Americans have come a long way since their meat-and-potato days. When they think of dining, they think globally. What will they serve today, they often ask themselves – curry, tagine, or pasta? Will it be light or vegetarian, classic or fusion? Making such daily decisions have placed an enormous responsibility on home cooks. How will they ever deliver to the family flavors that are different, tasty, and right for a sophisticated palate?
The answer is simple. They can take a recreational cooking class and learn new tricks. Since there are many to choose from, it is sometimes difficult to select the right school. To make selection easy, four schools from my upcoming book "Gourmet Getaways" are profiled; each has clearly stated educational goals. Most important, all are located in settings that are appropriate for an enjoyable getaway. The second article in this series will appear in July.
Hawley, Pa., is two hours from New York City and three hours from Philadelphia, far enough from the big time to be ignored. Yet, the once gray, working-class community, home to glass blowers and cutters, is peeling off its old facade and attracting visitors who love food.
The gastronomic center of Hawley's activities is an early 19th-century bank that has been refurbished, retrofitted, and turned into an elegant restaurant and cooking school. Pots and pans, Viking Range ovens and burners occupy space once filled by bank employees.
Running the school with panache and charm is Sheelah Kaye-Stepkin. Her years of stage and television work (NBC's "Cooking With Class – Just for the Health of It") are clearly revealed in her knock-'em-dead smile and style.
For Ms. Kaye-Stepkin, cooking began as a child while standing on a Coca-Cola crate watching her mother create culinary masterpieces in the kitchen. After her father died and her mother returned to work, Sheelah had to start preparing the family meals. Armed with just a Betty Crocker cookbook, the then 13-year-old made her first leap toward what would become a lifetime commitment.
Students taking a class from Kaye-Stepkin learn to use different techniques to give new flavor to what they prepare and are encouraged to develop their own cooking style.
"Each student leaves behind traces of their DNA in their food," she says. "When I cook, I cook first for Sheelah. I want the food to please my palate and reflect my tastes." Students who want to be successful must learn to do the same.
Classes are offered in the evening at the Torte Knox Cooking School from Valentine's Day to New Year's Eve. The choice of classes includes baking, regional cooking, ethnic, special-occasion classes, international flavors, and more.
Cost: about $65 for a standard class and $125 for private group classes. The exact per-person price may vary, depending on ingredients.
Class length: two to four hours per class.
For more information: Torte Knox, 301 Main Ave., Hawley, PA 18428; (570) 226-8200; www.torteknox.com.
L'École des Chefs Relais Gourmands
This 19th-century Relais & Chateaux property is contributing to an emerging respect for food by memorably mating ingredients – seared scallops garnished with caviar, warm chocolate cake with vanilla-bean ice cream, and shortcake biscuit with ripe strawberries under a cloud of whipped cream.
But delighting the eye and palate with remarkable meals isn't enough. The staff goes further by offering guests cooking classes that not only instruct them on how to prepare food easily and enjoyably, but also include important tips on the art of graceful entertainment.
Overseeing the program is executive chef Jonathan Cartwright. A native of London, chef Cartwright began cooking at 15. His early culinary training was at the Savoy Hotel, London. Over the years, he has worked at some of the finest hotels in the world.
Students taking a cooking class here work alongside him and other members of the kitchen staff. Together they slice, dice, baste, and grill. They might prepare turkey, cold-water lobsters, or hand-picked scallops.
They learn how to create eye-appealing presentations, heat food with care, and serve it with finesse. But most important, they learn the golden rule of entertaining: the art of making guests feel special.
The weekend program begins with a reception and an orientation program. Saturday's cooking class is broken into two parts – what's to be done before and after the guests arrive. During the morning class, students will learn relevant techniques for cooking and what needs to be prepared in advance for a dinner party.
In the late afternoon, after students enjoy lunch and an English tea break, they return to the kitchen where they will put the finishing touches to the meal. The entire program demonstrates how they should schedule their time to be free of last-minute cooking chores when guests arrive.
Six to 10 classes are scheduled each year in February, March, and November.
Cost: beginning at $550 per person for a package rate that includes two nights of lodging, afternoon tea, reception, dinner, two continental breakfasts, one class, and a late checkout; $150 per person for nonguests taking just a cooking demonstration.
Class length: about two to four hours on Saturday.
For more information: The White Barn Inn & Spa, 37 Beach Avenue, Kennebunkport, ME 04043; (207) 967-2321; www.whitebarninn.com.
Sheelah Kaye-Stepkin has been making these biscuits since she was a little girl. She prefers to use a food processor rather than hand-mix the ingredients. She learned when she was catering that it was more efficient.
2 cups flour
3 tablespoons sugar
2-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 stick butter (1/2 cup), frozen
3/4 cup buttermilk
Place all dry ingredients in a food processor. Pulse as you slice the frozen butter into the mixture. When crumbly, add buttermilk until mixture gathers in a ball. Let it rotate a couple of times to knead the dough. If it falls out of the ball shape, add a little more flour until it is a ball again.
Place on a floured surface and roll to 1/2 inch thick. Cut the biscuits and bake at 400 degrees F. for 15 minutes. Yields 12 biscuits.