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!