Ashburton Chefs Academy – Week 8

So here we are again, week 8 has been and gone and I feel like my transformation to becoming mostly butter, cream, and salt is almost complete. To top it off the heat and diet are less than ideal for my skin, but you’ll be happy to hear that there are no photos of my face in this post. I say my face as there is a photo of me, but not of my face… all will become clear soon!

Crab and Tiger Prawn Cocktail with Salmon Caviar and Sea Salt Breadsticks

The theme of week 8 has been seafood with a few too many puddings thrown in to keep us on our toes! We were led by Chef Alan again this week, and he’s focused on pushing us to multitask and work at speed – slightly in comparison our relaxed pace with Darrin last week! We were working with such wonderful ingredients that I shall do my best to include more photos and less text (‘Thank godness for that’ I hear you cry!).

Butternut squash tortellini and Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli

Our week started out with our skills session on pasta. We made three different pasta doughs; a standard plain dough, a saffron dough and a squid ink dough, which was fantastic practice. Two of the doughs were then stuffed, one made into tortellini and another ravioli and the squid ink pasta was then made into linguine and tagliatelle. The morning was really enjoyable and I was amazed how tasty the pasta was on its own – it turns out salt and oil are moreish, which probably explains my skin!

Lobster

The afternoon was a little less energetic and started with us in groups giving informative and interesting presentations (that was the brief, not an observation unfortunately!) on the different types of seafood. We all did our best to liven it up, one of my classmates was particularly successful as he delivered his entire presentation from his ‘costume’ as shown below! Next we moved onto a debate on fish farming, with half of the group having researched the positive aspects, the other half the negative. I found it interesting to learn about the topic but it wasn’t quite the same as an afternoon in the kitchen.

Mr Squidward!

Tuesday was our first chance to get our hands on real (live) seafood, starting with lobster. I’m very happy to say that the school has a Crustastun machine – a humane way to stun the lobsters, meaning that they do not feel pain when they are then killed in boiling water. The lobsters were beautiful and we were very lucky to have made ourselves half a Lobster Thermidor each for lunch. The lobster meat was tender and succulent, but I think my preference would always be to have it more simply dressed than in a rich cheese sauce. After lobster it was the crabs turn, again these were stunned first and boiled. We removed the crab meat from the shell to pick through it the following day.

Lobster Thermidor

As we’re never happy unless we’re multitasking we also prepped squid, prawns, a chocolate sponge and carrot cake – all in a normal day’s work! I probably don’t need to stress that a day at Ashburton is never normal! That evening I found a way to entertain myself during cleanup as it was my turn to create the tub tower! We use a lot of take away tubs in the kitchen; for food waste, mise en place and importantly taking our spoils home! So there are a lot to wash and plastic doesn’t dry very efficiently. This means someone has to create a big tower of tubs to leave them to dry overnight. I was maybe thinking a tad too much of a tower of cards and had great fun creating this masterpiece! Unfortunately the Chefs were less impressed than I was, but look at how pretty it is!

Tub Tower!

Wednesday was when I found out that picking crab meat is a lot more work than picking lobsters! We were told to pick through the meat three times and it took me so long to pick through my crab that peering over it started to hurt my back. I therefore adopted a rather attractive ‘crab picking stance’ – photo attached for your amusement as always!

The crab picking stance!

As it had taken me so long to pick my crab I was running a little behind and foolishly disregarded the following advice – pick a fourth time if you find something on your third pick! Unfortunately that came back to bite me as I found several pieces of shell and cartilage in my lunch – doh! Luckily the lunch was really beautiful so absolutely worth persevering with! Chef Alan encouraged us to really think about how we wanted to plate the dish as there were lots of elegant elements. That meant one thing to me – a chance to attempt my crescent shaped negative space plating! I was really happy with it and hopefully you can see what I was trying to achieve in the picture at the top of this post. That afternoon we worked towards our second crab dish of the day; a crab risotto, followed by a rich chocolate tart.

Crab Risotto with Peas, Poached Quails Eggs, and Micro Basil

Thursday started with making sourdough from a starter that we’ve been feeding since week 2. This wasn’t a true sourdough as there was yeast in the starter and yeast in the bread (shock horror to any sourdough purists!) but the starter gave the bread a slightly sour flavour and a nice crust. I was pleased with the shape of mine once it was baked, however I found out it was a tad under proved as it slightly tore at the base and had a close texture. This has become a bit of a theme for me, so it’s something I shall work on.

Sourdough Loaf

Luckily for those of us who hadn’t eaten enough crab this week we did crab cakes with a chilli mango salsa for lunch. This was another beautiful lunch dish – how spoilt we’ve been for lunches all week! Once again I went for the crescent plating, I know… I just can’t help myself! Lunch pudding (love a lunch pudding) was an airy mousse and chocolate sponge which we’d put together the day before.

Pan Fried Crab Cakes, Mango Chilli Salsa, and Cucumber Salad

Just to top off the Ashburton busy day theme, we also made a bisque from the lobster and crab shells, followed by a tuna niçoise. Amazingly we finished earlier that day than we have done in weeks and were all cleared down by half 4 – a bit of an achievement!

Chocolate Mousse with Sponge, Raspberry Coulis, and Spice Orange Segments

Friday’s focus switched off of seafood and onto fish – bream and ling. The bream was baked in a flavoured salt dough (and was a lot more appetising on the plate than it looks in the photo!) while the ling was being marinaded in a quick acidic marinade, followed by a slower more spiced marinade. Our first task of the day however was to start on a genoise sponge. Surprisingly, given the amount of cake I do make, I have never made a genoise. It is a sponge cake made with whisked eggs and sugar, where the eggs are the only raising agent. The result is that the sponge has a lovely light crumb and is also easy to slice really thin and therefore layer with a filling, as we did later.

Salt Baked Bream

On eating our second lunch I found out that the last marinade for the ling was surprisingly spicy, so I was glad for the accompaniments – a sweet mango chaat and a cooling mint chutney. Saying that, I totally only ate one piece as I’d demolished my whole bream during my first lunch (yes we do eat like Hobbits). The bream was wonderfully moist and despite being quite an old fashioned technique (it’s traditionally cracked open and filleted at the table for some drama) it made the fish really succulent. One of my classmates was telling me how they have done something similar using egg whites to effectively make a savoury meringue to bake bream in – now that I would like to try!

Tandoori Ling with Mango Chaat and Mint Chutney

To finish off the week we made an Italian meringue which would become the base of a rather extravagant Grand Marnier buttercream icing. Surprisingly we were given electric whisks for the task (it was about 15 minutes of non-stop whisking even with an electric hand whisk – imagine our poor arms if not!) but there was a still a high risk of splitting it when adding the butter, zest or Grand Marnier. My partner and I increased this risk massively by leaving our tub of butter on a warm induction hob and letting it melt a bit – whoops! Luckily Chef rescued us with some fresh butter and we somehow managed to not split it at all. Our genoise sponge was coated with some Grand Marnier syrup before it was time to construct our layered cake. I was happy enough with my simple design, even if Chef was a little surprised by how quickly I finished. Having made a semi-naked (that’s a technical term) cake before, my attitude was – the more you mess with it the messier it gets!

Cocoa Teff Sponge with Orange Buttercream Icing

Another wonderful week over and another blog post almost done. I’ve struggled a bit with balancing relaxation and work this week (perhaps not helped by my tendency to spend two evenings a week talking to two of my classmates for several hours!). I suspect I will have to start being slightly more strict with myself in the evenings and do more work. As a friend of mine reminded me today, before the course I was worrying I’d spend the evenings lonely and bored all on my own in Devon! I’m obviously extremely grateful for the dilemma of having to choose between working on menu planning, writing my blog, or go out playing with my new friends. Thank goodness there is no need to try to fit in exercise as well thanks to my new low fat diet of Lobster Thermidor and chocolate puddings!

Ashburton Chefs Academy – Week 7

Here we are at the start of term 2 all a little wiser and slightly traumatised by the previous term’s assessments! Having a week off was wonderful (especially getting to catch up with friends and family) but I confess I find it very comforting to be back in our school bubble, having every day structured for you and being told what to do! It’s no surprise I’ve found out two of my classmates were in the armed forces previously!

Sunrise at Brixham

This term we have a slightly different focus on Mondays, as they are now our skills day. This is really valuable time as we are able to repeat skills we’ve already learned to ensure that they start to feel more like second nature. The idea is that we then finish for lunch early afternoon on Mondays and have our theory lessons after that. This week we’ve had Darrin, the Chef Director of Ashburton Cookery School, who it turns out is rather a lot of fun and tends to take his time with lessons! Our skills session this week was focusing on pastry – mainly sweet, short crust and choux.

Repeating sweet pastry was great as this time we really focused in on the differences between that and shortcrust; mainly that it is really made into a paste. At the school they actually use icing sugar rather than caster sugar and then using a scraper on the worktop you’re able to really work it into a paste (it is actually often called sweet paste rather than pastry for this reason).

Chocolate Éclairs and Lemon Tarts

I mentioned that the idea was that we finish up for theory in the afternoon because we didn’t finish in the kitchen until four that afternoon thanks to some rogue oven timers doing something rather strange to the ovens. This caused someone to have to make multiple batches of what I am convinced was perfectly well made choux only for it not to bake properly (not mine thankfully). I was rather pleased with my decorated éclairs, although the lady opposite me did have a slight accident with her cream over them. Unfortunately my natural reaction to this was to say in my standard loud voice “You’ve spunked all over my buns!”. I would like to say that Darrin didn’t hear this… but I can’t – luckily this was the start of us finding out he’s got rather a good sense of humour!

Despite running over a bit we still fit in our theory session that afternoon which mostly consisted of a sorbet tasting game! I think we all had lots of fun tasting the sorbets and guessing their flavours, from apple to basil – they were rather yummy!

Oriental Pan Fried Duck Thai Style with Ground Rice and Chinese Cabbage

Tuesday was duck day. We butchered ducks and made a lunch and a dinner from the breasts and marinaded the legs ready to confit later in the week. Although this was the first time we’d butchered duck it was fairly similar to chicken, with a slightly rounder carcass. As always I thoroughly enjoyed myself! Should we be concerned that it’s butchery, filleting and dough I most enjoy? Not sure what that combination says about me, let’s move on!

The lunch dish was served with Thai style Chinese cabbage and ground rice, the dinner dish was more meat and two veg – roast style, with a rosti, a jus, and braised shallots. Also we’d thrown together the obligatory mid afternoon pudding of a brandy snap basket with fruit salad and a sabayon.

Brandy Snap Basket with Fruit Salad and Cointreau Sabayon

Tuesday was probably more significantly the day I cut myself for the first time at the school. Brace yourself reader… I ever so slightly nicked my skin with the edge of a plastic tub. Incredibly, because I was being brave, I managed to just push through with the day, ignoring the advise of Chef Stu who told me I might need the rest of the week off… ! This is all going to seem less funny when I do finally do myself a serious injury!

Wednesday was the day we were all really looking forward to this week as it was our visit to Brixham Fish Market. The bit we were slightly less happy about was the 5am meeting time at school, meaning my alarm went off at 3.45am! The trip was absolutely worth the early start, especially as we were greeted with the stunning sunrise shown at the top of this post. We were shown around by Barry who it turned out was a bit of a character! The market is one of the few remaining where the fish are auctioned off live each morning so it’s a bustling interesting place to see. A lucky (!) few of us were handed some fish to hold (or drop in my case!), we were also shown around the harbour and were told about life on one of the nearby trawlers (5 days on doing 6 hour rotating shifts for those of you who are dreaming of a somewhat restless life at sea!) We saw some really interesting fish and learned loads about the thriving business at the UK’s biggest fish market.

Me holding onto a Sea Bass (rather than the Dover Sole which I dropped…)

We were all done at the market by about 8am and Darrin kindly bought us all a fry up breakfast at Tiffany’s! By the time we were back at school it was around 10 but felt like evening and I was flagging a bit. The day was not done however, Chef Dave gave us a demo on how to pocket fillet flat fish, a skill we were going to attempt ourselves. This is a fairly under-used technique where you remove the head and basically fillet the fish blind keeping it in tact so that it can be stuffed. The most bizarre part is when you fully turn it inside out – honestly it has to be seen to be believed! We actually all did such a good job on our fish that Darrin decided we would use them the following day. I was pleased about that as they’d originally had such high confidence in our pocket filleting skills to assume that the fish would be unusable afterwards!

Galantine Quail

The highlight of Thursday for me was more tricky butchery; galatine of quail. This involves removing the meat from the carcass and, again, leaving it whole and mostly deboned (the wings and drumsticks are left on) ready for stuffing with a mousseline. It turns out that quail are really rather small birds! Darrin demoed the process very well which helped, and followed it with the confidence boosting phrase “If you can nail that, you can nail any bird!”. As you’ve probably gathered we’re not the most mature class of adults, and that had us giggling for some time!

Plaice stuffed with fish mousseline with girolles, turned cucumbers, and a fish sauce

We also stuffed our pocket filleted plaice with a fish mousseline and had it for lunch with girolles, turned cucumbers (don’t ask!) and a beautiful sauce. This was a really delicious light lunch, despite how huge it looks.

We did a little more butchery that day in preparing a pork chop which we served with gnocchi and a Gorgonzola sauce. For those who have a separate pudding stomach (me) there was also a brownie and Tia Maria ice cream to finish the day.

Chocolate Brownie with Tia Maria Ice Cream

Friday was our first go at making stuffed pasta, using the confit duck legs as a filling, served with a sage butter sauce. The stuffed quail was our afternoon dish, accompanied with parisienne potatoes (melon balled) and peeled grapes (because life is long enough to peel grapes!).

Galantine of Quail with Herb Mousseline, Sweet wine sauce, Cabbage and Parisienne Potatoes

I was also given a wonderful surprise by my classmates on Friday as it was my birthday the following day. I came in to find a parcel in my top drawer, which I left to open until I could find out who it was from! After we had finished our clean up we were asked to join the Chefs on the decking outside, where I was amazed and honoured to find an absolutely stunning chopping board themed cake made for me by my incredibly talented classmate. My present was a school tea towel signed by all of the students and Chefs. I felt extremely moved and was even more fortunate to go out for dinner with most of the class the following evening, organised by another of my amazing classmates.

Amazing & Delicious Birthday Cake

This week was a really eventful and enjoyable one, jam packed with such a variety of incredible moments that I’ve struggled to write it into one cohesive post! Once again I finished the week feeling truly blessed by the experience, the amount I’m learning and the wonderful friends I’m learning with. And I love how a smile, a friend, and an innuendo can truly brighten a day!

Ashburton Chefs Academy – Week 6

So here we are, and far too soon: the round up of my first week of practical assessments which mark the end of my first term at Ashburton. This week has been an emotional roller coaster. Writing this makes me feel glad the week is over, but sad that I’m already a third of the way through my diploma. The pressure of this week has also had some revealing effects on my brain, I genuinely found myself Googling how to slice a shallot at 2am one morning in a panic that I was going to slice it in the wrong direction!

Pan Fried Sea Bass with Peas, Little Gem Lettuce, and Cockles A La Francaise

Just to give a quick overview of how the assessments work, the class of fifteen has been split into two, a morning group and an afternoon group. Each exam lasts for three hours and we have four days of exams. I consider myself lucky to have been in the morning slot, as I’m much more of a morning person and it’s a relief to get it out of the way early. We have been given a brief of what we need to cook every day, and a food order of what will be available for us to use. From this we designed our menu, put together our recipes and our mise en place list (meaning everything in its place – your prep list).

As it is an exam, and a fleeting one at that – I’ve not taken many good photos. In fact I consider myself a bit daft that I took any, but I can’t help myself. Anyway! In order to put each day into context I will show you my chosen menu item, followed by the brief for each (where there is only a menu item it’s identical to the brief). With no further ado or explanation I’ll move onto Day 1 (usually known as Monday, until this week that is!)

 

Day 1 Menu

Chicken Velouté soup

Velouté soup

Crème of potato and watercress soup

Pureed soup

Vegetable and barley broth

Vegetable broth

White bread rolls

 

As you can see from the menu and brief Day 1 was soup day! I was particularly worried about the velouté, which is a stock based soup thickened with a blond roux (butter and flour mix cooked out). The reason this is slightly dreaded is because it is finished with an egg yolk and some crème fraîche, which can cause it to split . Other options for error are not cooking out the roux enough causing it not to thicken, of course it shouldn’t be too thick, and the seasoning has to be right. For a soup with very few ingredients it was a tricky one. My plan was to get my white bread rolls started and then move onto my veg broth. The veg broth is just veg stock and some veg cooked together, it’s basically a chance for the Chefs to judge your veg cuts. My first issue of the day was that my carrots took a lot longer to cook in the broth than I remember, which put my mise en place out a bit. Instead I ended up making a start on my potato soup, and just quickly smashing out my velouté while that was cooking! I’m actually really glad I did, I cook sauces with a roux base often at home and the lack of hesitation meant I got on with it and it was nice and thick and didn’t split. All three soups were served along with all six bread rolls in three different shapes. I finished with 25 minutes to spare, which I used to clean down my bench and re-stock and I felt happy to be finishing the day feeling calm.

White bread rolls

In the end I was quite happy with my soups (if slightly unsure of the seasoning). I was annoyed about silly things – I forgot to put water in the base of my oven so my bread rolls weren’t as crispy as they could have been and I forgot to garnish my potato and watercress soup with a sprig of watercress! Fine so that one doesn’t really bother me much – at least I put some extra cream on top. Chef Rob and Darrin were very complimentary to our group at the end of the day saying we’d set a high standard. I walked out of school that day feeling happy enough and confident for the next day… how wrong I was!

Potato and Watercress soup – minus the sprig of watercress to garnish!

 

Day 2 Menu

Roasted Chicken Breast with dauphinoise potatoes, HONEY roasted carrots, griddled leeks, and a white wine cream sauce

Chicken breast, one potato dish, chicken sauce, and TWO VEGETABLES using two different cooking methods

Spelt bread loaf

 

If any of you are looking at that menu and thinking, gosh that’s a busy day, just wait! We also had to confit our chicken legs (slow cook in fat), make a piccalilli and assemble our chicken terrine (with the cooked chicken legs).

Looking back I know I didn’t help myself right from the off. I got my spelt dough made and proving in the tin, which I felt happy enough about. But then rather than doing what I did for Day 1 – organising all of my ingredients into labelled trays for each dish, I just sort of chucked the whole basket into my section in the fridge and got on with the rest of my prep. This meant that later on when I was under loads of pressure I was digging around trying to locate a single clove of garlic.

I won’t go into too much detail on my morning of chaos other than to tell you it was horrible. One saving grace was that I didn’t completely go to pieces in the exam, I told myself to just power through and get the job done. I served my chicken dish with about 20 minutes to spare and had to rush to cooking my piccalilli and assembling my terrine. I did manage it, although I wasn’t happy with the result, especially my piccalilli as I had massive lumps of turmeric in it and stupidly didn’t taste it at all, so had no idea if the veg was cooked or the acidity levels were ok. I had also worked in a mess for the last hour, which piled on the pressure even more, so I finished bang on half 12 surrounded by disorder.

The dreaded chicken dish – looking even worse than it did originally as this is after being microwaved and re-plated at home!

Chef’s chat at the end of Day 2 was not quite so positive! They advised us to go away and review our mise en place for the next day and to try to ensure that we’re picking dishes which are possible with the amount of ingredients and time we have. Despite them telling us not to let it get to us I walked straight out of the kitchen to the dining room and burst into tears in the corner. I consider myself extremely lucky to have made some wonderful friends on this course, and four of the girls immediately comforted me and gave me massive hugs,  which I was very grateful for. That was not a day I wanted to repeat.

Having my confidence severely knocked meant I did exactly what Chef suggested, I went home and reviewed my mise en place for Day 3 and edited and re-edited it until I was happy it was something realistic, including planning some time in to fix my ruddy piccalilli! I also familiarised myself with my recipes more, so that I knew the method and wasn’t surprised when recipes called for certain ingredients (sautéd shallots and garlic in terrine for example!)

 

Day 3 Menu

Chicken, Parma Ham and Pistachio Terrine with Sweet Piccalilli

Terrine dish with a sauce or condiment

Pan fried Sea bass with peas, little gem lettuce, AND COCKLES A La Francaise

Sea Bass dish with a fricasse and two vegetables

Profiteroles with crème diplomat and chocolate ganache

Choux Pastry Dessert

 

I was advised by my landlord to drive to school the next day as the forecast was horrific. Despite it being very wet the next morning I decided that I was going to walk in, as the walk to school really helps calm me and give me head space. I donned my mac and umbrella so by the time I was almost at school I was still pretty dry – I had slightly damp legs, but my little ankle high wellies had kept my feet dry and the umbrella mac mix was doing me proud. That was until I was about 50 meters from the school when a massive lorry from the quarry decided I was far too tempting a target. I am not joking when I say he drove as close to the puddle and me as he could – the wave went over my head! Photo included for your amusement. I just hoped this wasn’t a sign of what was to come. Being me I also secretly found the whole thing quite funny and set about re-telling the story – Chef Rob found it particularly amusing!

Thanks Mr Lorry Man!

My plan for the start of the day was to fix the piccalilli then get my choux made, piped, and baked, then get my crème pat made and setting in the fridge. Off I hopped into the fridge to check on the dreaded piccalilli and apparently I had worried myself into the ground about basically nothing. The veg were cooked and the acidity and spice levels were ok. I picked out some nice bits which didn’t have lumps of turmeric into another tub ready to plate with the terrine – one worry off of my mind. At the moment I was making my choux paste Chef Rob came over, more accurately he came over at the second I was adding too much egg – doh. Following Rob’s kind advice I baked a few just to see if they would rise at all. They did, but with a bit of a flat bottom. I decided that was good enough and piped the rest and got them in the oven. I was happy with my crème pat at least so I put all of that out of mind and got onto filleting my fish.

I enjoy filleting and butchery, so I was looking forward to it and I was really happy with the fillets I removed. Next was making the Francaise – a cream sauce with cockles, peas, and lettuce. That all seemed to go fine so I plated up my fish dish around the time I had planned to. Just the ganache to make, the crème pat to let down with some whipped cream, then to fill and dip the profiteroles and serve them – all with an hour to go. As I was working away Rob reappeared with my dish (they always give the remainder back to you). As he put it down he mad eye contact with me so I started wondering just how bad it was. To my great surprise and joy he said “That was outstanding”. Then I nearly cried again – at least this time it was from elation not terror! I was so chuffed to hear that and I held my head up high ready to finish off my final dish. As I’d already guessed, my profiteroles were a bit underwhelming, but nothing could upset me now! I plated up and served the final dish with 35 minutes to spare.

Profiteroles with Crème Diplomat and Chocolate Ganache

I think the biggest difference between Day 2 and Day 3 was that the whole time I was working I felt organised and on top of it. I kept my section clean, which helped keep me calm. Darrin said in the wrap up to our team – ‘you were all working fast without rushing’ and that was definitely how it felt.

 

Day 4 Menu

Pan fried scallops with Mediterranean vegetable tian and basil oil

Scallop dish with Vegetable tian and a dressing

Tagliatelle Carbonara with broccoli

Tagliatelle dish with a sauce

Crème Brulee

 

Day 4 and finally the last day of assessments. For some reason I woke up more nervous that day than any other, luckily I still managed to work fairly efficiently and to plan all day. First order of the day was to get the crème brulee made and straight in the oven. In our original recipe it says they take one and a half hours to cook and three hours to set, so the dish felt a little difficult to achieve in a three hour window! Next was onto organising all of my ingredients and make my pasta so it could rest.

Scallop dish with not very good presentation or plate choice – whoops!

Shucking the scallops wasn’t as much work as we thought as they were only able to get them in half shells (have I mentioned how wet it’s been!?). The whole day felt like it went well, I was happy enough with all of my dishes, my pasta was nice and thin and my crème brulee incredibly was actually cooked and set in the time (plenty of people had crème puddles unfortunately). I took the rest of my carbonara home to eat that night and was wondering why the heck it was so dry – seems I may have been a tad stingy on creating enough sauce for it, a tad late for me to fix by that point!

Tagliatelle Carbonara with Broccoli

On Thursday night almost all of the class went for a well deserved celebratory night out in town. We had a take out curry buffet at the pub and generally had a hilarious night, causing a few sore heads the next day. As you all know I don’t drink so I felt just fine… ahem.

Friday was my feedback session where I would receive all of my results already in the form of verbal and written feedback. I’m over the moon to say I did well, much better than I was hoping for. Each dish is marked in its separate components which correspond to a particular module, for example in the chicken dish you cover the meat, vegetables and sauces modules. I am pleased to say in the ten modules I got over half distinctions and the rest passes. I was even more amazed to hear I got 100% on my sea bass dish! All of the feedback was really detailed and is fantastic to have, including feedback on your paperwork and how you work in the kitchen. I know I’ve got some areas to work on, sauces especially! Unsurprisingly Tuesday was my worst day with my sauce and veg letting me down, but happily I did at least pass. I also passed my hygiene exam with a merit!

The whole week has been a whirlwind – after a lovely six hour drive home Friday (joy!) I’m back in Oxford for a week wondering if I dreamt the whole thing! I’ll miss my classmates this week as we’ve formed a real bond, although we’ve already all been in touch. I am glad to be back with Hubby and the kitties for a while. This also means it’ll be two weeks before my next blog post – you must all be relieved! I won’t be switching off for the whole week, there is the assignment to make a start on and I can’t resist practising now I’ve got my kitchen back. Mostly though I’m reflecting – on an amazing six weeks (and how on earth I haven’t cut myself yet), on wonderful new friends and on how there is so much more I’ve got to learn.

Ashburton Chefs Academy – Week 5

Something occurred to me one morning this week while walking to school. I am now pretty settled in my daily routine, I get up around the same time, walk to school at the same time (often passing the same people), so that I can arrive in plenty of time to change into my whites and be ready for half nine when school actually starts. Following this same pattern daily has meant that although we learn something different every day, the whole process has started to become routine. Which is what occurred me to that morning – it’s a rather odd feeling when it becomes normal to be doing something extraordinary every day.

Croissant, Pain Aux Raisins, and Pain Au Chocolat

This week has been a really interesting week, we covered a fair few things which are completely new to me, however the lasting feeling of the week has actually been the build up of nerves and work for next week – our first week of practical assessments. More on that later.

Forequarter of Beef

As usual the week started with a demo day, this week was beef and our chef tutor for the week was Dave, who is also the Chefs Academy Manager (no pressure for us to perform well this week then!). The beef demo was mainly taken by a chap called Phil who is a butcher in a nearby town. Phil butchered a whole side of beef, starting with the forequarter; breaking that down into cuts, and then doing the same with the hindquarter. We’ve been told that once you can butcher a lamb or pig you can do the same with a cow as their bone and muscle structure is effectively the same (or in my ever intelligent phrasing to Hubby this weekend; “a rabbit is basically just a small pig!”). Watching Phil break the carcass down was truly impressive though because although it may be based on the same theory, the size of the animal just makes it all much harder. He also knows the shape of the animal so fluently that he barely needs to look as he carves cleanly around a really oddly shaped bone. We all felt quite exhausted watching Phil all morning so I can’t imagine how knackering it was for him, and my mind was swimming with the sheer number of beef cuts you can utilise and the 19 different names for each one. Our theory lesson in the afternoon was on COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health), which although a tad boring on paper is actually really important to understand if you’re going to work in the industry, as cleaning materials and food don’t always mix well.

Brioche Loaf ready for Croque Monsieur

On Tuesday we started on the second theme of the week, laminated dough. This is something I have never done myself, the furthest I’ve gotten is making rough puff for sausage rolls, so I was really looking forward to trying it out. We started with a croissant dough, which starts as a fairly ordinary dough before you then fold in half of its weight in butter – yum yum. I actually really enjoyed the process (me + dough = happy!) and we fit in all three folds before lunch, ready to roll out and bake our croissants the next day. We then started on a brioche dough in the afternoon. We were slightly surprised to hear we’d be making it by hand (contrary to what our recipe told us). At this point I rather regretted my decision to do a kettle-bell HIIT session that morning! Brioche dough is extremely wet. In a similar way to croissants you add about half its weight in butter, but unlike brioche it’s mixed into the dough, not folded in. In all ordinary circumstances you would use a mixer to beat the butter in. Culinary school is no ordinary circumstance so we were beating it in by hand! Unlike my fellow classmates I opted to keep mine in the bowl to reduce the chances of me throwing the whole thing on the floor (again). Although it was honestly knackering, it was really quite fun and we ended up making a rather ridiculous amount of dough, which would end up having an impact on Tuesday. Like the croissant dough though, the brioche would rest overnight and be shaped and baked the following day.

Sirloin Steak, Triple Cooked Chips, Roasted Tomato and Mushroom, with a Bearnaise Sauce

Amongst other tasks we had that day was making ourselves lunch with our first cut from the beef on Monday – sirloin steaks. We had these with a baked mushroom and tomato, as well as triple cooked chips and a Bearnaise sauce, another typically light lunch. It was so tasty I couldn’t resist eating it all and then regretting it when I wanted to sleep for the afternoon. The rest of the day was still busy preparing meals for later in the week, making suet pastry, getting a beef stew cooked and making crème pâtissière.

As mentioned earlier Wednesday became a little tricky once Chef realised just how much excess dough there was and how unwilling we were to let it go to waste after beating it by hand! The intention was to just make a traditional brioche loaf as well as two burger buns for Friday. We also ended up making a few brioche à tête and a massive plait as well as the buns and loaf. We then also shaped our croissant dough into three different pastries; croissants, pain au chocolat and pain aux raisins (using the crème pat made the day before). By this point we had an almost unmanageable amount of dough to prove and bake in a shared oven with only two shelves! Dave turned this into an important lesson on time management and between using the oven at 30 degrees, the room temperature and the fridge to vary and control proving times we managed to get everything baked and (even if I say so myself) looking rather impressive.

Box of Pastries!

As always the mammoth dough management was not our only task of the day by any means. We made a croque monsieur with mornay sauce using two slices of our brioche loaf and had that for our lunch. Then in pairs in the afternoon we made three purees; beetroot, parsnip, and carrot, to accompany our steamed beef and wild mushroom pudding (made with the suet pastry and beef stew cooked the day before). Topped up with a porcini jus, we tried this at school and took the rest home to be enjoyed for dinner. I couldn’t resist showing the before and after photos of my plating up at school vs home.

Steamed Beef & Mushroom Pudding, Beetroot, Parsnip, and Carrot Puree and a Porcini Jus

Splatted mess of food!

Hopefully I’ve managed to convey that Wednesday was a hectic day, really enjoyable, but really busy. The best bit was when Dave came and spoke to us to wrap up the day, he said that in a group of fifteen he’d expect around five to have croissants with butter escaping all over the place, and brioche which fell flat. I’m glad to say that all fifteen of us produced something Dave was happy with. He commended us on being a hard working and good group, but did comment that we are occasionally in danger of over-stepping the line and becoming a little boisterous. I hoped that this wasn’t aimed too heavily and me and my lack of volume control – but made sure that I kept it in mind for the rest of the week.

Beef & Blue Cheese Pasties

Thursday was filled with yet more beef and pastry. Chef baked the roast rib of beef and smoked the beef brisket, which had been brined over the last two days and was going to become pastrami for our lunch the following day. Our task was to construct our most familiar style roast of the course yet, including Yorkshire puddings and a much more typically homely gravy. This was a tasty and massive lunch (I hadn’t learned not to eat it all yet), but you could really tell the gravy lacked the depth of flavour of all of the wonderful sauces we’ve been making out of braising liquors.

Roast Rib of Beef, Fondant Potato, Yorkshire Pudding, Braised Shallots, Carrots En Papilotte, and Gravy

As is totally normally on a Thursday afternoon we followed our roast with two puddings; pain perdu and a croissant bread and butter pudding. I managed to go a little off piste with mine and my partners bread and butter pudding. We were instructed to bake it in a bain marie, which is where you put the pudding in a ramekin and then place that ramekin in a container filled to the same level with water, this makes sure it bakes evenly as it gives it a uniform heat. Where I got slightly confused was when I placed a lid on top of the saucepan which we were using as a bain marie and therefore I steamed them! I discovered this wasn’t quite right around twenty minutes into the cooking time when I took them out and they looked a little on the soggy side. Unfortunately I couldn’t quite explain to my partner what my thought process was (brain melt?) however she was very forgiving, and maybe it being the second of our puddings that afternoon helped soothe the blow!

Croissant Bread and Butter Pudding – before being accidentally steamed!

I asked the assistant Chef for the week – Lee, what he thought the effect of steaming the pudding would be and he said the custard might split. I came to the conclusion that through taking the lid off for the final ten minutes and letting the croissants crisp up I’d just about gotten away with it, although I’m probably not going to file that one under Rachel’s finest moments! Chef’s round up for the day included the rather good advice that we may find we want to taste our food rather than eat everything we plate. I’m not sure why it took someone pointing this out to me to make me think it was actually ok, but I felt somewhat pleased to hear it! In the meantime I basically rolled home that night!

Brioche Pain Perdu with Compote Fruits and Rosewater Ice Cream

Friday was another fairly light day, we put together beef pasties using a pasty dough we’d made the day before. We also constructed our pastrami burgers and had these with beer battered onion rings and skinny chips. Due to me getting to the fryer first on our section (it was discussed, I didn’t just nab it first!) I ended up being the only one in the dining room ready for a while, which is why I took this nice photo of me on my tod with my lunch (and the cheeky remaining 100ml of beer from the batter!).

It was a really lovely lunch but by this point I had finally listened to Chef and learned, and took the rest home to eat another time. The final dish of the week was a bavette steak (made from the beef skirt for those of you who are interested) which we served with a Borderlaise sauce. Borderlaise comes from Bordeaux, so it’s mostly a red wine reduction, but the thing which made it rather odd to my pallet was the addition of beef bone marrow. Now I am not particularly squeamish about eating things (although I’ll find out where my line is in offal week!) but I did find bone marrow tasted rather bizarre. Scraping what basically felt like butter (or lard more like) out of the middle of a big bone was odd enough, and the idea was to knock it into the sauce at the end so it half melted in but left small lumps, I wasn’t all that sure I liked the distinctive flavour and smell of it. Luckily Chef said it was a good sauce, and Hubby polished off what I hadn’t eaten that evening, so at least it didn’t go to waste!

Brisket Burger, Mayonnaise, Skinny Chips and Beer Battered Onion Rings

So now onto the dreaded subject which has been brewing all week – assessments. I did a few hours of prep every evening on my paperwork, as well as a bit more over the weekend. Unlike some of my classmates I haven’t done any practising outside of school as my kitchenette isn’t quite setup for it – I actually don’t have an oven for example, so bread would be tricky! I’m also worried if I get something wrong at this stage I’m going to make myself more nervous than I am already, so I’m going in as prepared as I can be with my prep list. Me and a few other girls spent several hours after school badgering our chef tutor Ross (and any other Chefs in ear shot!) trying to get advice and reassurances that we’re on the right track. My last response back from Ross was to ‘focus on the important stuff – seasoning and cooking things correctly.’ That is actually extremely good advice, as after all no amount of paperwork can cook or season my food correctly. At this point I’ve done what I can and I just have to trust that my instincts are ok, and hope that I won’t go to pieces. And hey, if I do I can always make up the marks at the next assessment. Wish me luck!!