• Fly monkeys, Fly – a poem for chef

    The time has come for you to pass
    The monkeys on your back

    It time for us to fly

    And while parting is such sweet sorrow
    It’s time to say goodbye

    Not monkeys perhaps
    But germs, which you have tried to nourish and grow
    Some of us have flourished and will leave in full ‘bloom’
    While others have further to go

    Time will tell of our individual yield
    But now we need to go it alone
    Without your nurturing hand or iron fist
    It’s up to each of us if we become fully grown

    We are no longer expected to stay together
    Or be part of the same team
    But we have shared a common experience
    And we have a similar dream

    So, with a whisper of ‘steady’ and ‘breathe’ in our ears
    We thank you for your expertise and time
    We are grateful for our training and experiences
    But are glad we no longer need to toe the line

    On a final note, your secret is out
    As we know that you really care
    Two things we have learnt during our time at Ashburton
    Is that you don’t have a pig’s heart
    And we certainly can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear

  • And in a flash it was all over

    It was another waiting game on Monday as given that my surname starts with the letter ‘U’ I was last to see chef, at 4pm to be precise. My exam results were largely as expected. I was pleased that my chocolate box received a distinction and that I had a positive comment about the quality of my chocolate tempering. Who would have thought it after my disaster with chocolate tempering in the last set of exams. That being said, my chocolate tempering is still very temperamental. Other than discussing my results briefly with me, the rest of my feedback session was taken up with chef explaining the logic about his approach during the afternoon tea and saying some nice things about the value I brought to the group. Before and while I was with chef, the rest of the group was doing some serious whats apping, trying to arrange a get together that evening. While I was keen to meet up with the group all I really wanted to do was curl up on my sofa with Montague and relax. Despite this, I did muster up some energy to go to the get together, as well as managed to stay to around 10pm.

    We were all quite excited about Tuesday and Wednesday, as while chef had a couple of days off, we were being taught by Naomi Devlin, who specialises in gluten-free food products. It was a very interesting and informative two days. Naomi is a very knowledgeable and engaging tutor and had no difficulty keeping us entertained for two days. We made gluten free rough puff pastry which we made into cheese straws; profiteroles; teff and chocolate cake; brioche and baguettes. All simply delicious.

    On Thursday, we were back in the kitchen, this time being led by one of the culinary chefs. We were tasked with making the canapes for our graduation that evening. We filleted plaice to make goujons (something that created angst with some of my class mates) and tartare sauce, made hundreds of gougiers, macarons etc. We were then allowed to go home for a few hours to make ourselves glamorous for the graduation ceremony. I popped into Blush for an eyebrow wax, manicure and wash and blowdry before putting on my make up and new outfit from Baukjen, especially purchased for the occasion. I have to say that it was the first time in some time that I felt remotely attractive. It was a good evening although it felt quite odd being waitered on by the chefs and the walk up to receive my personalised chef’s jacket, medal and certificates was a bit daunting. Chef seemed quite proud of us when acknowledging our successes. After the ceremony, we went to one of the local pubs for a couple of drinks, but I erred on the side of caution with regards to lateness and drink as we had our graduation lunch the following day at Lympstone Manor and we had been given very strict instructions to arrive in a fit state given the location. We were treated to a tour of the kitchens, a few of the bedrooms and the gardens and then sat down to a delicious meal. My highlight was the nettle risotto. My low light was me accidentally breaking a, no doubt, expensive, thin stemmed, glass in an attempt to clean the rim as I am a very grubby drinker despite my best efforts not to mark the glass. After photos of our group in the grounds of Lympstone Manor we made our way back to cookery school for the last time to say our farewells. It was difficult to say goodbye to our home, classmates and chefs who had been part of our lives for 20 weeks. While most of our classmates went their separate ways, a few of us decided to go for drink. In retrospect it wasn’t a good idea as our hearts were heavy and we were just prolonging the inevitable. I didn’t last long as all I wanted to do was to go home to Jo and Montague for a little TLC. I also had to get home to help Jo with the organisation (no that I was much help after a couple of glasses of wine at the Manor and a cider at the pub) given that we had just moved out of our temporary accommodation and were also due to fly to Italy the following day for a week’s holiday.

    With my adventure over and me now a fully qualified, albeit not experienced, pastry chef I now need to think about what I do next. The next chapter of my life is a little daunting as it is the first time in my adult life that I don’t know what I am doing professionally. I will continue to document my adventure into hopefully a change of direction career wise, but right now, I am not sure what my future will look like.

  • The Mad Hatter’s tea party

    I have got some way in collating the material for chef but not as far as I should have. Life and the afternoon tea have got in the way since last I wrote.

    On Saturday, a couple of my fellow students, Jo and I went to Watergate Bay to have lunch at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen. Not particularly eventful, but a good day out and a nice way to unwind. Having enjoyed a day out, we decided to have a second day out on the Sunday. The original plan was to go to the Almond Thief in Dartington for breakfast or lunch and walk to Avon Dam and back, but I then discovered that there was a food festival in Plymouth and decided to go there instead. Having recently attended the Exeter Food Festival, I had expected the Plymouth festival to be similar in nature, but it was a much smaller affair. The latter, coupled with the torrential rain left us all underwhelmed. With our mood somewhat dampened I decided that a couple of days of doing very little were in order before the start of our afternoon tea preparations and event, which were to run from Wednesday to Sunday.

    A couple of non-days with grotty weather later, we were back in the kitchen to prepare for our afternoon tea. I can’t say too much about these two days as the mood in the kitchen was very flat and there was a general feeling of not knowing whether we were coming or going. I am not sure what created the mood i.e. post exam blues, exhaustion, internal politics but it was not a pleasant environment in which to be creative and not the best end to a six month course. Although chef may not possibly agree with me, I felt that I produced the most consistent eclairs and macarons I have produced during my course (especially size wise), albeit that my ganache for my macarons was too firm to pipe properly and my first batch of eclairs were a little on the wide size.

    After a late night on Thursday despite the eminent arrival of my mother and her partner, Norman (which I had to change dinner arrangements as a result of) we were required to start fresh on the Friday morning. It was my turn to be a chef for the afternoon tea on Friday, which seven of my family members and my landlord and companion were attending. The day started off poorly again because of the atmosphere in the kitchen. By lunchtime things had improved – a good thing as our 16 guests were arriving at 3pm. The afternoon tea went well, except for a comment about the sandwiches being a little bit on the dry side. The patisserie went down a treat.

    On Saturday I was supposed to be front of house but as there was no kitchen porter for the day, I volunteered to take on the role to support the chefs. This was not a completely altruistic action on my part as I wasn’t looking forward to being front of house, so the thought of hiding in the kitchen, behind the scenes, filled me with great joy. To be honest, I quite enjoyed the challenge of staying on top of the washing up and ensuring the my fellow classmates had everything they needed to fulfill their chefs’ roles. At lunchtime I was presented with a bottle of wine (which I shared with family that night, thank you very much) from my classmates (well, really from chef) which had a note written on it saying ‘Bridget, the best KP ever’. I am not sure if I really deserved the accolade as mid-morning I had dropped a chopping board down the back of the washer and it had dislodged the waste pipe. This accident resulted in a mini-flood, which had four surges of water before Tom, the Operations Manager, discovered the source of the problem. No major harm done other than I went through more drying up cloths than I should have and increased the laundry bill for the day.

    On Sunday, I had to bite the bullet and be front of house. Preparing for the guests to arrive was pleasant enough as I had a great group of classmates to work with, but I did find the ‘hovering’ around guests whilst they were eating a little uncomfortable. Unlike some of my classmates, who found the interacting with guests a pleasurable experience, I always feel that I am an imposition if I chat with people, so tend not to engage too much. This of course, is at the risk of appearing a little rude or antisocial. Anyway, I managed to pour and serve Prosecco without spilling it; place the afternoon tea stands and tea pots in the right position on the table and attend to the guests’ needs, so all in all it wasn’t too bad considering that I was front of house for the afternoon.

    Exhausted from the previous week’s exams; preparing and catering for the afternoon teas and sleeping in Bluebell, our camper van for three nights (two because my Mum and Norman were sleeping in our bed and one because we spent the night at my brother and sister-in-law’s house), I collapsed in a heap early on Sunday night, aided and abetted by a glass or two of wine. Although knackered, my sleep was restless, given that Monday was to be exam results day.

  • The size of a £2 coin

    With my mis en place in place, except my macaron shells and chocolate ganache for my chocolate boxes, as these had to be made on the day, I should have started Thursday with a ‘spring in my step’ (okay, maybe that may have been a step too far) but again the exam nerves got the better of me. This time, however, I managed to go for a run with Montague – it was a lovely day, weather-wise, so ‘we’ decided to go for a run to Stover Park, a lovely local park, a 6 mile return trip from our accommodation. The run was most probably a good thing as it broke up the morning and I had less of a continuous period to worry.

    As normal, 1pm came around too quickly and I found myself back at Ashburton Cookery School, waiting for the final day of the exams to start. Not, however, before I had dug out a £2 coin, the alleged size of the macarons we had to produce. At 2.84cm in diameter, I knew this wasn’t quite accurate despite chef saying that this was the approximate size that we should pipe our macarons to. To be honest, given my inability to pipe consistently, no matter how hard I try to regulate my piping, it wouldn’t really matter what size chef suggested as I am lucky if half of my macarons come out the right size.

    Anyway, back to the final day of our exams. I started by baking my pate a brick cigares (carefully placed between two pieces of silicone paper and two baking trays, with the seam facing downwards) and then turned my attention to weighing up my two remaining recipes, chocolate ganache and macaron shells. Given that the pate a brick cigares only took 10 minutes at 200 degrees Celsius, I had to make best use of the 10 minutes while ensuring that I was in the vicinity of the oven when the timer went off.

    Things didn’t start well in that poorly opened packaging meant that a couple of the ingredients I was measuring spilled and I had to clean them up before progressing with my measuring. A five minute job took 10 minutes and as a result I only got back into the kitchen just as the pate a brick cigares were due out of the oven, rather than having the planned time to get together the components for my chocolate boxes. No major damage other than being a bit behind.

    Taking the now cooked pate a brick cigares out of the oven and knowing that I only had a short window of opportunity to remove the pate a brick cigares from the pipe moulds, I attempted to remove the cigares as soon as I could. A difficult task, given that the pipes are metal and have been in the oven at 200 degrees Celsius for 10 minutes. Risking life an limb, okay the risk of a few blisters, I steeled myself and removed the pate a brick cigares before they stuck to the pipes. Three out of the five cigares were in good nick, so I was relatively happy.

    With the cigares cooked, I turned my attention to filling my chocolate boxes with layers of chocolate gelee (which I had blended earlier and placed in a piping bag), jaconde sponge, fueilletine and chocolate mousse and placing them in the fridge to set up before I added the final layer i.e. chocolate ganache, which was the next job on my list to make.

    With the chocolate ganache made and cooling, I made the macaron shells – a careful balancing act between making a paste out of almonds, icing sugar and egg whites and an Italian meringue from caster sugar and water heated to 114 degree Celsius, which is then added to whisked egg whites – the whisking of the eggs has to be balanced against the heating of the water and sugar as both have to be at the right stage at the same time. The Italian meringue mixture is then carefully folded into the paste and the placed in a piping bag before piping equally sized macaron shells on a tray.

    As mentioned earlier, piping is a trial for me, but I did manage to pipe out 24 similarly sized shells which I later paired together, filled with Kirsch ganache and presented as required. Our brief was to present 12, equally sized macarons.

    Before I leave the macarons, I need to mention the colouring of the macarons. In my previous attempts at making macarons (a whole two times during my Diplomae) I have struggled to mix in the colour so before the exam, I asked the other chef tutor what the best way was to blend in the colour properly. Both of his suggestions were different to chefs i.e. the other chef tutor suggested mixing the colour into the Italian meringue mixture or into the paste, whereas chef suggested mixing in the colour when folding the Italian meringue mixture into the paste. Nervous that I would be taken to task by chef for using a different method to his, I advised him that the other chef tutor had suggested a couple of different approaches. Chef’s response was that I had been shown the method that he used, which was short-hand for this was the method which I needed to follow. Follow, I largely did, with the result that as predicted some of my meringues had streaks of colour which had not been fully mixed in. My macarons were also a little on the light side as I was concerned that I had weighed out a little more than 1g of food colouring so I held a bit back. I shouldn’t have. I am sure that my slightly lightly coloured macarons will be mentioned in the exams.

    Whilst the macaron shells were cooling, I assembled and presented my praline cigares. This involved piping praline Chantilly into pate a brick cigares, which were lightly coated with cocoa and green tea powder and topped with copeau and shiso leaves. The challenge with assembling the praline cigares is maintaining the fine coating of cocoa and green tea powder, while assembling the rest of the product. I was largely pleased with the result, except that I put too much ‘affixing’ chocolate on the top of the praline cigare, which meant that I had to add more shiso leaves than I would have liked (and more than required) to cover the excess. I dutifully took my products through to be examined and there they sat for what seemed like 5-10 minutes before anyone went to look at them. I found this disappointing and frustrating as praline Chantilly does not stay firm for long, especially on a hot day. When they were eventually brought back into the kitchen to be examined, they looked nothing like the product that I had left for examining all those minutes ago. I was gutted to say the least. I will see how this delay is reflected in the results.

    Once I had presented my praline cigares and macarons, the last thing I had to do was present my chocolate boxes – which I had completed with the chocolate ganache when I was making the meringue. This involved presenting one whole chocolate box and one chocolate box, cut in half. My first attempt at cutting a chocolate box resulted in a cracked top, so I cut a second one. With my anxiety building because I had ‘destroyed’ one of my chocolate boxes and because I had recently let myself down by stupidly cutting the end of a piping bag on the food preparation surface rather than a chopping board (I am still not sure why I did this other than my nerves clouding my judgement) I accidentally plated two halves of different chocolate boxes on my serving plate. Chef saw me do this, although I had not registered my mistake myself so my final act of the day was rectifying another stupid mistake.

    With the final day of the exams over, we did a deep clean of the kitchen and went home to refresh ourselves before going out for a couple of drinks to celebrate the end of the exams. Our celebrations were a bit of a non event as everyone was quite tired and we also had to retain some energy for the following day when we were due to have our portfolios signed off by the Internal Verifier. My portfolio was signed off without a hitch and chef has asked me for a copy of my portfolio so that he can use it as an example for future Patisserie students. I am quietly pleased by this recognition and also his request for a copy of my project for the same purpose. I just need to trawl through all my write-ups and photos to get everything together for him.

  • There is a mousse loose in the hoose

    I had a very shaky start to Wednesday. Unusual for me, I really couldn’t face getting out of bed or going for a run. Eventually I mustered up the energy to get out of bed but really couldn’t do anything other than mill around for the 4 to 5 hours before the exams, every so often making a cursory look at my mis en place and recipes for the day but really not taking anything in.

    After some consideration and a lot of soul searching (and a few tears), I decided that I couldn’t let my anxiety get the better of me and made my way into cookery school for Day 3 of the exams. It didn’t start particularly well as I couldn’t have brushed my white chocolate mousse moulds well enough on the bottom, despite every effort on Tuesday (or I was too ruthless when I tried to remove the white chocolate mousse squares from the moulds) as the chocolate cracked when I tried to remove them from the moulds. No amount of white chocolate spray (especially as we had to cover the white chocolate mousses with only a fine spray) could have covered the uneven surface of my white chocolate mousse squares. I had to present them anyway – I just hope that the mousse and the blackcurrant gel were as they should have been i.e. the right flavour and consistency and in the right place. I will find out when we have our exam feedback a week on Monday. I decided that I needed to put my mousse experience behind me and focus on the other jobs of the day, putting my cracked chocolate down to the fact that I had brushed my mousse moulds on the fateful Tuesday.

    I turned my attention to the other product that I had to produce for the day, my nashi pear cakes and my mis en place for Thursday i.e chocolate gelee, chocolate mousse, praline Chantilly, Kirsch ganache and chocolate boxes and copeau, which involved my other nemesis, chocolate tempering.

    I started with my nashi pear cakes, the other product that had to be presented on Wednesday. I carefully cut my pastry squares from the sweet pastry I had rolled on the Monday and pressed down the corners of the pastry in an attempt to prevent them from curling up when baking. I then piped in my frangipane, again taking care to pipe into the corners to help prevent the pastry from curling up when baking and not piping in too much frangipane, given that too much frangipane can result in an ‘exploding’ nashi pear tart. Finally, I placed my two carefully chosen and cut nashi pear slices (two 1/8ths affixed together with toothpicks) on the top of my frangipane and placed my cakes in the oven. After a check and a turn of my cakes after 20 minutes, a further 10 minutes in the oven and a prod to check that the sponge was bouncing back, I removed my cakes from the oven. After leaving them to cool for a few minutes, I demoulded them so that I could complete the final part of the cakes, blow torching one of my less than perfect caramel squares, which I had made the day before, over the top of my cake. At this point chef came over and said, ‘do you think that the cakes are cooked?’, which is code for ‘I think you need to cook your cakes for longer’. Under non-exam conditions, this sort of statement wouldn’t really phase me now, but in an exam situation, it puts you on edge as you are damned if you do and you are damned if you don’t take heed of chef’s advice – ignoring his advice is not acceptable, but taking it means that you have potentially been helped in the exam, which can be reflected in the results. An extra 10 minutes of baking later and still not sure if my nashi pear cakes were adequately cooked, I bit the bullet and blow-torched my caramel squares over the top of the cakes, not before having the same debate in my head as I had on Tuesday about which caramel squares to use. Once again, I went with the thinner, more irregular squares so ensure that chef’s tasting of my cakes didn’t result in the loss of any teeth. While I am definitely not an expert in nashi pear cakes or frangipane, all I can say is that they tasted mighty fine when I finally got to try them when I got home on Wednesday evening. Let’s hope that this counts for something.

    After the nashi pear cakes, I focused on my ganache, mousse, Chantilly and gelee as chef suggested that if we started Thursday without these, we would be in a ‘world of pain’. I didn’t want to add any pain to my anxiety. I also wanted to ensure that I had everything that I needed done for Thursday before I tackled my next nemesis, chocolate tempering. I had already decided that I was going to take a measured approach to my chocolate tempering – slow and steady rather than frenetic and frantic. I am not sure if my chocolate was perfectly tempered as it could have been shinier, but it certainly had snap and retraction. I managed to make four chocolate boxes of sorts (possibly not the roundest of chocolate boxes, but chocolate boxes nevertheless) and for the first time ever, my copeau went as planned (again, not the prettiest, but my end result definitely resembled what copeau should look like). Carefully wrapping my chocolate boxes and decanting my copeau into a tub out of harms way, lest I had to repeat the pain of making chocolate boxes and copeau again (I wouldn’t have had time anyway), I undertook the last task of the day, cutting and rolling my pate a brick in preparation of making praline cigares on Thursday. The only thing that I didn’t manage to do was to weigh up my chocolate ganache and macaron recipes for Thursday. Although never perfectly happy with anything I have done, at least I left the kitchen on Wednesday evening in not too bad a place.

  • Baking disasters

    When I last wrote, I was about to go into Day 2 of the exams and was concerned about the sweet pastry that I made the day before. Despite crossing every appendage it didn’t help as what I predicted came true. For the first time in ages my tart filling leaked as my pastry had a few small cracks in it. If I had enough time, I would have relined my tarts and made them again but I couldn’t risk the potential knock on effect that this would have on the rest of what I had to produce. As a result I had to present tarts that I was less than happy with. Tarts which unfortunately are unlikely to pass.

    The other jobs of the day were to make, assemble and present two Szechwan creme brulees and to make a white chocolate mousse and blackcurrant gel to set up in white chocolate coated mousse moulds for spraying with chocolate spray on Wednesday. As I had baked the Schezwan creme brulee and made my compressed pineapple on Monday, my jobs on Tuesday were to make caramel squares (one of my two nemesis – the other one being chocolate tempering), select 4 equally sized raspberries for each brulee, cut my compressed pineapple into brunoise and assemble the creme brulees.

    My caramel square making went as predicted i.e. I managed to make a caramel and sort of create two ‘thinnish’ sheets of caramel but when it came to making my 5.5cm x 5.5cm caramel squares, as usual I took too much time to cut them and as a result the continual cutting and heating in an oven of 170 degrees Celsius meant that my edges got a little irregular. A couple of my thicker caramel squares had better edges, but I had to weigh up putting thin caramel slices on top of my creme brulee or being told that I could crack a tooth on a thicker caramel square. I also forgot the fundamentals of using a hot knife to neatly ease a creme brulee out of a square pastry ‘ring’. As a result my ‘square’ creme brulee did not have the neatest of sides and once again my end product was not how I wanted it to look.

    While my products were less than desirable, I did manage to make my jaconde sponge, which meant that there was one less thing that I had to do on the Wednesday – a good thing as my mis en place for Wednesday was looking very busy.

    Feeling despondent and with my tail between my legs I went home on Tuesday night with the weight of the world on my shoulders and a real concern that I wouldn’t be able to return on Wednesday for Day 3 of the exams. So embarrassed am I of what I produced on Tuesday that I can’t even face posting a photo of my products to accompany this blog post – I have therefore chosen a photo to depict how my end-products look instead.