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...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Seventy Seven Days

One more week - the bittersweet countdown begins! Bitter because I'll have to leave this incredibly life-changing place. Sweet because you won't have to read my rantings anymore. After a jolly night at the Blackbird Pub in Ballycotton, I awoke to place two happily risen sour dough boules in the oven for breakfast. Some friends and I then headed off to the Midleton Farmer's Market (the first farmer's market in Ireland, founded by our headmistress) to see the faces of the men and women behind the meats and cheeses and fish we've been cooking with all fall. A children's choir sang Christmas carols as I waited in the line to get one last O'Connaill's hot chocolate (parting will be such sweet sorrow). On our way home, we stopped by the Ballymaloe shop for some retail therapy. I cannot come home empty handed!

Laden with trinkets (don't get too excited, family), it was time to hit the books. Our dreaded exams commence next week! I'll cook a three course meal on Thursday morning (it's very Top Chef Finale), and on Friday all the students will sit through three written exams. For my meal, I'm making Rillettes of Fresh and Smoked salmon (a coarse pate-esque spread) with sourdough toasts and arugula to start, followed by Boeuf Bourguignon with Pomme Mousseline (fancy words for whipped potatoes). For dessert, I'll serve a Grand Marnier Souffle. We'll see if I can get that done in the three hours given! My souffle better rise...

Also, I've been glaring at my cheese all week, willing him to mature enough to serve as an additional cheese course during my exam. We'll see if he comes around. Something tell me you cannot rush a cheese, though. Since I hardly believe customs will let me carry an unpasteurized cheese back into the country, I may have to leave my baby behind!

Friday, December 4, 2009

76 Trombones

Happy Friday! This morning I made Pork en Croute with Duxelle Stuffing and Apple Sauce. While the loin was marinating, I rolled out my croissant dough and made half croissants and half pain au chocolat. I also was on "biscuit duty" which meant I had to make cookies for lunch (because we don't have enough dessert to eat as it is). So, I made chocolate and toffee squares, which have a layer of shortbread, a layer of toffee, and then a layer of dark chocolate. For a final flourish, I sprinkled some flaky sea salt on top (to give a "salted caramel" effect). With 16 ounces of butter in the recipe, they were heart-stopping-ly good.

My camera's battery died so I didn't get to take a picture of the Pork en Croute. It's just as well, though, because my pastry split open on top. To guard against this, make sure the seam of the split loin (you split the loin to fill it with stuffing) faces off to the side, not up, when you wrap the loin in pastry. Also, make sure the pastry is nice and "rested", and don't wrap it too tightly around the loin. Finally, some steam holes poked on top help. If the butter renders out of the pastry while you cook the pork, pooling in the roasting pan, then your oven is not hot enough initially. It should be quite hot to sear the butter into the pastry.

For the afternoon demonstration, we learned how to cook lobster, scallops, a "tagine" of lamb with medjool dates, braised chicory, and cous cous with apricots and pistachio nuts. For dessert, we made a chocolate mousse genoise, praline cake, and brandy snap baskets filled with a scoop of caramel ice cream.

A "tagine" of lamb is basically a lamb stew, made in a specific shallow cooking dish. Chicory is a vegetable that is sort of shaped like a plump, cartoon cigar (as seen in Pinocchio). Its pale, greenish-white leaves are wrapped so tightly into a cigar that you just cook it whole. Cous cous is a fantastic grain - I like it almost as much as quinoa! It is a great canvas on which to paint flavors. Finally, Genoise is a rich, Italian-turned-French cake, whose batter is mousse-like and voluminous.

The lobsters sat alive on the counter until it was time to cook them. Although slightly disheartening to kill such a creature, if you want lobster for dinner, someone has to do it! You can plunge your knife, matador-esque, through the cross at the back of the head, which kills the lobster instantly. Alternatively, place the lobsters in cold, salted water and slowly bring it to the boil. Our headmistress (along with the Humane Society) likes to think that with this method, the poor guys just drift off to sleep!

Lobster is undoubtedly a treat, so make it a good experience! The lobsters in the tanks at restaurants and grocery stores are never, ever fresh. Don't waste your money. You're best off buying them only when you're at the seashore from a local fisherman or fishmonger, and eating them that day. My family only eats lobster once a year on an island in Maine, where we buy the creatures right off the lobsterman's boat. They stay alive until dinner in a submerged crate on the beach (which we constantly have to move with the rising & retreating tide!). Simply cooked, with some melted butter and lemon, eaten outside on the rocks - it's a taste of heaven!

Tips, tips, tips:

- The older, darker, and heavier the cake tin, the better. The new ones are too light to protect the cake from the heat of the oven.

- Medjool dates go well with a glass of whisky before dinner!

- Scallops should not smell fishy at all. If they do, they're not fresh.

- For a creative Christmas present this year, try jarring flaky sea salt mixed with chopped thyme, rosemary, or sage. Herbed salt is delicious sprinkled on lamb, an omelette, pasta, etc.

- Do NOT throw out your lobster shells! Boil them in water to make a lobster stock for lobster bisque, lobster risotto, etc. Lobster stock is liquid gold.

- When buying lobsters, make sure they have both their claws! Also, like crabs, they should feel heavy.

- When cooking lobster, their shells go from blue to bright red.

- When taking a scallop out of its shell, you only want to keep the scallop nugget and the bright orange "coral". You can discard the membrane bits. In America, the fishmonger does not sell the coral with the scallops for some unknown reason. It is delicious, and beautiful in color! If you can, buy the coral!

- Sear scallops on a very hot pan. They are delicious raw, so you don't have to worry too much about cooking them through. With a nice seared top & bottom and a semi-raw inside, a scallop is at its best!

- You'll know a cake is done when the center feels the same as the outer edges. Also, the edges will shrink back from the sides of the tin.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

75 Alive

I got in early this morning to get started on my three-tiered walnut cake. In my humble opinion, three tiers are always better than two. Maybe its the math-lover-loser in me, analyzing the optimal ratio of frosting surface area to cake volume. Or maybe it's just my sweet tooth's love of frosting. Either way, three cheers for three tiers.

The cake was relatively straightforward, save the "American" frosting that went on top. I hadn't seen or heard of this frosting before, but it was basically a marshmallow fluff type of mixture spread atop the cake (typical- the French get a glamorous Tarte Tatin to their name, and we're pinned with Marshmallow Fluff). To make the frosting, whisk egg whites until they're stiff, pour boiling sugar-water on top, and then continue whisking with the bowl over a low heat source. You're essentially "cooking" the white peaks to a semi-marshmallow status. When it gets to the right gooey thickness, you have about 30 seconds to get it spread over the cake before it sets. It's like disassembling a bomb, only more urgent.

I also made a warm salad with seared beef medallions, horseradish cream, tarragon dressing, and French fried onions sprinkled on top. It was a man's salad, to be sure. Beef, onion rings, horseradish... and a few shreds of lettuce.

On another note, I'm no onion ring aficionado, but if/when you make them at home, slice the onions thinly! I hate when you bite into an onion ring, and your teeth cannot cut through the soggy, rubbery, thick onion, and you end up pulling the whole slimy thing out of its crispy case in one bite. I'm always the one awkwardly slurping limp onion rings in the corner. It's humiliating. They should be crisp and thin.

Finally, I got started on some more croissant dough, which I'll finish tomorrow. If I'm feeling a little wild (who knows?), maybe I'll try my hand at some pain au chocolat using the same dough. Buckle your seatbelts, and stay tuned.

Our afternoon demonstration began with a presentation and tasting of wines from Sicily. Two fellow students are invested in this region and had 5 wines flown in for us to try. Each wine was made solely with native Sicilian grapes. If you'd like to experiment with a new wine, check out the up-&-coming Etna region. Grown in lava on the active Etna volcano, the vines develop a crisp mineral taste not normally found in wines from such a warm climate. It's really unique.

After the glasses were cleared, the lovely Rachel Allen (Ireland's favorite cook!) took the stage to make spring rolls (both Chinese and Vietnamese), smoked salmon "timbales" (little rounds of salmon pate wrapped in smoked salmon), Pork en Croute (stuffed pork loin wrapped in puff pastry), Lentils du Puy (traditional French green lentils), stuffed portobello mushrooms, Gratin Dauphinoise (potato gratin with garlic and milk), and coffee and chocolate ice cream (with various ways to serve them).

Thursday's Tips:

- Try serving coffee ice cream leveled in little espresso cups and topped with whipped cream. You can call them "cappuccino ice creams".

- Lentils du Puy (green lentils) go really well with pork, duck, or goose.

- Whenever you see "duxelle" on a menu (like duxelle stuffing), expect onions, mushrooms, and ham.

- When something is "en croute", it is wrapped in a pastry crust.

- When chopping chives, they should be dry so you get perfect tiny cylindrical circles that don't stick together. Chopping chives well is a great way to turn heads on your first day at a job (if you're a cook, that is. Don't try showing finely chopped chives to your desk head or managing director).

- You can freeze smoked salmon. Wrap it well!

- When carving slices from a smoked salmon fillet, they should be really thin.

- Portobello Mushrooms are excellent receptacles to fill with any number of flavor combinations. Try goat's cheese, pesto, fresh herbs and grated Parmesan, etc.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Day 74!

I almost slept through the wine exam. I had one of those O crap! moments when I rolled over and saw that it was 7:45 AM. Ten minutes later, sleepy students (luckily, myself being one of them) filed into our demonstration room, which had been converted into an LSAT-esque sterile testing environment. No jackets, no bags, just chef whites and an archipelago of desks. 100 multiple choice questions later, and I was swimming in a sea of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Bodegas. And by swimming I mean doing the doggy paddle - let's hope I stayed afloat.

Disaster exam or no disaster exam, it was hard not to perk up for the morning's demonstration. During the night, it was as if a Christmas elf had thrown up all over the school, leaving copious amounts of holly, berries, and miniature Santas hither thither. We watched our headmistress, clad in "Merry Christmas" tinsel earrings, prepare a traditional Irish Christmas dinner, complete with roast turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mince pies with whisky cream, plum pudding, a sherry trifle, a chocolate yule log, and mulled wine.

For those of you who share my cluelessness about Irish Christmas traditions, here are some definitions:

- Mince Pies are little pastries filled with "Mincemeat", a deceptively named sweet filling that contains no meat whatsoever, let alone meat that has been minced (I guess in the days of yore, it used to?). It is a gooey, sweet crumble made by mixing dried fruit, some form of fat (butter, suet, etc), sugar, and alcohol together. You can eat it plain or put it in tarts, short breads, etc.

- Plum Pudding is also deceptively named. There are no plums in it (again, I think there used to be), and it is not a smooth custard like "pudding" as Americans know it. Rather, like mincemeat, it is a mixture of dried fruits, fat, sugar, and alcohol that is steamed for several hours in a bowl and eventually turned out into a rounded dome. It apparently keeps for ages (one student said her relative makes Plum Pudding now to serve for next Christmas).

- Mulled wine is wine that has been warmed in a pot with spices and sugar. It is sort of like a marriage between Sangria and one of my fall favorites, Hot Cider & Bourbon.

After enjoying the spoils of the morning's demonstration for lunch, we headed into a quick filo pastry demonstration. We made fish wrapped in filo parcels, spanakopita (a spinach, feta, and filo dish), samosas (filo pockets stuffed with filling), and different filo desserts. The sky is the limit with filo pastry. Find a brand you like, defrost it overnight in the fridge, and keep the stack from drying out while you work with each layer (use a moist tea towel).

To finish our day, we took a school field trip down the road to the Ballymaloe House. We got a tour of the wine cellar, the kitchen, some of the rooms, and the dining area to give us an idea of how much goes into running a Country House Hotel. They served us tea, cucumber sandwiches, and coffee cake while we listened to the inspirational Myrtle Allen ("80-something going on 18"), the matron of the house, tell us how she did it.

Wednesday's Tips:

- This is probably too late to say, but order your turkeys ahead of time! The good ones get gobbled up quickly.

- Filo is a great way to dress up last night's leftovers. You can make pockets of meat, vegetables, sauces, etc.

- If you're so inclined to make mincemeat, you must serve it hot. Otherwise, the fat used to bind the dried fruits (butter, suet, etc) solidifies into an unpleasant mound. You want it melting.

- An apple corer is a surprisingly handy gadget in the kitchen. They're not too expensive, and when you need one, you need one.

- When trussing a turkey (information that could have been useful to you last week), don't tie it too tightly. The string is not a corset, and the turkey is not Scarlett O'Hara. You want the legs tucked close to the body, to ensure an even cook. But you don't want them so tight that no heat gets around them. The same goes for chicken, goose, pheasant, etc.

- A wooden box of Vacherin Mont d'Or (made in the Vallee de Joux in Switzerland, a lusciously oozing cheese) makes a great Christmas present for a foodie friend!

73 Days!

Tuesday morning's kitchen hummed with the sounds of whirring pasta rollers and simmering ragu's. We were basically in a sweatshop rolling sheets and sheets of pasta. I made vegetarian lasagna with pasta verde (spinach pasta). You basically wilt some spinach, throw it in a Cuisinart, add some flour and one egg, and press go! That is IT! When it becomes coarse meal, ball it up and get rolling. The hardest part for this pathetic weakling was squeezing out every ounce of water from the wilted spinach before it went into the food processor. I need to hit the weights.

In between rolling pasta, I also made puff pastry to use later this week. The important thing with puff pastry is to really align the edges each time you fold it. If they're rounded and uneven, you'll get uneven layering, and your pastry won't puff up uniformly. So, pretend it is a very important letter, and fold it into thirds perfectly. You might need to manipulate the edges to get them into perfect corners. For the record, puff pastry is not arduous to make, and tastes so much better than store bought (which is rarely made with real butter).

Then it was time to carbo-load! At lunch, I could have used a shovel.

During the afternoon demonstration, our headmistress made a warm salad with beef fillet medallions, a warm salad with lamb's kidneys, different dishes made with Ray or Skate, Tarte Tatin (the king of French tarts), walnut cake, creme brulee, "mille feuille", chocolate truffles and Irish Coffee!

Though Ray or Skate are rather large fish (they look like kites), you really only eat the "wings". And, unlike most fish, Skate is best eaten a few days after it is caught, or else it will be rather tough. Its best simply poached and drizzled with a little "black butter" (AKA butter browned in a saucepan and splashed with white wine vinegar - do this right before serving).

After class, our headmistress gave an evening talk on how to start a Farmer's Market. They are the perfect solution to consumer demand for fresh, local foods, and farmer (or artisan producer) supply of excess goods. Our headmistress started the first farmer's market in Ireland, after taking a page out of San Fransisco's book. Now, they are all over the country! Some small scale producers and free range farmers survive off farmer's market sales alone. It is a great way to bring business into a community.

Tuesday's Tips:

- To prepare kidneys, peel off any "suet" remaining (the thick, protective fat layer surrounding the organ). Then, cut them in half lengthwise so that you can open it up like a butterfly. Peel off the outer membrane, and remove any inner "plumbing". With a quick wash, they'll be ready to sear, bake, chop, etc!

- "Tarte Tatin", the quintessential French Tart, is a neatly arranged display of apple halves, sitting proud in a sea of caramel, upon a bed of pastry. You make it in a saucepan on the stove top, melting the caramel first, then adding the apples. When the mixture gets uncomfortably dark (it will look burnt... hold your nerve... no guts no glory), you add the pastry layer and pop it in the oven. If you don't let the sugar caramelize to a really dark color, it will taste too sweet.

- "Mille Feuille" is a three-tiered sandwich made of puff pastry layers and various filling. The puff pastry is cooked plain, then dredged in sugar and thrown under a hot grill to caramelize on
both sides. You build the "club-sandwich" with the caramelized puff pastry sheets, jam, pastry cream, and whipped cream. It's delicious!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Seventy 2

Twas a rather hectic Monday! Some prankster left the windows open all weekend, so the kitchen felt like an igloo on Pluto, only colder. "French Trimming" a rack of lamb is significantly more difficult when you cannot feel your fingers! I could see my breath until about 11 AM, when the ovens mercifully began to warm the place up.

When you're preparing a rack of lamb, get the bones crystal clean of any membrane. Also, be aware of the fat to meat ratio, and trim accordingly. Some fat is good, because it adds flavor, and renders juices over the meat to keep it nice and succulent. Too much fat, however, and only some of it will render out during the cooking time. You'll end up with mushy, non-rendered fat surrounding the eye of the loin. You can try to remedy this by searing the loin on a hot pan in the oven, fat side down. But then, of course, you risk overcooking your meat. Practice makes perfect! Let's just say, judging from my lamb, that I could use some more practice...

Heading into afternoon demonstration, I was delighted to realize that Monday was Pasta Day! We watched our headmistress make pappardelle, cannelloni, cappelletti, tortellini, ravioli, and lasagna, as well as a number of homemade sauces like ragu, alfredo, and sage butter. For dessert, she made tira misu, panna cotta, and three different tarts (lemon, date, and chocolate & pear). The pasta was incredible. I highly recommend trying it for yourself. All you need is all-purpose-flour, a little salt, some beaten egg, and some water. You want to mix this into a really firm, dry dough, because it will soften with kneading and rolling. It is perfectly possible to roll pasta with a rolling pin, so don't worry if you don't have a fancy machine!

After class, we had an evening "olive oil tasting" with samples from all over the globe. It was such a treat to taste and compare the flavors of so many delicious oils! Unfortunately, good olive oil comes with a price tag. That being said, if you can afford it, afford it- it makes a huge difference.

I finished my day with dinner at our headmistress's house! She served prosecco, hors d'oeuvres, dinner, cheese, and dessert to all the students (READ: overachievers) who had helped out "extra-curricularly" throughout the course. Since I had volunteered at the farmer's market in Week One, I scored a coveted invite. What a treat!

Monday's Tips:

- Store olive oil out of the direct sunlight.

- When adding milk or cream to a soup that you have flavored with alcohol (eg. wine), be careful it does not curdle. The wine-based sauce should be reduced, with any alcohol boiled off. Also, the milk should be boiling hot. Whisk it in and hope for the best!

- I have mentioned her before, but Marcella Hazan's cookbooks are fantastic for anyone interested in Italian food.

- There is no point in using "cooking Brandy" or other "cooking" liquors. You'll need to use three times as much, and you still won't get the proper flavor. Use a smaller amount of the real deal.

- Always whisk egg whites just before you need them. They deflate quickly, so you cannot whisk them ahead of time.

- Panna cotta is made with cream, sugar, vanilla, and gelatin. Make sure you use good ingredients, because there are not many of them! Your panna cotta is only as good as the cream you use.

- When cooking, use all five senses. Obviously, sight, smell, taste and touch come into play. But don't forget about your sense of hearing! When something (say, for example, ragu) reduces in a saucepan, it will start to sound different when it gets dry. Listen! You'll save a number of things from burning if you develop this sense in the kitchen.

- Try serving Medjool dates with Manchego cheese after dinner. It's a delicious

- Our headmistress' adage "don't live on this" roughly translates to "this will make you a fat cow". In her words, "don't live on" fettuccine alfredo or panna cotta.

- Tasty pasta relies on starting with good quality eggs. Use free range if at all possible! The other ones don't produce the same result (and for Pete's sake, if you're going to go to all that trouble, you deserve a good result!).

- When making any type of stuffed pasta (ravioli, tortellini, or cappelletti), make sure there are no air bubbles in the pockets of filling. Air bubbles cause the pasta to burst when you cook it.

- It is really easy to overcook homemade pasta. Babysit the saucepan!

- Olives picked off the tree are very bitter to taste. They must be soaked and cured before they taste like olives as we know them.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Day 71

Not much to report on this quiet Sunday. Happy Advent! The countdown to Christmas begins. You'll all be relieved to know that my cheese is doing well. He had a "salt water bath" the other day to wash off some of the mold he's taken on. A little mold is fine, even desirable, for the flavor, but too much is just showing off. No one likes a cocky cheese.

Coming back from a long walk this afternoon, I was lucky enough to catch the sunset. Tomorrow, week 11 begins!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Simply Seventy

Saturday! With plenty of time to kill, this loser organized ALL her recipes to a freakish degree (I'm beginning to feel more and more like Monica over here). I also spent time tucking into Andrew Jefford's Wine Course. For anyone even slightly interested in wine, I highly recommend this book. Although interesting, I wasn't reading it simply for pleasure. This Wednesday we have our wine exam. A bottle of Champagne and a case of wine will be divvied up among the top scorers. Let the games begin.

Again, if you don't give a hoot about wine, don't worry about finishing this post! But here are some interesting tips I picked up from my reading:

- Tannins come from tree bark and leaves, and are tasted most noticeably in tea and wine. High tannin levels give a structured, "clinging" texture on your tongue, teeth, and gums. Interestingly enough, this sensation becomes less abrupt and in-your-face when you add protein to the equation. So, that is the rationale behind pairing a full-bodied red wine with some steak, or pouring milk in your heavily steeped Earl Grey.

- In the mid nineteenth century, American vines brought to Europe carried with them a root-eating insect virus called Phylloxera. This pesky bug, to which American vine roots were immune, laid the smack-down on the roots of European vines. It was sort of like the Black Plague for vines. Luckily, desperate wine growers eventually figured out that they could graft their ancient European vine trunks onto new American (and immune) roots. Thus, American vine roots saved European wine as we know it. U.S.A! U.S.A!

- Many consider Chateau Petrus (a Merlot) the greatest red wine. It is certainly one of the world's most expensive!

- The roots of old vines can grow up to 50-65 feet underground!

- The French word "terroir" is a sort of umbrella term used to describe all the natural elements that affect the grape vines: the soil, the climate, the altitude, etc.

And, finally, some Grape Variety "Buzz Words":

- Chardonnay: vanilla (from the oaked barrels), oak, lemon/lime, melon, butter, cream

- Sauvignon Blanc: grass, leaves, nettles, gooseberry, minerals (in cooler climates), stone

- Riesling: minerals, slate, flowers, apples, grape, grapefruit, citrus peel, peach, acidity

- Cabernet Sauvignon: sturdy, tannic, blackcurrant, "big-boned"

- Merlot: plum, black cherry, blackberry, chocolate (when aged in oak barrels)

- Syrah/Shiraz: pepper, cherry, blackberry, smoke

- Pinot Noir: a light wine, raspberry, plum, floral, balanced acidity and tannins, "graceful"