It all began, really, with a bridge game in 1975 at the Democratic Women's Club in downtown Washington.

Father Francis Schemel, then the administrator for the Jesuit Society headquarters here, was a regular card player at the club. One day his bridge partners confided to him that they were having a problem with Jimmy Carter's inauguration. They wanted to host a reception for the president-elect, but a strike at the Kennedy Center had stalled their plans.

"So why not do it here?" he asked. They protested that it couldn't be done. He assured them that it could.

And so the then-50-year-old priest, who had never cooked for more than a few of his fellow Jesuits, catered an evening buffet for 500 that included Carter and his family. He served 12 hams, seven beef roasts, assorted side dishes and lots of his favorite course, dessert.

"The president's mother made me sit by her, and I met 17 movie stars," including personal favorites John Wayne, Bette Davis and {opera singer} Beverly Sills, he recalls of that exciting night.

The experience was a seminal one for Schemel. It gave him not only increased confidence in his cooking skills but also the idea to use those skills in his ministry. In 1984, when he became a chaplain-in-residence for undergraduates at Georgetown University, he knew the way to get to his students' hearts -- through their stomachs.

"It breaks down barriers," he says, explaining why two or three times a week he has groups of students to his one-bedroom dorm apartment for a dinner of salad, homemade pasta (colored red and green at Christmas, pastel at Easter), chicken or sausage, broccoli and homemade ice cream with homemade macaroons. If they're still hungry, they can nosh on his famous microwave fudge and peanut brittle.

Although the dinners are kept casual and lighthearted, the goodwill and trust they generate pay off, Schemel believes, because students then feel comfortable about coming to him for advice with their problems.

And he feels comfortable with them. Although he just celebrated his 68th birthday, Schemel keeps a rigorous schedule that starts at dawn and includes making candy, meeting with staff, talking with students and hosting impromptu dinners.

His apartment is tidy and colorful, decorated Southwestern-style with matching seat covers, window shades and pillows he made himself from vividly patterned fabric from Ikea. A toy train runs on a track attached near the ceiling, but he says he doesn't play with it too often ever since it fell on his head.

The dormitory where Schemel lives houses 250 students, and he estimates he talks with almost two dozen of them weekly, "mostly about personal problems."

"The competition here is fierce and there is a lot of pressure on students," he says. He encourages them, helps them make plans, but mostly just listens. "They basically need someone to listen to them and understand their insecurities."

Even when they don't have a problem, students in need of a good home-cooked meal will seek him out. "They call me on the phone and hint around that they'd like to be invited to dinner," he says with a laugh.

He also keeps his refrigerator stocked with what he calls "kid-friendly items": sodas, juice, iced tea, nonalcoholic beer, as well as two huge containers of homemade fudge. Students know they can drop in any time to get a cold drink or something sweet.

For the amount of cooking he does, Father Schemel's kitchen is surprisingly tiny. He jokes that if he were to eat too much of his homemade fudge and gain a few pounds, he would never fit in it. Nevertheless, everything is neatly stored, stacked and labeled, from the phone-book-size blocks of chocolate he buys for the fudge to the huge sacks of semolina flour for his homemade pasta.

As the Carter reception proved, Schemel is a master at organizing a meal. He carefully schedules exactly what he needs to be doing at what time, from picking up ingredients to last-minute browning or broiling. He also tries to do as much in advance as possible, often getting up before dawn to work on a complicated dessert.

For a Christmas staff dinner for 21, the menu began with shrimp cocktail and cheese fondue. Crab Imperial was the entree, plus Greek salad, broccoli with hollandaise sauce, baked potatoes, rolls and, for dessert, croquembouche, plum pudding and three kinds of fudge.

His schedule, Schemel recites, began at 5 a.m.:

"From 5 a.m. to 8 a.m., I made the pastry {for the croquembouche, a towering structure of individual cream puffs held together with spun sugar}. At 1 p.m., I picked up the seven pounds of crab. When I got back, I cooked the shrimp while I cleaned the crab. At 3 p.m., I made the sauces and prepared the potatoes. At 4 p.m., I cooked the crab. At 5 p.m., I made the fondue. At 6 p.m. the potatoes baked. Just before the guests arrived, I assembled the croquembouche. At 7 p.m. we sat down for cocktails."

Despite his apparent ease in the kitchen, Schemel never thought much about cooking until he was in his 40s and living with other Jesuits in New York State, while working at Woodstock College.

"I remember one night watching one fellow making quiche and another poaching salmon and I decided I would make something too."

His first project was English muffins -- "they turned out good," he recalls, still sounding a bit surprised -- followed by several batches of cookies.

However, it was when he moved to the Washington area and took a chocolate workshop that he discovered his true love. Although he will humbly say that he is "not an exceptionally good cook," he will beam with pride about his specialty, making chocolate candy.

He has molded chocolate into nativity scenes, chess pieces, seashells, movie characters, pianos, Santa Claus, and a zoo-full of animals, from turtles to elephants. For variety, he tints white chocolate different colors, so the elephants can be pink and the seashells can be variegated pastels.

Most of his creations are made for friends or for special events, although he did sell 93 pounds of chocolate sculptures to help raise funds for Georgetown University at a birthday bash in 1989. In general, however, he says he makes them "for the fun of it."

He is particularly proud of his microwave candy recipes because of their speed and simplicity.

"My fudge takes 22 minutes and you don't have to stand there stirring and testing. The peanut brittle takes 11 minutes. I make a lot of candy while eating my breakfast," he says.

And in his spare time? "I've designed my own fudge cutter. It makes 144 perfect squares. I hope to patent it."

These recipes were prepared in a 700-watt microwave oven. To make fudge or peanut brittle in a microwave of lower wattage, increase cooking time acccordingly.


(Makes about 48 squares)

4 cups sugar

12-ounce can evaporated milk (not condensed)

1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter

12 ounces unsweetened chocolate

7 ounces marshmallows

Combine sugar, milk and butter and then microwave on high for 10 minutes. Whisk to blend in any specks of butter. Microwave on high for additional 12 minutes. Add chocolate and marshmallows (for peanut butter see note below). Mix well and pour into ungreased 12-by-9-inch pan. Let set, then cut.

Note: For peanut butter fudge, substitute 8 ounces freshly ground or all-natural peanut butter (not the commercial kind) for the chocolate

Per square: 141 calories, 1 gm protein, 21 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 4 gm saturated fat, 12 mg cholesterol, 10 mg sodium.


(Makes about 1 1/2 pounds)

This peanut brittle has more baking soda than usual to make it more crumbly and easier for older people to eat.

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup light corn syrup

1 cup roasted peanuts (may be salted or unsalted)

1/4 pound (1 stick) butter

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

Combine sugar and corn syrup and microwave on high for 4 minutes. Add peanuts and cook on high for another 4 minutes. Add butter and cook for another 4 minutes.

Remove mixture and blend in baking soda, which will cause mixture to foam and lighten in color. Mix well and quickly pour onto ungreased cookie sheet to desired thickness and let set. Break into pieces and store in airtight container.

Per ounce: 119 calories, 1 gm protein, 14 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 3 gm saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 145 mg sodium.