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Leiths intermediate diploma: Hannah bond, week 9

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Leiths intermediate diploma: Hannah bond, week 9

It's nearly time for exams, Hannah's flaky pastry might have been a flop, but her hot cross buns were a hit

Week 9 (Week 9! How on earth did that happen?) has drawn to a close, and we have been forced to confront the reality of the end of the Intermediate Term and our exams: only one week left before the much-needed Easter break, but we have to hop over the final hurdles of our theory and practical assessments before we can officially say we are two-thirds of the way through the course.

Our week began with a visit from Michael North, the Michelin-starred chef patron of The Nut Tree. I was hugely excited about this because The Nut Tree is one of my favourite restaurants in Oxfordshire, and as I live in Oxford it was so lovely to have someone from my area to come and visit. Don’t get me wrong, all of our guest lecturers from London have been great, but it’s wonderful to have a reminder that there is a culinary scene out in ‘the sticks’ too. Michael broke down a haunch of venison for us and made a couple of stunning dishes with it which were deceptively simple but big on flavour and precise technique. An inspiring masterclass.

In the afternoon we made flaky pastry from scratch, as well as fillings for the savoury tarts that the pastries were destined for, and began the process of making pear sorbet. I always forget how delicious pears can be – I think of them as a bit bland – but the sorbet mix was so good that I started eating spoonfuls of the stuff and had to have it dragged away from me so I’d have enough left to freeze. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) it’s a surprisingly easy sorbet to make and can be done at home without an ice cream maker.

On Tuesday we started off with a wine lecture by Laura Clay on varieties of white grapes we hadn’t yet covered, and then moved on to a cooking session. Sadly, my flaky pastry, which I had spent Monday afternoon lovingly making, completely failed to rise when baked. Making flaky pastry is a six stage process, and it’s disheartening to put all that work into something only to see it fail. At least my tart filling of roasted butternut squash, feta, and a walnut and gruyere pesto was pronounced delicious.

On Wednesday we got into the spirit of impending Easter by making hot cross buns. My crosses were uneven and wonky, but I still thought the buns tasted pretty good toasted and slathered with butter (or, er, eaten straight out of my backpack on the train home). Onto plated desserts, I had such grand plans for my pear plate – a scoop of the aforementioned pear sorbet, a tuile biscuit and crumb, flaked almonds, pear crisps, and a salted caramel sauce – but I was such a ball of stress that I ended up randomly blobbing my caramel onto the plate, under-drying my pear crisps so that they weren’t crisp enough, and making my tuiles too thin. Can’t win them all.

We also had a visit from Louise Talbot, a professional cheese maker, who gave us a demonstration on how to make all sorts of different cheeses, and butter, from scratch at home. We got to sample some incredible homemade halloumi and mozzarella, and the halloumi in particular was so much better than any version I’ve ever eaten from a supermarket; light, soft, and perfectly seasoned.

Thursday started with a wine revision class, in which we attempted to identify different wines in a blind tasting. Normally we are given a tasting sheet which includes the details of each wine we’re given, along with the bottles themselves. This time the tasting sheet was disconcertingly blank, and the bottles were shrouded in mysterious black velvet cloaks. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that I am very bad at identifying types of wine from a blind tasting. Nonetheless, the session with Richard Bampfield was fun, and it was definitely useful to go over all we’ve covered this term, as there is a huge amount of material and I keep getting my Muscat and Muscadet and Pouilly-Fumé and Pouilly-Fuissé mixed up.

We were a bit nervous about our afternoon cooking session when we saw that the morning group, who are usually pretty speedy, were leaving half an hour later than usual, which is never a good omen. We were making espagnole sauce, salt and pepper squid, and filleting and dressing the huge trout that we had poached the day before. Luckily, everything went much more smoothly than expected. My salt and pepper squid was acceptable, apart from my knife skills, which need work.

Leiths is not averse to the occasional foray back into the seventies, and so it came about that we found ourselves poaching, filleting, and dressing an entire trout. It’s actually trickier than it looks. Filleting such a big fish once it’s cooked is a challenge, as the flesh is very delicate, and getting all the bones out and reforming the fish requires some careful manoeuvring. Luckily, my partner Laura and I had some success with this retro classic, and our fish was pronounced perfectly cooked and beautifully dressed with its Tudor style watercress collar. The whole process was oddly satisfying.

On Friday morning we had a visit from Sue and Sarah who gave us a very informative and entertaining talk on setting up a catering business. I must say, I’m not sure I could handle the pressure and the sheer volume of logistics becoming a self-employed caterer seems to require, but Sue Brown and Sarah Hall were very knowledgeable and made us all laugh with tales of mayhem and mishaps that I perhaps shouldn’t repeat…

I was very nervous about Friday afternoon because it held our mock practical exam in store, bringing with it the harsh reminder that the real thing is less than two weeks away. We were tasked with making a Cheddar and spinach soufflé, and venison steak with spring greens, peppercorn sauce, and a potato accompaniment of our choice. In the end, I hit all the service times, but there were lots of areas of my food that needed work. Still, that’s why we have dry runs.

Another busy week draws to a close. It’s fantastic to be able to gradually progress to new heights of cooking: a couple of months ago I would never have been able to make sorbet from scratch or prep a whole squid, but now it’s par for the course.

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