As a new cookery school gives fans the chance to cook with Michel Roux Jr, Diana Pilkington is treated to a masterclass in souffle-making from the expert himself. The chef patron of Le Gavroche also discusses why he helped revive old-school BBC show Food And Drink and shares his thoughts on the horsemeat scandal.
By Diana Pilkington
"Are you left-handed?" jokes Michel Roux Jr, as my right arm prods limply at the ingredients of my first ever creme patisserie.
Wincing from the heat of the stove, I am clearly a far cry from the professionals the two-star Michelin chef is used to scrutinising on TV.
And to make matters worse, we're tackling one of cooking's most fearsome tasks - the souffle. More precisely, it's an omelette souffle Rothschild, a Cointreau-enriched dream of a dessert that's been on the menu at Le Gavroche in various guises since Roux's father and uncle opened the restaurant in 1967.
"A lot of qualified chefs get worried about making souffles, so this is going to be a big step for you," Roux adds, with a characteristic twinkle in his eye. No pressure then.
I feel like a bit of a spare part in the presence of such culinary greatness. Roux has to step in a few times to rescue my wilting egg whites, but I'm determined to make the most of it.
After all, fans have to fork out an eye-watering £895 for the privilege of spending the day with Roux at his new London cookery school, Cactus Kitchens.
Located above the studio where the BBC's Saturday Kitchen is filmed, the school is the brainchild of Cactus TV's Amanda Ross and also offers cooking experiences with the likes of Monica Galetti and Adam Byatt.
"I'd say it's extremely good value," insists the Masterchef: The Professionals judge. "You spend around £900 for a full day with me. I think that's very good value, and we've sold out so far."
The project launched this year, and so far he's seen a "very broad range" of ages and standards take part.
"We're not trying to compete with L'Atelier des Chefs or Le Cordon Bleu. They do fairly rigid, structured cooking demos with a class. This is more of an experience. People should feel at ease and hopefully go away with lots of tips."
It's one of many strings to the sprightly 52-year-old's bow. He's still running Le Gavroche, preparing to tackle his 19th marathon this year ("I keep asking myself when I'm going to stop - the knees are still holding out but the calves are very painful") and can currently be seen fronting magazine show Food And Drink on BBC Two.
Roux says: "I wouldn't want to denigrate the old Food And Drink because I used to watch it and was an avid follower.
"But I felt that one was very structured and formal and a bit too serious, whereas this is lighter and far more accessible to viewers."
So how does today's Food And Drink stand out in a market that's already packed with food programmes?
"It has to be different," he says. "There are a lot of cookery competitions on television, MasterChef included, and the straight cooking programmes have their place as well.
"This show is topical. We choose a topic, such as feeding the world, and follow that theme through the programme."
Sadly, there was one red-hot issue they were unable to get their teeth into.
"It's a shame we weren't in the studios when the horsemeat story broke because we could have gone into that one in great depth," says Roux, who was horrified by the news of contaminated meat products.
"It's not the issue of whether we should be eating horsemeat or not. It's the labelling. And that is shocking. The consumer should know what they are eating. That's a basic right.
"And some products had traces of pork. Some people shouldn't be eating pork for religious reasons, so that's shameful. That's criminal."
Although he's frequently on the telly, Roux's busy schedule means he rarely gets a chance to watch it. Nonetheless, there are a number of TV chefs he admires.
"Some of Rick Stein's cooking programmes were stunning and he's such a nice man as well. But nowadays I love Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood. What they do is fantastic and what it's done for baking is brilliant."
On the subject of baking, our omelette souffle Rothschild is coming along nicely - even the meringue, which Roux says is the bit that causes the most fretting.
"People are a bit scared of over-mixing the egg whites and then losing all the air in it but actually the first bit of mixing can be quite vigorous."
According to Roux, it's careful planning and methodical work that separates the professionals from the amateur chefs, and breaking a task down into stages can take the stress out of the most daunting recipe.
"This is a perfect example," he says, removing our fluffy, perfectly risen pudding from the oven, turning it onto a plate and scattering it with boozy apricots.
"The apricots can be made weeks in advance and kept in an airtight jar in the fridge. The sauce as well. Then before serving it's a five-minute job, then you put in the oven and it's done. It's all in the preparation."
I fear I may have been more of a hindrance than a help with the cooking, but when it comes to eating the thing, I'm more than happy to get stuck in!
Here's the recipe, plus a few more from Roux, for you to try at home...
Omelette souffle rothschild (Serves 4) 250ml milk 3 egg yolks 50g caster sugar plus 1tbsp 40g plain flour 1 good measure Cointreau 8 egg whites For the apricots: 250ml water 150g caster sugar 1 vanilla pod split 20 dried apricots 2 measures Cointreau Boil the water, sugar and vanilla then pour over the apricots, add a measure of Cointreau, cover and leave to macerate overnight.
Remove 12 apricots and a little of the syrup and reserve for the garnish. Puree the remaining apricots with another measure of Cointreau to make a light sauce. If too thick, add a little syrup from the apricots.
Bring the milk to the boil. Whisk the yolks with 50g of sugar until creamy then add the flour, and pour on the boiling milk and mix well. Return to the pan and bring back to the boil stirring continuously. Remove from the heat and stir in a measure of Cointreau.
Heat six to eight blini pans (12cm diameter) over a medium heat. Whisk the egg whites with 1 tablespoon of caster sugar until soft peaks form. Stir in half to the egg yolk mixture then lightly fold in the rest. Butter the blinis pan and spoon in the mixture and then cook in the oven at 180ºC for 6-8 minutes. Then turn out onto the plates and serve immediately with the warmed apricots, sauce and if you like a little double cream.
Spicy aubergine salad with coconut (Serves 6) 4 large aubergines Vegetable oil for frying Salt Chilli powder 2tbsp tomato ketchup 1tbsp wholegrain Dijon mustard Juice of 1 lemon 2 spring onions, thinly sliced 50g coconut chips, toasted 6 grilled king prawns for decoration (optional) Trim off the ends of the aubergines. Cut lengthways into slices, about 15mm thick, then into cubes. Heat a large, non-stick frying pan with a generous amount of vegetable oil. When the oil is smoking hot, add the aubergine cubes. They will soak up all the oil, but don't worry - carry on cooking over a high heat until the aubergine is lightly browned. Turn down the heat and gently simmer until tender. The whole cooking process should take about 12 minutes.
Season well with salt and chilli powder to taste. Remember, if the salad is to be served cold it will need more seasoning than if eaten warm. Put the aubergines in a colander and leave to drain for about 10 minutes. Return the aubergines to the frying pan and heat gently. Fold in the ketchup, mustard and lemon juice. Simmer for 3-4 minutes, then remove and chill. Just before serving, fold in the spring onions and toasted coconut chips.
(Recipe taken from Cooking With The Master Chef) Duck confit and saute potatoes (Serves 8) 1 Canard Gras or 8 large duck legs or 2 normal ducks 1kg good-quality coarse sea salt 1 sprig of sage 1 sprig of thyme For the potatoes: 1kg potatoes (Amandine, Belle de Fontenay or similar), boiled in their skins and cooled 1kg duck or goose fat Salt and pepper 3 garlic cloves 1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped If using a Canard Gras, remove the legs and breast, trimming off any excess fat. Chop off the head and discard. Remove the skin from the neck and add to the fat, and put the neck with the meat. Take out the foie gras, wrap in cling film and refrigerate to use for another recipe. Add the heart and gizzard, cut in half and washed.
Trim all the skin and fat off the carcass. Put all the fat in a pan and cover with water. Bring to a gentle simmer to render. This usually takes about 1 hour - the water should be evaporated and the fat clear. Pour the fat through a fine conical sieve without pressing. Liberally sprinkle the meat with the sea salt and chill for 90 minutes. Wipe off all the salt and moisture with a cloth and put the meat into the warm fat with the sage and thyme. Bring to a very gentle simmer, cover with greaseproof paper and cook for about 2 hours until tender. Cool in the fat then chill. It will keep for several weeks.
For the duck confit, preheat the oven to 180ºC/gas mark 4. Place the meat in a non-stick pan and cook over medium heat until golden. Put into the hot oven for 10 - 15 minutes.
For the saute potatoes, peel the potatoes when cool. Cut into 5mm slices and pan fry in the duck fat. Season and sprinkle with garlic and parsley.
(Recipe taken from Cooking With The Master Chef) Banana and golden syrup tart (Serves 6) For the pastry: 220g plain flour (cake flour) Pinch of sea salt 100g cold butter, cut into blocks 30g caster sugar 1 egg yolk 3tbsp water For the filling: 180g soft white breadcrumbs 8 tbsp golden syrup Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon 5-6 bananas Sifted icing sugar, for dusting Thick, sweetened cream, to serve To make the pastry, sift the flour and salt into a bowl. Add the butter and caster sugar, and rub into the flour until it looks like sand. Add the egg yolk and water, bring the dough together, and knead a couple of times. Shape into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and place in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Roll the pastry out to fit a 26cm tart tin, line neatly and trim off the excess. Cover with greaseproof paper, fill with dry beans or rice, and bake at 180ºC for 15 minutes. Remove the beans and paper, and bake for 5 minutes more.
While the pastry base is still warm, tip in the breadcrumbs; they should come right up to the edge. Warm the treacle in a small saucepan, mix in the lemon zest and juice. Pour evenly onto the breadcrumbs and leave for 5 minutes to settle. Bake for 20 - 25 minutes. The filling should set and have a golden caramel colour. Allow the tart to cool a little. Arrange sliced, peeled bananas in a circular fashion on the tart. Dust with icing sugar and caramelise with a blowtorch or under a hot oven grill.
To serve, slice the tart and serve with a generous spoonful of sweetened cream.
:: For more information about cooking experiences at Cactus Kitchens, visit www.cactuskitchens.co.uk :: Food And Drink continues on BBC Two on Mondays :: Cooking With The Master Chef by Michel Roux Jr is published by Phoenix, £16.99. Available now