As a cook, everyone has a chink in their armour. Stylist tests out the best, most focused courses to help you up your culinary game, from filleting your first hake to taking tips from Michel Roux Jr himself
Photography: David Newton
For the baking novice
Stylist's acting editor Susan Riley enrolled in the Cakes And Baking Workshop at Leiths School Of Food And Wine in London. The last time she baked (badly) was in Home Economics at school, and in an age where Mary Berry is decreed queen, she thinks it’s time to stop being so clueless.
- Master the basics of baking: the methods, essential info and tips. The course runs from 10am-2pm (£140).
- Make brownies, muffins and raspberry sponge cake with elderflower mascarpone cream.
“Every Christmas, my colleague Alix makes and decorates a gingerbread house that looks like it should be part of a window display. Recently she made her sister a birthday cake in the shape of a MAC make-up palette and last summer, after being unimpressed with professional offerings, she made her own three-tier, three-flavoured wedding cake; one of the best I’ve ever tasted. When she completes these feats I look at her like she’s superwoman; she merely shrugs and tells me it’s easy. Words I try to remember in the first few seconds of my class when our teacher asks who is a baking enthusiast and everyone puts their hands up. Except me. ‘Is this not the novice class?’ I ask. There’s laughter. Oh dear. This is going to be Home Ec and the burnt lemon biscuits all over again. Except, thankfully it’s not.
Susan: "So this is what a sieve looks like"
Enthusiast doesn’t mean expert and our teacher, without being too simplistic, starts her instruction at the beginning, relaying some key facts. In 10 minutes I know that 160°c is an ideal temperature for a cake, middle shelf is king, eggs should be room temperature, knocking your spoon on the side of a bowl is a crime, that salt enhances chocolate recipes and you always fold with a metal spoon. She whizzes through the baking methods: melting for the likes of gingerbread, rubbing in for scones, creaming for classic sponges and whisking for Swiss rolls, quickly demonstrating two of these methods as she makes gingerbread and pistachio cake, and whisks us a butter cream. It’s just enough to showcase some key disciplines without being too long and boring.
Next up, our turn; my first cake since I was 15. I create raspberry sponge cake with elderflower and mascarpone cream, moving on to chocolate brownies, and raisin bran muffins, glazed with honey and sprinkled with oats (tip: don’t overfold or they become too dense). The recipes are straightforward without being basic, and most importantly look (and taste – the Stylist team told me later) impressive. Lunch and wine ends our session as we box up our goodies with a sense of achievement. Two weeks on, I now own a palette knife, whisk, cooling tray and cake tins and have made two more cakes. It’s addictive. Mary Berry, I’m coming for you.”
For more details visit leiths.com
For the busy vegetarian
Amy Adams, Stylist’s sub editor, was fed up with veggie cottage pie, so she travelled to the Vegetarian Cookery School in Bath in an attempt to extend her meat-free repertoire.
- Fast And Delicious – Spring (they do courses for all seasons) welcomes everyone from beginners to keen home cooks. The course runs from 10am to 4.30pm. It costs £140.
- Learn how to incorporate seasonal produce into your dishes like wild garlic and rhubarb, plus more unusual ingredients such orange flower water. You’ll also learn useful knife skills.
“In a light, airy kitchen, with views of Bath Abbey, a central table is piled with crisp, pink stalks of rhubarb, stems of purple sprouting broccoli and a mound of green leaves, water still clinging to the skin.
Amy whisks up a meat-free frittata
The course uses fresh ingredients to inspire busy vegetarians. ‘We all get stuck in a rut with our cooking,’ says Rachel Demuth, owner of Demuths vegetarian restaurant, who has run the cookery school since 2001. Rachel and Demuths’ former head chef, Helen Lawrence, take 12 of us though a three-course menu. We grind wild garlic into a pesto (to spread on our homemade soda bread), chop the broccoli into a frittata to go with a quinoa salad and goat’s cheese tarts; and layer the rhubarb with blood oranges and orange-flowerwater mascarpone into the most deliciously simple dessert.
It sounds like a lot of work but somehow there’s time for a first and second lunch and plenty of useful tips – how to make tasty quinoa (fry first to add nutty flavour), and the best way to peel ginger (with a sharpedged teaspoon). And I finally learn how to chop vegetables like a pro.”
For the seafood explorer
Stylist’s entertainment editor Debbie McQuoid felt her knowledge of fish was pretty limited, so she went to Billingsgate Seafood School’s Catch Of The Day course, based at the famous London fish market, to improve her fish-cooking skills.
- The Catch Of The Day course runs on weekdays from 6.15am to 2.30pm and costs £193. It includes a tour of Billingsgate Fish Market and teaches you about different species, what’s sustainable and how to buy. Beginners are welcome.
- You’ll discover how to prepare a fish – using it in its entirety from steaks, to fillet, to using the bones for stock; and make three different dishes from scratch.
“This is not for the faint-hearted. We start at 6.15am and it’s freezing. The Seafood School’s director CJ Jackson takes five of us on a stall-by-stall species tour. As a charity, they work on promoting responsibly sourced seafood (apparently cod is no longer quite so endangered) and they are brilliant teachers. From cockles to cod, I can now a) identify them and b) ask actual questions about their availability and freshness. Upstairs in the kitchens, our chefs Eithne and Jo help us prepare fresh dressed crab. This is easy. Later at home, my husband only removed two bits of shell from his portion. Result.
Debbie sharpens up her filleting skills
Then it’s on to cuttlefish for my risotto – made with my very own crab claw and mussel stock. Delicious. Next, we take a whole hake and scale it, behead it, remove its blood line, cut it into steaks and fillet the tail. This is another reason why this course is not for the timid. But if you can handle it, it’ll make you tackle any fears you may have about fish by showing you how (relatively) easy it is to cook.”
For more details, visit seafood training. org or phone 020-7517 3548
For the would-be masterchef
Stylist contributor Genevieve Roberts takes her competent, but messy skills up a notch in the company of Masterchef legends Michel Roux Jr and Monica Galetti.
- Get a full day’s tutoring (9.45am to 4pm) from Michel Roux Jr and Monica Galetti at Cactus Kitchens off Clapham High Street, London. The Michel & Monica Experience is priced at £595.
- Learn to cook a three-course dinner that will leave guests in awe of your culinary prowess and presentation, and master restaurant staples such as purees and souffles.
“You would be forgiven for mistaking Cactus Kitchens for the set of a TV show. At the front of the room, Michel Roux Jr and Monica Galetti, judges on Masterchef: The Professionals and chefs at Le Gavroche, are showing us how to make a chocolate souffle, teasing each other while cooking. The menu is mackerel with cauliflower puree and vegetables a la Grecque, roast duck breast on wilted turnip greens, followed by chocolate souffle. This isn’t just a different league to my cooking, it’s another sport. I loved playing with presentation, apparently we taste with our eyes first and our taste-buds follow, so if a dish doesn’t look good our brain will conclude it’s less tasty.
Genevieve picks Michel's brains
It takes a full day, and we end it by eating our meal together, while Michel and Monica answer questions. I learn that the best meringues are made with old egg whites and that you should always start preparation with your dessert so guests are never kept waiting. I’ve always improvised in the kitchen, but the day taught me the benefits of precision – don’t crowd a plate with sauce; use purees to make patterns by making smears with the back of a spoon, and arrange vegetables rather than ‘dump ’em on, pile ’em high.’”
For details visit cactuskitchens.co.uk