- Food & Drink
I’ve never liked mushroom soup. The forest floor flavour often surprises me by being nice, but the slimy, chewy, grainy texture that slops off the spoon like condensed catarrh makes me shudder and push my bowl away.
However, mushroom soup was one of my dishes for Friday, so I carefully made it, cooking it until it took on that familiar beige paste look and ladled it into a warm bowl. I topped it with parsley and wished for cream, because it needed a little pool of richness floating on its scummy surface.
My teacher cautiously licked a teaspoonful and said: “Well, it tastes fine but you couldn’t serve that in a restaurant. It’s split.”
I looked down into the pot at the globules of milk floating free from the rest of the soup and realised that in the 10ish years I’ve been eating out in restaurants and cafes in Britain I’ve regularly been served split mushroom soup. I’ve been served it so often that’s what I thought mushroom soup was supposed to look like.
I despaired for the state of British food and I confronted the vacuum of knowledge that still occupies most of the cooking section of my brain. In 12 weeks I’m not going to leave here an expert in food and wine – merely someone with a toehold in a great mountain of information, culture and history. It’s an oddly comforting thought for a woman who’s having nervous dreams about her herb exams.
If I ruined the soup, I rocked the marzipan, which differs from almond paste by being made with stock syrup and it isn’t suitable for rolling out and covering cakes. Another mind melting piece of information (what are the bricks of yellow stuff everyone buys at Christmas, then?)
Our marzipan was for stuffing dates, apples and walnuts. I was on walnut and apple duty. The apples were simple: peeled, cored and filled with a fat plug of marzipan, then rolled in sugar and cinnamon and baked. They looked plain, a bit crap even, but they tasted like a Christmas jumper. I loved them.
Where the apples were simple, the walnuts were deceptively so: walnut halves sandwiched together with marzipan and then rolled in hot caramel and left to set until they were hard enough to wreck dentures.
Easy, unless you’re making the marzipan and the caramel and have to search through 2 kilos of walnuts to find 6 unbroken, roughly matching halves. There were queues in the weigh up area as students searched through the jar for the walnuts that would match their exacting standards.
So, a 4-hour morning and I made mushroom soup, marzipan, stuffed apples, caramelised walnuts and a cake of white soda bread that was finally, at last, hallelujah, described as: “Good.” But that was not the end of my cooking because I’d signed up for an evening shift at the Arbutus Bakery in Cork. And by evening, I mean midnight to 8am.
I managed 2 hours of not-quite-sleep after demo and at 11.45pm I was sat in a car in an empty industrial estate awaiting the arrival of The Three Bakers. The only place creepier than an industrial estate at night is a school when all the kids have gone and I was glad of the company of the 2 students who’d driven me down (I’d some foolish idea that it might be possible to get about by public transport).
At 12.05am, The Three Bakers arrived and by 12.30am my apron was beginning to show the first dustings of flour that, by 3am, would be a storm of white against navy. I topped tomato and basil breads, shaped rye breads, egg washed everything in the bakery that could stick a bit of beaten albumen and I helped make the speciality breads: chocolate, walnut and raisin bread and Karlsbrod, a saffron bread with almond paste running through the middle.
After my marzipan success, I handled the almond paste like a pro (stood back while the baker made it) and then rolled and plaited it into beautiful rounds that would be sold for €6 a piece.
Then a batch of evil rye came through for us to shape. Rye dough is an intransigent beast and generally tries to work out what shape you’re aiming for and then form the exact opposite. Engrossed in cutting, shapping, flipping, squeezing and punching, we forgot about the Karlsbrod.
30 minutes later my mentor shouted: “Shit!” and ran to the ovens. He pulled out 2 trays of shiny, ebony black breads. On the inside they were soft and saffron yellow but on the outside they were fresh from the fires of Hell. We chiseled through the fossilised exterior and picked out mouthfuls of sweet crumb. They would’ve been great loaves if only we hadn’t abandoned them to the fire.
Thrilled that it wasn’t entirely my fault for forgetting the breads, I set about egg washing more croissants and knocked the egg wash into a sack of nibbed sugar. Rather than do anything about it, I stood next to the sugar shouting: “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” I’d reached my tiredness wall. It was 4am.
I worked on and learned a lot about baking and how bakeries work; mostly it’s relentlessly and in creeping heat. Halfway through the night I began to look forward to my trips to the walk-in fridge and its pleasantly cool atmosphere.
At 7am I pressed my lower back against the warm oven door handles and considered how brilliant it is to be able to make bread and how I will never have the drive to make it my career. They gave me soda bread, brioche and tomato and basil bread to take home. I ate them all up (with some help). They were genius.