Cooking Couples Cook French – Cooking with Mom

MomMe

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.

Chopped Prunes, Apricots and Chocolate
Chopped Prunes, Apricots and Chocolate

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.

Dinner is Served
Dinner is Served

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.

Chocolate and Prune Marquis
Chocolate and Prune Marquis

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.

Chocolate and Prune Marquis with Armagnac and Crème Anglaise
Chocolate and Prune Marquis with Armagnac and Crème Anglaise

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.

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Cooking 101: Back to Basics – Eggs

This evening i attended my second cooking class at The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. This week’s focus was eggs, and it would be the first class that we would be given the opportunity to cook. This was a bonus as I would not leave hungry but equally as terrifying was the fact that we would be cooking for and in front of each other.  As I entered the class I noticed there were new faces that were not present during last week’s class. I signed in, grabbed a recipe booklet from the chef instructor and took my seat. It turned out, that our “new faces” were unable to make their class this week and therefore were allowed to make up their class during the one I was scheduled for. The room was looking full.

The class began and we went over the recipes in the booklet. It contained many different recipes ranging from sauces to full family-sized meals. After reviewing the recipes, discussing tips and noting what we had experience with making in the past, we were given the chance to choose recipes that we wanted to try and if there weren’t any, we would be assigned to them based on what had not been chosen by others. Our choices were, poached eggs, hard cooked (hard boiled) eggs, coddled (soft cooked) eggs, Hollandaise Sauce, mayonnaise, crepes, cheese soufflé, Italian fritata, quiche and pipérade and scrambled eggs. We were told that there would be plenty of time to cook and try recipes since there weren’t many and so I decided to start with some seemingly easy ones that I had not tried before, Hollandaise Sauce and mayonnaise, two mother sauces in classic French cuisine.

We entered the kitchen, donned our aprons and began the preparation of our work areas. Then it all started…chaos. Everyone started running around frantically raiding the pantry for ingredients, grabbing eggs by the hand full, grabbing utensils, pots and pans. The kitchen transformed into a pseudo Kitchen Stadium from the Food Network TV series Iron Chef America.We had our own time limit and everyone seemed keenly aware of it.

I worked on the Hollandaise Sauce first, measuring my ingredients and then heating up my water and lemon juice, heating it until became a concentrated acid reduction. Next the eggs were added into the sauce pan. I then worked my butter cubes in and whisked vigorously to add volume while moving it on and taking it off the heat so it remained warm; too warm and the eggs would curdle I was warned. Once all of the butter was melted in, I added salt and ground white pepper for taste. I tasted it and really enjoyed the silky texture and light buttery flavor with a subtle hint of spice. The night was off to a good start.

Back To Basics: My First Hollandaise Sauce
Back To Basics: My First Hollandaise Sauce

My next task was the mayonnaise. This would prove to be a surprise with respect to how much effort was involved in its making. I placed the eggs, dried mustard, salt and lemon juice into a bowl and combined them with my whisk. One of my classmates offered to help so we both could learn how it was made. He added the vegetable oil slowly as I whisked vigorously. Each drop of oil made this task harder and harder. My whisking became slower and slower. I read the recipe again, glancing over key words “Sauce, when finished will be very thick.”. When we were half way through the oil, he offered to whisk and let me pour. I gladly switched places with him and began pouring the rest of the oil in slowly. The whisking slowed even more and the strain was evident in his eyes and his breathing. This was no easy task. I switched places with the final bit of oil left and completed the whisking. What presented itself before me was an unfamiliar substance. It was yellow, thick and spicy to the tongue. This was unlike any mayonnaise I have ever had before and yet very pleasant, a superior compliment to any hearty sandwich for sure.

Back To Basics: My First Mayonnaise
Back To Basics: My First Mayonnaise

My next project was an omelette. It was pretty straight forward. I cut up some fresh chives on my cutting board to use as a garnish and to add some extra flavor. I then whisked the eggs and greased the pan. I poured the eggs in and started moving them around as they coagulated. Once cooked, I brought the pan to my plate and folded the eggs over and added the chives. So delicious.

Back To Basics: Omelette
Back To Basics: Omelette

I finished the evening making a poached egg and crepe and was able to taste my other classmates’ creations. The best part of the experience was the fact that I left feeling more confident in a kitchen preparing food with a time limit. My classmates enjoyed my Hollandaise Sauce with their poached eggs ala Eggs Benedict and it was a great experience to be able to try several fritatas, soufflés and omelettes, noticing the subtle and sometimes dramatic taste and texture differences.  We all started with the same base ingredients and recipes and yet were able to end with dishes uniquely our own.  This was perhaps due to technique, measuring, or the overall application of heat. Experience will teach me to know the difference I am sure. Next week our training will challenge us with soups and stocks. I eagerly await the classes for the weeks to come.

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