The King of the Rolling Pin: interview with PAUL HOLLYWOOD Thursday, Aug 7 2014 

shutterstock_158393534As a young man, Paul Hollywood initially refused to follow in his father’s footsteps and assume the baking mantle. Persuaded to change his mind, however, Hollywood has gone on to become one of the nation’s most treasured celebrity chefs. We catch up with the baker to talk about his one-man show – the ‘Get Your Bake On Tour’ – just as series 5 of the Great British Bake Off hits our screens.

The baking profession may be of long and humble tradition, but Paul Hollywood, with his sharp blue eyes, distinguished silver hair and glamorous surname, was always destined for a rise to stardom. After making his name on the remarkably popular BBC show The Great British Bake Off, the 47 year-old is now taking his talents on the road as part of a UK tour. It’s been quite a journey for the Merseyside lad, from the smaller stage of the family bakery to selling out concert venues across the country with a hands-on baking gig. Prior to facing crowds of adoring fans, how does he feel about the tour?

“I really enjoyed doing demonstrations for the BBC Good Food show, so I’m not unfamiliar with the format. This was my chance to do something on my own though, and it’s like a kind of rock ‘n’ roll tour! The whole idea of the tour is to pass on my knowledge, what I’ve learnt over the years to people who are struggling or have problems with their baking.”

Hollywood’s desire to pass on the knowledge perhaps harks back to his own baking beginnings. His knack with a rolling pin comes from a flour-filled childhood. “Mum looked after the pastry side, the apple pies, the biscuits,” he tells us. “My dad looked after the yeast side. So with the two of them as my parents I became a hybrid.”

So what kind of things is our fusion baker performing on stage?

“The premise is for me to show off the recipes of my life – back from when I was a kid, right through my professional career and from starting on television to dishes that I cook now. And at the end of each show, four people will come up on stage and I’ll set them a baking challenge to go and do their best with in a set amount of time. The winner will be picked by the audience. There will also be a roving mic so members of the audience can throw questions at me.”

Although the professional chef was brought up around the craft, and cites good friend Tom Kerridge as an inspiration, not to mention Michel Roux Junior, who he describes as “quite frankly, a God,” the route to the very top of his profession was perhaps a lonely one. A younger Hollywood had to look to old cookbooks rather than motivating head chefs to help him break the mould.

“My family have been my inspiration throughout my whole career. But one of my problems was that when I moved into these big flash restaurants to go and work there I was head of the tree; I was the head baker and there was no one higher than me who I could ask for advice.”

In baking, it seems that sometimes looking backwards can be the way forward.

“So I was reading the old bakery books, and getting inspiration from what was going on in baking a hundred years ago, or 200 years ago. That’s where I’d get my inspiration. I couldn’t get it from other bakers because they are almost doing the same thing.”

The “George Clooney of baking”, as Jonathan Ross described him, has been kneading dough for around thirty years. But when the last loaf is taken out the oven and the apron comes off, what is it that Hollywood likes to do to relax?

“I really enjoy walking the dog,” he smile. “He’s a Labrador called Rufus – I named him after [comedian] Rufus Hound, who’s a friend of mine. That’s my relaxation – walking Rufus or going out for a ride on my motorbike – it’s a sports bike though, I hate Harleys.”The Great Bake-Off

What about hanging out with Mary Berry? Do the pair get on as well off screen as they do on it?

“Working with her is such a laugh. I do get the giggles a lot. Mary is lovely. I see a lot of her outside work, and am very fond of her and her whole family.”

For tickets and information to see Paul Hollywood on his ‘Get Your Bake On Live Tour’ go to www.paulhollywood.com

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Masterchef 2014: THE FINAL Saturday, May 17 2014 

FINAL CONTESTANTS:

Jack, Ping, Luke

TRY THIS AT HOME:

  • haggis and beef bolognese
  • coconut panna cotta served with mango, pineapple foam, and coconut tuile

FOOD PORN:

jfrclfrs

 

 

 

 

 

PFCR

AND THE WINNER IS….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(keep scrolling)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PING COOMBES !!

 

yay 🙂

Masterchef 2014: episodes 22-23 Friday, May 16 2014 

FINAL CONTESTANTS;

Jack, Ping, Angela, Luke

FOOD DESTINATION:

Barcelona!

TRY THIS AT HOME:

  • malt cake with malted milk ice cream, butterscotch sauce, crème fraîche, and orange tuiles
  • venison served with venison, salami and cumin ragout, anise-flavoured carrots, toasted dhal purée and savoury carrot cake
  • pan-roasted and poached chicken with ginger rice, chicken jus, and bok choi
  • smoked paprika prawns with chilli and ginger
  • guacamole and Serrano ham bruschetta

FOOD PORN:

gssspast

 

 

 

 

wcmple

 

 

 

ltwtlt

Masterchef 2014: episodes 19-21 Saturday, May 10 2014 

Semi-finals time!

THE REMAINING CONTESTANTS:

Luke, Angela, Ping, Robert, Jack, Michael

TRY AT HOME:

  • roast guinea fowl stuffed with black pudding, served with roast potatoes, parsnips, kale, and marsala sauce
  • turbot served with cockles, and tomato and fennel stew
  • game pie with broccoli and straw fries
  • pan fried duck breast with spring rolls, fondant potato, pak choi, and five spice red wine sauce
  • rabbit and venison ragout with tagliatelle
  • flame grilled mackerel served with picked beetroot, beetroot crisps and beetroot purée
  • apple and chestnut tatin with vanilla and bay leaf ice cream
  • chocolate lava cake with peanut butter mousse and caramelised banana spring roll
  • spiced pineapple with lime sorbet and caramel sauce
  • chocolate fondant with pistachio cream, honeycomb, hazelnut brittle, and caramel sauce
  • poached pear with crème anglaise and walnut brittle
  • chocolate tart with plum compote and mascarpone

FOOD PORN:

clccf

 

 

 

 

 

svbbmr

 

 

 

 

 

bpsespbs

Masterchef is back! Sunday, Mar 30 2014 

And so am I. Only just realised that I hadn’t posted here for MORE THAN A MONTH. Oops.

Last year I proceeded to painfully blog every episode of Masterchef. This took many hours of my time and many thousands of words (probably because I can’t shut up). I shall definitely be aiming for a more condensed version this year, mainly for my own sanity. However, Masterchef itself seems to have made this slightly easier for me by airing two heats and then a quarter-final all in one shot this week, making for around 2.5 hours of viewing and hopefully a neater recap.

My husband was asking me yesterday why I still bother with Masterchef given the poor pronunciation of some foodstuffs (it’s not “alioli”, for ****’s sake) and the overly dramatic, deeply contrived format of the show. The answer is simple. It is basically gratuitous food porn, and I also enjoy testing my own skills (watching the recipes, and working out the degree to which I might be able to recreate them, which can result in some fervent scribbling as the show rolls). It’s a good job the food looks good, because frankly some of the contestants are complete munters (naming no names). I get that if you’re male there isn’t a great deal you can do about your appearance. However, for some of the women seen on the show so far, the effort has been poor. I know that the show is about the food more than the contestants’ looks. Nevertheless, the contestants are ultimately aiming to become the equivalent of celebrity chefs (in several cases), which involves a lot of cameras being on you, whether you’re filming a new show or having photos taken for your latest book. So why not take a look in the mirror before going on Masterchef?

In short, in terms of the contenders themselves, we’re left with two by the end of week 1: Dani, a bartender who produces creative cuisine, and Robert, who cooks forgotten classics with a twist. Dani, perhaps more than Robert thanks to his more consistent performance, seems to have a greater chance of going further. These two have been whittled down from 12 in the heats – whom, as ever, it’s refreshing to see come from a range of ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. Let’s make no mistake, though – they’ve all been chosen for their ability to cook.

This means that the food porn starts from early in episodes 1 and 2, where the contestants are asked to cook their own dishes, and at which moment we’re treated to sights like this:

mrah

Robert’s mushroom ravioli with apricot, hazelnut and truffle salad

Trina's hibiscus and raspberry tart, served with spun sugar and edible glitter

Trina’s hibiscus and raspberry tart, served with spun sugar and edible glitter

Other delicious concoctions that you might want to attempt at home were:

  • brandy basket filled with white chocolate cheesecake and served with limoncello sorbet
  • prawn, pork and shiitake dumplings served with ginger and rice wine vinaigrette

NOM.

The invention test follows this – but rather than there being an open larder for contestants to choose their ingredients from like last year, they have to choose from two sealed boxes: the blue contains ingredients for a sweet dish, while the green contains ingredients for a savoury plate. In episode 1, the box blatantly pointed to North African cuisine thanks to the lamb, aubergine, cumin, yoghurt and mint that were included. Predictably, most contestants tended towards lamb koftas and burgers, with there being little attempt at anything more invented. The one contestant (across BOTH of the first two episodes) choosing the sweet box was thus able to stand out a little more, using the mystery box to create a delicate fig crumble with lavender mascarpone. The savoury box yielded the same predictable results in episode 2, which mainly consisted of pork loin wrapped in Parma ham six ways.

At this point, two contestants were asked to leave from each episode, before things heated up again the next day, with the remaining four would-be chefs being asked to cook a main and a dessert each for three past Masterchef finalists. On day one this included Thomasina Miers; on day two, the group featured Tim Anderson as well as last year’s winner Natalie Coleman. Naturally this put the pressure on, and predictably, not all contenders were able to rise to the challenge equally. Collapsed fondants, runny sauces and unbalanced seasonings all featured, but so did visual and (we’re told) taste sensations like this:

Holly's pan-fried sea bass with almonds, figs, five spice and sweet potato

Holly’s pan-fried sea bass with almonds, spring onions, figs, five spice and sweet potato

Kate's white chocolate and chili Key Lime Pie

Kate’s white chocolate and chili Key Lime Pie

Other dream dishes you might want to try at home include:

  • cardamom rice pudding with pistachios, vanilla, poached peaches, rosewater and edible rose petals
  • rabbit liver with pancetta crisps, peas, mashed potatoes, and marsala gravy
  • snail, artichoke, red pepper and rabbit paella with aioli and microherbs
  • trio of profiteroles: lime and ginger with dark chocolate, orange liqueur with milk chocolate, and coffee with white chocolate
  • rum and coconut sponge with pineapple syrup
  • raspberry and fig tarte tatin with almond praline

With contestants shown the door, we’re down to four for the quarter-final – which seems a little quick given that we’ve got another 4 weeks of this routine to go. Said quarter-final sees the wannabes trying to imitate John Torode’s jungle curry, which tests their ability to joint a guinea fowl, make an authentic curry paste, and cook rice successfully. Kate, Robert, Greg and Dani need a grown-up palate (in Gregg Wallace’s words) to identify the chillies, shallots, garlic, shrimp paste, dried shrimps, palm sugar, turmeric and galangal in the curry paste. Fish sauce and Chinese wine further accentuate the flavours, and it’s certainly true that contestants will need to be familiar with Asian food to identify them. Coconut cream is mixed with rice and water in the pan and the lid kept on until all of the liquid has evaporated. This naturally is done with varying degrees of success by the participants.

Finally, the four are left to cook for Waitrose Kitchen editor William Sitwell. Greg’s squid and lobster ravioli is a fabulous idea let down by poor technique; equally, Holly’s beautiful loin of venison served with pomegranate and kale is slammed due to overcooked meat. Due to this, it’s no surprise that Robert goes through with his reworked poached cannon of lamb with pearl barley risotto and root vegetables, as does Dani, thanks to his lamb cutlets on celeriac purée, Padron peppers, and garlic spinach, and asparagus on red pepper, served with Rioja and port reduction.

Dani's lamb cutlets on celeriac purée, Padron peppers, and garlic spinach, and asparagus on red pepper, served with Rioja and port reduction

as above

In a way, this shows that nothing changes on Masterchef. Every year there are triumphs and disasters, visions of loveliness and plates of amateurishness. However, the fact that nothing changes is perhaps what has kept people watching for a decade. It’s a never-ending story of inspirational food and voyages of self-discovery as mental resilience improves and skills evolve. For that reason, I’ll be back here reviewing episodes 4-6 with relish.

Ferret’s findings Tuesday, Aug 27 2013 

Five ferrety posts you may not have seen yet! Apart from a few relatively new posts that you may not have seen yet, take time to check out these vintage wonders that have been read only by a lucky few:

  1. Spice up your life! In which Ferret extols the virtues of ginger.
  2. Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares! In which Ferret wonders how far the outbursts on this popular show are staged.
  3. Food Book Review: Food and Philosophy. In which Ferret muses over many deep foodie questions, including the criminality of pickiness and whether food critics’ views are really ‘truer’ than ours, or if they’re just more eloquent.
  4. Restaurant Review: Georgia Brown’s. In which Ferret visits this heartland of Southern American cuisine.
  5. Wake up and smell the coffee. In which Ferret sings the praises of its chosen coffee machine.

Time-travel back through the annals of FFW and enjoy 🙂

Food TV Review: How To Cook Well (Raymond Blanc) Friday, Aug 2 2013 

Raymond Blanc’s latest series, How To Cook Well, seemed for us to be the promise of Gordon Ramsay’s Ultimate Cookery Course, French-style. Ramsay takes you painstakingly through a variety of cooking techniques and tips, from how to sharpen knives to how to make brilliant breakfasts. Even though Blanc’s series is shorter (6 hours as opposed to about 10), it seems on the face of it to provide more than just a whistle-stop tour, going through widely-used but perhaps less fully-exploited techniques, including baking, poaching, roasting and slow-cooking.

There are many good things about this series (which is at the time of writing is just over halfway through, with all aired episodes available on iPlayer), not least the jovial Raymond himself, who frequently enlists the help of the long-suffering Adam. Always a delight to watch, he is highly reminiscent of cartoon chef Gusteau from Ratatouille, and it’s not just the accent: at any moment he can be expected to utter something that, in essence, reminds us of Gusteau’s catchphrase: “anyone can cook”. He is accessible and encouraging at all moments, whether he’s boiling an egg or making exquisite ravioli. Equally, the recipes are built up nicely throughout each episode, ranging largely from the very simple (“anyone can cook” indeed!) to the jaw-droppingly complicated (reminding us of the sheer scale of his talent). Every episode leaves viewers feeling like they want to make – and eat – what he has made, thanks to the refreshing use of the traditional techniques explored.

The one disappointment (possibly due to the length of the series) is perhaps that the individual techniques used (within the broader category of roasting, baking et cetera) are not fully explained – but for this, one supposes, purchase of Blanc’s books is necessary. The devil’s in the details, and so, it seems, is the money, but that’s usually the case with cookery programmes. In any event, the series comes highly recommended – and with episodes on frying and grilling still to come, he should have some French ideas that are perfect for a British summer.

TV Review: Rick Stein’s India Wednesday, Jul 3 2013 

With the chicken korma now practically a national dish in the UK, British curiosity about Indian cuisine is naturally growing, with more and more specialist ingredients and recipe books available by the minute. Rick Stein provides a charming mixture of both cultures by taking his knowledge of the Cornish fishing scene on a tour of the vast and diverse country of India, particularly delighting in the nation’s range of seafood dishes. Naturally, to encourage viewers to purchase the series’ accompanying book, not all of the recipes used in the programmes are well-documented: while some are available on the BBC website, others will need to be scribbled down quickly and approximately if you wish to try them at home (we’ll be putting the chicken and barberries through its paces tonight).

Stein approaches with an open mind all of the areas and cuisines that he experiences, showing great interest in the regionally varied methods of cooking and eating without being patronising. The recipes and landscapes shown are equally varied: beaches befitting Florida and zen riversides evoking Japan are all displayed alongside the more stereotypical images of crowded slums and affluent Pondicherry, enticing the viewer to visit. Equally, despite Rick Stein’s prominence as presenter, the food focused on is not limited to fish. While many Indian people, in several different regions, consider the cow to be a sacred creature, meaning that beef recipes are less common, Stein has already explored several principal ingredients, including vegetarian main courses as well as chicken, squid, prawns and pork.

One criticism from those with a sweet tooth may be the lack of desserts featured thus far. A lassi stall was visited, and a milk pudding was also made on screen. This all makes for rather slim pickings for pudding fans; however, with only three episodes aired so far out of six, there are still opportunities for this.

On the whole, the episodes are varied, interesting, and full of colour and flavour. Viewers can look forward to seeing more beef recipes (and, with luck, more dessert recipes) as Rick changes regions, and with the passage of time, fans can also anticipate the acquistion on their part of an even fuller knowledge of India as the experienced presenter continues to debunk myths, tour a country of promise, and cook delicious food.

Masterchef, series 9 (episodes 22-23) Monday, May 6 2013 

I have fought against a six-hour time difference and extremely shoddy hotel bandwidth to bring this to you – so I hope it’s been worth it!…

Episode 22 upped the ante for the final by not only making the amateurs do an invention test, but to do it for four Michelin-starred chefs. However, happily for Larkin, Dale, and Natalie, they get a 75-minute practice run, for John Torode and Gregg Wallace. Oh, and for MICHAEL CAINES. Minor detail!!

For this occasion, Larkin prepared a Spanish-style fish stew (containing trout, squid, and mussels) which, while it looked good, had promising flavours that didn’t quite come together, meaning it lacked refinement. Dale served a rack of lamb with a herb crust, lamb rissoles, caramelized shallots, potato purée, red wine jus, and anchovy and caper dressing. While the herb crust didn’t look that sophisticated to me, Michael Caines seemed to enjoy it. However, the great chef and I did agree on one thing: the lamb was a little overcooked, and Michael Caines said it was a little too fatty as well. Gregg, however, made the valid observation that how far meat is cooked comes down to personal preference quite strongly – and that he likes the lamb like this.

natalie2Natalie’s roast grouse with almond crust, parsnip fondant and purée, red wine and grouse reduction, and salsify crisps scored favourably, with its excellent presentation attracting positive comments. For improvement, the idea of more acidity perhaps being required in the sauce and a little more precision being needed were cited. However, these few little errors were more than forgiveable thanks to the dish’s incredible flavours.

Having had the chance to practise on Michael Caines, the three then got to cook for Clare Smyth (Gordon Ramsay), Jocky Petrie and Jonny Lake (Fat Duck), and Jocelyn Herland (the Dorchester). For them, however, they did not get to cook their own dishes, but instead a menu designed by Simon Rogan (which makes you wonder how far the previous task really served as practice).

Larkin prepared flaked mackerel in coal oil with fennel meringues, vintage beetroot, mustard mayonnaise, and caper lemon jam. He made a lot of little mistakes in the kitchen, which resulted in one of Simon’s sous chefs stepping in to help with the mackerel. However, he did then get the plate out, albeit a little late, which seemed to be made up for by how well-executed it was. Little errors affecting time management possibly meant that by this stage he had lost the chance to win Masterchef, as after all, a big part of the contest is how well the contenders fare within the setting of a professional kitchen.

Dale did fare well in this setting, though – his dessert of poached rhubarb, hazelnut crumbs, meadowsweet yoghurt mousse, rhubarb snow, Cicely syrup, and muscovado caramel tuile came off brilliantly apart from a few minor slips in preparing the tuiles. This, I’m sure, was far less serious than the Beeb’s overly dramatic editing would have had you believe, given that the contestants had FIVE HOURS TO PREPARE.

Natalie’s duck with sweetbreads, salt baked turnips, chanterelles, leeks, and cider sauce came out brilliantly, and this just consolidated the fact that she had a good chance of winning. While all three contestants showed these qualities, something that Natalie does have is consistency, and the ability to deliver excellent food time after time. However, the level of skill shown by all three contestants is not the miracle John and Gregg make it out to be – they all had epic skills to begin with, and their level of achievement is hardly comparable to, say, someone going from microwaving ready meals to prepping Michelin cuisine in 8 weeks.

Nevertheless, this week definitely focused on building skills, with no real decisions made based on episodes 21 and 22. Episode 23 – aka the grand final – was the real decider. With three hours ahead of them, each amateur was asked to cook 3 courses, and all rose to the challenge admirably, drawing on previous experiences and family history to create heartfelt and technically advanced dishes.

larkin3Larkin chose to cook Chinese mixed starters (consisting of vegetable and prawn spring rolls, yakitori, water egg with crab meat, cockles in soy and tofu emulsion, and morning glory), followed by Chinese roast belly pork (which was marinated in red and yellow bean paste, tamarind and garlic) and roast duck with glutinous rice wrap, pancetta, sausage and mushrooms. This only attracted one minute criticism – the idea that more sauce should have been added to the main dish. His dessert – a chocolate mojito with cucumber, Thai basil gel, caramel sauce, and coconut crumble – was also a master stroke, with only the portion size being pointed out for improvement.

dale6Dale did equally well in this final challenge. His liver-stuffed ballotine of red mullet, which was served with a chorizo, pepper, confit tomatoes, basil and black olive stew, and chorizo/tapenade bruschetta, suffered slightly due to the fish being slightly undercooked. His main course (guinea fowl served three ways  – confit, black pudding rissoles, and breast) was accompanied by asparagus mousse and spears, wild mushrooms, and white truffle cream sauce, and was judged excellent all round due to the contrasts and complements of flavour and texture. His dessert was just as wonderful: coconut, vanilla, and white chocolate panna cotta with coconut meringues, champagne syrup, and poached tropical fruits (mango, pineapple, kiwi and strawberry).

natalie3Finally came Natalie, who essentially just cooked food she’d been testing out on her grandad (rather than being chiefly inspired by her late grandmother, as the BBC’s shoddy reporting would have you believe, her entire trajectory was based on her very-much-alive grandfather). To begin with, she served a lobster tail with fennel purée and compressed fennel, orange gel, orange beurre blanc and lobster caviar. Her main course consisted of roast belly pork with pork loin, pommes purées, apple sauce, pea shoots, honey mustard, and black pudding Scotch egg; and to finish, her dessert was comprised of chocolate panna cotta, hazelnut biscuits, a bitter chocolate tuile, and caramelized pears. In short, the judges were practically crying with joy.

All three contestants, at various points in the show, demonstrated qualities that could make them winners. However, by the end of the series, Natalie’s position was assured: in the first instance as she didn’t have the (albeit tiny) mistakes of the others’ dishes, and in the second because she showed a consistency throughout the series that they lacked. While some viewers complained that this year’s series and contestants lacked lustre, Natalie has proved a popular contestant whom many wanted to win. Thanks to the Beeb’s unhelpful disclosure, I already knew that she would – but nonetheless it seemed a fitting end. The contestants also seemed to have really bonded, which really contributed significantly to this series, along with the impression of how much this meant to all of them and how much it could really change all of their lives – although perhaps especially Natalie’s.

Masterchef, series 9 (episodes 20 and 21) Friday, May 3 2013 

Episode 20 proved a significant point in the series, with one person due to leave at the end of this hour, leaving the other three to embark on some gruelling final challenges. In order to sort the wheat from the chaff, twelve critics have been called in for Saira, Dale, Natalie and Larkin to cook for, including Jay Rayner, William Sitwell, and Kate Spicer. Gregg Wallace acted as host for the evening, while John Torode played the role of head chef. Each contestant would cook 3 courses each, with the critics choosing what they would like to eat.

The menus took the diners around the world, from modern Britain to Asia via India. Saira’s starter consisted of chicken samosas, chicken roti livers, and a chicken cake with tamarind chutney. The chutney was judged “bright, vivid and zingy”, although some found it too acidic. However, there were more serious errors than this, with the critics saying that the livers were overcooked and the cake dry and dusty, and that Saira should have picked one of these dishes and served it alone rather than miniaturising three different ones. Criticisms of Dale’s and Larkin’s starters were much more trivial: Larkin’s confit salmon with caviar was judged to have an excellent texture, and his cherrywood smoke effect drew positive comments too, with only the soy mirin dressing needing more seasoning. Dale’s Dover sole and clams en papillote lacked unity, though, and the sole was a little overcooked. Nonetheless, this dish (with Thai basil pesto) was still deemed successful overall. Only Natalie’s starter – of pan-fried sea bream with langoustine sauce, braised fennel, and caramelized fennel – came out unscathed.

Back around the world now with the mains. This task was not just about seeing if the amateur chefs could produce restaurant-quality food, but also about seeing how far they could cope with having to complete the number of orders required of them in time. Saira’s timing was way off in this respect, with her potatoes being cut too large to cook in time. Nevertheless, the quality of her lamb rasala with hot/sour sauce, aubergine purée & gooseberry chutney was praised, even though some diners dubbed it a lamb with curry sauce rather than lamb curry. Larkin’s main course (fillet of beef with black bean sauce, pak choi, and asparagus fried rice) did not come off much better – while competent, it lacked wow factor, and the side dishes did not attract many fans. Dale and Natalie came out of the main course brilliantly – Dale with a ginger pork fillet (accompanied by crackling, salt roasted carrots, mulled cider sauce, and spiced cabbage), and Natalie with rabbit wrapped in Serrano ham (served with a cockle vinaigrette, samphire, and cauliflower purée). However, much was made needlessly of the fact that Natalie had to restart her rabbit after overcooking them, due to making them too soon – how many of these mistakes happen in professional kitchens that we don’t get to hear about? It’s surely what’s on the finished plate that matters.

dale4After this came the desserts. Unfortunately, for just about everybody except Saira this was a tour de force. Saira’s roasted rhubarb was served with a rhubarb syrup, and baked custard with ginger nut crumbs. While the baked custard attracted high praise, the rest was too sour for many diners’ tastes. The rhubarb syrup’s luminosity also didn’t have me drooling at the screen quite as others’ desserts did: I’ll definitely be trying to recreate Natalie’s  fig frangipane tart with orange marscapone at home (hopefully without her slightly hard and heavy pastry) and Dale’s chocolate truffle cake with caramel brittle and honey milk ice cream (even if I have to buy some ice cream instead of making my own!). Of the chocolate soufflés with vanilla cream that Larkin did send out, it was clean plates all round. However, he dropped one thanks to John shouting at him, which was a great shame.

Because of this, his place and Saira’s are less secure than Dale’s and Natalie’s, who are undoubtedly safe.

Several of the contestants mentioned at this point their desire to stay in the competition so that they can carry on learning and growing. While this is a valuable process, it is ultimately not about them and their potential but more about what results they can produce on a day-to-day basis. As something was wrong with each of Saira’s dishes, she was the one who was asked to leave, meaning that Dale, Natalie and Larkin will fight it out for the winner’s trophy.

Their first challenge in episode 21 was just the first stage in an Italian odyssey, whereby they are sent to the Amalfi Coast to cook with Mamma Aguta, who has cooked for Humphrey Bogart, among other luminaries. She showed them some of her favourite dishes before challenging them to cook it for her family, making sure that the show struck a nice balance between testing the contestants’ fine dining skills along with using fresh ingredients simply in a home-cooking context. Natalie handled the gnocchi with artichokes dish with ease, only receiving one tip to use less flour in her gnocchi. Criticism directed towards Larkin was equally minor, with his stuffed squid needing to be cooked just a tiny bit longer to enhance the already excellent flavours. Finally, Dale was able to cook the pappardelle with peppers and sausage to perfection.

Afterwards, the team were taken to Florence’s Enoteca Pinchiorri, which carries three Michelin stars. There, they were shown how to cook three of the restaurant’s specialities, before feeding it to their mentors. Larkin’s guinea hen ravioli didn’t look quite as tight as the chef’s (and indeed the chef pointed this out) but in the end it more than passed muster thanks to its great flavours. Minor criticisms also came up in regard to Natalie’s and Dale’s efforts, with Natalie’s spit roasted leg of pork possibly benefiting from a little more olive oil in the mashed potato, and Dale’s portion sizes arguably needing to be a little more generous in his coconut dessert (which was served with three flavoured gels: basil, almond, and coffee).

The contestants were then encouraged to put what they had learned into practice, having been asked to cook a 3-course lunch in an Italian castle for members of the art world. Being Italian, the guests were forthright in their criticisms, which at least seemed valid from this side of the screen. Dale’s crab risotto looked a little too wet when served, lacking the creamy quality that comes when the rice begins to release its starch and allow the grains to melt together. This al dente quality was noticed by the diners, as was the fact that crab and cheese is not a usual combination (the cheese being added thanks to a Parmesan crisp) – although many diners seemed to reluctantly concede that they enjoyed this aspect of the dish in the end.

Despite having never cooked suckling pig or cavolo nero before, Larkin is serving this as the main course, with side dishes of potato fondant and celeriac purée. This inexperience was revealed when guests commented negatively on the texture of the crackling, as well as on the fact that his fondant potato was on the tough side (Larkin knew this, but sent it out anyway). While the flavours were good, it leaves one wondering if this can really be enough, as flavour has to harmonise with other techniques in order to result in success.

This combination of quality and technique was perhaps best exemplified by Natalie’s milk ice cream with dandelion and burdock blackberries, honeycomb pieces and lavender flowers, which was practically perfect in every way. She has a consistency in her cooking that others don’t have, and for this reason (as well as her lovable Cockney demeanour, reminiscent of Angela Hartnett), it’s easy to see why many viewers want her to win. She has only two episodes left now in which to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that she deserves it.

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