Friday, December 11, 2009
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
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
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
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.
Monday, December 7, 2009
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.
Sunday, December 6, 2009
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
Friday, December 4, 2009
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.
Thursday, December 3, 2009
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).
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
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.
- 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!
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.
- 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!
- "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
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!
- Try serving Medjool dates with Manchego cheese after dinner. It's a delicious combination!
Sunday, November 29, 2009
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
- 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.
- 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"