Dishes 3 & 4: Cooking for Previous Champions – Pan Seared Calves Liver, Gruyere Polenta, Balsamic Onions & Pancetta Crisp. Cranachan Panna Cotta.
Thus far in this blog thingy I have written nearly 3,300 words. This is longer than all but one of my essays at university, the exception being my dissertation. Why do I draw attention to this? Well because it has only covered the first 30 MINUTES of Season 11 of MasterChef UK 2015. This is deliberate; it better represents how it feels being a part of the process. Ask any of my fellow competitors and they will tell you that the name of the game is waiting. Patience is a virtue that is fully exploited whilst filming for the programme. Where on the TV it seems as if competitors march seamlessly from challenge to challenge, the reality is greatly removed from this. I know it is this subject that most intrigues die hard MasterChef fans, and I'm sorry guys, don’t expect to find those juicy secrets here. I find it funny that the most frequent question I was asked on Twitter whilst the programme was airing was “how do they keep the food warm?!” Some things are best left unsaid. Something to do with MasterChef fairies and elves or something like that. If you really want to know the application for the 2016 series is now open... do it, it’s good fun. But yes, safe to say nothing in television is actually as slick as the finished product. By the time I came in for what on reflection I can’t believe was only my second day I was already beginning to feel quite at home. I’d already adopted a favourite place to sit in the green room. Seats don’t get more comfortable than these (apologies for the MasterChef puns, I have no sense of humour). Want to know where your TV license fee goes (which I am staunchly in favour of by the by)? I think there were three seats and two sofas in the green room each of which must have cost a fortune because they were about as comfortable as chairs can be, particularly the large brown leather sofa which became my temporary refuge on any occasion.
Unfortunately, upon arriving at the studio on day two no sooner had I started to feel comfortable myself, Tony, Sarah and Olivia were yanked away to a dingy backroom, where we would spend all day. Why? Because the Green Room was about to become the dining room as the four of us served three previous Champions. Until we were all marched into the studio to begin cooking the identity of these judges had been kept under wraps, but it really didn’t matter. The prospect of cooking two dishes in 75 minutes is daunting enough at home, I figured that having to have everything ready to serve a dessert just 15 minutes after a main requires some serious planning. Besides, I am in awe of all previous MasterChef winners and so no one person could make me more nervous than I already felt. I remember staring agog at the brief that we had been given for this challenge struggling for some idea of how I should go about this challenge. In the end I copped out and decided to sacrifice one dish to focus on the other and blow them away with one outstanding plate of food. Really it’s easier said than done as cooking in the MasterChef kitchen is fraught with challenges, but this would be the tactic I would recommend to any prospective MasterChef contestants.
God knows why I chose my show stopping dish to be my dessert though?! I could hardly cook a bloody dessert before I went on MasterChef. I guess in a way that’s why I did choose to focus on the pud. They’re easy to make look pretty, and if I focus on it I surely shouldn’t balls it up. Mr Torode said as I was plating up my dessert (Cranachan Panna Cotta, which everyone has subsequently referred to as the pretty one with flowers on it) that setting a panna cotta in a bowl had been done before on the show. It was Ping’s final dish. Ooooops!!! I knew I’d seen it done before and I am a massive fan of the show but it wasn’t until John had said that I realised. Shit, I guess this had better be good I remember thinking. At home I had practiced and planned to do a Vanilla Panna Cotta with Raspberry Coulis, Honeycomb and Basil but whilst looking bloody pretty it had some flaws. Namely that the honeycomb reacted with the acid of the coulis so that it would start to foam and the reaction made everything rather bitter. Back to the drawing board I thought.
The main on the other hand took less thought in its planning. Having decided to put so much effort into the panna cotta I knew that the main would need to be simple, and simple it was. I had worried that the recipe would actually be rejected because, as one keen eyed viewer realised and tweeted, the recipe was nicked from The Hairy Bikers (recipe here), with very little tweaking. In my defence, I had cooked it whilst I was at uni and my instagram will attest to that. Nonetheless I knew it would pack a great deal of flavour and the beauty of it... it can be cooked in 15-20 minutes. I don’t mean “Jamie Oliver 15 minute meals that really take all bloody day” either, start to finish this will take no time at all. So I spent the first forty minutes of the hour I had to serve the main concentrating on the dessert and then knocked up a quick homely meal of Liver, Bacon and Onions.
Again, like anything in that studio it was anything but simple, but I only really have myself to blame. For all of the times that I might have felt that the director and producer were waiting to prey on a mistake, this isn’t really the case. I know this because I made a rather embarrassing cock up when cooking my Main Course. 8 strips of Calves Liver had been thoughtfully laid out by the Home Ec team (basically the charming people who source all the ingredients and have the unfortunate job of fetching whatever equipment we have inevitably forgotten that we desperately need until the last possible second) but I had only decided to cook 7. 6 for the past champions and 1 for me to try. I had somehow, despite the fact that I had done the right number of panna cottas, FORGOTTEN TO COOK FOR JOHN AND GREGG!!! So John and Greg romantically shared one lonely piece of Calves Liver whilst their fellow judges had a full portion. “Just as well you studied English Literature rather than Maths” Greg said. How that never made it to air I’ll never know. Oh well, the main had always played second fiddle to the dessert in my mind.
My mum swears blind that the idea behind the Cranachan Panna Cotta is hers, despite the fact that I’m confident that beforehand she didn’t have a clue what Cranachan is. In truth I do owe her some debt as I do remember her suggesting that I make the Panna Cotta more interesting by adding booze. With the leftover raspberry coulis I had from my botched honeycomb panna cotta the Cranachan idea hit me (whisky, raspberries and oats) and that dessert was born. To get from that moment to the finished plate on the programme wasn’t easy. Particularly when Gregg stood over me in the studio and asked me “will the panna cotta set if it has alcohol in it?!” The confidence from my trial run at home flew out of the window. I was already concerned with a panna cotta setting in an hour as it is. In a home kitchen this is something that can take between 4-5 hours, and so my fate was placed in the hands of the ‘blast chiller’ and what little information I could find on the internet about how to use it to set a panna cotta. Ironically the only source I could find was a recipe from MasterChef Australia. Oh sorry, I mean MasterChef Juniors Australia. Yep I kid you not, I was entrusting everything in the recipe from a 12 year old Melbourne boy, (for anyone interested, just 5 minutes in a blast chiller and 30 minutes in the fridge is all that is needed to set a panna cotta...amazing!!!).
I returned from having served my main course to Shelina, Dhruv and Matt feeling somewhat downhearted, I thought I had overcooked the Liver and that the whole thing was a bit greasy, which was picked up on by John and Greg. But when I took the brilliant white panna cottas, flecked with the black of vanilla and a faint aroma of whisky from the fridge I knew I was on to a winner. They quivered as I placed them on my bench next to all the other various components that I had already made: the coulis, the oat crumble, the Basil leaves which had been picked and the fresh raspberries. Everything was done and as it should be and this was the calmest 15 minutes I ever had in the MasterChef kitchen. In fact I remember I spent much of the time talking to John, Greg and the cameraman as I waited to start plating up so far was I ahead of schedule. By the time I had placed the last edible Viola Flower, which incidentally I had never seen; used or tasted in my life, I was contented. That looks bloody good, send me home on this dish and you’ll send me home happy.
Notes: Fast forward six months and I finally got to see what everyone thought of my dishes. Thats the most frustrating thing about when you serve guest judges. You don’t get any feedback on the day. This made for a very nervy line up when we found out who would be going through. I had an inkling that the dessert was as it should be and given that this was the more important dish to me I thought that I may have done enough, to overcome what I thought was a poor main. Well I was wrong apparently. I actually didn’t watch the first episode live as I was at the theatre watching a play with my family, but from the buzz of my phone and the occasional glance at messages (yes I took my phone out at the theatre a crime which I would usually punish with death) told me I must’ve done okay. In fact, the main wasn’t poor at all and watching Dhruv Baker say that he “could’ve eaten all of this twice over” was such a thrill. That set me up for the dessert, which always sounded lovely to me, so I was shocked when Matt Follas condemned the idea stating that he didn’t like the idea and would never order it. Maybe I’m completely wrong and I got through on the merit of my main course. Well, Shelina declaring “thats really delicious and I'm talking with my mouth full, but I don’t really care!” eradicated those thoughts from my mind. Thankfully Matt was then forced to eat his words along with all of the panna cotta. By the time that Dhruv exclaimed that “the only negative is that he would never have thought of serving a panna cotta like that in a million years and he wishes that he could’ve done” I had nearly passed out on my sofa. Perhaps I should have saved that dish for the latter stages? Probably best I didn’t though or I might have made avocado cheesecake!