Take one journalist, add two tough judges and chuck in a mysterious box of ingredients. Cooking doesn’t get tougher than the MasterChef invention test, as Jeananne Craig discovers.
Ever had that panic-stricken dream where you’re back in school, about to sit an exam you haven’t done any revision for?
That’s precisely the feeling I get ahead of a special round of the MasterChef invention test, with just an hour to turn a crate of random ingredients into a meal fit for the popular show’s judges, John Torode and Gregg Wallace.
Nothing gives me more pleasure than leafing through a Jamie Oliver tome, or Googling recipes in the kitchen.
But bereft of my cookbooks in MasterChef’s huge South West London studios, with Wallace bellowing his trademark, “Cooking doesn’t get tougher than this” line at me and my fellow journalist contestants, I’m wobbling like a blancmange.
Series 10 of the hit cooking competition, which begins this month, sees a tasty new twist to the invention challenge, as the hopeful amateurs must choose between sweet and savoury boxes.
I opt for the savoury crate, which turns out to contain sausages, a small chicken, carrots, mysterious greens, chicken stock, lentils and a miniature bottle of white wine. There’s also access to a larder containing butter, flour, potatoes and other basic ingredients.
In the right hands, these items could be turned into a culinary masterpiece. Under my watch, the only hope for them is bog-standard bangers and mash.
Wallace is encouraging when I tell him of my wildly unambitious plans, advising me to mix some cabbage through the potato and whip up some onion gravy.
I nod, concerned that I don’t have a clue how to make gravy from scratch, but delighted to now know what the leafy green stuff is.
As the other contestants reveal their impressive menus, however - fresh baked bread, syrupy pancakes, melt-in-the-mouth biscuits - I realise I’m up cookery creek without a paddle. That little bottle of vino is starting to look very tempting indeed...
Minus the breathy MasterChef voice-over, the room feels very silent as we focus on our cooking. Luckily, former greengrocer Wallace eases the tension with cheese puns and jokes about clowns tasting funny.
Meanwhile, Torode’s busy rustling up chocolate eclairs, ginger biscuits and puff pastry with vanilla cream, to show what a pro can create in an hour.
Soon, with my colcannon on the go, sausages sizzling, carrots caramelising and the onion gravy thickening nicely (after some helpful pointers from Wallace), I’m starting to enjoy myself.
Before I know it, there’s only a minute left to frantically plate up.
Torode’s first to tuck in. “You need a big lump of mustard on the side, but it’s very tasty,” he says. “The mash needs more butter and seasoning. But as a family cook, that’s great.”
Wallace adds: “Your onion gravy’s fantastic, your sausages are cooked to perfection. You should be proud of yourself.”
I am proud — both men seem to have swallowed the food and, from my limited first aid knowledge, are still displaying vital signs.
Despite their kind and unexpected praise, I don’t win, not by a long shot (first place goes to a delicious stew and soda bread combo), but I do gain a real insight into how challenging it will be for this year’s contestants, whose fortunes could be changed forever by the show. And from now on, I’ll know a humble cabbage when I see one.
Want to try out some MasterChef recipes at home? Here are three from last year’s finalists’ book, MasterChef: The Finalists...
Dale Williams’ chorizo and anchovy pappardelle
400g dried pappardelle
1tbsp olive oil
400g cooking chorizo, sliced into 5mm discs
250g vine-ripened tomatoes, roughly diced
1tsp dried chilli flakes
2tbsp dried oregano
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
20 fresh marinated anchovy fillets, drained
Salt and pepper, to taste
200g pitted black olives, halved
4tbsp chopped parsley
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Add the pasta and cook according to the packet instructions, until al dente.
While the pasta is cooking, set a wide high-sided frying pan over a medium heat and heat the olive oil. Add the chorizo and gently fry for two to three minutes to release the colourful oil and aroma, turning the chorizo halfway through.
Add the tomatoes, chilli flakes, oregano, garlic and anchovies to the pan and cook for a further three to four minutes or until softened. Season with salt and pepper before adding the black olives and, finally, the parsley.
Using tongs, lift the cooked spaghetti from its pan and into the sauce (or drain in a colander, then tip into the sauce). Combine the spaghetti with the sauce and add the lemon juice.
Divide among four bowls and dress each with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
Natalie Coleman’s coconut rice pudding with blueberry compote and macadamia nuts
200g pudding rice
300ml whole milk
80g caster sugar
1 x 400ml can coconut milk
1 vanilla pod, split open
50g macadamia nuts
20g desiccated coconut
Fine strips of orange zest, to garnish
For the blueberry compote:
1tbsp caster sugar
2 strips of orange peel
Put the rice, milk, caster sugar and coconut milk in a saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod and add to the pan along with the pod.
Cook gently for about 20 minutes, or until the rice has softened; stir every few minutes so the rice doesn’t catch on the bottom of the pan. When the rice is ready, remove from the heat and keep warm.
While the rice pudding’s cooking, prepare the other elements of the dish.
For the blueberry compote, reserve a few of the blueberries for garnish and put the rest in a saucepan with the caster sugar and orange peel. Heat for two to four minutes, or until the blueberries start to release their juices and become jam-like.
Remove the orange peel and set the compote aside until ready to serve.
Toast the macadamia nuts in a frying pan, then pulse in a food processor until roughly chopped. Set aside.
Toast the desiccated coconut in the frying pan for about 20 seconds, keeping a close eye on it as it can burn quickly. Tip onto a plate and leave to cool.
To serve, spoon a layer of rice pudding into each serving glass, then add a layer of blueberry compote. Add another layer of rice, followed by a layer of compote and a final layer of rice. Top with toasted coconut, macadamia nuts, the reserved whole blueberries and orange zest. This is best served warm, although you could also serve it cold.
Larkin Cen’s lemon tart
For the pastry:
250g plain flour
150g unsalted butter
50g icing sugar, sifted
Beaten egg, for brushing
For the filling:
300g caster sugar
250ml double cream
200ml lemon juice
For the raspberry coulis:
200g caster sugar
A squeeze of lemon juice
20g icing sugar
Rose petals or other edible flowers
Combine the flour, butter and icing sugar in a bowl and rub together until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs.
Mix in the egg and knead briefly to bring together into a pastry dough. Don’t overwork the dough. Shape into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and leave to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 160C/Gas Mark 3.
Press the ball of dough on a lightly floured surface to flatten it. Dust with a pinch of flour, then roll out to the thickness of a pound coin. Use to line a 28cm flan ring set on a baking tray, or a loose-bottomed tart tin.
Line the pastry case with baking parchment and fill with baking beans. Bake blind for 15 minutes.
Remove the baking beans and paper, then bake for a further five minutes.
Remove from the oven. Brush the inside of the pastry case with beaten egg, then allow to cool. Leave the oven on, but reduce the temperature to 120C/Gas Mark 1/2.
For the filling, whisk the eggs and caster sugar together in a bowl just to mix.
Add the cream and lemon juice. Pour into a heavy-based saucepan and heat gently, stirring, until the mixture reaches 38C. Transfer to a measuring jug.
Set the baking tray or tart tin on a partially pulled-out oven rack. Pour the filling into the pastry case, then carefully slide the rack into the oven. Bake for 35 minutes, or until the filling is set but still slightly wobbly in the centre (the temperature in the centre should be 70C).
Remove the tart from the oven and leave to cool for at least one-and-a-half hours so that the filling can set.
For the coulis, put the raspberries in a saucepan and add the sugar and lemon juice.
Cook gently until you have a consistency just short of a jam. It should coat the back of a spoon. Pass through a fine sieve into a bowl. Set aside.
To serve, dust the whole tart with sifted icing sugar, then cut into neat wedges. Place one in the middle of each plate. Using a teaspoon, drizzle the raspberry coulis around the tart. Garnish with rose petals.