Recently, I was teaching a class on the “Fundamentals of Pizza” at Kitchen Window in Calhoun Square. All my aspiring chefs—of various ages—were anxious to learn how to make pizza dough and the finished product: a good-tasting pizza crust with a variety of toppings.
We started by my assigning teams according to the topping recipes. Then, a member from each team walked over to the “pizza dough” station, where my assistants and I orchestrated the making of very good dough. I encouraged them to use their hands rather than a spoon or spatula. By doing so, you can feel the texture, and whether you need to add more water or flour.
The other members of each team all were busy preparing the toppings for varieties such as Gorgonzola Pizza (mozzarella, tomato, and gorgonzola cheese); Quattro Stazioni Pizza (to represent the four seasons of Italy, topped with ham, artichokes, olives, and mushrooms); Garden Fresh Pesto Pizza; and my favorite, Tonno e Cipolla (mozzarella, tomato, canned tuna fish, and onions).
As the pizza dough was rising, all the toppings were ready. After a break, I offered a demonstration on how to use pizza peels, the relevance of pizza/bread stones, and rolling out a crust like you would discover in Italy. Following my demonstration, my chefs began rolling out dough in earnest, and topping the heck out of their new creations. Into the ovens the pizzas flew, and after 12 to 15 minutes, I announced that our pizza party had begun.
After the class, I drove home with a great sense of accomplishment. I had provided an atmosphere of culinary encouragement. As well, my fellow pizza bakers learned an easy and economical way to prepare pizza dough costing them only pennies to make, and a variety of toppings they could emulate or modify to be creative on their own.
Taking a cooking class is educational, but also a great way for you and your friends, family members, or significant other to have a night out on the town. You get to eat what you make, and you don’t have to wash dishes.
I teach cooking and baking at two other retail/cooking schools around the Twin Cities: Culinary Classics in Machenthun’s Fine Foods in Waconia; and The Chef’s Gallery in Stillwater.
Culinary Classics is unique because it operates in a grocery store. Recently, I taught a class on pie baking, and offered aspiring chefs entertaining anecdotes about my Food Network Challenges and specials baking pies. My goal is to make sure everyone understands that most of the ingredients in my recipes can be found at your corner grocer or without a great deal of searching.
After filling piecrusts either to cool or bake, I conducted a piecrust “clinic,” as it is considered one of the most difficult items to prepare correctly. Providing a first-rate learning experience in a comfortable and friendly environment, I wanted the chefs to return to their homes with the confidence to create their own piecrusts. Of course, everyone got to eat their fill of Coconut Cream Dream Pie, Captain Tony’s Watermelon Pie, Vidalia Onion Pie, Chocolate Cherry Pie, and Avocado Pie.
As I have the good fortune to live in Tuscany part-time each year, and am asked to be the chef for the annual olive harvest at Il Rifugio, the villa we contract through, I do many classes on Italian cooking.
Recently, we held a celebration of Italian food at The Chef’s Gallery in Grand Garage in historic Downtown Stillwater. The sold-out class featured some of the dishes we prepare halfway up a mountain outside of Cortona, Italy. After donning their aprons, our teams prepared Goat Cheese Crostini; Gorgonzola Polenta; my “famous” Venetian Lasagna; Homemade Pasta; Grilled Tuscan Vegetables with a Basil Vinaigrette; Saltimbocca (Sautéed Chicken Breasts with Prosciutto and Sage, which I also just had made on Twin Cities Live on KSTP 5 Eyewitness News); and, of course, Tiramisu. Served with wine, it was almost like being in Italy without having to travel across the Atlantic.
Teaching cooking and baking is a delight for me. When I see that a technique is picked up, or an aspiring chef holds out his arms to give me a big hug, I am thrilled.
A cooking class is also an excellent gift for anniversaries, weddings, birthdays, holidays, or just because. If you have a private event or party you’re trying to organize, consider contacting one of the cooking schools.
I have been the chef at many events, and they are a blast: groom’s dinner, 50th birthday party, bridal shower, or company holiday gathering—I enjoy these smaller groups of family and friends.
Besides, isn’t that the reason we cook—to gather together? Why not make an afternoon or night of it?
The Chef’s Gallery / 324 S. Main St., Stillwater / (651) 351-1144
Kitchen Window / Calhoun Square, 3001 Hennepin Ave., Mpls. / (612) 824-4417
Culinary Classics / Mackenthun’s Fine Foods, 851 Marketplace Dr., Waconia / (952) 442-2512
John Michael Lerma is a local chef, author, and Food Network personality. His company Garden County Cooking offers cookbooks, cooking classes, consulting, private events, and culinary vacations to Italy and the Caribbean. Visit www.GardenCountyCooking.com. Check out his “Word of Mouth” Blog under Extras.