill it lightly on a crouton, and serve with the greens and vinaigrette.  The vinaigrette tastes good – a bit of a tang but not too much.  The goat’s cheese, marinated in hazlenut oil and herbs sits nicely on a shaped crouton.

Salade tiede de fromage de chevre

Salade tiede de fromage de chevre

I’m up at Chef’s table for his opinion, feeling pretty happy.  He tastes the cheese.  Good!  Then he pulls up a few pieces of green leaves out of the salad.  Presentation could be better.  I thought I had done better this time but clearly there’s room for improvement.  The pudding meets his approval.  The lamb ragout needs more sauce but he likes the taste. It’s only a really good day when all the components of the all the dishes meet the rigorous standards of Le Cordon Bleu.  After all that’s how it has to be in a restaurant.  Other students seem a bit subdued as the week comes to a close.  The pot kitchen is usually filled with lively banter and teasing but tonight there’s no chatter, only the endless clanging of pots, spraying of water and he odd expletive as yet another pile of filthy dishes appears.

Buttometer reading 1545 grams

A lamb dish to die for

I get into school early knowing that there is no overnight miracle that will have turned my puff pastry into anything remotely close to being useable.  Chef Paul knows as well.  He takes me into the prep kitchen where he has started a new batch for me.  What can I say?  I get my own one-on-one Masterclass.  He will roll turn and rest three times while I am in the demonstration class.  I will have the best pastry to produce the pithivier today and the vol-au-vent tomorrow.  And the pay off?  I have to prove to him that I can make it myself.  On the way to school I had picked up a huge bag of bakers’ flour and a tray of butter knowing that I can’t complete the course without mastering puff pastry, and aren’t I making a meal of it?

If I thought yesterday’s class was hectic, today’s is even busier and Chef Francis starts the demonstration telling us that workflow will be very important if we are to get through it all at anything like a reasonable hour. The lamb navarin he creates for us is truly spectacular.  The lamb is so tender, the sauce is rich and tasty and the vegies are spot on. I think this dish engenders more oohs and aahs than any other so far.

Chef Francis's lamb navarin in the making

Chef Francis’s lamb navarin in the making

His pithivier is equally delicious – an enclosed puff pastry case filled with frangipane.


Chef’s Pithivier

We also need to produce brioche for tomorrow’s class.

There’s a real buzz of activity in the kitchen today. Chunks of  lamb shoulder are being browned, food mixers are whirring with the eggy brioche mix, and pastry is being rolled to 4 mm (yes seriously, it has to be that precise). We’ll also be turning the vegetables later for the navarin.  Chef bustles around the kitchen trying to keep us all on track. He’s constantly asked questions as he does his rounds.  He needs to check the consistency of all the brioche before we add the butter.   I feel sort of under control although conscious that I haven’t turned vegetables for a while – always a challenge.

Chef Francis is aghast when he sees that my brioche isn’t yet in the prover.  The dough has to double in size, be knocked back, placed in the blast chiller and then cooked for about half an hour.  Yes, it’s going to be a late night.  Thanks to Chef Paul the pastry of my pithivier is great but I don’t achieve the required gloss it needs.  Others did, so I can’t blame the oven even though I’m pretty sure I did what was asked.

It’s service time and I am proud to present my lamb.  It’s really good.  Well it had to be, didn’t it? Imagine the only kiwi girl in the class not producing a great lamb dish!

My lamb dish

My lamb dish

Buttometer reading 1410 grams

Puff pastry, pistou and prunes

Class starts at 3pm so it’s going to be a late night with puff pastry, soup and a tart to get through.  I need to incorporate 750 grams of butter into a kilo of flour for the puff pastry.   There are ten vegies to prepare for the pistou soup plus the pistou itself to make and croutons.  And the sweet tart has a very short pastry (which means as little handling as possible) and a filling of almond cream, batter and prunes soaked in armagnac.

I messed up the puff pastry in Basic and despite my good intentions and best efforts, I do the same here and Chef Paul needs to rescue me.  A quick explanation for those of you who haven’t attempted this before.  You make a dough and after it’s rested you roll it out into a large rectangle and sit a 750 gram slab of butter on 2/3rds of it.  It’s then all about folding and rolling, folding and rolling.  My butter’s too hard or too thick or both and the dough’s gone soft. Chef expertly cajoles the pastry into shape but we’re not sure it’s going to be enough.  With little enthusiasm I suggest I start again but Chef says let it rest a while and we’ll see.  I try not to let it throw me as I start on the soup but I need that pastry over the next few days for sweet pastries and  vol-au-vent cases.

On with the gorgeous pistou soup – seasonal vegetables, some  cooked in stock, others blanched and added at the last minute along with the pistou itself, which is like pesto minus the pinenuts.  You have to cook the vegies in stages to get maximum colour,  flavour and nutrients starting with sweating the root vegies to bring out the sugars, and then simmering them in stock.

Soupe au Pistou

Soupe au Pistou

It’s 10 o’clock before my filled tart goes into the oven. It seemed to take ages to blind bake and then it had to cool before I could add the fillings. I know I’m going to be the last to present my tart to Chef.  But the soup’s ready.  To my taste buds it’s seasoned well, the vegetables are perfectly cooked, the croutons are crisp and garlicky and the parmesan has browned on top.  To Chef’s taste buds it needs a bit of oomph.  In fear of overcooking the vegies, I haven’t simmered it enough to reduce and enhance the stock.  It’s still pretty good though.  And the tart is good too.  While it’s cooking I have time to fillet orange segments for the top.

My tarte fine aux pruneaux et amandes

My tarte fine aux pruneaux et amandes

It’s been a hard class.  I’m hot and tired.  My face is the colour of beetroot.  My hair is sticking to my head.  It’s after 11 before I get home for a shower, a nice cup of tea and a lie down.   As for the puff pastry ….

Buttometer reading 1045 grams

Pastry swans or in my case ducks

You don’t need to go to the gym if you’re making choux pastry – that is provided you don’t eat the end result.  It’s a serious work out when you do it the Cordon Bleu way, which is by hand, beating in six eggs one at a time until you get a glossy pastry.   Having a bit of a sweet tooth, I am no stranger to the delights of cream puffs and eclairs but there’s a world of difference between the uneven pockets of lusciousness I make at home compared to what is expected here.

Chef's profiteroles

Chef’s profiteroles

I have to pipe three different sized profiteroles filled with creme Chantilly and one lot of eclairs filled with creme patissiere and topped with flavoured fondant.  Now fondant is tricky stuff.  It has to be just the right consistency.  You have to heat it a little.  If you don’t heat it enough, it’ll be too thick and if you heat it too much it will lose its gloss.  And, if we have time, we can try and make a pastry swan like Chef’s.  I have seen the swans in pastry shops and in my Le Cordon Bleu Pastry cookbook.


Choux Swans

Chef's perfect swans

Chef’s perfect swans

I marvel at the skill required so I have to give it a go.  Of course Chef makes it look so easy.  Mine looks much more like a duck.  It clearly takes lots of practice to produce something even remotely similar to Chef’s although several of my classmates achieve it.

The sweet choux pastry delights are supposed to be the centre piece but to me they are completely overshadowed by Chef’s Pommes Dauphine.  They’re a little extra he whips up for us.  I have never heard of them which is really surprising because I thought I was au fait with all things deep fried. They are really really really good.  The batter is a mixture of choux pastry and  sieved potato.  They are thick and crispy on the outside and soft in the middle.  I feel blessed to own a deep fryer.

And as for my choux pastry, it is okay.  The shape isn’t great, I haven’t cooked the creme patissiere enough and the fondant is too thick.  But the creme Chantilly is a triumph.  Chef’s scoops out some for a taste. He smiles and dives back in for more.

Buttometer reading 820 grams