Wednesday, August 11, 2010

8 Months Later...

Well, it’s been 8 months (hence the title) since my last day at Ballymaloe. I’ve had a few readers ask what I’ve been up to since, and because I can’t figure out how to respond to each one individually, here goes!

When the course ended in December, I returned to Massachusetts to celebrate Christmas with my family, and then moved to Baltimore, MD in January. Why Baltimore, you wonder? Great question. I could tell you that it’s a charming city with a low crime rate and no drug addicts to speak of, but I would be lying. In truth, I was lured here by some guy I’m supposed to call my “boyfriend”.

So, as luck would have it, Baltimore is home to a successful farm to table restaurant called Woodberry Kitchen (, where I promptly begged for and eventually got a job. I’ve been there ever since, learning boatloads every day and trying to keep up with the veteran chefs. We’re totally spoiled with in-season & local produce, deliveries of whole animals that we break down ourselves, artisanal cheeses, and top-quality kitchen equipment—so it’s just like Ballymaloe!

In my spare time, I’ve been continuing to blog (, testing recipes and hoping to build up experience before I eventually throw myself at the Food Network. Wish me luck! And thanks for reading!

Friday, December 11, 2009

83 Days at Ballymaloe

We made it! I'll have to go buy myself a few larger pairs of pants, but we made it. It breaks my heart to realize that it's over. Well, not over yet. I woke up to take the three dreaded written exams, from 9-3:30, with a couple breaks for lunch and tea. I hadn't sat through 5 hours of exams since college, and boy was I rusty! It was a long, drawn out exercise in creative guessing. In other words, a train wreck.

I wracked my brains to list brands of olive oil (basically making up Italian sounding names like "Il bueno" or "Ciao bella"), or what type of bread would need "Gram" flour (what the HECK is gram flour??), or what dishes contained obscure spices like "fenugreek" (when in doubt, curry). And don't even get me started on the fish identification. All flat fish look the same!

Truth be told, I could have studied a little more... a lot more. But my last days in Ireland were better spent. After thorough cleaning of our cottage, it was time to dress for dinner! When we returned to the school at 6:30, the tremendous teachers had transformed our mild mannered dinning room by day into a Christmas banquet hall by night! Live music, candles, and prosecco abounded. Hors d'oeuvres, celeriac and hazelnut soup, roast turkey with all the trimmings, Christmas pudding and plenty, plenty of wine - it was a great party. We capped off the night at our old friend, the Black Bird Pub.

I couldn't help but think, as I fell asleep, how lucky I am to have had the privilege of spending 12 weeks at such a unique and unparalleled place. We didn't just learn how to cook, we learned a new way to think about food, ingredients, and the farmers and artisan producers who make it all possible. What Darina Allen has created at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, and what Rory, the teachers, and all the staff maintain day-in and day-out, is nothing short of spectacular. Forever grateful, I'll never forget it.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Eighty Two...

Today began hilariously. I awoke to put my risen boulle of sour dough in the oven, and came downstairs to see that this boulle suffered from Dopey-of-the-Seven-Dwarf's Hat Syndrome (DSDHS). There was a huge bulging air bubble, about the size of a grapefruit, coming out of the loaf. Apparently, sour dough gets exam day jitters as well. I quickly cursed myself for leaving the bread until an hour before my exam, rather than making it safely the night before. My desire for a fresh loaf outweighed my fear that something may go wrong last minute. So, what could I do but just pop the bubble, say a quick prayer, and throw the mangled, misbehaving mess in the oven? For a laugh, here's what came out:

I took my ridiculous excuse for a loaf over to the school, trying to hide it from the view of any examiners. I hoped that I'd be able to get at least one decent slice from it to serve up with the salmon. My time started at 9 AM, and I didn't finish until 12:30! I was an hour over time (because of my 30 minute Cook Ahead, I was supposed to finish at 11:30)! Slow and steady wins the race? Better late than never? It's the thought that counts? You pick one.

I forgot to tell you that each student is required to make a bread during his or her exam in addition to the 3 courses. We drew lots for which type of bread, and I got white yeast rolls. So, this morning, I made said rolls, plus rillettes of fresh and smoked salmon, Boeuf Bourguignone with Pomme Mousseline, a winter green salad with balsamic vinaigrette, and 8 individual Grand Marnier Souffles. Wow, that list is rather small now that I write it. But it seemed like twice that many this morning!

The sour dough was as cavernous as St. Patrick's Cathedral, with huge air pockets trapped below the crust. I was, however, luckily able to get a decent slice for my presentation. The Boeuf Bourguignone was fine, as were the "pommes" and the rolls. My souffle (thank heavens!) rose!

And, last but not least, my young cheese became a man. After six weeks of watchful waiting, I cut him open and served him to the examiners for a little nibble. I don't know if it was all the tender, loving care that I gave him as an infant, or the reassuring support I lent him as a teen, but He. Was. Terrible. I practically needed a chainsaw to cut him open! Semi-hard? More like hard as a frozen rock. Am I a bad mother?! Maybe I was too hard on him. As icing on the cake, the ivy leaves on which I served him (which I picked en route to school this morning) are apparently poisonous.

All in a day's work! Now, off to study for our written exams tomorrow. If I fail, I'm blaming you all.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Eighty One

Exam week at Ballymaloe is very much like exam week at college, only instead of sitting in a library you're doing obscure things like identifying herbs in the greenhouse or feeding your sour dough starter. The latter activity is exactly what got me out of bed early this morning. I'm serving sour dough toasts with rillettes of salmon for my first course tomorrow, and since it takes about 3 days to make the bread, the teachers are letting me bring it in pre-made (i.e. it won't come out of my 3 hour time limit).

With my starter fed and happy, I could concentrate on preparing for my "Cook Ahead". Some students have menu items (like puff pastry or ice cream or, in my case, Boeuf Bourguignone) that take longer than 3 hours to complete (because of resting, freezing, or, in my case, marinating). So, the school allows you to do a "Cook Ahead" the day before your exam to get started with any preparation items. The time used in your Cook Ahead is deducted from your 3 allotted hours the next day.

So, I got into the school (which was eerily quiet) to get cracking. The two back kitchens were already in full exam swing behind closed doors, filled with the lucky students who drew a coveted Wednesday morning cooking time. For those of us cooking Thursday (and therefore cooking ahead today), a third kitchen was available.

I basically had to fry off some bacon lardons, brown some beef chunks, and leave them in a Le Creuset covered with wine (and a splash of brandy) overnight. You use the brandy and the wine to deglaze the frying pan of any flavorful beef bits before pouring it on the meat in the cast iron casserole.

I had a mild panic attack when I added the splash of brandy to the frying pan. The recipe said to "allow it to flame" before adding the wine. So, I tipped the pan slightly to catch the gas flame, and a HUGE (and I mean huge) ball of fire erupted up from my pan. I believe this is what "allowing it to flame" meant, but I could have used a warning! I frantically puffed and puffed until it was extinguished, simultaneously explaining "I meant to do that!" to the startled onlookers. Apart from that adventure, the Cook Ahead went swimmingly, and I managed to get it done in 30 minutes! This means I have two hours and 30 minutes to complete my meal tomorrow.

Other than those two activities, I spent my day studying for our written exams on Friday. We headed down to the greenhouse to refresh our salad leaf memories, and then hit up the school for leftovers for lunch. Each student's 3 course meal is graded and then added to a makeshift buffet for anyone to graze on. You bring a plate over from the cottages, and help yourself! It's a great (and delicious) system!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

80 Days

We got in this morning for one last demonstration! Before Rory kicked off the morning's cooking, a women from Valrhona Chocolate came in to discuss the making of chocolate. Apparently, an entire cocoa tree yields only about 875 grams (around 2 pounds) of pure chocolate nibs ("grue") per harvest. We tasted a Venezuelan 72% cocoa bar, a Brazilian 62% cocoa bar, and a Madagascan 64% cocoa bar. It was a great breakfast!

Hopped up on sugar, we started the morning's class. On today's final menu were hot oysters with champagne sauce, poached whole salmon, beef carpaccio with shaved Parmesan and arugula, tuna carpaccio, fillet of beef with red wine sauce, warm salad of pigeon breast with spiced pears and mushrooms, Quail Veronique, Oeufs a la Neige (also known as ile flottante or floating island), and molten chocolate puddings.

Quail Veronique is quail served with green grapes (whenever you see Veronique, expect green grapes). Champagne sauce is a delicious, incredibly rich, bearnaise-esque sauce made with half a bottle of Champagne (or, realistically, sparkling wine!). Rory made beef carpaccio by slicing a raw beef fillet about 1/4 of an inch thick, putting the slice between two sheets of oiled parchment paper and rolling it with a rolling pin. You serve it cold and raw, drizzled with good olive oil and maybe some arugula. It's simple and delicious - just make sure it's good beef!

For the warm pigeon breast, Rory's assistant placed a whole pigeon ("in the feather"!) in front of him. He somehow neatly tore the "crown", or the breasts, off the bird without plucking it, and hardly using a knife! It was very Lord of the Flies. Finally, Oeufs a la Neige, or ile flottante, is a blob of poached meringue (whipped egg whites poached in simmering milk), which is then cooled and served in a sea of creme anglaise. You can drizzle it with caramel if you feel saucy.

Your final Ballymaloe Tips (these better be good!):

- Gut a salmon before you freeze it. Some people argue the opposite, but Rory finds that if you leave the guts inside, the blood taints the color and the flavor of the flesh.

- When making carpaccio, some argue that you should freeze the beef to make it easier to slice thinly. Unfortunately, when you defrost it, all the moisture runs out. To avoid this, don't freeze the beef and just cut it reasonably thinly. Then, use a rolling pin as described above.

- Egg whites for meringues are better a few days old. They tend to whip up more voluminously than a farm fresh egg.

- Before you serve them, keep oysters rounded shell down in your fridge. The precious briny juices won't squeak out!

- "Empires were built on manners" - Rory

- Try marinating quail or chicken in honey and rosemary. Honey and thyme go well together also.

- Carpaccio is also good with thin slivers of celery, or black olives, or a small amount of lemon zest with a few drops of lemon juice, or some grated horseradish.

- You can roll out carpaccio between parchment paper in the afternoon and place it in the fridge until your guests arrive. Just before dinner, place it on a plate and drizzle with olive oil and any accompaniment. It's easy entertaining!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Day 79!

Our last morning cooking in the kitchen! I was assigned to make pan-grilled scallops with beurre blanc and a walnut tart with Armagnac icing. I also wanted to make rock salt and rosemary focaccia, so I got in early to get that started.

Soon, it was on to the scallops. Taking a live scallop out of its shell is a surprisingly scarring experience. As soon as you stick a knife in to scrape the scallop off the flat side of its shell, the poor guy clamps up in some last ditch effort to protect itself. I literally had to wrestle the knife between two tightly shut shells, trying to get it over with as soon as possible. You know you've won the duel when the shell stops resisting and pops open. Lobsters I can boil. But scallops, they are heart wrenching!

A beurre blanc sauce is basically a reduced mixture of wine, vinegar, diced shallots, and cream, into which you slowly whisk cold butter. The sauce will emulsify over a very low heat. If your sauce splits (i.e. looks like melted butter instead of a creamy sauce), don't panic! Let it get cold and solidify. Then, reduce a bit more cream in a saucepan, and whisk in the solidified sauce bit by bit. It should re-emulsify! You can use the same technique to bring leftover & refrigerated beurre blanc back from the dead.

For our afternoon demonstration, we watched Rory and our headmistress (a delightful brother/sister duo!) make various chicken dishes, carrot and parsnip puree, more cous cous, orange jelly, and Rory's molted chocolate tart. For the record, the molten chocolate tart wins the Ballymaloe Dessert Prize in my book.

It was fascinating watching Rory artfully debone a chicken thigh and leg all in one piece, stuff it with delicious flavors (onion, thyme, Dijon, and gruyere), and wrap it back up again to roast. It was even more fascinating (I think my jaw actually hit the floor) when our headmistress deboned an entire chicken in one piece, stuffed it, and rolled it back so that it was whole again. The wonderful thing about cooking school is that the teachers take the mystery out of seemingly complicated techniques. They make the impossible possible. I cannot wait to try that chicken maneuver myself!

A couple notes on deboning: it looks great, sounds impressive, and is easy to serve (no carving necessary). But, bones add great flavor when you're roasting meat, so you'll need to compensate for the absence of bone with flavorful stuffing and plenty of seasoning.

Finally, we ended the day with a lecture given by one of our fellow students from Korea. She showed us how to make some traditional Korean dishes, including bibimbab (a Korean "stir fry") and bulgogi (a marinated & fried beef dish). Her mom sent homemade soy sauce all the way from Korea for us to taste! The six go-to flavors in Korean cooking are crushed ginger, crushed garlic, chopped chives, soy sauce, toasted sesame seeds, and sesame oil. Apparently, they put those in everything!

Monday's tips:

- When something has Lyonnaise in its title, it will contain onions (Lyon, France is famous for its onions).

- Kent mangoes are the best type of mangoes to buy at this time of year.

- A skewer is a great friend in the kitchen. You use it to test whether roasts, tarts, cakes, etc are cooked. Have a couple of them hanging within arms reach of your stove top and oven. They also make great toys for toddlers.

- Bay leaves have a totally different flavor when they're dried. Dried ones tend to be sweeter, less abrasive, and "more French" (-Rory).

- Le Creuset casserole handles are designed to double as a pouring device. This comes in handy when pouring off juices from roasting meat into a saucepan to form the base of your sauce.

- Taste your stocks, and develop the sense to recognize the difference between a good one and a bad one ("because that is, to put it mildly, important" - Rory).

- Take your hand and put it palm facing up. Relax. Curl your fingers up like you were cradling a baby chicken, or a handful of M&M's, or something equally precious and delicate. Move your thumb so that your thumbprint touches your pinky. Feel the firmness of the heel of your thumb. You'll know a chicken breast is done when it feels as firm as that.

- Alternatively, take a skewer (away from the toddler) and insert it into the thickest part of the breast. Count to 5. Remove the skewer and touch it to the underside of your wrist. If it's hot, it's done.

- When roasting wedges of sweet potato, place them skin side down on the roasting tray so they don't stick.

- Carrot and Parsnip Puree (or mash) is a delicious winter side dish. Also, try inviting turnips or celeriac to the party. Blend in a food processor, or mash with a potato masher.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

78 Days Down...

Houston, we have a problem. Well, we have two problems. 1) The Patriots lost the second week in a row (what is going on!? clearly Tom misses me). 2) I'm going to need a Ballymaloe Miracle to finish my 3 course meal within the 3 hour time limit. It sounds like plenty of time, but it's just not going to happen. Unless I buy magic, quick-cooking ingredients from the same man who sold Jack his beanstalk beans. Wallowing in Julie & Julia nostalgia, I thought boeuf bourguignon was a symbolic and classic choice. Boy, was I wrong. It takes hours! Bring on the point deductions!

Other than that painful realization, I spent the second Sunday of Advent studying (or "revising" as they say over here), hiking the Ballycotton Cliff walk, and pathetically watching the semi-finals of "X-Factor", the UK version of American Idol. I have embarrassingly fallen in love with the program, and have already gone into premature mourning over missing the finale next Sunday. There's always Youtube, I suppose...