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Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Pasta Making Workshop - MK Cookery School

There aren't many perks for being on the organisational committee for the MKFoodFest. Mostly it is  hard work and no pay! However, after the success of the 2019 edition of the Milton Keynes food festival, it was time for the committee to come back together to review the event. 

Unlike other committee meetings, the review meeting is held over a meal, with a slightly more casual, friendly air and just a hint of celebration. Last year this had taken place at The Anchor in Aspley Guise, over a rather splendid meal prepared by Milton Keynes Food & Leisure Awards Chef of the Year, Shane Clarke. So, it was desirable to find an equally pleasant and very much local food venue for this meeting.

And so it was that the committee gathered at the newly rebranded Milton Keynes Cookery School in Brooklands. Having previously traded under the name of Inspired Gourmet, the cookery school now has a new team behind it, a new set of courses and a new direction to head in. And for this event the committee were to experience what it might be like to attend a corporate pasta making course.

I am a sucker for a cookery course and try to get myself on anything going. As such I have enjoyed pretty much every course going at The Coldsmoking Cookery School and also the bread making course run by Geoff's Real Artisan Bread. And I don't care if I already know something about what the course is about because I'm a firm believer that there is always plenty more to learn, especially from an expert in their field.

I have tried my hand at pasta making before and purchased a basic model pasta making machine from Lidl on a whim about a year ago. It is definitely a fun thing to do but not something you want to try to do in a hurry. So it isn't something I get out very often but it is certainly a great activity to do with my girls and fun to do to make something that you can't buy in the shops.

We were greeted at the cookery school by Bhav, who offered us drinks and invited us to nibble on the chicken liver pate and bruschetta. The pate, in particular, was delicious and I found it hard not to rudely eat more than my fair share of that!

Once we were all assembled, kitted out with aprons and aprised of the health and safety rules, we went round the corner of the L-shaped room to the cookery area. Here John was waiting, ready to explain what we would be doing and to get us started.

We started with making the pasta dough. Working in pairs, we created little balls of dough, using simple ingredients and plenty of elbow-grease!

Whilst that rested, we got on with preparing the two fillings - a butternut squash one and a ricotta and lemon one. 

What I liked about John's approach was that he wasn't just teaching pasta making, but rather the useful elements of cooking that could be transferred into our everyday meal preparating whether or not we chose to attempt pasta making again in the future. It was details such as how to efficiently chop an onion, how to separate an egg, and what to think about when trying to work out if something is correctly seasoned.

Having created the fillings, it was now time to work as a team to turn the pasta dough into elegantly filled and shaped tortellini. This was interesting not only in terms of the creation of the food but also in the way that we organised ourselves and worked together. As people who run their own businesses but come together to organise an event, it was curious to see how the dynamics would work in a completely new setting. I could see how such an activity would be useful in a corporate setting to change the dynamics and possibly the hierarchy and to see people in a different light.

By this point we were all starving and we were very keen to get the pasta made so that we could sit down and eat so that helped us to focus and get the job done.

With trays of tortellini ready for cooking, our work was complete and we retired to the other part of the room to sit around the dining table. As we started our meeting, Bhav served us wine whilst John cooked our pasta. 

Then it was time to tuck into our pasta, served with salad and sauces. And it did not disappoint - other than I could have eaten more!

To round off the meal, we were served raspberry panacotta which we'd had no part in creating and were total perfection. 

The meeting drew to a close and it was time to thank our hosts and head off, a successful meeting all round.

I was, of course, eager to share my new found knowledge with my girls so, having asked Bhav for the butternut squash recipe, we set about remaking the tortellini a couple of weeks later with one of our fancy homegrown squashes.

I was glad I took the precaution of allowing a couple of hours for the task as it certainly took plenty of time! We struggled a little to gain the perfect dough consistently that John had managed so effortlessly but we got there in the end and the results were worth it. 

The filling was particularly tasty and we had about half of it left after filling all our pasta. It turned out it made a lovely vegetarian pate and was also tasty spread on the toast before topping with cheese to liven up cheese on toast.

All in all I would definitely recommend the Milton Keynes Cookery School. Their set up is classy and professional and it is a great concept to have group events that are both a cookery class and a meal. Bhav is an excellent host and John is an excellent teacher and together they put on a fantastic evening.

Monday, 1 April 2019

New Canape Workshop Coming to Coldsmoking Cookery School

When you walk into a room and immediately get handed a freshly cooked, handmade scotch egg, you know you are going to have a good day. And so this is how I joined the practice run-through of the new canapes workshop soon to be offered at Coldsmoking Cookery School.

It is high-end caterers Page and Moyse who will be running the course and they certainly know a thing or two about making a decent canape. In fact, paring the recipe choices back so that they will fit into a five hour course seemed to be the biggest challenge of the day as both Jo and Louise are bursting with ideas and experience. Twin sisters, the two run the business in remarkable harmony, with Jo being the hands-on food expert and Louise taking care of the business side and offering practical support.

The next canape to prepare was a chocolate truffle and whilst that was chilling, it was on to making choux pastry. I have made choux pastry before and it has always made me feel a bit anxious so I was very happy to have some advice from an expert. I was intrigued too that this choux pastry was destined for savoury canapes.

Having swiftly brought my lumpy batter back from the brink of ruin, Jo then piped a perfect line of neat domes.  At home whenever anything requires piping I call upon my daughter as she seems to have a knack for it that I lack. However, I was keen to give it another go whilst Jo was on hand to offer guidance.  So I piped some domes onto the tray next to Jo’s and, let’s just say, it was fairly obvious which ones I had done!

Next we moved to some miniature cheesy biscuits and whilst they were cooking we took a break for a cup of tea and to review our progress so far. Then it was back to it, making blini batter and piping filling into the now cooked and cooled choux pastry canapes. It was all beginning to take shape and it looked very fancy.

Making canapes can seem a little daunting and fiddly and requiring a whole host of unusual and weird ingredients. However, with Jo’s guidance the creations so far had seemed perfectly manageable and the ingredients were straight-forward too. This theme was continued through to the next section, as Jo showed us how to make canapes out of sliced white bread. It was surprising how it was possible to transform such a basic ingredient into Melba toast and delicate filled croustades.

But that really sums up the feel of the whole course. It was about making canapes using straight-forward steps and bringing together simple ingredients in such as way that they look complex and luxurious.  A sprig of herbs here, a sprinkling of locally sourced edible flowers there, the right choice of serving dish and a perfectly executed quenell and suddenly it was all looking a lot more impressive.  As someone who makes food with more concern for the flavour than the appearance, I was keen to pick up some tips about how to add a bit of finesse to the end result. With Page and Moyse catering for weddings, corporate lunches and events all year, they certainly have a lot of experience in this area and it was easy to learn a few things as they imparted tips as effortlessly as they wield a piping bag.

The end of the course brought together all the various elements that had been created during the five hours, with final plating up and presentation. It was hard to look upon it without a feeling of accomplishment; it was certainly an impressive display and it had me itching for a special event to try out my new skills.

The canapes were divided up and boxed up and I felt ridiculously pleased to present a few tasters to my family when I got home. They were suitably impressed too and the tiny mouthfuls were tempting enough for my girls to try some flavours they hadn’t tried before. Now all I need is an excuse to impress a few guests so that I can try out my new skills.

If you have a special occasion coming up this autumn or winter and you fancy blowing your guests away with an impressive display of canapes, or even if you just fancy learning a few useful tips for presenting your food with elegance, then book yourself onto this new workshop, coming to Coldsmoking Cookery School this October. 

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Homemade Yoghurt

January is very often the time of year when people take a good long hard look at their eating habits and see what can be done to improve them.

I am no exception to this but I don't restrict my thinking to January. Improving your diet in any kind of sustainable way is only achievable if it isn't extreme and completely different to your normal habits. As such, I find that a gradual process of careful honing works best for me, where I consider very gradual changes over months and months. As such, at the time I barely notice the change but if I were to compare what I eat now with what I was eating five years ago there would be a noticeable difference - it is a process of evolution.

The common thread to my dietary changes has been a move away from processed food. There are lots of arguments about what the perfect diet looks like, whether it be low fat or low sugar, vegan or paleo. However, I think it would be hard to argue anything other than a move away from processed food is a move in the right direction. I really don't want emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners and weird gums in my body whether they are also coupled with excess sugar, fat and/or salt.

So over the last few years I have progressively moved away from ready-made foods so that I find myself day in a position of making my own cakes/biscuits, jam/chutney, bread, granola and yoghurt, and all dinners are cooked from scratch too... sometimes starting by nipping over to the allotment to pick the ingredients. It is both idyllic and demanding and at each stage I didn't think I would have time to add anything more to my life but here we are, a step at a time. And once you have made that step it is difficult to go back. As hard as it was to attempt to make all our bread, I now cannot stand the smell of a sliced white from the supermarket so if I want bread (which I do!) then I have to make it.

One of the easier steps was yoghurt making. Some companies would have it that it is complicated and that you need specialist equipment and sterile conditions and that you might kill yourself if you do it wrong. Well, you don't and you won't. I started with a flask. These days I own an Instant Pot - a multiply purpose cooking device that can pressure cook, slow cook, make soup and take the dog out for a walk. I'm not sure about that last one as we don't have a dog so I haven't tested it. Anyway, with it already taking up work surface and being in use often, it would be stupid of me not to have moved away from the basic flask and use the Instant Pot yoghurt making function.

The easiest way to make yoghurt is to start with UHT milk because it has already been treated to kill off any unwanted bacteria so there is no need to boil the milk first (as you would if it were fresh milk). Then add to it some yoghurt (stuff you have bought or some leftover from your last batch). I use about 50-60g of yoghurt per litre of UHT whole milk. Don't faff around with semi-skimmed or skimmed milk - whole milk is best. If you eat a satisfying portion of full-fat yoghurt you will feel sated and won't go craving biscuits in half an hour so overall you will be better off! Mix the yoghurt into the milk then heat it gently to around 40°C and keep it there (if you can) for about 8-10 hours.

The main function of yoghurt making kits is to provide the temperature control. However, I did achieve good results from using a thermos flask and sticking it in the airing cupboard over night.

Once you have made your yoghurt, you can thicken it up by straining it, if you wish. I do this by putting a nylon sieve over a bowl and lining it with a piece of muslim (I usually scold this with boiling water first as it helps the liquid to flow through). Then fill the sieve up with yoghurt and leave it to drip for a couple of hours. You are then left with lovely think Greek-style yoghurt (without any added thickeners necessary) and some liquid in the bowl. The liquid is whey and it is a very useful ingredient.

Whey is bio-active in the same way that yoghurt is so it is worth eating it for the friendly bacteria it offers. It is also high in protein so can improve the nutritional content of foods you add it to. It is also slightly acidic so reacts really well with bicarbonate of soda to make baked good rise. Wherever you see buttermilk mentioned in a recipe, you can substitute in whey. I use whey a lot so I will post more recipes on this in the future.

You can, of course, eat yoghurt plain or use it in recipes. My favourite way is to stir in some jam or lemon curd.

I think raspberry jam mixed into yoghurt in my favourite. It is simple and has a lovely pure flavour and a satisfying creamy, filling consistency. And so it should when you consider the ingredients - raspberries, sugar, full fat milk and cultures.

Let's compare that to Activia Raspberry Yoghurt: Fat Free Yogurt, Raspberry (8%), Modified Maize Starch, Acidity Regulators (Sodium Citrate, Citric Acid), Flavourings, Black Carrot Concentrate, Thickener (Carrageenan), Sweeteners (Acesulfame K, Sucralose).

I know which one I would rather eat and it reminds me why I put the effort in but even without the label to put me off, homemade just tastes so much better!