More pork

My ricotta from lesson 16 isn’t a huge success but a solution is found and the dessert is superb in the end.  The cheese is very runny and while it tastes good, it might not hold together well when it’s taken out of the dariole mould and the muslin is removed.  As luck would have it my bench mate Lucy’s ricotta is really firm, too firm. My eyes light up. “What if we combine them, Chef?” He agrees and we give it a go. We add softly whipped cream and icing sugar. It’s a much better texture but still quite soft. We both hope it will firm up once it’s been in the fridge a while.  As well as making creamy mounds, we are given carte blanc to be creative by piping the mixture into a martini glass and decorating with fruit.  We’re serving them with raspberry coulis.  There’s a trick to getting great coulis.  If you push the berries firmly, really firmly through the sieve, you get more pectin out of the seeds and the result is a much thicker coulis. You’ll be left with very dry matted looking mounds of seeds in the sieve.  And if you’ve ever wondered, cooked coulis lasts longer but uncooked coulis tastes better.

Chef's sweet creams with raspberry couli

Chef’s sweet creams with raspberry couli

My creation

My creation

I have the chance to redeem my pork cooking skills in this lesson.  We’re poaching a trussed pork fillet to 85 degrees and the meat thermometer doesn’t lie so it should be straight forward.  I’m blanching the cauli and broccoli in preparation for the mornay sauce dish when flames erupt from under the pot.  The cord from the thermometer has wriggled its way to the element. Chef’s way down the other end of the kitchen but he still sees the event. Nothing gets past him.  It’s not a big deal – just a bit embarrassing to be so careless.  I’m hoping it will still work but can’t be confident so I borrow Lucy’s just to be sure.  At 55 degrees I whip it off the element to rest while I finish the sauce Lyonnaise and vegetables.  It’s almost ovecooked.  The slices in the middle of the fillet are only just pink.  The outside pieces aren’t.  But Chef is satisfied that I now know the difference between pink and uncooked pork.

Filet de porc poche, sauce Lyonnaise

Filet de porc poche, sauce Lyonnaise

The irony of the lesson is that the only dish that doesn’t get top marks is the cheese sauce which I make all the time at home. The veges are slightly too el dente and the sauce doesn’t quite cover all the veges.

Chef's mornay sauce covers all of the vegetables.

Chef’s mornay sauce covers all of the vegetables.

Overall, there have been more ups than downs this week.  I’m thrilled that I can make a glassy jelly for cheesecake.  I can’t wait to redo the poussin dish.  And I feel confident that I can cook pork so that it’s just right.

From creepy crawlies to great grub

It’s really exciting when class promises something completely new and so it is for lesson 16:  Mousseline de snapper et crevettes rose, sauce Nantua.  This is not something you would cook for a week night tea.

We pipe the mousseline mixture of snapper and prawns, egg white and cream into cute little round moulds and they are placed in a bain marie until just warmed through.  You will see in Chef’s dish below that there’s a piece of crayfish and langoustine nestled in the middle of the mould.

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I’m getting much better at dealing with creepy looking creatures which is just as well as the Sauce Nantua with it is made by sauteeing the head and shells of langoustines.  I whip off the heads in no time, and break away all the hard shell and the lot, eyes and everything goes into the pot to brown along with some finely diced veges. It’s flambed with cognac before fish stock is added and reduced.  Then the whole pot full is poured into a blender and after a few minutes of a deafening crunch, a liquid emerges. We strain it and it goes back in the pot to reheat before cream and butter are added.  This is a seriously intense sauce.

Warming through the crayfish and langoustine for the garnish

Warming through the crayfish and langoustine for the garnish

The dessert is pommes en pate with more creme anglaise.    What makes this really special and stand out from the normal apple strudel type dish I have made in the past is the caramelisation of the apples.  Lots of butter of course on a strong heat and then raisins,walnuts, sugar and cinnamon are added.   The filo pastry is hellish hard to work with in the dry heat of the kitchen.  It just means we have to work really fast to get it buttered and into the small trays in record time.  A sprinkling of flaked almonds and a dusting of icing sugar and dessert is done.

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In between all the other tasks, we have made ricotta cheese in preparation for a dessert for lesson 17.  I’m surprised how easy it is but lets see how it drains overnight before I get too cocky.

Chef Francis with his ricotta

Chef Francis with his ricotta

Oh baby, that’s good

If you’re sensitive about eating anything that’s still at baby stage, except carrots,  don’t read this.  It contains a detailed description about boning, cooking and eating baby chickens and may offend some people.  These tiny little critters sit in the palm of your hand so boning them is going to be like microsurgery.  Chef Paul shows us how it’s done so minimum flesh is lost and the skin remains whole because we are stuffing these tiny scraps of meat with goat’s cheese, tying them up with string and roasting them.  We’re doing two each and he offers one-on-one tutelage for the first one, but for the second we’re on our own.

baby chickens

I’ve boned heaps of chicken over the past year and it’s the same process for poussin except in miniature.  The first bit is easy, wings off, wishbone out, legs off – and then the tricky stuff starts.  Down the backbone and round to the breast.  It is a delicate procedure and I need a bit of help from Chef to get the breast plate out (at least I think that’s what it is) without damaging the skin. We’re cooking the wee legs too so I take out the thigh bones. One poussin down, one to go.  I can tell by the sounds in the kitchen (there isn’t time to look) that others have already completed the task.  I don’t let it spook me but keep full concentration on separating the bird from it’s carcass.  When it’s done I place a solid ball of the very best goat’s cheese on the birds’ breasts, fold up all the skin and tie it together with string.  The result is two neat little parcels with the ends of the wing bone sticking out.

Chickens in pan

We’re serving the poussin with baby beetroot roasted in garlic, thyme, honey, balsamic vinegar and oil and polenta croutons which are reasonably straight forward. We’re turned the carrots and turnips and they are gently simmering away in butter and sugar, and the beetroot is ready. I go to turn on another gas ring for the zucchinis and it won’t light.  Other students are having the same trouble.  Someone reminds Chef that the gas, and the air con, goes off at 10pm.  I think they must be joking.  There’s a hive of activity as Chef gathers up an array of hot plates and we form anxious queues to finish off our main dish.  Clearly there’s an expectation that no students in their right minds would still be cooking at 10pm but our demonstration didn’t start until 3pm and it’s after six o’clock before we get into the practice kitchen.  Luckily the dessert is a “raw” chilled cheesecake with raspberry jelly and it’s been safely in the fridge for some time.

Chef's cake

Chef’s cheesecake

my cheese cake

My baby cheesecake

It’s all worth it.  The food is truly delicious.  The baby chicken is very tender. The beetroot is shiny and sticky. The roast chicken jus has just the right depth of flavour and is speckled with very finely diced capsicum.  The carrots and turnips are slightly sweet.    And it all sits on polenta croutons laced with truffle oil and parmesan.

Finished chicken

Chef Paul’s Poussin dish

The cheesecake is one of the nicest I’ve tasted.  It’s not too sickly sweet and the raspberry mirror on top has turned out reasonably well for a first attempt.  It’s been a fun and satisfying class but we’re a weary group of students by the time the cleaning up is done and the food is safely stored in our take home containers.

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

fork

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.

dough

pot

pot 2

end

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.

fin

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.