Ashburton Chefs Academy – Week 12

Something momentous happened this week – I finally injured myself in class. Those of you who know me will agree that the really momentous bit is that is has taken me eleven and a half weeks to injure myself! Given the speed we often work at and the many wonderful options available for injury (gas, sharp knives, speed peelers, the lack of existence of oven gloves) it really is surprising I’ve not done something before now. I think I went with the best option, the old classic – the oven shelf burn. Love that one. More on how on day two!

Foie gras terrine, smoked apple purée and Sauternes Jelly

Other than week 12 being my (and my partner’s incidentally) injury prone week, it was also the last proper week in the kitchen for Term 2. That’s a very unreal thing to be writing. I’m pretty sure it was only a week or so ago I was writing about the start of this term. But disbelief won’t get me anywhere unfortunately, our second assessments are next week no matter how little I like it!

We were led by Chef Phil this week, something I’ve been looking forward to as seven years ago I came to Ashburton for the first time ever for a Gastro Plus weekend course and was taught by Phil. He strikes a great balance between being an encouraging and supportive teacher, and keeping us in line and pushing us to achieve the best as quickly as we can. It was Phil’s enthusiasm that made me catch the cooking bug all those years ago, and it’s because of him that I’m here trying to realise the potential of that passion.

One of the first dishes I ever made at Ashburton in September 2010 – White Chocolate Parfait with Hazelnut Shortbread

Monday followed the usual routine for this term as we had a skills session in the morning and theory in the afternoon. The skills session was on sauces, which I was very grateful for – it’s something I really needed to practice ahead of next week as it’s one of the areas I’m hoping to improve my marks. We made a total of five sauces most of which were based on reducing stock to build flavour. I was happy to get some good feedback, although I think I still have a tendency to over reduce them a little. The other kitchen activity of the morning was our first real foray into the theme for the week – offal. We prepared, quickly poached and wrapped a foie gras ballantine. Foie gras is a controversial ingredient as it is the fattened liver of a duck or goose, traditionally done by force feeding the birds through tubes. We were told this isn’t generally the case these days as duck and geese are migratory birds and will gorge themselves, so foie gras is often produced by the birds feeding naturally. Putting the ethics to one side, it is an interesting ingredient to work with as it does feel like butter due to the high fat content which it is prized for. Our ballantines were hung in the fridge to be eaten later in the week.

The afternoon theory lesson was offal (the lesson itself wasn’t offal, but I had to get that joke in somewhere!). I am not a particularly fussy person when it comes to food, but I have to admit a few things on this week’s menu had me feeling a little nervous. Theory at least felt safe as I wasn’t being asked to eat any of it… just yet.

Fillet Steak with Peppercorn sauce, Celeriac Purée, Wild Mushrooms, Broad and Green Beans

Tuesday’s lunch dish lured us into a false sense of security for the food this week as it starred fillet steak. The steaks came in as a full fillet and were wrapped in cling film to make them a more uniform shape which would produce a tall thin steak rather than a wide flat one. This is partially aesthetic but also means you can achieve a lovely gradient on the cook from the caramelised outside (thanks to the wonderful maillard reaction of the sugars as they brown) and the medium rare centre. That was a fairly long description of the steak, as you can tell – I liked this steak! We served it with some really earthy accompaniments; wild mushrooms, celeriac purée and a peppercorn sauce (sixth sauce in two days). Needless to say it was delicious and I ate every last bite, which was good because the afternoon dish was even less tasty than the snails from last week – kidneys.

Lamb’s Kidneys

I don’t know how many of you have eaten kidneys before? I think I’ve only ever had them in a pie – steak and kidney presumably and as we’ve covered already, I like steak, so that disguises the kidneys! For this dish we prepared them two ways, one diced and put through the meaux mustard sauce (seventh sauce!), the other was prepared, butterflied and pan fried. The preparation involves removing some of the less edible bits of the kidney (I wasn’t sure where to stop!). The dish was also quite representative of the colour of our dishes this week; brown kidney, brown sauce and brown mushroom – much as I want to cook with love I struggled to make this dish look loved and lovely! Baking the mushroom was also how I managed my burn on the oven shelf – a nice cosy 220° oven at that. I am totally dramatising every inch of this for effect, It wasn’t bad as you can see! I made it slightly worse by scraping it twice later in the week, but it barely hurt and was nothing compared to other burns I’ve witnessed in kitchen!

The over-exaggerated burn!

Wednesday sounded a little more appealing with calves liver (which we were told was in a different league to the kidney) and oxtail, which is at least meat not organs! We also prepared our faggots which would form one of Friday’s four delights. For those of you who don’t know, faggots are a mix of the heart, liver, and kidney of lamb, with a little rump steak to soften the blow. These are mixed with breadcrumbs and herbs and then wrapped in caul fat. Caul fat (or crépinette) is the stomach lining of an animal (pig in our case) and is like a strange webbing of fat and a very thin membrane. It is the traditional casing for sausages and has no real flavour of its own despite it sounding slightly unpleasant! Before ours were wrapped I was encouraged by my partner to try the mix… raw. I should have mentioned it also had raw egg in it! I am proud to say I did try it (twice as we had to reseason it) but it isn’t something I’m going to rush to repeat!

The calves liver was served with a really tasty shallot tart tatin, parsnip purée, parsnip crisps and our eighth sauce of the week – red wine jus. I am surprised to say that I did enjoy the liver a little more than I’d imagined, but probably I wouldn’t choose it in a restaurant above, for example, steak!

Pan Fried Calves Liver, with Shallot Tart Tatin, Parsnip Purée and Crisps, and a Red Wine Jus

Thursday was the final day in the kitchen and the menu of the four dishes looked about as appetising as the previous Friday’s menu – sweetbreads, pig’s cheek, faggots and foie gras. We started with the foie gras and it was easily my second favourite dish of the week. It tastes very similar to a smooth chicken liver parfait with a slightly less strong flavour. We served it with a Sauternes jelly (a sweet French wine), smoked apple purée and spelt bread made earlier in the week. It was an elegant dish, rich in flavour and wonderfully contrasting textures (photo at the top of the post).

The sweetbreads were coated in seasoned flour and pan fried. To recap from last week – sweetbreads are veal glands (thyroid or pancreas) so I fried them until they resembled chicken nuggets! They were served with a range of spiced accompaniments; cauliflower florets, curry foam and a raisin purée. I was particularly invested in the fate of the raisin purée as I was given the task of blending it for the class. This was a fairly small task until I asked Chef if I should pass the purée through a sieve as it was still quite grainy. I then spent about 25 minutes getting RSI while my partner did all of the work for our dishes! This dish featured our first foam of the course, and it didn’t do much to convert me to foams. It was created by making a curry flavoured cream and finally adding milk which is then blended with a hand blender to produce bubbles. It wasn’t the most stable of foams and turned back into a curry cream fairly quickly. The dish had some nice flavours but I’m still not a fan of sweetbreads (and it was another all brown dish and therefore not worthy of a photo in the blog!).

Twice cooked pig’s cheeks with Aubergine Caviar, Sauce Vierge and Crackling

Next was pig’s cheeks which we prepared earlier in the week, wrapping the cheek back in the surrounding meat and fat and braising it. It was later panéd (coated in egg, flour, and breadcrumbs) and fried then served with aubergine and sauce vierge (sauce number nine!). The aubergine was artistically called aubergine caviar and I’ve not really worked out why. It was roasted with herbs and garlic, scraped out of the skin and roughly chopped – producing more of a loose mash than a caviar! The dish was tasty, but I prefer pigs cheeks slowly cooked so they fall apart rather than keeping them wrapped in the fat and then frying them.

The final dish was our faggots, served with a polenta cake and our second foam of the week – horseradish. I tried the faggots and think I preferred them raw – at least then I was expected to only taste a small amount! Again it was a fairly brown dish with soft textures so it was a hard one to plate.

Faggots

Although this hasn’t been my favourite week for food (there were no puddings!) it has been really enjoyable. On a few occasions Chef Phil challenged us with service times to (try to) hit and has really pushed us to remember the basics of professional kitchen skills: work neat, tidy and focus. Repeating sauces so many times has really helped improve my understanding of such a vital skill in the kitchen – I just hope I don’t forget it all next week! I’ve been slightly accident prone this week, I’ve actually got a second small burn that I don’t know the origin of, and far more impressively I fell up the escalator at the train station half way through writing this blog post! It was a very strange sensation to fall up something which itself was still moving up as I was falling down! My almost immediate reaction was to find the whole thing quite amusing (after I’d picked myself up that is!).

The nerves are building for next week’s assessments of course. I’ve spent the weekend doing lots of practice in my kitchen back home, which is why I skipped out on the opportunity to do paperwork at school on Friday with the rest of my classmates, and instead got a train home Thursday night to maximise my time (and while dashing for a train improve my chances of making a fool of myself of course!). I just have to hope that even though the last six weeks have flown by in a complete blur that I have learned a lot, improved a lot, and can put it all into practice.

Ashburton Chefs Academy – Week 11

Week 11 has been an odd week, week 13’s assessments are looming which has shifted the focus off of assignment work and with only six weeks to go until the assignment is due in the pressure is building! All of which is not great timing as I spent Monday evening cooking for, and Tuesday evening feeding ten of my classmates to continue our tradition (and finally holding up to my previous promise to make dinner!). Happily the two massive lasagnas got demolished and there was a little left to feed Hubby at the weekend! But I’m jumping ahead – back to Monday…

Overlooking the rainbow

We had Chef Ross teaching us again this week and the theme was a tour of European food including some French delights and some good old Welsh favourites. Monday was a little different though as we started with another field trip – this time to The Husbandry School a few miles down the road. The school is owned by husband and wife team; Jonty and Carole, and is an education centre for the ancient practice of husbandry. Carole summarised husbandry as taking care of the boundaries of what you are responsible for, everything in it and everything it affects. In order to prove that this traditional art goes beyond theory Jonty and Carole bought a 47 acre plot of land and turned it from no more than mud and grass into the beautiful self sustainable farm and school that it is today. It is a continuous work in progress, helped along by students and volunteers. Among the gers (yurts), fields, pigs, potting sheds and poly tunnels it’s an amazing place to feel inspired and see how much can be created from nothing with a bit of planning and some hard graft. We were met with wind, rain, and glorious sunshine during our visit making the landscape all the more beautiful, as you can see from the photos above and below.

The Husbandry School

Monday afternoon was back to school for a skills session revisiting things we’d been taught previously: gnocchi, galantine of quail, and a chicken mousseline. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to reproduce any of those elements as well I had the first time, so I’m apparently disproving the theory that practice makes perfect!

Sea Salt and Paprika Biscuits

Tuesday was mostly cheese and fish, happily not on the same plate. We made biscuits to have with a cheese platter first, which was quite good fun. I added paprika to half of my dough so I had a variety of flavours. Given this involved rolling out small quantities of dough, cutting and decorating them, I was in playdough heaven! We also made a walnut and raisin bread which was delicious if slightly dangerous while kneading – there were walnuts (and shards of sugar in my case) flying everywhere. In future I will ensure I don’t accidentally create a caramel with the sugar prior to adding it to my bread! Our lunch was the salmon gravadlax which had been prepared the week before, served with the walnut and raisin bread. The remaining fishy work for the day was to fillet seabass and mackerel which would both be featured in dishes the following day. We also did our first savoury soufflé of the course – a twice baked blue cheese soufflé. I gave this a try, but unfortunately blue cheese is still a taste I haven’t quite acquired yet!

Seabass Carpaccio with Capers, Cornichons, Baby Leeks and a Citrus Dressing

Wednesday started with a really busy morning of prep, and some pretty lousy cooking on my part. Eleven weeks into my culinary diploma Chef Rob had to stand with me to poach an egg as I had messed up my first two! Next I thought I’d burned the base for the curry oil but I just about got away with it, still it wasn’t a great start to the morning! The first dish of the day was the seabass, made into a small tasting plate as a carpaccio. I loved the dish as it was light and fresh – the perfect way to wet your appetite. I was also quite pleased with my plating (which always seems to help me enjoy a dish!). For the next dish the mackerel had been marinading overnight in a light pickle with veg which was slightly less to my taste. I’ve actually made that style of mackerel on a recreational course at the school previously and it isn’t my favourite way to prepare mackerel. The pickle only lightly cooks the fish so it all ends up a bit too fishy for me! The third meal of the day (which is where not enjoying a plate and therefore not eating much of it comes in handy!) was welsh rarebit, made with a beer based cheese sauce, which was new to me. The sauce was fairly bitter when tasted on its own but accompanied with the toasted walnut bread and the (third and correctly) poached egg it came together as a balanced hearty pub meal. The take home dish was falafels and pitta bread, both of which I will be making again in future. They were so superior to the supermarket versions, which is all I’ve tasted previously. I especially recommend adding some chilli jam from the South Devon Chilli Farm, yum yum!

Mackerel Escabeche with Cucumber Salad and Chive Greek Yoghurt, served with Walnut and Raisin Bread

Thursday was tapas day, the morning was spent putting together a selection of five tapas dishes – patatas bravas, albondigas meatballs, risotto balls filled with mozerella, mackerel potato salad on ciabatta and a watermelon granita. As there were so many small dishes to be put together we ended up eating lunch around half two, which I think is a record late lunch! The albondigas meatballs and suppli risotto balls were particularly worth the effort in my mind. One element of the tapas selection which definitely took the most effort however was ciabatta. We’d made the bigga (the starter) the day before for it to develop overnight. This is the wettest bread we have made so far, which is what gives it the distinctive air pockets. The dough is so wet it has to be beaten with a spoon rather than kneaded – which is time consuming and tiring! Happily I was working opposite my friend who turned the exercise into a ciabatta HIIT work out (high intensity interval training)! We beat the dough for 30 seconds and had a ten second rest on repeat for about fifteen minutes which at the very least made up for the fact that I’ve not managed an actual HIIT session all week!

Little and Large Ciabatta

The main event of the afternoon was to tackle the pigs trotters! Chef Rob had raved about them all week and even felt the need to bring out a trotter the day before and show it around. It was all fun and games until one of the students high fived it and splattered pig juice on my face – cheffing is such a glamorous life!! The idea was to debone almost all of the trotter so that you end up with just skin and toes – an unfathomable idea to all of us bar one, the youngest person in the group who happily announced – “I like feet!” which had us laughing for some time! I was fairly pleased with my effort at deboning my trotter but could have done with practising on at least one more – it’s one of those processes which you can’t understand until you’ve done it yourself. However I suspect that might be the last trotter I debone… ever.

Trotter!

The final day of the week was the most challenging on our pallets as our European tour took us to France to enjoy snails, frogs legs and the aforementioned pigs trotter. I quite enjoyed prepping the little frogs legs (I’m odd I know) and they actually made a really tasty dish! They do in fact taste like chicken, just as everyone always says. The honey and mustard glaze made them sticky and sweet and is something I would happily do in the future, although admittedly it would probably be with chicken! The snails were unpopular with everyone in the class (with Feet Boy being the one exception); they were unpleasant to prepare and even more unpleasant to eat. Perhaps coating the snails in layers of garlic butter would have made them more palatable – but the texture is chewy and slimy and given that they don’t taste of anything themselves I don’t quite see the point. Amazingly they were fairly expensive at £1 per snail but they didn’t all go to waste as Feet Boy had a few of our portions!

Honey and Mustard Glazed Frogs legs with Confit Potatoes, Panéd quails eggs, Leek Purée, Honey and Soy Dressing. Snail salad featured in the background!

The pigs trotter was unfortunately not made much more pleasant sounding as it was stuffed with a chicken mousseline, which is chicken pureed then mixed with sweetbreads. Sweetbreads are the pancreas or thyroid glands of lamb or calves, not bits of brioche unfortunately! I actually didn’t mind the taste of the dish, if you cook the trotter right it is similar to braised pork belly (the fat though, not the meat!). I definitely ate more of the veg and mash than the rest of the dish, but I was just pleased that it wasn’t as bad as the snails. I also went away a little less hungry that day than the former vegan of the group!

Stuffed Braised Pig Trotters with Creamed Potatoes, Baby Vegetables and Braising Jus

It’s been a varied week to say the least with some delicious dishes and some not so much, but it’s all good preparation for next week which is offal week. This wasn’t my favourite week of the course, but I know it’s good to learn the techniques for such classic dishes – especially as you’re not going to be cooking for yourself in a professional kitchen! Although I would say if this week has taught me anything it’s that not everything that’s edible should be eaten!

Ashburton Chefs Academy – Week 10

The end of week 10 means one thing – I am half way through this incredible journey. My morning walk to school is once again joined by children in school uniform walking to their school. Their absence for the last two and a half months is not something I’d actually noticed until they were back! The fact that a whole summer holiday has passed in the time I’ve been at Ashburton is a strange thought. Summer holidays used to feel like they stretched on forever, and yet the last 10 weeks have whizzed by at great speed.

Chocolate Teardrop, Raspberry Mousse, and Raspberry Coulis

Chef Dave was back teaching us this week, I’m not sure if we’ve matured much (at all) as a group (I did get a slight ticking off for being childish first thing Monday morning!), however it seemed like we worked as a more well-oiled team than back in week 5 when Dave last taught us. Monday was a sugar skills day; making meringues, truffle mix, caramel, and frosted nuts. Frosting is not something I’ve heard of, but having seen it demoed the first thing which came to mind was Frosties – the nutritious breakfast cereal! The idea is to do what you would never do when making a caramel – agitate the hell out of it while the sugar is melting to force it to crystallise. This means that rather than forming a caramel you end up with clumps of crystallised sugar covering the hazelnuts (or you end up with a much tastier praline as two of my fellow students did!). It was valuable following that process first as when we next made a proper caramel to do some sugar work with it was easier to understand what we were trying to avoid. Once we had all made a caramel we played around pulling sugar, making springs and hazelnut spears. This was actually a bit of a theme this week; we were taught a technique and then left to play around with it for 45 minutes to see what we could produce (mostly a mess in my case!).

Sugar springs, pulled sugar, and hazelnut spears

Monday afternoon was meant to be a theory lesson on sugar, fruit, and venison. Dave started by handing out the food orders for this term’s assessments in week 13, and then taught some theory on weighing. It sounds ridiculous that you would have to do a theory lesson on weighing but you’d be amazed how helpful it was to know how much an average portion of a particular herb or vegetable actually weighs. For our final assignment we need to order all of our food, but we’re also costing up for the fictional events each day, one day being a wedding for 100 people. Our costs would be badly affected if we were to miscalculate how much an ingredient weighs, and equally if we miscalculate how much of that ingredient we would actually need. Weights, costing and sundries all seemed straightforward to Chef Dave but somehow sent most of us into a spin. Our confusion probably wasn’t helped by a sense of feeling a little overwhelmed by all the work we have left to do for the final term without then being handed the work for this term’s assessments! Dave was probably quite happy to see the back of us that afternoon, but we all left feeling a bit muddled and behind on work – something I spent most of my evenings trying to rectify!

Pan Fried Loin of Venison wrapped in Parma Ham, Honey Baked Figs, Wild Mushrooms, Broccoli and Truffle Purée, Pommes Anna, and Chocolate Jus

Luckily for everyone we were back in the kitchen on Tuesday where everything was weighed out for us in advance! Most of the morning was working towards our lunch dish of venison. Dave started by butchering another venison saddle for us, this one was quite a bit larger than the Roe we saw last week as it was a Red deer. It was good to see the process repeated again and is honestly something I would quite like to try at home (does that sound as mad as I think it does?). Breaking the deer down into the loins and fillets left us with lots of off-cuts which we used for our sauces, but could also be made into burgers or sausages. That became an on-going lesson this week – how you would use off-cuts and wastage to produce dishes and make money, after all a restaurant is a business. Our lunch dish was venison loin with Anna potatoes, veg and a rich jus. The jus was made as a second stock which is where you follow a similar process to making stock, but rather than adding water you add a base stock. We browned off the bones and off-cuts, reduced some Madeira, sweated onion and garlic, and then added the stock and simmered it. After half an hour the sauce was sieved and then reduced down to a jus consistency. This second stock process gives you a really rich sauce which was finished with a pinch of dark chocolate. That isn’t as odd as it sounds – it didn’t taste of chocolate, we only added enough to add some bitter notes to the taste. Making the sauce was great, unfortunately my Pommes Anna (Anna potatoes) were a tad on the ‘caramelised’ (burnt) side. The rest of the dish was lovely though and I found my appetite for eating full meals had returned with it!

Chocolate Truffles

We made toffee souffles that afternoon (mine was a tad under-cooked so mostly tasted like egg) and an Eton mess with the meringue made the day before. The fun bit was finishing our chocolate truffles. We cut them into portions, coated them in melted dark chocolate and then decorated them how ever we liked, although Dave did ask us to keep it simple so they didn’t come out looking like the work of a child! I was really happy with a few of mine until I looked up and saw the exquisite creations of the lady opposite me and then I felt a tad down trodden! Although they weren’t the prettiest chocolates Chef said they were neat and mostly a good consistent size, and I can vouch for them being rather tasty!

Wednesday started with more chocolate work, this time making teardrops which would later contain a raspberry mousse. Chef Dave showed us the technique which involved spreading the melted chocolate on acetate to make them plain, striped or patterned (using acetate already coated in a cocoa butter design). Once they have cooled down a little you then turn them on their side and form them into a teardrop shape and secure them with a paperclip. So off we went to spend an enjoyable 40 minutes playing around trying to get them neat and structurally sound enough to hold the mousse!

Alternative chocolate teardrops

Our lunch dish that day was lamb rump with nicoise vegetables, smoked garlic puree, and anchovy beignets (anchovy fillets coated in a light batter and deep fried). I don’t know if that sounds like a lot in a sentence but it sure was a lot on the plate. I was really happy with how my plate looked at the start, then I realised I had another five elements to plate, so it ended up looking like a mess! That lack of balance also affected the taste of the dish, they were all quite strong flavours of salt, smoke, and fat. I learned that having less of each element on the plate would have made it a more cohesive dish. All lessons for future plating! It really shows you how you can get the cooking of everything spot on, but actually ruin the taste of the dish just in the plating – which I found quite interesting!

Rump of Lamb, Nicoise Vegetables, Rosti Potato, Anchovy Beignet, Smoked Garlic Purée, Tarragon Jus

Happily that was not the case with plating the chocolate teardrop and raspberry mousse. The raspberry mousse was set with gelatin and piped into the teardrop. Once they were set they were plated with some pink meringues made on Monday and raspberry coulis thickened with Ultratex. Ultratex is a starch thickener which doesn’t require heating or cooling, you just whisk it in bit by bit until you reach the consistency you want, which in our case was enough to hold on the plate rather than run. It’s interesting stuff and probably the first ‘modernist’ ingredient we’ve used. I was really happy with how my dessert looked and the mousse was delicious, especially when topped with some more raspberry coulis – photo at the top of the post.

Tuna Carpaccio with a Japanese Dressing

Thursday morning was something we were all looking forward to – sushi morning. I have actually made sushi in three separate cookery classes before, the first of which was on my honeymoon in the Maldives. I’ve also made it at home a handful of times so I was looking forward to learning some new rolls and techniques. Before we got on to the sushi we made a tuna sashimi dish with a Japanese dressing. The dish was beautiful with really bright clean flavours – and got scoffed pretty quickly! I actually do something very similar at home, but because I never manage to slice my tuna that thin I tend to leave it in the dressing for an hour so the tuna starts to soften and marinade. It was great to learn a different spin on the same ingredients.

Maki, Dragon Rolls, Mosaic Square, Japanese Omelette and Nigiri

We did three different rolls for the sushi; maki, a dragon roll, and a mosaic square. As the names probably suggest these increased in difficulty significantly with each roll. I didn’t have too much trouble with the first two, but the mosaic was a different story! If we had seen the final product cut before we constructed ours it would have helped a lot; it was a bit like doing a puzzle without having see the front of the box first! You construct the mosaic in two stages, first making a small maki with just 4 pieces of cucumber in the centre which is then cut into 4 sections – a slice of cucumber in each. Next you dye some sushi rice pink with some raspberry coulis (yes it is weird, and yes your brain tells you it tastes of raspberry even though there is barely enough to affect the taste!) and you construct another roll, with the first roll inside – but backwards to make corners. As I’m typing this I’m realising it’s not easy to write assembly instructions! Hopefully you can see what I’m trying to describe in the photo. We also made a Japanese omelette (Tomago Yaki), but in a normal frying pan rather than the square type traditionally used. The egg mix is flavoured with soy, mirin and sugar and then you make a thin omelette, roll it over, pour in more mix, and fold it back. You do this as many times as your mix will allow and the end result is an omelette roll. We finished off with some cubes using a sushi gadget and some nigiri. As always with sushi the end result was pretty and very tasty – if surprisingly filling!

The last plated dish of the week was a veal dish with an onion glaze over the top which was popped under the grill. Chef had us taste this and write our own notes on what we thought of our execution (rather than their design of the dish!). My conclusion was that my vegetables were under, and the glaze a little over grilled (black would be another word for it!) but the veal and jus were good. We passed our little comment post-its to Chef for some weekend reading! The final job of the day was to bake pork pies which would be our lunch on Friday and mark them with a little flag so they could be filled with jelly the following morning.

Pork Pie made with Hot Water Crust Pastry

Friday was a day which had been built up by the chefs as one of the most enjoyable demos of the course. Looking at my current word count I know I can never explain just how much it lived up to the praise. The demo was a day with Angus McCaig who is the Head Chef at The Holt at Honiton. The main theme of the demo was on smoking and curing but Angus touched on so many other interesting topics as well. The demo was setup in the dining room with the smoker on the terrace and Angus using the pop-up demo kitchen at the front. He started by cold smoking a vast array of ingredients including chillies, nuts, mozzarella, and milk. The smoker was later used to hot smoke some chicken breasts which had been brined on Monday and were drying out in the fridge for the last few days. This drying out process is one of the key stages of smoking in which a ‘pellicle’ is formed on the skin of the meat or fish allowing the aromatics to penetrate rather than the acrid smoke taste. During the demo we tasted some weird and wonderful things – sansho pepper for example are similar to Szechuan and basically broke my tongue! The salivation and tingling numbness was not something I fancy repeating! The smoked ice cream (made using the smoked milk) was a much more pleasant experience. Other than learning about smoking and curing, which I knew next to nothing about, Angus also taught us about restaurant management, sharpening knives using a wet stone, and other general professional / life tips (“don’t kill anyone, it’s bad for business” was one of my favourites!). He is a really inspiring chef and it was the perfect day to mark our half way point in the course.

Chef Dave concluded the day by thanking us for our enthusiasm, saying he had enjoyed teaching us this week. That means a lot to me as it feels like an enjoyable working environment is a really important part of working in a professional kitchen. I’ve ended the week on such a high, which makes me all the more sad to be halfway through. I did ask if we can start the whole course again and Chef Dave joked I might have to (!) but jokes aside I would love to go back to the start and experience the last three months again. Of course the thought of moving back home with Hubs and the Kitties makes me happy, but the thought of leaving behind Ashburton Cookery School, my little Loft, the Chefs and my friends doesn’t bring me any joy. I’ll just have to remind myself how great the last ten weeks have been, and that the next ten weeks promise to be even better.

Ashburton Chefs Academy – Week 9

Week 9 has seen a few of us experience a bit of an energy drop, not because it was a particularly intensive week, but I think because being back at school is a bit of a surprise for those of us who left school quite some time ago. There is a lot of work to be done outside of school and a lot of distractions to keep us tired even when we aren’t working! Luckily the week was full of excitement to pick us up including wine tasting, a day trip and most enjoyably – peeling walnuts and polishing grapes!

Wood Pigeon Salad, Apple Puree, Caramel Walnuts, Macerated Raisins, and Micro Cress

We had an admittedly hard start to the week as I had a glass of wine in hand by half 10 Monday morning – that’s just how we chefs roll! I jest of course, it’s because Monday was the day we completed our WSET foundation certificate in wines. It’s a fairly basic course covering different grape varieties and styles of wine and concluded in a 30 question multiple choice exam. The polishing (and peeling!) of the grapes was in order to demonstrate how each part of a grape affects the wine. The sweetness and juice is from the flesh, the skin is where all the tannin comes from and there is a haze on the outside of a grape that includes natural yeast, which can be used in the fermentation of wine (thus the polishing!). All in all the day basically consisted of supping our way through nine wines while (in my case) totally ignoring the presence of the spittoon! I shall find out if my polishing off most of my wines will have an impact on my mark at a later date!

Smoked Eel with New Potatoes, Smoked Mackerel Bon Bons with Lemon Puree, Beetroot and Goats Curd ‘Samosa’, Salsify with Smoked Salmon Crumb, Maple Glazed Pork Belly with Apple Puree

Tuesday looked a little ominous on our curriculum as it was just labelled ‘Canapé challenge’ with no detail of what dishes we’d be cooking. Our chef tutor this week was Stuart and he set about demystifying it for us! The aim of the day was to produce ten different canapés and the challenge aspect was mainly working at a fast pace and completing recipes without a demo. Looking through our booklet for the day was a bit overwhelming as there were 18 pages of recipes. On closer inspection a fair few of the recipes had been completed by Stuart the day before as prep, while we were busy gluggling wine! I was happy to have been paired with one of the quickest chaps in the group this week and we worked well together – having a laugh while getting through the tasks quite quickly. The canapés which we served for lunch were elegant and tasty, particularly the maple glazed pork belly – so naughty and so nice! The afternoon canapés were a little heavier as all three of them were deep fat fried, including a pigs ear goujon, as modelled by my partner for the week! This was my first taste of pigs ears and although the first bite was surprisingly okay I wasn’t that keen on them after a few. Deep fat frying something can cover a lot of strange tastes, but nothing quite masked the chewy cartilage down the middle!

Rory as the BFG (with his pigs ear!)

Wednesday was our first chance to work with game, mainly rabbit and pigeon. Before all the messy butchery though our first task was to start on the puff pastry. This is actually a very similar process to croissants, the main difference being croissants include yeast and are therefore a dough rather than a pastry. The other difference is that there are more turns in puff pastry – a total of six rather than three. Once the pastry and laminated butter were resting in the fridge we moved onto butchering our pigeon. The pigeon was a little larger than the quail we did previously so butchering it was fairly simple. Next we moved onto the rabbit (one of my classmates promptly left at this moment as she has a pet rabbit and had no interest in cutting one to bits!). The rabbit is actually the first four legged animal we butchered completely which made it a bit more of a challenge, well that and the fact that rabbits have next to no meat on them! The rabbits were braised and would eventually be used in two dishes (bulked out by some other game).

Rabbit

The pigeon was made into a ‘salad’ for our lunch that day. According to wikipedia a salad is “a dish consisting of a mixture of small pieces of food, usually featuring vegetables”. Our salad was pigeon, apple puree, caramelised (and carefully peeled) walnuts, raisins macerated in port, and some micro cress. My plate contained around five sprigs of cress, which in my mind doesn’t quite push it into salad territory! Aside from my quibbling on the name it was a tasty dish (if a little on the sweet side) and it gave me the chance to do some more crescent plating – photo at the top of the post.

The rest of the day was finishing off braising our rabbit while getting the turns done on our puff, which are two activities I wouldn’t recommend doing simultaneously! Puff pastry needs to remain cold while you’re turning it or the butter starts to melt and seep out, meaning doing it next to a steaming pot isn’t ideal! Luckily Stu saw we were all having a bit of a tricky time and we left the final two turns for the following day. That evening I took myself off to the local salon and had my hair cut shorter again to suit my chef training lifestyle, then we all enjoyed a delicious meal together cooked by one of my classmates and eaten at one of the local pubs. This was reviving a tradition we had started the term before, but stopped when it was my go because I wimped out as we had too much work to do for assessments!

Rabbit Cobbler

On Thursday we finished off our two rabbit dishes; a cobbler topped with savoury Parmesan scones and a game pie using the mix and pastry made the day before. The cobbler was homely and tasty, although I didn’t manage to eat much of it. This was mostly because I was so hungry before lunch that the moment the scones came out of the oven my partner and I scoffed a few! So despite using a bowl half the size of everyone else’s I still had a fair amount left. I’m also starting to wonder if being around rich food all day does something odd to your appetite as I’ve started to pick at food rather than sit down to eat a full plate. Or maybe that’s my body telling me to slow down on the butter!

Raspberry Mille-Feuille

The afternoon was time to assemble our three desserts using the puff pastry – Gateau Pithivier, Apple Tart Tatin with Calvados Cream and a Raspberry Mille-Feuille (now there is a sentence that causes a few red spelling squiggles!). We plated our Mille-Feuille (meaning ‘thousand leaf’) for assessment and the others were just for eating! I was pleased to get good feedback on my dish, despite my plating falling short of quite a few of the beautiful plates in the room. I did try a crescent but couldn’t get it to work on the rectangular slate… probably for the best! I was impressed by how well everyone’s pastry turned out, hopefully that’s a sign of how well it will go for us in this term’s assessments!

Tom and the Roe deer

Friday was time for another school trip, this time a visit to Clinton Devon Estates with Tom on the subject of venison. Tom’s story is quite inspiring as the deer are a by-product of managing the forest on the estate. Deer eat trees and when timber is an important part of your business, managing the number of deer becomes equally important. The culled deer were previously going to waste, so Tom (an ex-marine) took some butchery training and started processing the meat to be sold at a local farmers market a few miles down the road. The whole process is done as humanely as possible; as they are wild animals they can’t be rounded up and culled, they are shot in situ using a high powered (massive!) rifle. After being shown the forest to see a small part of the 17,000 acre estate (one of three estates which total to over 25,000 acres) and being introduced to Tom’s very excitable German wire-haired pointer, Gilly, we went to the larder where the deer carcasses are processed. All of the deer at the estate are Roe deer and they are actually much smaller than you may imagine. While continuing to answer our many questions (and join in with our Bambi jokes) Tom skinned one to be butchered back at the school. He also showed us some of the many heads (deer only!) that he keeps in the freezer waiting for his next head boiling day! That isn’t some odd ritual but rather how he removes all of the meat from the skull so that he can hang some of the more striking or interesting antlers in the study.

Game pie

We went back to the school and enjoyed our game pies for lunch (mine complete with appropriate cute rabbit decoration!). Next Tom butchered the venison into the loin, shoulder, and haunch steaks. Stuart pan fried the haunch and loin fillet for us and I can honestly say they were the most delicious venison steaks I have ever eaten. Tom had a great sense of humour and made the day really interesting. He took the time to talk us through the butchery which was great, I suspect this was because he has a real appreciation for the skill as it was something he learned especially to make the best of such a quality by-product.

Having fun at sea!

Despite this week being a short one in the kitchen (and therefore a slightly lighter one on the washing!) it’s felt like a jam packed week. Luckily we’ve had a relaxing weekend in Devon to balance it out. Me, Hubby and three of my classmates had a wonderful day paddling along the Dawlish coast yesterday (me and Hubby donned a nice stable kayak and enjoyed laughing at the other three falling off their paddle boards while doing yoga!). Today’s mission is to buy a desk… you know for all that assignment work I’m desperate to do and apparently quite good at putting off! Next week marks the half way point in our course and that’s something I can’t bear to think about just yet.

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!!

Ashburton Chefs Academy – Week 4

This has been the first week where there have been some harder moments, as well as all the usual incredible ones. The whole process really is like going back to school but as an adult with responsibilities! You come together as a group of complete strangers and start a really intensive learning process. At the beginning you get fully swept up in it all, then at some point the magnitude of how much your life has changed hits you. I think that was what partially happened to me this week.

French Apple Tart with Cinnamon Ice Cream

Week 4 started in much the same way as week 3, but this time our demo day was mainly on pork. Our chef for this week was Ross, who I didn’t know at the start of the week – but I feel like he knew me well enough by the end of the week! The pork in the demo was made into lots of tasty bits which we would be using later in the week including sweet cured bacon and braised belly. Ross also showed us a few puddings, including crème brûlée and custard. Also a slight contrast; chicken liver parfait, which we ate for lunch on Tuesday. I am a huge fan of chicken liver parfait and found it really interesting to be told the difference between a parfait and a paté – the livers are pan fried with the aromats etc then blended in a paté. In a parfait you blend the livers raw and then the infused butter is added slowly, like an emulsion. This did look a little like something out of a horror show, and you’d probably want to thoroughly clean your blender before making your next banana smoothie! But the results were, in my opinion, beautiful and delicious (photo below). I was amazed by how many of my classmates were not a fan of livers, so I happily ate someone else’s portion too, then felt rather content – if a little ill!

Chicken Liver Parfait with Croutons, Chutney, and an Aged Balsamic Glaze

Tuesday was pudding day! Really. We made three lemon desserts, one apple tart, and a custard which was churned into an ice cream to accompany the apple tart (pictured at the top of the post). Oh and shortbread as a side to another! I went home that night laden with things that would finally last until Hubby turned up at the weekend. The shortbread then did a disappearing act soon after he arrived!

Tuesday was also the first chance I got to wear my newly created short sleeved chef’s jacket. We are given long sleeved jackets, so obviously we all roll them up every day or they aren’t practical – but that isn’t the most comfortable thing in a hot kitchen. A few weeks ago I asked if I was allowed to make one short sleeved and was given the go ahead. When I came in wearing it I got lots of comments from the chefs – a few asking if they were lop sided – but mostly compliments on my sewing! I think they look really neat, even if I do look a bit special as the only one with them (that was a comment from one of the Chefs!)

On Wednesday we made another two puddings. A crème brûlée which we had after lunch and a lemon posset intended to be enjoyed as lunch pudding later in the week. Unfortunately none of the possets set due to the wrong fat content in the cream, which was a shame because I was getting used to this lunch pudding concept!

Whole Plaice

For lunch we got back to some savoury cooking. We filleted plaice to make goujons (that’s posh fish fingers) with some tartar sauce, which meant making our first mayonnaise. That’s another dreaded emulsion which can split easily if you add the fat too fast. Luckily mine did not – what a relief!

Plaice Goujons with Tartar Sauce

Wednesday was also the day we did our roast style meal, with lots of components which we prep throughout the day and plate together at the end. I should point out at this stage that this was the day where I really just didn’t feel like myself and unfortunately my final dish echoed that! My partner for the week was a really calm lovely chap who I was lucky to be with because I was in a flap that day. I kept forgetting to do little steps which annoyingly were always on dishes we were working on as a pair; not stabbing the chicken legs for the marinade and forgetting to put sugar in the posset to name two. Despite my partner being nothing but kind I got frustrated at myself and it slightly got on top of me. So my dish of pan fried pork fillet, with pork medallions, apple cider sauce, mustard mash, kale and baby carrots included the feedback “dirty rim of plate”. In an effort to demonstrate honesty I’ve included the picture below – I am not proud of it! Most of the rest of the feedback was fine, and it could have been a lot worse. I think it just stuck out in my mind as being the first time I didn’t feel like I was on top of things. Hey ho, Thursday would bring a brand new day.

Pan Fried Pork Medallions with Apple Cider Sauce, Mustard Mash, Kale, and Baby Carrots. Served on a dirty plate!

I do remember having one fun moment that day though, when I couldn’t hide my true colours from Chef. I was trying to peer into a tupperware tub at the chef station before a demo, because I wanted to see how his pork tenderloin looked (some of you may see where this is going). He used his apron to shield it from my prying eyes, so I made some joke about covering up his meat and two veg! I appreciate that was probably much more amusing at the time – but what really made me laugh was his reaction; he shook his head and called me ‘smutty’. At that point I went as red as my clipboard and hid behind it. It did feel good to go back to laughing as well as working hard, and that moment helped ground me a little for the rest of the week!

Tagliatelle drying off in semolina

Thursday was our last day in the kitchen that week, as Friday was a session on our assessments. The morning started with making lots of salads for our lunch the following day. Next came the fun bit; making pasta. We made the dough the day before to allow it to rest overnight so now was time for rolling it and turning it into tagliatelle. I really enjoyed this bit, it seems I’m at my happiest when I’m playing around with some sort of dough. I’m sure that goes back to Mum making me playdough all the time as a child! Our rather more normal coloured dough was for a carbonara for our lunch that day, made with the bacon Chef cured on Monday. While I did enjoy both cooking and eating this dish, a few of us agreed that the cream and butter intake was starting to take its toll on our wellbeing!

Tagliatelle Carbonara with Sweet Cured Bacon and Broccoli Florets

The final dish of the day was a red mullet dish, so it was onto filleting our second fish of the week. It really is great that we regularly get the chance to practise these basic skills now, so we don’t just feel we’ve learned them once then put them to bed. Our red mullet (who had a very nice ‘hair style’… ok I stole that joke from my classmate, but it did make us giggle!) was served with crispy belly pork, crushed potatoes and a caper dressing.

Red Mullet

The fun part of this dish was it was the first time we’ve been encouraged to come up with our own design for plating rather than copy Chef. I commented on the use of negative space in modern plating, which Ross said he thought was a bit naff. So off I went to do a negative space plated dish! I honestly didn’t start the week trying to be cheeky, it just seemed to pan out that way. Luckily for me I had not one but three of the chefs say they did like my plating, although the skin of my mullet was a little too dark, and rimless plates are better for negative spaces. I was proud of it anyway, I hope you can see where I was trying to go with it in the photo below!

Red Mullet and Crispy Belly Pork with Crushed New Potatoes and a Caper Dressing

Friday was spent with Darrin telling us all about our assessments in week 6 and our assignment due in week 16, which is tied into our assessments in week 18. I won’t go into too much detail on this as it was honestly a full days worth of information. The main thing I’m focusing on is getting myself ready for week 6 assessments first. This involves planning exactly what our menu will consist of given the brief and our food orders. Then getting our mise en place list (prep list) together and combining all of that with our recipes with added notes into one pack, ready to print off and take with us into the exams. I initially greeted this with excitement, having now done a few days work on it I’m rather more nervous and concerned about timings. Oh and for anyone really curious, I don’t find out if I passed my hygiene exam or not until the end of week 6, but they did say if we hadn’t passed they probably would have pulled us to one side by now!

Needless to say Darrin’s talk focused my mind and reminded me what they told us on day one: never forget why you walked through that door and what it is you want to achieve. That was something we found ourselves discussing that evening – the future and where we hope this course might lead us.

Ashburton Chefs Academy – Week 3

It’s strange to think that at this point we’re already half way through term one as we’re three weeks in. It’s more strange when I think we’ve only spent eight and a half days in the kitchen and we have seven days left before we’ll be facing our first assessments. Let’s move off that scary topic!

Pan Fried Sea bass and Creamed Leek Tart with Green Bean and Shallot Salad

This week started a little differently to last week as we had a demo day on Monday. This is where we get the opportunity to watch chef do demonstrations in the dining room all day, which also means we come to school at ten, in civvies not whites. The dining room is cleverly set up to be able to pull out and construct a fully working demo unit complete with hobs, oven, fridge, and sink. This makes for a fantastic learning environment as we are able to fully focus on the masterclass going on in front of us, rather than being semi distracted worrying our bread might be burning in the oven!

This weeks demo was on lamb and pastry (these were not combined into lamb pie you’ll be upset to hear!) We had Chef Alan for the week, who already knows me as he taught me earlier this year on a weekend course. Assisting him was Chef Stuart who also taught me last year (I go to Ashburton a lot…). So on Monday Alan showed us how to prepare particular cuts of meat, how to make shortcrust and choux pastry, as well as filleting mackerel and sea bass  – all of which we would be doing ourselves later in the week.

Lamb joints

Tuesday started with making a beautiful spelt bread, something I will most definitely be making at home, because despite it being a very wet dough (the word batter was used) it is a pleasure to make and even more so to eat.  We then made a start on preparing our first cut of lamb; breast of lamb, which is quite tricky to butcher as it mainly consists of ribs, sinew and fat and you have to whittle it down to something you can roll together to be braised. I was quite pleased with mine as I’ve never done anything like that before. The other cut was the best end, which is where you have a rack of lamb chops, that involved getting keen with scraping knife against bone to get them all nicely French trimmed. Effort well spent as we then chopped two of them off once they were cooked! At least it’s all good practice.

We also made choux pastry for profiteroles that day, as well as a mascarpone cream to stuff them and a chocolate ganache to dip them into. I was very pleased with how mine turned out, I was even more pleased once I was scoffing them all that evening! I’m never normally a fan of profiteroles because choux is a pretty flavourless pastry, usually filled with flavourless cream and covered in flavourless chocolate! However the mascarpone had some real flavour, and because of the quality of the chocolate we use at the school they were genuinely delicious – I felt like I finally understood what all the fuss is about!

Profiteroles with Chocolate Ganache

Wednesday was our  turn to have a go at filleting round fish having seen it demoed on Monday. We started on the mackerel, which is the more difficult. Mackerels have very soft flesh so if you’re a bit overly keen you can easily wreck the fillet. Sea bass was next and that was much easier and I confess in my opinion, much tastier! We had our sea bass for lunch, pan fried with creamed leeks in a pastry case (which we had made on Tuesday) with green beans and a mustard dressing (pictured at the top of this post). I actually binned my beautifully brunoise shallot, because I added it before I was meant to. As I was subtly tipping it in the bin I was told that it didn’t really matter as they would be added together later anyway – arg! Very luckily for me this week I was working with a partner, and she was my saviour! She got straight on re-chopping up another shallot so I could start again – what a star. It was great working with her, we seemed to work in a fairly similar way and at a similar rate. More importantly though we get on really well and we worked hard, but had a giggle while doing so!

Rack & Braised Breast of Lamb with Dauphinoise Potatoes, Roast Vegetables and Lamb Jus

This week’s epic roast was lamb (shown above). We braised the rolled breast, and then roasted the best end to have with dauphinoise potatoes, honey roasted celeriac and carrots and a really tasty jus made from the braising liquor to bring it all together. This was one of the dishes which was assessed and I was really pleased to hear that other than slightly under-cooking my dauphinoise, I received positive comments on the rest of the dish. Chuffed!

Beautiful scallops

On Thursday we got the chance to prepare the most beautiful scallops – Alan told us they haven’t been able to get scallops in the shell for ages because the sea bed has previously been contaminated. Luckily for us that is no longer an issue so we were presented with this stunning box of scallops to chose from. Although two rather unlucky people found a load of sand in theirs rather than a scallop! Apparently it’s wise to have spares for scallops, as something else may have come along and eaten your lunch first.

To accompany the scallops we made a vegetable tian (that’s a stack to you and me) of griddled vegetables, which were then stacked up in a ring. This was served cold to accompany the pan fried scallops and a basil oil, all of which will feature in our assessment – gulp.

Pan Fried Scallops with Tian of Mediterranean Vegetables and Basil Oil

We made another dish which is rather unfamiliar to me – scrambled eggs! As with the omelette, I have made sushi more times than I’ve scrambled eggs. Clearly I am a bit odd. However Chef’s method seemed pretty fool proof and when placed on some griddled spelt bread, and served with steamed sea bass and crispy pancetta made for a scrummy lunch. At this point I feel I should point out, we make all of the things which accompany our dishes as well as just the main bit! We’re already getting pretty used to multi tasking – it turns out that pauses between stirring can be filled with tasks other than drinking wine – shocking!

Steamed Sea Bass and Scrambled Egg on Griddled Spelt Bread with Crispy Pancetta

Also on Thursday we made our first soup of the week, pea and ham hock. This was assessed by us sitting opposite Chef and tasting it with him. When asked what I thought of my soup I said I thought it might be a little over salted. Chef disagreed, he said it was nicely salted, but was missing pepper. Which was quite true as I had totally forgotten to add pepper – at least that was easily explained!

Pea & Ham Soup

Friday was great fun as we had our first field trip – off to see Duck Man Dan at his farm just down the road. The long legged chickens from last week are from his farm – as you’ll see we took one away with us again. It was really fascinating to see every aspect of farming from the incubation, to hatching, rearing, and then eventually the killing and butchery of the animals. Dan himself is quite a personality as Alan had warned us the day before (although he mentioned he didn’t think we were an easily offended bunch!) Dan is really passionate about producing and eating quality local produce and it’s great to meet someone who is making a living doing what he loves.

Captive audience at the farm

We took our chickens back with us and got ready to butcher them after we made our lunch. Lunch was lamb tagine that day, which we had made the day before. Therefore all we had to do was re-heat it and get some cous cous cooked – so nothing too strenuous. I really enjoyed butchering my chicken again. The legs are going to be used next week and the breast is being frozen and will be the one we use in assessment week. Gosh I feel like that word has come up a lot in this post and it’s only going to get worse as the weeks go on!

All in all it was another amazing week, we’re really gelling as a group which just makes it all the more fun. Work is piling up a little and I’ve spent most of my weekend catching up on writing up my notes – as well as making one of my chefs jackets short sleeved and shortening all of my aprons. I really didn’t realise how much sewing this cooking course was going to involve! Nearly time to get back on the road and head back to my second home, if only I could take the Hubby with me, life could perhaps be perfect.