A Cook's Tour In Amish Country
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
Cider vinegar simmered in one saucepan, onions sauteed in butter in another, and a mixture of corn syrup and butter bubbled in a third. All the while, Carl Kosko, lording calmly over the scene, regaled a small group with stories.
So this is what it's like to be in control of a busy kitchen, I thought.
I had come to Harvest Moon, a bed-and-breakfast offering occasional cooking demonstrations, to pick up as many cooking tips as I could squeeze into a weekend. Kosko, who with his wife, Marlies, owns the property in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, has all the right credentials: training as a chef at the Rhode Island School of Design and in German bakeries, and several years of experience in various fine dining establishments in New England.
When I called to reserve a space, we started chatting, and he shared his first rule of good cooking: "Fresh, quality products can make the difference between a mediocre dish and a memorable one."
And so there I was, on a Saturday morning in late February, trailing behind Kosko at the Central Market in downtown Lancaster. Even at the peak of winter, the stalls of this colorful, covered enclave, where yeomen have been peddling their wares for more than 270 years, show the agricultural richness of this region. Tables sagged under the weight of cured ham, pickled garlic, canned chowchow, jars of homemade apple, plum and peach butters, scrapple and fresh hothouse tomatoes.
Kosko sniffed and squeezed at every step, demonstrating how to ferret out ripe from overripe produce. Tall, dark-haired and 30-something, he seemed quite fit for an unabashed food hound. His shopping list -- golden raspberries, a few varieties of Amish-made artisan cheeses and several sausages -- was another mark of a man with a particular palate. After an hour in the market, we heard the call of the kitchen. A 25-minute drive to the northeast, along scenic country roads, past dairy farms and fruit orchards hibernating in the winter snow, took us to the town of New Holland, the location of Harvest Moon.
The B&B, a warm, homey place, has four guest bedrooms, all named after apples: Gala, McIntosh, Cortland and Braeburn. The decor, accented by antique suitcases and other bric-a-brac, was fun and family-friendly.
The setting for the cooking demonstration was the Harvest Moon parlor. Kosko had set up a makeshift kitchen counter there, outfitted with burners, pans, bowls, an assortment of knives, whisks, spatulas and other cooking tools. The audience -- me, my friend Eddy and a couple from a nearby town -- was a bit smaller than usual.
For his demos, held six to eight times a year, Kosko usually focuses on a few dishes from one cuisine. (Northern Italian and southern German recipes are particular strengths.) This time he chose a mix of three dishes from two different regions. Krautkrapfen, a pasta stuffed with sauerkraut, originated in Bavaria. Hazelnut whoopie pies with white chocolate and praline ganache are a stylized version of a beloved Pennsylvania Dutch sweet treat. Gingered pear butter is a popular breakfast spread in these parts.
To complete the lesson in two hours, the chef had already made the most time-consuming components: the pasta for the Bavarian dish and the dough for the pies. He had also chopped pears and prepped a couple of other items.
For the program, he prepared the three dishes simultaneously, moving deftly from one pan to another. He walked slowly through the steps needed to make each, using the prepared examples to demonstrate desired consistencies.
Most important, he pointed out the pitfalls to look out for with each dish. The pear butter, a basic mix of pears, cider vinegar, sugar and fresh ginger, required close watching to keep the concoction from sticking to the pan. The krautkrapfen had to be carefully stuffed, rolled and pinched to keep the filling inside. And the ganache -- a blend of corn syrup, white chocolate and praline -- would be too thick to spread if it were overcooked.
As he shifted between dishes, Kosko adeptly fielded questions. He encouraged using more (or fewer) spices than recipes called for, stressing that the suggested amounts are just rough guides. Gas heat makes for cleaner and more precise cooking than electric, he said. Use the look and feel of a dish as guides to determine when it's ready, he suggested. In the recipes he handed out for each dish, he described how the finished dish should look, instead of giving cooking times.
Within an hour and a half, we were digging into a princely afternoon snack. The whoopie pie, thick with ganache, was a bit too sugary even for my sweet tooth. Lesson: Decrease by 25 percent the sugar called for in the recipe. The krautkrapfen was so tasty I could picture myself trying it at home. The pear butter, too, was light and flavorful. The class, offering both general cooking tips and a few new dishes, exceeded my expectations.
The break between the cooking lesson and dinner seemed like a good time for a much-needed jog. But once the table was cleared, Kosko was already starting to prepare the strawberry cobbler, banana bread and poached eggs in puff pastry that he would serve at breakfast the next day. That, I had learned, is how chefs work.