Week 15 has been a varied week, both in skills we’ve been taught and in everyone’s mood. We’re all working hard on our assignments as they are due in next week, meaning we’re working most of the evening as well as learning all day at school. Consequentially everyone is pretty stressed and there have been days where there has been tension in the kitchen and also days where we all laugh to stop ourselves from crying hysterically! My body has reacted in the classic way to stress and I’ve caught a cold which hasn’t made me massively popular as I’ve drugged up and gone into school anyway because I don’t want to miss a day which I would never get back, especially as the remaining days are dwindling rapidly.
The theme of this week and next is fine dining and we’ve been led by Chef Alan this week who is quite meticulous which suits the theme! He also gives very clear instructions and demos which has been great in such a technical week. Fine dining has meant trying to perfect the simple things and also playing around with some more complex ingredients (mostly through the power of powders!).
Our experimentation into modernist techniques started on Monday with isomalt – a sugar substitute often found in sugar free sweets as it has no affect on blood sugar levels. It comes in a coarse powder which you melt in water (as you would with sugar) to create an indirect caramel. Isomalt is less sweet than sugar and you can reach a brittle stage while it is still clear. We used it to create glass shards with pistachio, pine nuts and black sesame seeds, and also to create some olive oil spheres. To create the spheres we dropped olive oil through a thin skin of isomalt caramel into a jug of corn oil. The caramel solidifies on touching the cold oil and encases the olive oil inside it. The shards were a bit more simple as the nuts and seeds were combined into the caramel, poured onto a surface and rolled between two sheets of baking paper to a fine glass.
My partner and I found out that the success of these really hinged on taking the caramel to a high enough temperature – we had to redo our shard as it was more of a tacky clump than a sheet of glass and despite our spheres looking great they stuck together and leaked out most of the oil. Luckily I was working with a good friend this week so we had a giggle while attempting to rectify the problem!
One of our morning tasks was to compress watermelon in a vacuum bag with a sweet pickle – this forces the pickle into the watermelon firming it up and making it really take on the flavour. We also made ricotta which was surprisingly easy, it just required heating milk and cream until it reached 90° then curdling it with lemon juice and leaving it to hang. The ricotta formed the focus of the dish with the isomalt and watermelon elements as a starter. It was good fun to make but the isomalt didn’t do much for me (especially as ours was still tacky enough to stick to your teeth), the more simple elements of the ricotta and watermelon were the star of the dish for me.
We also did a lamb dish with ratatouille stuffed in patty pan (tiny squash) and a prune souffle that day, which leaned more towards letting basic ingredients shine than the technical ricotta dish. All in all it was a great day to kick off the fine dining week – balancing simple and technical to create an interesting menu.
We did more vaccum packing on Tuesday, this time to steam and sous vide some elements. Sous vide means ‘under vacuum’ but is more associated with slow cooking the vacuum packed items in a low temperature bath. I’m lucky enough to have the same sous vide machine as the school (a very generous 30th birthday present from my family) so it’s a technique I already enjoy at home. The venison loin was sous vide with black treacle at 54° for half an hour. We then seared it and served it with a silky smooth carrot puree (the carrots had been steamed in a vac bag with lots of butter!), salt baked carrots, salsify, an onion puree and a jus.
For the afternoon dish we sous vide a duck egg at 64.5° for 45 minutes which was served with a delicious wild mushroom ragout including some beautiful crimson waxcaps, which we were assured were safe to eat! That dish was probably my favourite of the whole week, it was rich but delicate and a real pleasure to eat. The pudding of the day was cheats panna cotta using iota carrageenan which is a seaweed based gelling agent, the mix just needed to be heated to above 85° to activate and cooled to below 40° to set – quick and fairly easy, I could get used to all this magic!
The highlight of Wednesday was the goats cheese pithivier made with rough puff pastry, the lowlight was when I started feeling rather ill. We’d made our rough puff the day before, it took about 30 minutes of effort and had us all wondering why anyone ever makes proper puff pastry! Our white powder of the day was transglutaminase, a meat glue which we used to stick together the breasts of a squab pigeon (a tiny bit Frankenstein?). The rest of our rough puff pastry was used for an apple tart fine served with toffee ice cream and Calvados caramel (which we very nearly forgot to put the Calvados in!).
Thursday was coconut day as it featured in three elements across our two dishes. The solo white powder of the day was soy lecithin (unless you count bicarbonate of soda!) which we used as a thickening agent to create the coconut foam for our hake lunch dish. It made a much more stable foam than our last attempt of just frothing up an infused milk and cream mix, but still didn’t do much for me – I’d always vote purees above foams! Happily the foam didn’t detract from the delicious hake dish which had a wonderful umami Parmesan crust and a lime emulsion (similar to a mayonnaise) which was a sharp complimentary flavour and texture (photo at the top of the post).
The only other magic looking item of the day was the potion-green coloured jelly that my partner and I made to accompany our coconut parfait and pandan curd! Unfortunately it was properly traffic light green due to the amount of food colouring powder we used (you honestly need about three grains and we tipped the scales at six!). Pandan is a leaf used in East Asian cooking to infuse things rather than be eaten (who wants to be gnawing on a leaf!) and the best way to describe its aroma is that of jasmine rice. My curd didn’t seem to take on much of an infusion so was more a straight lime curd but was still delicious!
Friday’s lunch was more traditional comfort pub fair and had no modernist elements: Veggie burger, chips, coleslaw and mayonnaise! As we’re at culinary school we’d obviously made every element including the enriched dough for the buns and triple cooked the chips, which were especially delicious! After lunch we made some choux pastry and picked through some crab meat then combined the two to make a light dish of crab beignets served with some pickled carrots and a yoghurt dressing with the remains of the yoghurt made earlier in the week.
Our modernist techniques were being saved for the final dish of the week, ‘fried egg and toast’ using reverse spherification. Spherification is the process of setting a liquid into ‘caviar’, reverse spherification sets a gel around the liquid rather than setting the liquid itself, meaning that when the set membrane is burst the liquid oozes out. The two essential ingredients are calcium lactate and sodium alginate – simplistically if you reverse what part of the process you use them in, you reverse the effect. In our case we were setting the alginate as a membrane around our mango puree, to create the effect of an egg yolk when they are burst. I really enjoyed this, and even drove home with some mango spheres to show Hubs! To complete the magic we used iota carrageenan (previously used to set the panna cotta), to set a coconut ‘jelly’ as our egg white and toasted thin slices of gingerbread loaf made the day before. The whole effect was wonderful and fun, although I was a little unhappy with the messy plating of mine and the fact that I burnt my ‘toast’! I’m not sure how I’m still so prone to burning toast 15 weeks into culinary school!!
I’ve really loved the techniques we’ve learned this week, some I feel are a lot more effective than others (spherification yes, isomalt not so much!). I’m sad to say battling my cold took away some of the pleasure of the week, and my triumph of smashing my phone by dropping it screen down just after filming the last demo of the week wasn’t exactly the finale I was looking for! I’m looking forward to continuing the fine dining theme next week – our final week of proper school! We’ve got a dining club event the following week where we cook for paying customers (eek!) and our final assessments in week 18. Focusing on all the work I’ve got to do is distracting me from the terror of how my diploma is nearing an end and in just over a month’s time I’m going to be back in the real world trying to find a job. Has anyone got a time machine I could borrow?