Dishes 5 & 6: Cooking to a brief for Jay Rayner - Ballotine of Chicken Breast Stuffed with Black Pudding with Fondant Potato, Asparagus and Marsala Cream Sauce. Chocolate Bread and Butter Pudding with Vanilla Custard, Chocolate Sauce and Hazelnut Spears
They say you should never meet your heroes. Why? Well I guess people think you’ll be disappointed by them. But I think that this disappointment is more with oneself than with your hero. I mean you’re bound to realise very quickly that they’re just human beings, much like you or I, and as such are unlikely to be able to live up to your Godlike expectations of them. If you think about it it’s probably a bit silly to have heroes, but maybe thats a bit cynical of me. Perhaps my MasterChef experience has made me bitter, as I know that I definitely felt disappointed upon meeting one of my food heroes, the critic and writer Jay Rayner – not that this had anything to do with him. My disappointment came from my lackluster food which, whilst enough to see me through to the next round fell short of what I hoped to serve Jay.
Cooking to a brief isn’t, despite how I made it look, too much of a challenge in my opinion. I mean, theres nothing more difficult than attempting to think of something to say when someone tells you to “say whatever you want”. This is an instruction that has so many possibilities that one finds oneself rendered speechless by the overwhelming options. However, should someone give you a specific subject to talk about speech comes much easier. This is the way in which I approached the challenge of cooking to a brief. It focusses your attention and allows you to filter out that which is not relevant. “So Robert, as this is the case why did you use so many ingredients in a dish where you were only supposed to use three?” you might ask. Well, it seems the brief underwent a transformation in between us first being sent it and Jay judging us. I’ve just dug out the original document we were sent to make sure I’m not mistaken and as I look at it, highlighted to emphasise its importance, are the words “A dish that uses just a few ingredients, essentially three things on the plate (plus a sauce, if I’m feeling generous).” Well to me this doesn’t say three ingredients, it says three things. So my inspiration was ‘meat and two veg’, a ballotine of chicken stuffed with one of my favourite things – black pudding – which is just delicious in anything (thing 1), with a decadent fondant potato (thing 2) and asparagus (thing 3), which has a strong enough flavour to cut through the rich chicken, black pudding and butter, with a marsala cream sauce (a sauce because you’re feeling generous).
My horror came as I realised whilst my dish was being examined by a man whos writing I greatly admire, that it was going to miss the mark. Thankfully the flavours delighted and it was executed well enough – with the exception of the fondant potato, which wasn’t buttery enough.
Anything involving the word fondant, be it chocolate or potato, are a notorious downfall of the MasterChef contestant and in fariness mine, to this point had always been hit and miss. I used to follow a recipe in the Le Gavroche cookbook and relied upon the genius of Michel Roux Jr. However, having seen so many of us fail in making the perfect fondant potato in the course of the competition John Torode let the final 12 contestants in on a little secret. We were all using too much stock, so allow me to give you guys a little sneaky recipe from inside the MasterChef studio.
Mr Torodes perfect Fondant
1 Waxy Potato
1 Block of Softened Butter
Small Amount of Stock
Cut and shape the potato into desired fondant shape
Put Potato into softened butter so that it is engulfed by it
Cook in a saucepan over a low heat with a small amount of stock until the potato is cooked through
Turn heat right up at the end to fry the outside of the potato
Not exactly the healthiest thing ever but in fairness that does make a damn good fondant potato.
Whilst not bowled away by my main though all three judges were pleasantly impressed and so I was left encouraged and eager to crack on with the dessert. Nothing could have prepared me for how delighted I would be by Jay Rayner’s critique of my pud. It was exactly what I had hoped he would come up with, granted I would have preferred it to be about someone else’s dish. To be fair my Chocolate Bread and Butter Pudding was an ill advised dish to attempt to do in 75 minutes as it really needs about that time to cool and set. Unfortunately my dessert repertoire had already been exhausted by the panna cotta I made in the previous round I was left with little choice.
Having struggled to eat my stick-to-your-ribs Chocolate Bread and Butter pudding Mr Rayner in his inimitable way both deeply insulted me whilst simultaneously putting a comforting arm around my shoulder when he exclaimed that “It’s a bit late career Elvis... and not in a good way”. Brilliant.
Notes: The week that we filmed this episode, which would have been in mid October, something truly remarkable happened. Tony and I had been joined by two new faces in the studio, Kathryn, from Merseyside and Khaleesha from Malaysia by way of Essex. Unfortunately after her two dishes, it was the lovely Khaleesha that departed us and Tony, Kathryn and I continued to knockout week. That weekend I traveled up to Cambridge to visit a friend of mine who had just that month started his masters at the cities prestigious university. This was the first time I would meet his new girlfriend and upon being introduced to her she said to me that she had heard that I was on MasterChef and that her cousin was too. Given that she was an international student from Malaysia it didn’t take much working out that her cousin was Khaleesha whom I’d only met that very week. What a crazy world we live in!! In any case I’m hoping this will earn me an invite to her house in the summer for a Malaysian BBQ haha.
Elsewhere Tony was still doing his usual thing of completely blowing me away with the amount of work he could get through in the allotted time - always with superb results. His rabbit a million ways dish was exactly the sort of thing that I think Jay Rayner would have loved to have hated as it flew in the face of his brief. But, and this didn’t quite come across on the television there was a genuine sense of astonishment at how superb the dish was. I think this is the point at which people may have started to realise what I had seen from the beginning Tony is a witch.