Last Christmas I bought my mother a gift certificate for a couples cooking class at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. Material gifts don’t carry the same weight that they used to, but experiential gifts, memories, those are priceless. After some thought and consideration, the natural choice was a French cooking class because of her love of French food.
Life seems to get in the way of things like this. We planned ahead and enrolled in a class for the spring, although unfortunately the instructor fell ill and was unable to make our class. Due to some scheduling mis-communication and changes we missed a class during the summer and finally were able to take the class tonight. Needless to say, the anticipation had been growing over time.
My mother had been sick a bit over a month ago and as a result has mysteriously lost her sense of taste and smell for most things. Obviously this is a terrible thing especially for someone who loves food and cooking so much. Of course it was also a terrible thing which would affect her enjoyment of this evening’s class.
I drove out to my parents’ house to pick mom up. We drove in together and easily found parking. The rain let up just as we were walking toward the school which was nice as cooking in soaked clothes doesn’t spell F.U.N. We arrived on time, signed in, made name tags and took a seat. We happened to be in the same kitchen as the first Back to Basics class I took in the spring. Our chef instructor was named Elise, and I recognized her face from the previous times at the school as well as the web site.
With everyone signed in we briefly went over the recipes for tonight’s meal. There were quite a few options to choose from, but enough for each “couple” to work on one. Our first choice was to work on the Roti de Porc Aux Pruneaux (Roast Pork with Prunes), but someone else’s hand was raise before ours to snatch that one up. We settled on the dessert, Chocolate and Prune Marquis with Armagnac and Crème Anglaise, our second choice. Elise went over kitchen safety, emphasized the goal of having fun while feeling free to experiment and cook to personal preference and taste and we all set out to begin our preparations.
Mom and I started with finely chopping the prunes and apricots. With a glance over she was impressed with my knife skills. Score! We also weighed out the chocolate and chopped that up.
Mom created melted the chocolate and butter over a double boiler and once read we mixed in the apricots and prunes and set that to cool in the walk-in refrigerator. While our chocolate ganache was cooling we whipped up some heavy creme in the stand mixer to mix and fold into the chocolate before placing it in the loaf pan for further cooling.
As our chocolate cooled in the walk-in we worked on the crème anglaise. I had never made this before, and was eager to try my hand at it. Being the basis for desserts like crème brûlée and ice cream, this was a valuable lesson to learn. It was fascinating to whisk the sugar with egg yolks together and watch them transform from a solid mass into a light, fluffy almost creamy mixture. Neither of us had worked with a whole vanilla bean before, only extracts so this was also a fun opportunity to work with an ingredient in its raw form. We scalded the milk with the bean in it and then set it aside to steep for 10 minutes so that the milk could absorb more of the vanilla flavor. Once ready, I poured the milk into the egg yolk and sugar mixture as my mom whisked it all together. We left the vanilla bean in for more flavor as we returned the pot to the stove. Elise helped us by using a thermometer to ensure that the crème did not exceed 180 degrees F so that the eggs would not curdle.
Once ready we set our crème to cool and thicken in an ice bath. It was dinner time. As it turned out, all the cooking had completed around the same time. The food was plated and set on a table for serving buffet style.
The dinner itself was really good, and with the cooking behind us, the our table started to open up, engage in conversation and share experiences. With dinner over it was “show time”. We were not the only ones who had made the dessert. Another couple at our table had also made the same thing.
We each portioned out 6 slices onto small plates. To our dismay, the crème anglaise that my mother and I had made had not thickened. We tried to figure out why and after careful review of the recipe learned that I had not added the half-and-half to the milk. It was listed as an ingredient, but a typo in the recipe which did not call out its use lead to me leaving it out. This mistake could have been avoided with proper mise en place as the cream would have been staring me right in the face asking to be used and resulting in a question for Elise about when it should be added.
We we able to use the crème anglaise that the other couple had made and served out the desserts. They all received rave reviews and thumbs up. Conversation was kept to a minimum for maximum focus and enjoyment. This was truly a rich and decadent dessert.
Tonight was a reminder that not everything can be perfect, but even with imperfection enjoyment can be had. I wish mom had been able to taste and enjoy the food more, but to me that was secondary to the time spent together and the fun we had. We’ll both remember this night for years to come. We also have the recipes we were able to take home and will be able to re-create and experiment with the other dishes we did not work on.
It was amazing to see how a group of strangers of varying experience could work separately and yet together, sharing counter space, tools, and stove tops to produce a truly enjoyable meal. This of course can be attributed to careful thought and planning on behalf of the school and the Chef Instructor Elise, our patient and knowledgeable leader in the kitchen. I can’t wait for my next class hopefully with mom by my side.