It was a cooking class, of all things, that revived a memory from second grade when a boy named Albert, who could never remember the sum of 8 and 6, was humiliated when our teacher commanded the class to chant "8 plus 6 equals 14!" over and over.
I remembered this when Francois Dionot, who taught my "Theory and Techniques of Cooking" class at L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, gave the class the definition of a roux, putting an ominous emphasis on the last few words. I feared that if I failed to answer the question correctly on the midterm exam, I too would be brought to the front of the room so that my classmates could jeer, "A roux is an equal amount of fat and flour mixed together and cooked for AT LEAST 10 MINUTES!"
I did pass that exam and the final too, and received a diploma at the graduation ceremony in June. There was a time though, when I sat through my first cooking class, feeling awed and helpless by being told to "reduce the liquid by half," or even "dice the onion." Of course, that was before taking cooking classes became a mania for me, and now having taken more than a year of classes, from one-night, one-theme dinners to months-long courses, I'm an old hand at it.
I took a two-day course at L'Academie with guest instructor Giuliano Bugialli, who dazzled the class by flipping one end of a huge length of pasta dough over one arm while feeding the other end through a pasta machine, and a week of food science with Shirley Corriher, who illustrated a point about gluten molecules by pretending to be one.
Most of my class time though, was spent in Dionot's course, which I took every Monday night for nine months. The class went through the basics of everything from what kind of metal pan is the best heat conductor to how to make pa~te'.
It was a serious class with two exams and points for participation and attendance, and our mix of home cooks and soon-to-be professionals engaged in a flurry of note taking every week while our instructor Dionot finessed a superb cheese souffle' or cruelly fed us brains in a "sauce ravigote."
But most of the classes one finds in Washington are less stressful because they are not professional courses. Rather, there are dozens of classes that teach novices how to entertain with dim sum or beef Wellington, how to make eight different winter soups, or just how to feel comfortable making a meal from whatever's in the cupboard. Each class has a different flavor, depending on the personality of the teacher and your classmates, the comfort of the working conditions and the amount of participation required.
Some teachers require no participation at all, such as Elizabeth Esterling of Paris Cooks, who demonstrates the techniques of classic French dishes as students sit on stools around the worktable in her tiny kitchen. In Marcia Fox's World of Cuisine, on the other hand, meal preparation is divided among students who work in small groups. Fox walks about the room offering advice and a helping hand.
In either case -- whether you participate or not -- don't let the teacher do magic tricks with the food: Whoosh! and the roast disappears into the oven without an explanation of why it has been tied with kitchen string. Always ask why the tart is being placed on the lower rack, why a terrine is put in a water bath, why pastry is cut, folded and wrapped a certain way.
While newcomers invariably feel foolish asking questions, the teacher should actively encourage them. After all, getting answers is the reason you are in a class.
If it will help you to be more confident in class, find out what to expect by asking the teacher some questions on the phone before the class starts.
The most important one, of course, is: When do we eat? You'll find that you are starving by the time the meal is ready, especially if you take an evening class where you might not be served until 9 or 9:30. So find out if you will be eating as you go along or be fed a snack when you first get there.
Ask if you will get to sit down. Some classes will keep you on your feet the whole evening, dicing and slicing along with your instructor as you mimic his technique for cutting vegetables into a julienne or the making of the whole meal.
While that is really the best way to learn, it's also a lot of fun to sit in a comfortable chair, drinking wine with your comrades while a lone cook rushes around preparing dinner. That also makes you feel like you're at Mom's house.
But whether you're sitting or standing, cooking classes are one of the most social activities in town. Esterling teaches a group of friends that has been meeting every February for eight years purely as an excuse to get together. A class in Italian cooking I attended for several months, given by Mimmetta Lo Monte from her home in Georgetown, often became somewhat raucous toward the end of the evening, when after several bottles of wine, we shared spirited opinions on religion and politics, and gave advice on whether or not to get married and when to break up with boyfriends.
However friendly the group becomes, though, there has to be a sense of professionalism between the instructor and the class. For instance, sometimes I've left a lesson feeling that the teacher used our meal as a chance to get rid of whatever was sitting around in the refrigerator.
It's one thing for him or her to suggest ways to cut corners in your own kitchen, but you should not be slicing dried-out onions or withered celery. There is something decidedly unappetizing about watching an instructor examine an ingredient and say, "Gee, these mushrooms are a little past their prime," just before they get tossed in the pot. This is really not the place to think, "Oh no, leftovers again?"
Just as bad is being told that a dish would be just perfect if it just had a little of this garnish or a dash of that wine, but unfortunately, the teacher doesn't have it on hand. If you are told a recipe would be better with a dollop of sour cream, you should be able to taste it that way. Food, after all, is one of the few pleasures in which experience usually triumphs over imagination.
But be a good student too. The most common complaint from smaller schools is that interested callers are often vague about committing to a class and tend to wait until the last minute to sign up. And once you're there, be prepared for good food, but don't expect to be entertained as though you were watching a television show. Dirty pans will stack up, just like at home, and an occasional piece of chopped carrot will whiz across the room.
I have yet to be in a class where the teacher didn't make a mistake at least once: a strudel dough that lay on the counter in a sodden heap, rice that was so undercooked that it was still raw, or candies that took twice as long as expected to fashion, while an embarrassed teacher, up to her elbows in cornstarch, apologized to a hungry class that was slowly abandoning ship for lunch elsewhere.
However, a mistake once in a while can be inspirational because then you're taught how to solve it. After we watched Elizabeth Esterling's cake sink in the middle, she calmly cut crusts from the top and put them in the valley, creating a level surface. Glazed, the cake looked just fine.
When you cook at home you're going to make plenty of mistakes yourself so you might as well know what they look like. As Dionot pointed out, slivered almonds go through five stages as they are being saute'ed in butter: "not ready, not ready, not ready, not ready, burned."
But keep practicing. As all initiates know, these are skills you really will use forever. You may never again need to add 8 and 6, but once you've mastered a sky-high banana cream pie, with a perfect sugary crust, a sunny, vanilla-scented filling and a snowy blanket of meringue ... mmmmmm, heaven.
VEAL CORDON BLUE A L'ACADEMIE (4 servings)
1 pound veal, cut into 8 scallopini
4 slices prosciutto
2 ounces grated Swiss cheese
1/2 cup flour
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
Salt and pepper, to taste
4 tablespoons butter
Lay four of the scallopini flat on a plate. Layer each piece of veal with two slices of prosciutto. Divide the Swiss cheese into four portions and place on top of the prosciutto. Cover each with the remaining 4 scallopinis. Put the flour, egg and bread crumbs in 3 separate bowls. Carefully dip the veal bundles first in the flour, then the egg, then the bread crumbs, pressing the edges together to prevent the filling from falling out. Saute' each scallopini separately with one tablespoon of the butter, cooking each side for 1 to 2 minutes. Wipe the pan clean in between cooking each scallopini. Serve hot.
Per serving: 440 calories, 37 gm protein, 18 gm carbohydrates, 24 gm fat, 12 gm saturated fat, 273 mg cholesterol, 350 mg sodium.
MARCIA FOX'S CHICKEN WITH BLACK BEAN SAUCE (8 servings)
3/4 cup dried black beans
3 to 4 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon glace de viande (optional), available in gourmet stores
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and halved
2 serrano chilies, seeded
1 tomatillo, fresh or canned
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped onion
1 tablespoon chopped green pepper
2 to 3 teaspoons lime juice
Salt, to taste
Cayenne pepper (optional)
8 skinless, boneless, chicken breast halves
Bring beans to a boil with water to cover by about 2 inches. Remove from heat and allow them to sit at least an hour, or overnight (if left overnight, there is no need to boil first.)
Drain the beans and place in a pot. Cover by a 1/2 inch with stock and glace de viande, and cook until beans are quite tender, about 30 to 50 minutes. Drain. Return to pot with 1 cup stock and next six ingredients and simmer over low heat for 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool several minutes.
Place bean mixture in a blender. Blend until smooth, then add lime juice and salt and cayenne to taste. Add additional chicken stock if mixture seems too thick. (If making sauce in advance, reserve a little additional stock to add if the sauce has thickened too much during reheating.)
Grill the chicken breasts, or saute' them in a little butter and oil. Serve immediately with black bean sauce.
Per serving: 299 calories, 49 gm protein, 10 gm carbohydrates, 6 gm fat, 2 gm saturated fat, 121 mg cholesterol, 397 mg sodium.
GIULIANO BUGIALLI'S "OLD MILAN" RISOTTO (6 servings)
1 stick butter
1 medium red onion, chopped
2 sweet Italian sausages, skin removed, or 6 ounces ground pork
4 ounces pancetta or prosciutto, chopped into tiny pieces
1 large red bell pepper, seeded and chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
5 to 6 cups chicken or beef stock
3 cups arborio rice
2 large pinches ground saffron
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
15 sprigs Italian parsley, leaves only, coarsely chopped
Parmesan cheese, for serving
Place the butter in a medium-sized casserole and melt over medium heat. Add the onion, sausage and pancetta and saute' until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the pepper, mix well and cook for 5 minutes more.
In a saucepan, heat the stock over medium heat. Add the rice to the saute'ed onion mixture and heat for about 4 minutes, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Sprinkle the saffron over the rice and begin adding the stock, a 1/2 cup at a time.
Stir the rice and broth constantly or it will adhere to the bottom of the pan. Do not add more stock until what has been previously added has been fully absorbed by the rice. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper. The rice should be ready after about 18 minutes, and still be slightly al dente. Add the parsley and mix well. Transfer the risotto to a large serving dish and serve with Parmesan cheese.
Per serving: 623 calories, 20 gm protein, 78 gm carbohydrates, 24 gm fat, 12 gm saturated fat, 59 mg cholesterol, 1012 mg sodium.
ELIZABETH ESTERLING'S CHOCOLATE HAZELNUT TORTE (10 servings)
10 ounces sweet or semisweet chocolate, broken into pieces
5 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs
2 cups ground hazelnuts or walnuts, and several whole nuts for decoration
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 stick unsalted butterSTART NOTE ok END NOTE
1 cup granulated sugar
7 eggs, separated
2 teaspoons dark rum
3 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons light corn syrupSTART NOTE END NOTE
6 tablespoons heavy cream
1 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
3 tablespoons cognac
Cre`me Anglaise for serving (recipe below)
In a food processor, process 6 ounces of the chocolate into fine crumbs and put in a mixing bowl. Add the bread crumbs, ground nuts and baking powder and mix together.
Cream the butter and sugar together in the food processor until it forms a ball. Add egg yolks and rum and blend. Combine with chocolate mixture in bowl and mix well.
Whip the egg whites until soft peaks form. Stir 1/3 of whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it, then fold in the rest of the egg whites.
Butter an 8- to 9-inch springform pan and line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper. Pour the batter into the pan. Bake the torte in a preheated 350-degree oven for about 60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove to a cake rack and allow to cool in the pan.
While the torte is cooling, prepare the chocolate glaze. Melt the remaining 4 ounces of chocolate with the butter and syrup. In separate small pan, whisk the cream, cocoa and brandy, bring to a simmer and add the melted chocolate, stirring. When the torte is somewhat cool, remove the pan and parchment paper and place the torte on a serving tray. Paint with the glaze and decorate with hazelnuts. Serve slices with cre`me Anglaise (recipe below).
Per serving: 579 calories, 9 gm protein, 42 gm carbohydrates, 44 gm fat, 18 gm saturated fat, 238 mg cholesterol, 345 mg sodium.
CREME ANGLAISE (Makes 2 cups)
1 1/2 cups milk
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/4 cup heavy cream, cold
Mix milk, yolks and sugar in pan. Cook, stirring, until mixture coats a spoon. Add vanilla and cream. Chill.
Per tablespoon: 33 calories, .8 gm protein, 4 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 38 mg cholesterol, 7 mg sodium.