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This week has been my first exam week at Le Cordon Bleu. Each term is examined separately so despite still being hopeless at piping and getting flustered by choux, exams loomed large.
To pretty much no one’s surprise, preparing for exams at pastry school has turned out to be very different to revising for bar finals, or undergraduate papers. My preferred method of sitting in front of the television, half-heartedly glancing at inadequate notes doesn’t work here: those days are long over. Instead, I’ve spent the last two weeks piping increasingly unappetising-looking mashed potato into rosettes and shells and big, fat, swooping herringbones, and attempting to practise exam dishes without any of the right equipment and a domestic oven that blows hot and cold more than I did during my dating years. I’ve learnt so much theory about food produce and kitchen safety that I could go on mastermind with the specialist subject ‘eggs’.
Yesterday was my basic patisserie final practical exam. We queued up outside the door at half seven in the morning, wearing our full whites, washing-machine shrunken hats perched on our heads, nervously chanting recipes for creme patissiere and italian meringue.
Of the three possible dishes, our class ended up with choux pastry, the dreaded, fear-inspiring, booby-trap-laden glazed coffee eclairs. They were, of course, simultaneously, a complete nightmare and absolutely fine. And after three hours, we crawled out of the kitchen, broadly unscathed, vowing never to even look at eclairs again.
The last thing in the world I wanted was to touch pastry for at least three days: cakes were out, biscuits were a no-no, and if anyone mentioned custard to me, I’d scream. But I was aching to embrace Christmas: festivities had been on hold during manic exam prep, and it was time for spice and booze and warmth. How do reconcile that without baking? I don’t think I’d had buttered rum until last week, sounding like something more suited to a Dickens-Harry Potter fanfic crossover than the real world, but it turned out to be a complete delight: the butter, rum and hot water form an emulsion that tastes rich and heady, but isn’t greasy; the infused spices are gently festive instead of tasting like pot pourri (mulled wine: I’m looking at you). If I have it, I use vanilla sugar* rather than caster sugar, which makes the whole thing fragrant without being overly sweet.
*To make your own, wash out a vanilla pod after use, dry it, and pop in a jar with caster sugar. Top up with caster sugar as you use it, and add vanilla pods as you come by them.
It goes likes this:
Hot Buttered Rum
Makes: 2 glasses
Takes: 5 minutes
Bakes: No time at all
30g salted butter
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
A generous grating of nutmeg, plus a little extra for serving
1 heaped tablespoon vanilla sugar, or normal caster sugar
3 shots of rum
4 tablespoons of hot water
1. First, brown your butter. Place the butter in a small pan over a medium heat with the cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. Allow it to melt, foam up, and then subside, until the butter is mahogany brown and smells nutty.
2. Drop the heat to low, and stir in the sugar and rum, until the sugar has dissolved.
3.Add the hot water in small splashes, stirring it in. It will make an emulsion with the butter and turn the whole thing cloudy. Add and taste until you have reached the consistency you want: it should be about the amount of a negroni or manhattan, rather than a very long drink. Serve in mugs or heatproof glasses, dusting with a little extra nutmeg if you fancy.
4. Ta dah!
Icing on the Cake
We made this on a whim two weekends ago, and have been tweaking and drinking it every night since. This would be delicious with frangelico or amaretto too, but a pleasantly surprising variation is with brandy: it’s not as sweet as the rum original, but it’s punchy and exciting, with just the right hint of Christmas cake.