Hard to believe I’ve been at Leiths for a month now. In some ways I feel like I only started yesterday and in many, many others I feel like I’ve been there forever. I’m getting used to the 3 different kitchens we work in, starting to learn where things live and what they’re all used for (though, as one of my teachers told me yesterday: no tin is ever actually called a bain marie. This may have come about when I failed miserably at her “game” of “what is this tin and where does it live” and just kept shouting, “BAIN MARIE!”), had my first 2 wine lectures (and have our first exam this coming Tuesday, eep!), and starting to learn whom among my classmates I work well with and, er, the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, I love my group, we get on very well socially… but getting along socially is not the same thing as working well together. You can love somebody’s personality but struggle to find equilibrium when actually cooking together – it just happens. I even did some washing up work for one of the evening classes this week – I didn’t leave school until 11.30pm but it was a fun evening and I made some money!
But this week… Lord, this week. I don’t know whether it was hard and stressful because the weather suddenly changed and the days were significantly shorter (one morning we even had to turn all of the ovens and some of the hobs on, just to warm up the kitchen so that we could bring ingredients to temperature), or whether it’s because last week we had a relatively light week, or simply because we’ve now reached week 4 when more is suddenly expected of us, but it was a very hard week. I asked a couple of the teachers if it had been just as hard for them as it had been for us and, eyes widening, heads nodding emphatically, they had heartily agreed. I think I’m also learning that I do not cook as well in the mornings as I do in the afternoons and I think that’s because I always feel rushed in the mornings; still, timing and speed is something I really need to work on, so that’s my goal for next week.
I think one of the problems with cooking in such a relatively short amount of time is a) we’re suddenly making 3 or 4 things every session, which means a lot of juggling and extensive time planning, and b) some things simply need longer to cook.
Let’s look at the spiced lamb and prune stew above – this is actually a great recipe. It’s very tasty without being overpowering and it’s a fantastic Winter warmer – I would definitely make it again – but making it in 2 hours in class? It’s just a bit of a nightmare. What started off as a relatively stress-free morning suddenly became a race against time and all because my damn neck of lamb would simply not tenderise. It got to the point where it was half past 1 and I still hadn’t served my stupid stew and, to add insult to injury, I then messed up my rice.
Yes. I, the girl who has rice withdrawal if I don’t eat any for a week, messed up my rice.
I added too much water and the rice was not only mushy, it also broke apart: I wanted to cry. I actually told my teacher that I wasn’t sure I wanted to serve any of it because I was really unhappy with it but in the end I figured, ah, screw it, may as well call it and do my best… and actually, though my rice was a disaster, the meat itself was finally tender and the sauce was both reduced well and well seasoned (I have to admit though, my seasoning always receives good feedback and I never really worry about it – I think it’s purely because before I started Leiths I was eating and cooking so much and for so many that my palate was already in pretty good shape). And, though my rice was a disaster, my teacher looked me in the eye and said that he was pretty sure I knew how to make rice, so he wasn’t particularly worried about it, but still – bit embarrassing, innit? The Asian girl messes up the rice. Sigh.
But back to the timing issue – so here’s the thing, though it was okay by the time I actually served it, when I took that stew home and reheated it in TS’ oven for about 40 mins (and got him to make rice in the rice cooker this time), the extra time it had actually helped it a lot. It was okay when I served it at school but that extra 40 mins in the oven turned an okay dish into a fantastic one and I kind of wish we’d actually cooked it in the oven instead of the stovetop to begin with – it had so much more depth of flavour and the meat was just beautiful at that point. It was the same with the beef stew I’d made at the beginning of the week – the meat just needed longer. That was also the day I accidentally added too much pearl barley to my entire group’s stews, something which my buddy Tyler teased me mercilessly about for, oh, the entire day, but honestly? I think it was better with that extra 15 g of pearl barley…
This week we also had our first whole fresh fish to gut and deal with but gutting fish is not too hard a task for me, I must admit. A few years ago my father used to bring home fresh trout he’d caught fly fishing and simply give it to me and instruct me to deal with it, a task I always rather enjoyed (even de-scaling the fish which is very messy) but this time we were also cutting out the gills and dealing with my fishy nemesis: mackerel.
Hilariously, though I’ve always considered myself as an entirely non-fussy eater, I have discovered that there are quite a few things I really do not like. Coriander is one (though it has grown on me and, as with all of my food phobias (barring oysters), if given to me, I will eat it), smoked foods are another and, above all other fish, mackerel is the one I simply cannot abide. I just hate the flavour, the texture – everything. However, in the name of learning, I did try a little of the mackerel dish I’d cooked (which received good feedback) and though it was mildly better than other mackerel dishes I’d had before (probably down to the pungent spice mix we’d made the day before which mostly masked the taste of the mackerel), I still do not like mackerel. So I’m going to strike that one off my list and just accept that it’s not my thing. Unfortunately for me, we’ve got mackerel pate on the menu next week… bleurgh.
I think my saddest day in the kitchen this week, though, was lemon meringue pie day. I knew when I made my pastry that it was probably going to be too short but figured I’d just go with it and, lo and behold, it was too short. It was super crumbly and cracked during its blind-bake (plus I had to do some serious patching when I put it into the flan ring because it started breaking apart on me) but, even sadder, my lemon filling didn’t set properly so when my teacher cut into it the filling oozed all over the board.
I don’t really understand why this happened, y’know. I weighed my ingredients meticulously, I cooked out the filling on the hob for over 2 minutes and I only added 3 tbsps of lemon juice. It was fine and thick until I put it into the pastry and then, all of a sudden, it lost its viscosity and became lemon goo. The same happened to my friends Sophie and Steffi and all three of us mourned our lemon meringue puddles in the dining room after class, trying to figure out what happened. The best explanation one of my teachers could give me was that when we had baked the filling, it hadn’t developed enough of a skin to be able to hold itself together which, I suppose, is possible. I think it didn’t help that when my teacher tasted it the entire pie was still piping hot but we were severely out of time on that day (that was also Christmas Cake day, which didn’t finish baking until 2pm, when our next class was due to start). Still, the balance of tart and sweet in the filling was perfect and the meringue was good. Just a shame about the short pastry and the filling not setting properly.
So that was this week. Some successes, some failures, but lots of learning opportunities. Oh, and you see the profiteroles up the top there? Those are actually the profiteroles I made last Sunday morning for tea at my mother’s place and the ones I made in class were a little bit smaller, but I forgot to take a photo. BUT my profiteroles were awesome. Seriously. Small but perfectly formed (the ones I made in class looked like adorable little ping pong balls) and intentionally small because I knew from Sunday’s profiterole experience that when they were a bit bigger they were too cloying, but yeah. Choux pastry. My favourite of all the pastries… and so versatile!
So let’s hope this next week is the best week thus far – lots to do but maybe now we’re over the first month’s hurdle? At least there were no tears this week… I bet next week is going to be an entirely different story! Fingers crossed.
Until next time, peace and love,