• Attempting to de-stress

    No matter how hard I tried yesterday morning, I couldn’t keep my nerves at bay. I tried to revise; I tried to relax; I went for a four mile run and nothing seemed to be able to take away the anxiety which I was feeling. I felt sick to the stomach and had the driest of mouths, despite trying to keep hydrated. I thought about not going in for the exams as the thought of putting myself through these feelings for the next four days seemed quite unbearable. But then I thought about not receiving the final part of my Diploma, the Ashburton Certificate, which I really don’t want to finish the course without. The day seemed to be rushing by too quickly – before I knew it it was time to attempt to eat some lunch to give me energy for the afternoon; finish getting ready and make the 10 minute journey to the cookery school to start the exam.

    I managed to muster up the energy and courage to do all of these things as well as complete the first day of the exams. I managed to present what I had to present i.e. 2 classic French baguettes and 6 scones (3 fruit and 3 plain), as well as set myself up for days 2 and 3 (make frangipane, sweet pastry, yuzu tart filling, Schezwan creme brulees etc.).

    My scones were not the best, but also not the worst and my baguettes had a good crumb, crust and taste (according to me) but were definitely lacking in the shaping department – when I went to knock back my baguette dough for the second time, I must have been too ruthless and broke the skin of the dough and as a result my shaping was not particularly good. One baguette was not too bad but the second one had a thin bit in the middle which did not make it look particularly appealing. I tried to sort out the shaping before placing the baguettes in the baguette tray but eventually I had to give up as I had to balance overworking the dough with getting the right shape – the former won. I am not sure how this will translate when it come to my results.

    Other than the baguette challenge, my other challenge of the day was the sweet pastry. It didn’t set hard enough, which made lining the tart rings very difficult. I really wanted to get the tart rings lined before the end of the day yesterday because I knew this would set me up well for today, but I fear that working with soft sweet pastry may have affected the quality of my tart cases too much and I may need to end up doing them again today. If so, it won’t be a good start to the day. Here is crossing all appendages that my pastry will be in good nick this morning. My pastry challenge meant that I wasn’t able to weigh up one of my recipes for today, but it is a small recipe so should be okay.

    It was a long afternoon – 4 hours in the kitchen and then another 45 minutes cleaning up the kitchen after we had finished. My nerves settled during the evening, but were back with a vengeance this morning. So, after a cup of tea, I decided that the best thing to do was to go for a run in an attempt to clear my head. It was successful for as long as the run lasted.

    ‘In times of great stress or adversity, it’s always best to keep busy, to plow your anger and your energy into something positive’ (Lee Iacocca)

    The nerves have been escalating all morning, despite trying to distract myself with various things, including writing my blog and some pet therapy from my dog, Montague – looking at the photo, I think I am transferring my stress to him. Time is a ticking again and I need to get ready for this afternoon’s exam, so I will bid you farewell until my next update.

  • The final countdown

    Week 17 has been the countdown to our second and final set of practical exams on our course. I am lying in bed writing this blog post with anxiety welling up in my stomach. I have tried to think of the exams as just another day in the kitchen. I have prepared as best as I can – this went as far as roping poor Jo into testing me on the methods for the recipes we are to be examined on. I even practiced my caramel squares, but with little success as I still haven’t mastered the art of cooking in a gas oven – I can never get the temperatures correct, which is critical for caramel square making. I tried to relax by going for a massage, a couple of runs, lunch out with Jo and an afternoon nap, but nothing seems to be able to quell the nausea in the pit of my stomach.

    Let me park my exam anxiety to one side and reflect briefly on what we got up to last week, before I close my eyes for the night to shut out the inevitability of what awaits me tomorrow.

    The week was a combination of exam preparation i.e. trying out the last few recipes for the exams i.e. white chocolate mousse squares with blackcurrant gel centres; praline cigares and cherry macarons with Kirsch ganache centres and an array of breads, chocolate work, granita (cacao and shiso) and ice creams, sauces etc.

    My first highlight of the week was the two breads which we made on Monday – walnut and raisin bread and farmhouse loaf. There was a near disaster with the farmhouse loaf in that the quantity of salt in the recipe was twice as much as was required, which could have destroyed the yeast, preventing it to rise, or resulting in an overly salty bread. It did neither – the end result was a well risen and very tasty bread despite its precarious beginnings. The walnut and raisin bread, despite not being the most beautifully shaped loaf, was a very tasty loaf indeed and provided us with our breakfast for quite a few days.

    My second highlight of the week was the chocolate souffle, which we plated with Ume Choya ice cream and sauce Anglaise. My souffles always look like they are going to be a disaster in that I never quite seem to get the volume that my fellow students seem to achieve (i.e. my souffle mix never fills the ramekins as high as it should), but then they end up rising as they should, despite a sometimes slower start.

    I forgot to mention that as 4 of my fellow students and I had completed our workbooks and projects we were given an opportunity to have chocolate practice on Monday. We were tasked with making a chocolate centre piece for our upcoming afternoon teas. We decided to make a chocolate cake stand with an array of cakes, sandwiches and chocolate rolls. It was an exercise of trials and triumphs as once again I struggled to temper my chocolate but I did manage to put together some half-decent chocolate cakes and rolls for display. Thank goodness for my fellow students’ ability to temper chocolate as it certainly helped to create a decent centre piece. While the end product could have been shinier in places with fewer finger prints, on the whole we were happy with the result.

    With tomorrow in mind, I am going to apologise for my less than exciting post and take my leave as I need to get some rest for the big day.

  • A somewhat cultured week

    Our start to the week was a little novel. We had a guest tutor in to teach us how to make cheese. Quite a change from our normal day, which is quite frenetic, as cheese making is a calm and measured process in comparison. It was interesting to learn something different and our day resulted in the making of a number of products, largely using organic milk and a range of cultures i.e. ricotta, yoghurt, buttermilk, crème fraiche and a ripening Manchego cheese. The Manchego cheese will be ready to take home at the end of our course (4 weeks’ time) but it is best to leave it to ripen for a few months before tasting it. Other than cheese making, the only other thing we did on Monday was awaken our stiff dough starters for the making of two sour dough breads on Tuesday and baking some lychee tuiles for the culinary class’ dining event. Something we had to do Monday through to Thursday.

    On Tuesday, we finally got to make two loaves of sour dough bread (Pain au levain and Pain polaineTM) from the stiff dough starters which we had been nurturing for the last two weeks. All was looking good until the final prove, when my breads were nestled into their respective bannetons, waiting to rise up over the top of the banneton before they were baked. Chef came in just before the final proving time was over to inform us that some of our doughs had worked while others had not. Without being told, I knew my dough was one of those which hadn’t risen the way it should have. Not put off, but slightly disappointed by my limp dough, I placed my breads in the oven to bake, or so I thought. My partner in crime this week, the lovely Annie, and I discovered quite far into the bake that our oven was not on properly and as a result any chance that our breads had of rising during the bake were thwarted. Not to be defeated, I took the required photos of my end products (angled in such a way so as not to look like a complete flop) and took them home to try, along with the classic French baguette, we also made on Tuesday, with some cheese, pickles and salad. Despite their less than perfect appearance, the breads were very tasty and were eaten over the next few days as toast. On Thursday, I decided enough was enough (I had given them a fair shot) and threw the remainder of my breads away. I should say that the classic French baguette, aided by a bit of cultured yeast, was much more successful, albeit that according to my feedback from chef could have been more consistently shaped with better slashes on the top (I was awarded a credit for my efforts). Tuesday also saw us make meringue and carrot top granite for our carrot parfait dessert.

    Wednesday was a busy and productive day. Not only did we complete all the items on our mis en plas for Wednesday, but we also made four of the components of our chocolate box dessert, which we were making on Thursday i.e. jaconde sponge, chocolate mousse, chocolate gelee and feuilletine. Our Wednesday mis en plas included making the brioche dough for our apple doughnuts; apple and yuzu sorbet; caramelised apple puree, carrot parfait and pickled carrots. We were treated to making the brioche dough in the electric mixer, rather than by hand, so this certainly cut off some time. For anyone who has made brioche dough, you will know it is a labour of love. That being said, I sort of missed making the dough by hand as it is one of my favourite doughs to work – the enriched dough is very pleasant to the touch. Irrespective, by the end of the day, our brioche dough was tucked up in a protective layer of cling film in the fridge to rest overnight.

    Despite getting ahead on Wednesday, Thursday ended up being a long day. We finished around 6pm, which is largely unheard of. We made our chocolate boxes under pressure i.e. chef giving us a specific amount of time (I can’t recall exactly, but somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour) and then ‘shouting’ out how many minutes we had left every five minutes. This was our first foray into chocolate tempering since the exams in Week 13 and also for something which we have to make in our forthcoming exams, which are next week, so my nerves were on edge. The pressure being placed on us (chef counting down the time and the impending exams) meant that my chocolate boxes were made with a very shaky hand. I am surprised they came together at all. My chocolate was tempered (although it could have been shinier) and I made four boxes (albeit not quite circular in shape), which we later filled with layers of chocolate gelee, jaconde sponge, fueilletine, chocolate mousse and ganache. During the kitchen scrub down, we had to present two of our chocolate boxes to chef for assessment. One of which had to be cut in two so that chef could assess how well we had layered up our chocolate boxes. I was pleasantly surprised to be given a distinction for my chocolate boxes. Here’s hoping that I can repeat this in my exams. Other than the chocolate boxes, we also plated up our carrot parfait (along with carrot top granita, buttermilk sauce and pickled carrots) and deep fried our brioche doughnuts, which we filled with caramelised apple puree and served with apple & yuzu sorbet. As per usual, my stress got the better of me and the day ended in tears, mainly because of the long day and the knowledge that Montague, our dog had been left alone in the house all day as both Jo and the dog walker were away – as the day got longer, my stress got worse. Eventually I resorted to enquiring whether the neighbour (and our landlord) would be willing to let Montague out. He was, and with his willingness, my stress subsided, unfortunately a little too late to have avoided my fellow students seeing me in tears again.

    Friday was a calmer and more relaxed day. Chef was in a good mood and it buoyed everyone up. We made twice baked cheese souffles, chutney, sea salt water biscuits and a cheese pithivier. The nicest thing about making the souffles and cheese pithivier is that I got to garnish them with salad leaves and edible flowers (so I used this opportunity to give a nod to my late day by using violas, his favourite flower). It was an early end to the day which was a good thing as I had to brave the motorways and very inclement weather with Montague to make our way to Gloucestershire for what was supposed to be a weekend of Spartan obstacle racing. A weekend turned into a day as Jo’s calf injury played up during the race on Saturday and we decided not to race on Sunday. This was most probably a good thing as I am not in tip top fitness at the moment (the longer the course has gone on, my fitness has declined with it) and it was a tough race on Saturday i.e. a Spartan Super race filled with heavy carries (logs, sandbags, atlas stones etc.) and upper body obstacles (rings, monkey bars etc.). After a quick bite to eat at Lynwood and Co. in Lechlade, my favourite haunt when in the area, we made our way back to Liverton. After a two hour snooze in the car I was refreshed enough to attempt to do my mis en plas for the exams, something I wouldn’t have been able to do if I had raced both days. As they say, every cloud has a silver lining.

  • Nashi-ng of teeth

    We started the week with a visit to Riverford Farm, Ashburton Cookery School’s supplier of all our organic dairy products. Unfortunately there wasn’t a single cow to be seen, but we did learn about the various dairy products made on the farm, as well as had a tour of the facilities. The highlight of the day, of course, was to wear disposable blue hats (which resembled shower caps), an over-sized white coat (which made my broad shoulders look even broader) and boot covers. Very sanitary, but very unsavoury at the same time. We were then treated to lunch at Ben’s Farm Shop before we returned to the Cookery School for our first foray into macaron making. I certainly didn’t master the art of macaron making, but it wasn’t a complete disaster. The shells were fine in texture and well cooked, but my sizing was out (too large and not the best shape in some instances) and my ganache didn’t set as firm as it should have in the time allowed. We have another opportunity to practice before my exams. I have also bought the ingredients to try them at home before the exams. Let’s hope things go better next time.

    Tuesday was bread day. We made music bread, named as such because of the noise it makes when being broken/eaten – similar to Rice Crispies with a ‘snap, crackle and pop’. It was a very delicate bread to make as if is not rolled evenly and in a circular shape it does not rise as it should i.e. whoopee cushion shaped. I had beginners luck with my first one coming out as it should, but it went downhill after then i.e. unevenly risen and misshapen, albeit tasty breads. We also made pizza dough, which was later topped with an array of delicious toppings, including percorino cheese, which was cooked in time for a tasty lunch. As if we hadn’t made enough bread, we then made a sunblush tomato and olive foccacio and fed our stiff dough starters.

    On Wednesday, we were introduced to the nashi pear i.e. an apple/pear fruit. We peeled, sliced and poached nashi pears as well as made nashi crisps for our dessert on Thursday. We also made sake sorbet, frangipane, caramel squares, compressed pineapple and filo pastry, again in preparation for dessert Thursday. Despite being the third time I have made filo pastry, it hasn’t really got any easier other than my filo pastry sheets now have fewer holes in them than they used to have. My end-product still looks a bit like a dish cloth, but at least now it is not a ‘holey’ one. Filo pastry was not the only challenge on Wednesday, so too was the making of caramel squares i.e. 5.5cm x 5.5cm squares made out of caramel, which needs to be heated and reheated at 170 degree Celsius every time it begins to solidify and invariably before one has the chance to measure and cut the squares. Some 1.5 hours after we started the task of making the caramel squares, we were told that we had to call it a day. I managed to make about 9 squares of slightly different sizes and shapes (I don’t think a single one was exactly 5.5cm x 5.5cm). Given the difficulty the class had with making the caramel squares, we were told that we were going to be given another chance on the Thursday to try the squares again – joy! Actually, I shouldn’t complain as we have to do them in our forthcoming exams so any practice is most welcome.

    Thursday was a bit of a dessert disaster, not in terms of managing to get the three desserts out that I was required to get out i.e. nashi pear cake, Sechwan creme brulee and a nashi pear dessert, but that chef and I came to blows. I am still not sure why I annoyed him so on Thursday, but I definitely did. Given my inability not to cry when stressed, frustrated or upset, I spent most of the afternoon in tears. Pathetic I know – despite my advancing years and my supposed maturity, I can still be reduced to a blithering idiot by some people. My unhappiness must have spread to my products as chef rated my nashi pear cake a high pass/near credit and my Sechwan creme brulee a credit. I should be achieving better grades at this point in the course. I was therefore sorely disappointed in myself on a number of levels on Thursday.

    Friday was careers day. We got together with the culinary group to learn tips from a gentleman from a local recruitment agency on CV writing, interview skills and expectations when entering the catering industry. I thought that having been in HR for many years that I would know most things about these areas, but I still learnt some excellent tips about CV writing, especially with little or no experience in the catering industry. Armed with my new found knowledge, I revamped my covering letter and CV over the weekend, which I then sent to the gentleman from the local recruitment agency this morning. Besides a few ‘grammatical’ errors, I have been given the seal of approval, so I must have learnt something on Friday.

    The weekend was busy as always – a visit to the masseuse to continue to work on my back (a knotted mess) on Saturday morning, followed by a trip to Dartington to visit The Almond Thief, a sourdough bakery. Following a quick lunch of homemade baked beans on sour dough/crushed avocado and poached egg on sour dough and a visit to Tesco en route home, I was knackered so curled up on my bed with Montague for an afternoon nap. My rest was followed by a four mile run, dinner with a glass of cider, a film and then bed. On Sunday, I had to hit the books – CV and cover letter writing; exam preparation and project writing. If that wasn’t enough I practiced scones for the exams and went for a 6.4 mile run. Knackered again at bedtime, we were rudely awoken at 2am and 3.30am this morning by a poorly dog who had a sore and very noisy stomach, who was not happy in his discomfort so sought solace in the bed of his ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad. Needless to say, we didn’t get much sleep last night. So much so that when the alarm went off at 5.45am, we set it again for 7am.

  • A bit of the exotic

    Last week was a bit of an eclectic week. We started the week with a theory day, which was a good thing as it gave me an opportunity to finish off the draft of my project. It was also a nice way to start the new term.

    Tuesday was starter and Indian bread day. We made or starters for Pain au levain and Pain poilane, which we had to give a name, so mine was named, Buddy Bear. Only because there was a discussion on TV that morning about the fact that Cheryl and Liam had called their baby, Bear and that Jamie Oliver’s son was called Buddy Bear. Lets just say that Buddy Bear has developed, but is a slow developer. Starter making is the art of patience as you have to awaken the dough, feed the dough, test the dough, maintain the dough, refresh the dough etc. We have to nurture the starters until next week when we are going to make a Pain au levain and a Pain au polaine.

    Tuesday also saw us make naan bread, roti and lentil pancakes (dosa). The naan bread and roti went relatively okay, but the dosa were a little trying – forever sticking to the pan. Not happy with the result and feeling that there was something wrong with the batter, I decided to try some more dosa when I got home and low and behold with a different frying pan and a gas hob, my dosa finally worked out as they should. A result at last.

    The exotic started to creep in on Wednesday with a shiso sorbet; pineapple sashimi, raspberry glass and yuzu and shiso tartlets, something we are going to have to make again in our exams in three weeks time – and something I am trying not to think about at the moment. To top things off we made some very gooey chocolate brownies – the more set baked sides to be cut up and folded into our chocolate Mochi parfait. Of all the things we made on Wednesday, everyone’s favourite was the the chocolate brownies, much to chef’s disgust.

    Speaking of the chocolate Mochi parfait, we made this on Thursday along with yuzu miso sauce and a canneles mix, preparation for the baking the canneles on Friday – I learnt that canneles mix can be too lively if not made the day before. All I wish to say about the yuzu miso sauce is that it is an acquired taste, one that I have not acquired as yet. On Friday we also made yuzu Pate De Fruits and Green Tea truffles. We were warned not to be wasteful when making the Green Tea truffles as apparently Green Tea is very costly. To top Friday off, we had a theory test to check whether we were absorbing theory alongside our practical skills. I did okay – I only dropped a few points, so wasn’t unhappy with the result despite not having looked forward to it. A rather unusual week topped off with a theory test, meant that there was only one thing to do on Friday night – meet up with my ‘classmates’ at the local pubs in Ashburton for a drink or two. Thoroughly enjoyable and a good way to unwind.

    After getting my roots done and my hair cut on Saturday morning, as well as having a neck and back massage (at which I was told by the masseuse that she hadn’t seen a back like mine for several year and that she recommended that I come in on a weekly basis so that she could work on my knots), we set off to the New Forest to meet up with a friend of ours, Matt, for a weekend of eating, cycling and camping in our respective camper vans. A great weekend of decent whether and bumping into a range of wild animals (cows, wild pigs, horses, ponies and deer) while cycling around the New Forest. I also managed a reccy to Bakehouse 24 in Ringwood, an artisan bakery specialising in sourdough, to get some ideas for a business.

    It was back to earth with a bump when I got home as I had to try to fit in some project work and preparation for another week at the cookery school. In between preparing for the week ahead, I managed to do a couple of hours on my project on Sunday night and another on Monday morning. At least my guilt of not working all weekend was allayed to a certain extent.

  • No rest for the wicked

    Having finished exams on Thursday and feedback on Friday, you might have thought that I would have a well-earned break over the weekend. Not so. After getting a few things together on Saturday morning, Jo and I hopped into Bluebell, our VW camper van, and made our way down to Brighton for an obstacle course race, the Warrior Run, on the Sunday.

    We managed to have a decent night’s sleep (can’t say the same for Sunday night with all the cuts and abrasions), without the aid of alcohol, on the Saturday night (no drink before a race), waking up at almost the crack of dawn to register for the race at 8am, for a 9.30am start. 2 hours and 15 minutes after the start, we crossed the finish line – cold, caked in mud and wounded from two laps of a rather ruthless but excellent course.

    I wasn’t good for much after the event and to be honest for much of the rest of the week. Despite all my good intentions, I did very little on my week off. I was expecting glorious weather but instead it was greyish and cold and uninspiring. Rather than say that I was lethargic or lazy, I would like to say that I was recuperating. I ‘recuperated’ on Monday, and felt guilty on Tuesday so ran 5 miles into Ashburton to have a ‘well deserved’ back massage at Blush. Anna worked her magic and I relaxed.

    Let’s just say that Wednesday was a non-day as I can’t remember what I did other than possibly a bit of course work. Actually, I should say that I decided that as I had some time off that I should experiment a bit with some new savoury dishes, so last week saw me cook smoked haddock and spring onion cakes with Dijon sauce; red, red stew and paneer tikka, all from the latest edition of Olive Magazine and all very yum.

    On Thursday, we ran 5.3 miles into Ashburton to The Old Library for breakfast and then after a rather large and tasty bowl of porridge, toast with marmalade and two cups of coffee, we ran the 5.3 miles home again. As you will have gathered, not the most comfortable of runs, but 10.3 miles ticked off our 1000 mile challenge. The 10.6 miles took it out of me so I enjoyed an afternoon sleep accompanied by my dog, Montague – the best way to spend one’s time.

    Friday was a wasted day as we decided to go into Exeter to see whether I could find a dress for our graduation/end of course lunch (jumping the gun a bit, I know). The short answer is that I didn’t and will now be wearing one of the many dresses which I already have in my wardrobe. Far more sensible anyway as no-one has seen me in any of the dresses I own. After a quick lunch at No. 14 I spent the best part of the rest of the afternoon having insoles fitted. One word for this experience – yawn. I do hope however that my boredom was worthwhile as I am counting on my insoles to make my running more comfortable.

    To top off the week, we spent Saturday and Sunday at the Exeter Food Festival. Saturday’s highlight were the good weather and a cookery demonstration by Rob Spencer and Darrin Hosegrove from Ashburton Cookery School. Sunday’s highlights were a Q&A session with Tom Kerridge, Paul Ainsworth, Michael Caines and Michael Wignall and cookery demonstrations by Tom Kerridge and Paul Ainsworth. On the downside, the weather was pish. I picked up a copy of the Riverford Companion (Summer/Spring) and made the most delicious Bombay spice roast new potatoes on Saturday night, served up with some fried mushrooms and a fried egg. Comfort food at its best.

    Needless to say that a week of not doing much; eating like a mini piglet at the Exeter Food Festival and to be honest throughout the whole week, has meant that my holiday week has resulted in me gaining 1.5 kg and feeling like a mini bloater pig. It is a good thing that we are now back at cookery school so I don’t have time to do nothing and eat all day.