Cooking School Week 22 and Graduation!
Cooking school is over. (sigh) I’m writing this post heavy-hearted, because I already miss so many things about school. While I don’t miss the commute on the train, I miss my ritual stop at Peet’s coffee when I got off the train, and my 20 minute walk through San Francisco to school. I’d walk into school every morning to a friendly hellos from my instructor and the office manager, and I’d see my instructor’s shopping bags on the counter, full of beautiful produce and other items that she’d picked up for all of the recipes that we would prepare for the day. I would then change into my chef’s attire and find myself a spot at the table to go over the recipes for the day, the schedule, etc. Being at the table every morning with all of my classmates, jokes would often fly, and the room would often erupt with laughter. I miss that morning routine already, and I need to get used to my old one. Don’t get me wrong, I love being around to take my kids to school again, hit my workout classes or run, and I’m thrilled to have more time to bake, cook, and blog. Right now though, I sort of feel like a fish out of water…life is just running a bit too slow compared to the past 6 months.
The thing with food is, it’s a very powerful thing, leading to food memories that you just can’t shake. The way the mere smell of chocolate chip cookies can take you back to baking them with your grandmother when you were a kid, or the way a fresh croissant will make you feel like your back at that boulangerie in Paris that you visited years earlier. For me, cooking school was 6 months of the best food memories of my life, and I feel like almost everything I see or eat will remind me of the dishes we enjoyed every day. I’m sorry I’m being so sentimental, but school didn’t just feel like school, it kind of felt like family, too. Cooking with everybody day by day, week by week, month by month, we got to know each other very well — our quirks, our bad sides, everything. I’ve made some friends for life, and for that I’m thankful. 🙂 All of that said, enough of this sentimental stuff…you want to know how I did on my exams, don’t you? Well, don’t you?? 😉
Monday was the day that all of the improvisational cooking practice led to. The big improvisational EXAM DAY, which would include using mystery protein, and at least 3 out of 4 other ingredients given to make a restaurant worthy appetizer and entree. We’d practiced it, we were ready, but we also knew that for the exam we also had to do a dessert. The clincher? We had 3 hours to prep and cook, beginning at 9:30AM, with the appetizer due up for judging at 12:30, the entree up at 1:00, and the dessert up at 1:30. I had butterflies in my stomach!
I’d told everybody that I thought it would be a whole duck. I mean, how much duck did we have to prepare in 6 months? More than I could stand! I was right — it was a whole duck, along with butternut squash, mushrooms, cauliflower, and kale. We also had the choice between making a Genoise cake filled with strawberry mousse and frosted in whipped cream, or making the chocolate torte we’d made so long ago, my Chocolate Walnut Torte. I didn’t want to mess with caramelizing walnuts, chocolate glaze, etc., so I chose to do the Genoise cake. My instructor took photos of our dishes, so here we go:
For my appetizer, I made Butternut Squash Potato Leek Soup, with creme fraiche, caramelized leeks, and Gruyere cheese crisps. I was very happy with my presentation, as the crisps were standing in the middle very dramatically, and I liked the colors. Was I happy with my soup? Not one bit. I thought it was one of the dullest soups ever, so I tried to liven it up with sherry and creme fraiche, but I still thought it needed something. I wanted to add honey or ginger or something, but it was time. I sucked it up and took it to the judging table very unhappy.
SCORE: 17 out of 20. I received high marks for appearance and consistency, but lost ground on the flavor. It was noted that the butternut squash was flavor was too subtle, and that it tasted more like cheese…Gruyere crisp, to be exact. I never stopped to think that the garnish could flavor the soup as it sat there. The caramelized leek luckily helped me out as it added color and texture.
My entree was Duck Breast with Rainbow Quinoa Salad, and Sauteed Kale with Mushrooms and Garlic Chips in a red wine pan sauce. For the entree, I broke down and entire duck and used part of the carcass to make a meat essence, and used only the breast. While I can’t stand eating duck breast, I really do like preparing it — it’s a breeze. By the time I was making my entree, I was really in the weeds. I only had 2 burners, and I hadn’t planned things out well enough. I had kale to blanch, mushrooms and kale to sautee, and quinoa to cook. Oh yeah…let’s not forget the pan sauce I was working on. My entree was late, and I was scrambling to get flavors right, but I finally called it, unhappy again, knowing that once I again I wasn’t putting out my best.
SCORE: 16 out of 20. While my instructor liked all the colors and the appearance, she said there was too much quinoa on the plate, and that everything was too close to the rim. She also said my sauce was broken, which I hadn’t noticed. By the time she’d gotten to it to taste it, the sauce had disappeared as the quinoa had absorbed all of it. I only chose quinoa because I saw several other classmates go for wild rice and I wanted to be different. I’d forgotten quinoa was not a good side with a sauce…Ugh! All in all, my duck had good flavor and texture, the kale was good, but it was noted that the quinoa flavors didn’t compliment the duck. Yeah, I was pretty bummed about that decision.
Strawberry Mousse Filled Genoise Cake with Whipped Cream Frosting. Just the week before I’d made a stellar genoise cake, and I wasn’t worried about this. I baked it first thing, prepared the mousse, and placed it in the fridge to chill. By the time the cake was ready…and it appeared it was over baked a tad…I was breaking down the duck. I washed up and put the cake on the rack to cool. Did I remove it from the pan after 10 minutes, hollow it out, fill it with the mousse and frost it so that it could set up completely for serving time? Heck no — I barely had time to breathe. My cake sat in the pan, then I hollowed it out after I dumped my entree off at the judging table, and I filled it with the mousse. I frosted it perfectly, and I felt pretty good about it.
SCORE: 16 out of 20. I was a bit surprised here, but my teacher knows genoise cake much better than I do. It was noted that my cake had a nice texture on the cream, good color on the filling, but it needed to set up more. Yup. As for the taste, the cake was chewy because it over baked (there are no timers at cooking school dang it), and the filling was very nice.
I scored a 10 out of 10 on the use of ingredients, and an 8 out of 10 on general conduct and timing as my dishes weren’t on time. That gave me a total score of 67 out of 80, or 84%. I was not happy with this, especially because I’d done better on my second exam. I’d made bad decisions, but that happens under pressure. My teacher told me it gave her great angst to ding me like that, because she knew I was a better cook than that. I told her I knew I hadn’t done my best, so I expected as much. I almost wanted a re-do, but seriously, I don’t think I ever want to go through that again. 🙂
I do have good news, however, on my written exam. I scored 91%, and I was happy with that! It was very challenging, and I’d studied hard. 🙂
Tuesday was a Vegetarian menu day with 2 lunch guests. The menu was recipes submitted by some of my classmates, and I was excited to eat those dishes!
Winter Salad with Kale, Cherries, and Pecans. I could’ve eaten the whole bowl of this salad! It was crunchy, chewy, fresh, and vibrant, and I could not stop thinking about it.
Wild Mushroom Parcels. Aren’t these adorable? They’re like fish in parchment, but it’s white beans and mushrooms in white wine, butter, and herbs. It was amazing. 🙂
Butternut Squash Croquettes with Gingered Quinoa and Spicy Yogurt Sauce. The croquettes were made gluten-free with garbanzo bean flour, which gave them a flavor that I didn’t enjoy too well. The quinoa was delicious, and I’m always up for a spicy yogurt sauce!
Lemon 3 Ways. My classmate and I worked on this, which included white chocolate lemon pot de creme, gluten free lemon bars, and lemon lime champagne granita. The granita didn’t set up in time, and neither did the pot de creme. They were still tasty — I just love lemony desserts. 🙂
Wednesday was a workshop day for us. Basically, we were going gangbusters to prepare food for our graduation party Friday night. We were preparing a number of meat dishes in Aspic, which basically means meat flavored gelatin. None of us were too excited about this, but I guess this technique is used to decorate food beautifully. I just had my doubts as to how it would actually taste. 😉 I made lemon curd, rolled out pastry dough and cut it out for mini tartlets, made Salted Chocolate Sable cookies, and poached a whole salmon for Friday. It was such a busy day. Our instructor made us fish tacos while we worked, which I appreciated.
Thursday was our last menu day. No guests, just an intimate lunch for us regulars. It was pretty special stuff.
Lobster Ravioli. That lobster was fresh, I tell you, and this was delicious.
Beef Filet with Root Vegetable Gratin and Green Beans. I made the gratin, which included layers of celery root, yukon gold potatoes, and butternut squash, and cream…lots of cream. We went for broke with an herb compound butter, as well. I don’t normally eat butter on my steak, but it was the last menu day at school.
Chocolate 3 Ways — which was a repeat from a previous menu day. We loved it so much, we voted it in again. Chocolate soufflé with cocoa nib cream, brownies, and whole wheat cocoa nib sable cookies. Mmmm!
At last, it was Graduation Day. I brought a bag in with a change of clothes to go to my classmate’s house after school at 2:00 to freshen up, as we were to be back to prep for the party. My husband and boys were coming too, so I was excited. 🙂 I arrived at 8:30 AM to prepare the aspic for the poached salmon, then my classmate and I were to decorate the salmon and cover it in aspic. I also made a salsa verde for the fish and made an Italian meringue for the lemon tartlets. BUSY was an understatement. Our last day was quite the whirlwind, but we did get to eat a nice, informal lunch around the table, with a toast to all of us with a nice bottle of red. We presented our instructor and the office manager with their gifts, and our instructor gave us each a gift as well:
I love my herb plant, with sage, chives, and thyme, and my nice reusable produce bag. We were all getting a bit choked up, and vowed to keep the evening light-hearted. No heavy stuff! I couldn’t take it.
We returned at 5:00 all dressed up in our party clothes, but we still had to wear our apron. Our instructor made each of us pins to wear, with a silver utensil. Mine was a spatula…too cute. Before guests arrived, we toasted with some champagne, and took some group photos. Yes, you actually get to see some photos with people in them today! 🙂
My instructor is on the left, and the other 8 are my classmates and I.
We squeezed together and took one more with the owner of the school, Mary Risley. 🙂
Although it was our graduation, we had to pass out appetizers and serve the food at the buffet.
How do you like this poached salmon that my classmate and I decorated? It was actually delicious with that salsa verde, but there were some bones to get through since it was whole. 🙂
Here is an aerial view of the food….
…and here is the other side. Very different, but people seemed to enjoy it. We had some tasty salads, and one of my sons actually loved the duck. He certainly doesn’t take after me. 😉 There were so many desserts as well, but I didn’t get very great photos of them. Let’s just say there were about 8 different kinds, including chocolate truffles, mini cupcakes, and macarons. 🙂
At 7:30, our ceremony began, and our instructor talked about our 6 months together, and said a little something about each of us. It was very special, and we were presented with a certificate, and a class photo. Below is my classmate Catherine and I with our certificates:
At 8:00, the party was over, the leftover food was packed up to go to food shelters, and we cleaned the counters, and swept the floors for the last time. We agreed not to say good-bye, but instead “see you later”. No heavy good-byes, just hugs and c-ya’s. I left feeling good about my achievement, and while it was harder than I ever imagined, it was more rewarding than I’d ever imagined as well. I’d gotten a great class, a better instructor than I could’ve asked for, and food memories and skills to last me a lifetime. On that note, I leave you with a photo of the class picture that was given to each of us, and a huge thank you to all of you for following along on this journey with me!