Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Sound of Silence


I am marking exams at the Ballymaloe Cookery School this morning. The students are doing their end of term practical cooking exams. The tone is hushed and the atmosphere concentrated. The kitchens are busy but quiet. Just the sound of cooking. This is a cooking school, it is exam day and the students are cooking on their own. The sounds coming from the kitchen are slightly different to those from a restaurant kitchen. In the restaurant kitchen, every day is exam day.
 I love a quiet kitchen, no unnecessary chatter, no raised voices, no abusive language. The gentle sounds of herbs being chopped, steel on wood, egg whites being whisked, metal on metal, meat and fish gently grilling, fat on heat and so on, it is all music to my ears.
There is a particular type of silence that descends on a well-organised kitchen. It is full of noiseless little messages. The unspoken nod, in the direction of a saucepan that is about to boil over, the eye-catching glance from one cook to the other whose butter is about to burn, the raised eyebrow towards a sink that might overflow. This quietness is only possible in a kitchen where everyone works as a team. Everyone cares about the food that the others are cooking. The aim is the same for all, great food for the guests in the dining room. All members of the team have a vested interest.  In a busy and successful kitchen, no man is an island.
Of course there is chat and communication, but it is gentle and the gossip, the jokes and raucous fun are reserved for tea breaks or mealtime. That chat and fun is essential, because the pressure is there all of the time. Better to let off steam and have a laugh over a cup of tea than over the hot stove.
There are different types of kitchen silence or quietness. The quietness of a calm and organised service which of course can't be a voiceless, but comes with a soft hum like that of a fine barge cutting through the still water of a  canal. The quietness that the execution of certain dishes demands. Try chatting  while you score the puff pastry on a gateau pithiviers with its distinctive curved markings. You will most likely end up with an abstract pattern rather than the desired cartwheel effect.
There is the breathless silence necessary for other dishes, like delicately folding whisked egg whites into a soufflĂ© or dressing a salad of tender leaves.  Then there is the silent pounding and pumping of blood on temples as the soufflĂ© or pithiviers leaves the oven. Pressure, glorious noiseless pressure. I love it. If I sound miserable and anti-social, well I am not. I love kitchens and have found some of my happiest moments in them, a true feeling of a sense of purpose, a team thrill, a confidence boosting communal effort where I have watched the timid grow confident, the shy grow gregarious, the directionless grow focused.
The deafening silence coming from the kitchens here this morning is a glorious symphony and good luck to all. 

Some of the delicious results,

Quite Beautiful.

Monday, December 6, 2010


Here is a  photo of the biscuits mentioned below. Have fun with these and the lemon icing in the recipe makes all the difference.

Winter wonderland

Winter present and past…

This morning the countryside here is a classic picture postcard winter scene. The grass is frozen and crisp, the branches in the hedgerows look like fabulous and extravagant sparkling broaches from a smart Parisian jeweller, the sky is a soft shade of baby blue and even the long streams of wash from passing jets look like they are there as a decoration. The whole scene is a dazzling twinkling light show under the bright sunshine.
I have been out to feed the chickens and pigeons, and the wild birds have also received their ration. They were all ravenous and seemed especially grateful.
I love the sound and feel of the crunchy frosted grass under foot. It is so evocative and reminds me of winters long past. 
I am going out to an early Christmas dinner this evening and am bringing a tin of homemade biscuits as a gift.   These little delights will keep for several days in a tin or box, so while it is definitely still too early to make them to present on Christmas day, you can advise the hopefully grateful recipient to eat them while they are at there best and not to save them for too long. You could happily make these on the 23rd to gift on the 25th. Decorate these with as many sparkly and vulgar bits as you wish. It is nearly Christmas after all.

Christmas Chocolate Biscuits

8 oz / 225g Flour
1 ¼ oz / 35g cocoa powder
1-teaspoon baking powder
5 oz  / 140g butter
4 ½ oz  / 125g caster sugar
1-tablespoon vegetable oil
1-teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg

Place the butter, oil and caster sugar in the bowl of a mixer and cream together with the paddle fitting until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and continue to beat until well blended and smooth. Sieve the flour, cocoa and baking powder on to the mixture in the bowl and blend in until the mixture comes together. Do not over mix. Chill the mixture for 30 minutes if it feels a little soft.

Pre heat the oven to 350f / 180c.

Roll out the mixture about ¼ in / 5mm thick, using a little flour to prevent it from sticking. Alternatively, roll between sheets of parchment paper. Cut out the biscuits with the cutter of choice and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Leave a little space between the biscuits as they swell slightly.
Cook in the pre-heated oven for approx 8 minutes. They will feel gently set to the touch and will crisp up as they cool. Place the tray on a wire rack and allow the biscuits to cool, still on the parchment paper. Serve dusted with a little icing sugar or caster sugar or cocoa powder or ice with the icing suggested below.

Lemon Glace icing

110g / 4oz Icing sugar
Zest of 1 Lemon and approx 1 tablespoon lemon juice

Sieve the icing sugar in to a bowl. With a wooden spoon, carefully, blend in the lemon zest and enough juice to make a spread able icing. Beat until smooth and glossy. The consistency will be that of thick cream