Food

Chicken Soufflé - no, seriously

As is probably true for most people, that final push in a written exam has always been a struggle. Luckily, by my final exams at university I had finally found a way to motivate myself.

Whereas others probably had some bottle of alcohol waiting so they could celebrate, I realised that all I required for added drive to get me through that last question, was the knowledge that there was a chicken in my fridge when I got home. I would come back from an exam, roast a whole chicken, then eat as much of it as I wanted right out of the roasting tray. In hindsight, this is perhaps unnecessarily self indulgent, although I would point out that my aim was never to eat the whole chicken, merely to be able to eat what I wanted of a roasted chicken all to myself.

A brief aside here – I have searched high and low for a photo I am certain exists, of me eating a chicken out of a roasting tray, sitting on the floor next to a bed (I'm hardly going to eat a chicken out of a roasting tray on a bed, am I. I'm not an animal). Despite a week of searching, the picture is nowhere to be found. Luckily for me, having informed Ewan, my youngest sibling, of my dilemma, he has created 4 're-imaginings' of the photo so you can get the gist. They get weirder as they go on....

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By this point, things appear to have become purely abstract.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GisriByWCUw[/embed]

Moving swiftly on....I would like to be able to say that this was my only strange chicken related adventure whilst at university, but alas, no.

I spent a long time trying to 'soufflé'  chicken. To go into why I would try to do such a thing would lead us down a road that could only lead to a place of deep confusion, so you will just have to accept that at the time it seemed like a reasonable thing to be doing instead of working.

At the time, my cooking knowledge was fairly limited and the little I did know about french cooking was self taught. I just had this idea that a soufflé that tasted of chicken would be interesting (perhaps later in life, a psychiatrist will point to that statement as the moment when things started to go wrong). And so a Baconian  - the philosopher, not the food product - approach to soufflé making began.

I found a recipe for a soufflé which used a bechamel/white sauce as a base, and then flavoured it with mushrooms before the addition of the whipped egg whites. So using the same principle I started experimenting. I tried having pieces of chicken in a white sauce – but all that really made was a plain soufflé with floating pieces of chicken. So I tried blitzing chicken breast into a paste and beating it into a white sauce - this may sound bizarre, but as it turns out, this was as close as I ever came to stumbling on the 'correct' method. And in a moment of what I thought was inspired genius, I even spent a whole day on lowly student hob making 2 litres of brown chicken stock, then reducing it right down and mixed the resulting 50ml of chicken jus into the white sauce so that a chicken flavour would be distributed throughout. As it happens, none of these was especially effective. Largely because I didn't understand some fundamental things about making soufflés.

When making a soufflé, you normally have 2 elements. Your flavoured base, e.g. bechamel sauce with mushrooms, and your whipped egg whites. You combine the two, spoon into ramekins and bake. Although taste wise, none of my methods would have been great, I would have at least had relatively more success if I had realised that the consistency of these two elements should be relatively similar or they will not combine and bake properly.

The classically 'correct' way of doing it only revealed itself some time later, when I learnt about making protein based mousses. This involves blitzing the protein, in this case chicken (as I said, I was close), and then, over ice slowly beating in double cream until a light mousse is achieved. This can then have egg whites folded into it and baked. And there you go. A dish no one either wants or has asked for.

Thinking back over this series of events this week has made me think about the idea of learning and creativity in cooking though.

Had I been aware of protein mousses earlier, I probably would have accepted the available methodology and never bothered to try my alternative methods. Onerous though it may have been, without my trial and error based approach, I would now have a far poorer understanding of what it takes to achieve a soufflé of the desired taste, texture and rise. And so although I may now accept the classical methodology, I can justify why that is, and also have the knowledge to adapt it should I need to.

There is nothing wrong with obtaining the knowledge you need early on as long as that doesn't stop you from trying to understand why that has become the preferred methodology rather than merely accepting it. Perhaps this is not true of soufflés any more, but it is certainly something I see amongst young chefs in modern kitchens with all manner of other preparations. More on this next week when I discuss the joys of baby food a.k.a. purées.

I think it's also worth mentioning at this point, as I can sense that people are about to rush out and start blitzing chickens, that it turns out that a chicken soufflé is not as nice as I had hoped. I would stick with chocolate.

Burnt cream

Recent events have spurred me into attempting to revive this blog. Mainly because I am convinced that I am all-knowing and therefore it is my responsibility to share my knowledge and wisdom. I am sitting at my desk (that's right, I do actually have a desk, I don't just cry in the kitchen all day - this would be whilst chopping onions, not out of any general despondency and despair....), looking at handwritten notes from various restaurants at which I've eaten over the last year, and I've realised that if only I had actually written them up into articles I would have felt very satisfied when the new Michelin guide came out last week, as my two biggest disappointments of the last year had their stars wrenched from their underseasoned and calloused hands – Maze and Castle Terrace.

I have little I wish to say about my trip to Maze, so I will only summarise my notes – a waste of time, do not go. Castle Terrace merits a closer inspection however as my disappointment with the restaurant highlights so much of what can be wrong with some modern restaurants.

The majority of my meal at Castle Terrace in Edinburgh was pleasing enough, if not spectacular. Worth mentioning at this point was an amuse bouche of spherified Caesar salad- basically a lettuce tasting liquid set in a thin casing - whilst not spectacular, it was certainly interesting and I thought showed a level of understanding in the kitchen at the very least. My mistake. Following a relatively ordinary starter and a slightly disappointing main, came a dessert which sharply took things downhill. What I received was a nicely set custard with a thin, barely crunchy sugar topping that was roughly an off yellow colour. Ok, bear with me and get comfy, I will now explain in painful detail why this is unacceptable, disappointing and quite frankly infuriating.

So my issue with this restaurant falls entirely to a small disc of under-caramelised sugar on top of my dessert. The sugar on top of a crème brulée should be caramelised to a golden brown colour at the very least. A crème brulée. The clue is in the name. Burnt cream.

I feel my anger at this seemingly small mistake, however, is not misplaced, for I think what it shows very clearly is a fundamental lack of understanding and thought. The custard in a crème brulée is basically double cream and sugar set with eggs - understandably rich. The idea of a crunchy sugar topping is twofold. First, it is to provide a textural contrast to the smooth custard; second, and in my opinion more importantly, it is to provide a taste contrast to cut through the richness of the custard. This achieved by burning the sugar to the point that you bring out its bitter notes. If you fail to colour and crisp the sugar properly, all you are doing is putting a sweet, soft topping on a sweet, soft dessert.

This is not acceptable...

...This is

If the custard underneath had split or the sugar been burnt black, certainly the dessert would have been ruined to a far greater degree, but it could be put down to cooking error. Failing to properly colour the sugar, however, means that the chef was never aiming to colour the sugar 'properly'. A restaurant that is spending time spherifying Caesar salads but does not understand the thought process behind a crème brulée should not have a star. I do not consider myself a classical cooking evangelist, but I do believe that if you trying to operate a high end kitchen in an incredibly competitve market place, you should be able to demonstrate a reasonable degree of understanding of how flavours and textures will interact on the diner's plate.

Phew, I have been sitting on that complaint since August 2014. I feel relieved to get it off my chest.

There is of course another explanation, which is that whoever was cooking my crème brulée that day simply couldn't be bothered to do it properly. But given the optimistic, glass half full, always sees the best in people, kind of guy that I am, I would rather put it down to an entire kitchen's misunderstanding of basic flavour and texture combinations.

And to summarise, don't go to Maze.

Michelin, I'm ready for a job now.

The time I accidentally stole an Irish woman's jumper at a Springsteen gig

I was in Dublin in 2009 to see a Springsteen concert. It was only about my twelfth that year so obviously it was important to be near the front. Having queued in brilliant sunshine all day, I went into the stadium and it instantly started raining, and typically I was there in a t-shirt. A woman standing nearby spotted my plight and offered me a spare thick, long sleeved jumper from her bag for which I was very grateful and assured her I'd pass it  back after the gig. Unfortunately, at some point during the gig people moved (as they tend to) and I lost sight of the woman. 'Out of sight, out of mind' instantly applied itself to the situation and I completely forgot I was even wearing the thing. It was only when I got back to the hotel that night that I realised I had stolen the woman’s jumper. It is desperately unlikely that the person who lent me said jumper will ever read this, but if you do, thank you, and if you send me your address I will be happy to return the jumper to you. Or I would be, had I not lost it. A random story I know, but acts of kindness came to mind the other day as the post office saga continued (update: although I am happy to report it has now ended).

It started when I nearly cried at work. It was not because I was hit in the head with post again - although I was. This time with a poster tube, and I feel I was too out of the way for it to have been an accident. Nor was it because I had lost the ability to turn my head to the right - although again, this was true. This work lark is pushing my non-existent physical prowess to the limit. Instead, it was food related.

After 6 long hours of pushing your mail around a warehouse (you’re welcome), I was on my 20 minute break. I retreated to the canteen, which is little more than a room with some benches and 3 microwaves into which 100 people cram themselves. With the last scraps of my energy, I microwaved my lunch, waited the painstaking 3 minutes for it to warm up (the microwave is so slow that I believe breathing on the food may be a more effective in the future). I removed the food from the microwave, turned to find a seat, and promptly dropped the entire thing on the floor.

I don’t think there is any single moment in my life, no individual second that can match it for the abject misery I felt. It nearly broke me. However, the fact I am writing this demonstrates that it did not, and I have become stronger and wiser for it. I now bring two tupperware boxes of food in case something happens to the first one. Yes I am serious.

What I would have found fascinating at the time, were I not fighting back the urge to adopt the foetal position, is that it doesn’t matter what age you are, when something like this happens in a communal dining room, the same thing happens. A cohort let out a noise that I can only attempt to spell ‘oooooooeeeeeeewwwwwww’ and everyone else suddenly finds something tremendously important on the table in front of them that demands their undivided attention in an attempt to pretend not to have seen.

Despite the fact that he shall probably never read this, my thanks must go out to the man who approached me as I sat down with my cup of water for lunch and offered me his apple.

See, I still write about food.

Playing with fire

I think it’s probably important to try and write topical posts. With that in mind, with it being early December, I thought I’d write about barbecues. Well maybe not, but that’s what came to mind so we’ll go with it. We recently had a demo from Richard Holden who works for Weber (a bbq company). A big part of what the company does is send people out on the road to demonstrate how barbecues can be used. So there is some very interesting stuff such as how to cook things like cakes that you wouldn’t normally try to cook on a barbecue. However, Weber’s aim to educate the British public about how ‘best’ to barbecue may be well intentioned, but seems to be somewhat misguided.

We heard how most people don’t use a barbecue properly and as such often end up with charred food that is still raw in the middle. Obviously not a good thing. The two main things that seemed to be talked about were that we should not be constantly turning our meat, and the fact that in most circumstances it is much better to use a barbecue with a lid, and to resist the temptation to keep taking it off. This way the meat (or whatever you’re cooking) is cooked by both direct heat from the grill and also by indirect heat that can build up, much like it would be in an oven, helping to make sure it is cooked all the way through.

Well that all sounded rather long and boring. And there’s the problem.

Now I don’t want to argue about whether these are actually the best methods to barbecue, as quite frankly I have no idea. Rather I want to point out the flaw in even bothering to argue this.

I think I can begin to make my point through the medium of family guy (apologies for the quality, clearly the uploader did not have my blog in mind whilst filming this video off the tv. Who does that anyway? And also, why is the most sinister breathing in the world going on in the background?)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2X01jtHTE8

This video is not that far off. Really.

As I see it, barbecuing is quite an inconvenience really, and so people do it for 3 main reasons:

  1. We want to be able to play with our food while it cooks (45%)
  2. We want to play with fire (the fact that it is cooking our food is secondary) (45%)
  3.  We truly appreciate the unique taste that a barbecue can offer (10%)

So trying to tell us not to turn our food, and even more radically, to put a lid on our barbecues, is taking away 90% of the enjoyment that we derive from them in the first place. A marginally ‘better’ cooked sausage is not going to be adequate compensation for that.

Barbecuing is a social activity first and foremost, and a way to cook our food second. We barbecue because it’s fun and for some reason everyone who is standing around the barbecue feels like they have helped cook, by informing the chief barbecuer that it is time to turn a burger over. Let’s not take that away from people. ‘It’s time to take the lid off the barbecue’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.

If we’re not going to get to play with our food over a big fire, and we can’t even look at it, we may as well just cook in the oven.

P.S – Yes, I have now graduated. More details on my life to come.

What you could have won

Ok, so there’s no real way around it. It’s been a while. What’s irritating is that I fully intended to write blog posts. Really I did. And now I sit down to write this one, I look through the blog notes section on my phone (because I’m just that organised) and there are all these little snippets of ideas to write about, or ideas for jokes, most of which are now so old that their context is lost on me. However, being the clever weasel that I am I have somewhat overcome this issue. By reading through my notes and combining them with camera photos I believe I can piece together a rough outline of what I could, or intended to have written about in the past couple of weeks. So, here’s what you could have won...

Around a week and a half ago, the evidence suggests that you could have enjoyed a fascinating blog entitled ‘Russian dolls’ on our preoccupation with foods contained inside other foods, no doubt brought to mind by a demo involving a whole brie spread with apricot jam and  baked inside a loaf of brioche, and then making mini chocolate éclairs.

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You could also, lucky readers, have been able to read a blog entitled ‘2:1:1’, a delightful ratio based little number, in which I would have written about how instead of learning the ratio of fat to flour to water ratios for pastry as I should have been doing for my theory exam, I went to Springsteen, Neil Young and Killers’ concerts in the aforementioned ratio over a week. I then would have complained about my theory exam for a while. The Springsteen concerts were excellent as usual since you ask.

We also had the possibility of an examination of all the cakes that the rest of the class made in the cake decorating class, although sadly no title came to mind for that, and to be honest, it would have been mostly the pictures below anyway, and very little writing. For the sake of space saving, click the thumbnails for a larger image.

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Some of my notes do remain a mystery to me however. Quite how the information assistants at Clapham junction were going to relate to a blog post on food I’m not sure.

Ok, so perhaps looking back, it’s not entirely a bad thing that I haven’t done very well with the blogs recently. Slim pickings.

Petits Fours

And a few of the leftovers...

And some more...

Anyway, moving on, we've covered all sorts at Tante Marie recently, including pasta and an awful lot of sweets and chocolates.More importantly, the budget lunch exam is over (I scored a very surprising 81%, which I was very pleased with) and I have now finished for this term and have until September 18th to fill my time. Luckily I’ve got several things planned, most notably a two week stage at L’enclume (See here) in Cumbria which I am very excited about. And of course, being me, I’ve got another couple of Springsteen concerts lined up. On a substantially less exciting note, I also have a written project to submit for the course when I go back that looks like it’s going to take a few weeks. Suffice it to say, I shall be kept busy.

My budget lunch exam food (with 'bites' missing for marking purposes)

Of course, not so busy that I shall be letting this blog gather dust, hopefully. Given I won’t be at Tante Marie, the plan is to include a bit more writing about general food ‘things’, what I’m cooking at home, and of course my work experience at L’enclume in July and August.

Snap Happy

Following on from my recent post on my trip to The Square, I would like to make clear that none of the photos that are included in the post were taken by myself or anyone at my table, but were from the square’s official site. I say this less for reasons of avoiding copyright issues, and more because it means I can segue neatly into talking about my views on photography in restaurants. It’s high time for a few firm stances to alienate some blog readers, so here goes. No, I am not ok with diners photographing their food in fine dining restaurants (I repeat, in fine dining restaurants), for three main reasons. First, it is important to realise how hard chefs work in high end professional kitchen to get your food out to you not just ‘on time’, but neatly presented and hot. For you to sit there taking a photo of your loin of lamb while it gets cold, or your soufflé collapses, is both an insult to the chefs who have prepared it, and also makes little sense. You’ve paid, in all likelihood, a lot of money for this food and you are sitting watching it get cold instead of eating it.

The second reason relates to the nature of food photography of us. 99.9% of us are not food photographers, and probably shouldn’t try to be. Neither are restaurants designed to create good lighting for photographing food for those who do know how. The result is that diners are letting their food get cold to take photographs of food that are, to put it bluntly, usually awful. There is no point. The average photo on trip advisor would not persuade me to go to the restaurant in question, as amateur photography simply does not make neatly presented food look particularly appetising.

It is of course true that many chefs themselves probably do not have a problem with diners photographing their meal, because on balance, they consider the publicity that it garners through blogs and twitter to be more beneficial than both the risk of terrible quality photographs and the detriment to the diner’s individual plate of food (the ‘if they want to eat it cold, that’s their business’ attitude).

My final reason lies in the notion of the camera/phone itself. To me, it is simply quite rude to take out your camera in a smart restaurant when with someone and start taking photos. If done for every course of a tasting menu then you would be taking your camera/phone out ten times a meal. It is only a small step away from checking your texts ten times during a meal in a nice restaurant.

And quite frankly, if I need to persuade you that using your phone whilst out for dinner with others is unacceptable, then you’re probably beyond help anyway.